The Committee on Increasing National Resilience to Hazards and Disasters, which was established by the National Research Council to examine how the nation can increase resilience to hazards and disasters at the federal, state, local, and community levels, held the first of three site visits and workshops in New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast on January 18–21, 2011. The purpose of the meeting was to review the effects of Hurricane Katrina and other natural and human-induced disasters on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi and to learn more about the resilience of those areas to future disasters.
This workshop summary has been prepared by the workshop rapporteur with the assistance of the committee’s staff as a factual summary of what occurred during the site visits and at the subsequent workshop on critical aspects of resilience in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The planning committee’s role was limited to planning and convening the workshop. The statements made are those of the rapporteur or individual site visit or workshop participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all participants, the planning committee, or the National Academies.
For the purposes of its three regional meetings, the committee defined resilience as “the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, or more successfully adapt to actual or potential adverse events.” This definition raises fundamental questions for the committee to explore. For example: What makes a community resilient? How can resilience be measured? How can progress toward achieving resilience be assessed? What tools are most effective for enhancing resilience? These and other questions will be explored in the committee’s final consensus report.
The statements in this summary report are drawn from the committee’s
experiences during its field trip and from the remarks made by presenters and committee members at the workshop. They should not be interpreted as the final conclusions or recommendations of the committee, though the committee plans to draw on the material in this summary in preparing its final consensus report.
MEASURES OF RESILIENCE
New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast have had extensive experience with hurricanes. Yet, according to some measures, the resilience of these areas has declined in recent decades. Before Katrina, many areas of New Orleans were developed that were below sea level and vulnerable to flooding if levees were damaged or overtopped. Along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, much new development occurred in areas susceptible to storm surge. Many new houses were built on concrete slabs at ground level, rather than being elevated, and typically used materials that were susceptible to damage from flooding. The vulnerability of housing increased the importance of shelters, but in New Orleans shelters were often in distant locations, and throughout the region many shelters proved to be inadequate. Hurricane Katrina also revealed many breakdowns in coordination and communications among governmental and nongovernmental organizations.
A major effort to measure the socioeconomic and demographic conditions of New Orleans since Katrina has shown that the city has rebounded since the hurricane. Wages in the city have risen 14 percent since 2005 and today are nearly at the national average. The economy has been diversifying and has added more jobs that require high levels of education. A greater percentage of students attend schools that meet state standards of quality than before Katrina.
However, several indicators point to continuing difficulties for the city. Major industries, including tourism, oil and gas, and shipping have declined in recent years. Not enough money is available to repair all of the damage caused by the storm. Income disparities remain stark among ethnic and racial groups and large areas of the city—along with many areas along the Mississippi Gulf Coast—remain vulnerable to future hazards and disasters.
A TOUR OF NEW ORLEANS AND THE GULF COAST
During its bus and walking tour of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the committee saw many areas that had only partially recovered from Hurricane Katrina. Many building lots in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, for example, remain empty, and the population of the Lower Ninth has dropped from more than 17,000 before Katrina to 4,000 at most. However, substantial recovery efforts are also under way in the Lower Ninth and in other areas of the city that were decimated by the hurricane.
Along the Gulf Coast, the committee saw many other examples of scattered redevelopment in the midst of widespread devastation. In the community
of Waveland, Mississippi, for example, most of the homes within a few blocks from the beach were destroyed, and only some have been rebuilt, reducing the population of the town by almost half. Rebuilding remains difficult today because of the cost of flood insurance.
During its trip, the committee met with representatives of a group of nonprofit organizations who emphasized the importance of nongovernmental organizations in creating resilience and responding to disasters. These organizations help affected households recover from a disaster, apply for aid, and prepare for future disasters. Representatives of these organizations also emphasized the importance of getting businesses back in operation to provide employment and goods and services for the people affected by a disaster.
INSURANCE AND REAL ESTATE
During the first of five discussion panels held at the workshop, some participants emphasized that durability needs to be an integral part of performance measures for structures. Building codes provide a basic level of durability, but they need to be enforced, and fortified standards may be required to provide necessary levels of protection. The best aspects of building codes in one jurisdiction need to be adopted in others. They also noted that mitigation is not necessarily expensive, and it saves money for everyone during a disaster. The panelists discussed the idea that encouraging people to adopt effective mitigation measures may be needed to address the affordability gap for mitigation.
In the panel on critical infrastructure, the committee heard from representatives of the water and sewer authority in New Orleans, public transportation in the city, the regional electricity and gas company, and a cell phone provider. The four representatives emphasized their interdependence, requiring coordination among different organizations. Utilities also need to be able to draw on other people and organizations within their industry from outside an affected area to help respond to a disaster. Finally, the representatives of the utilities emphasized the human resources aspects of their organizations. The employees of utilities are subject to the same disasters as other people in a region, and their needs have to be recognized and met.
In the area of governance, presenters emphasized the need for collaborations within government and between the public and private sectors. Nongovernmental organizations can bring an energy and creativity to resilience planning and disaster recovery that government agencies cannot achieve. Government ought to
facilitate and not stymie the efforts of others to increase disaster resilience, they said. Government also has a responsibility to disseminate information about hazards and disasters so that people can be prepared and know what to do when a disaster occurs. Government officials themselves need education about hazard mitigation and risk management if they are to do their jobs effectively.
The panel discussion on social capital—a term the committee used to refer to the “social infrastructure” of a community—raised an often overlooked point regarding disasters. Several participants noted that while disasters can be extremely destructive, they also can provide opportunities to create much higher levels of resilience than existed before a disaster. Infrastructure can be rebuilt to higher standards. The disruption of services can give organizations a chance to reassess the needs of their clients and how to meet those needs. This re-visioning of services often means moving toward greater flexibility and decentralization. Some nongovernmental organizations emerge from disasters stronger than before, often because they have strong leaders and ties to agencies and people outside an area. Resilience can even spread beyond the area where a disaster occurred, when other organizations emulate the steps being taken by organizations that are rebuilding after a disaster.
HEALTHY POPULATIONS AND RESPONSIVE INSTITUTIONS
Partnerships are essential among institutions that provide public health, medical, and mental health services, said presenters during the final discussion panel. Disasters often cause the dislocation of individuals and populations, requiring that systems be available to access information about individuals even when they are seeking services from a new organization. For example, health care providers need to quickly access medication, diagnoses, special medical needs, and other information to provide the best possible care, which requires that this information be available electronically. Health care providers may themselves require health and mental health services, again emphasizing the human dimension of resilience. Partnerships with multiple entities can provide redundancy and needed resources. A number of discussants noted that the federal and state governments have an important role to play in providing resources that transcend those available locally.