Natural disasters are having an increasing effect on the lives of people in the United States and throughout the world. Every decade, property damage caused by natural disasters and hazards doubles or triples in the United States (USGS, 2007). More than half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of a coast (USGS, 2005), and all Americans are at risk from such hazards as fires, earthquakes, floods, and wind. The year 2010 saw 950 natural catastrophes around the world—the second highest annual total ever—with overall losses estimated at $130 billion (Munich Re, 2011).
The increasing impact of natural disasters and hazards points to the increasing importance of resilience at the individual, local, state, national, and global levels. Webster’s Dictionary defines resilience as “the ability to recover easily from illness, change, or misfortune.” To be resilient, an entity must be prepared for an event and must be able to respond effectively when an event occurs. Developing resilience is therefore a continuous process, while resilience itself is the outcome of that process.
To identify ways in which to increase the nation’s resilience to natural disasters and hazards, the National Research Council formed the Committee on Increasing National Resilience to Hazards and Disasters (Appendix A) under the joint oversight of the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy and the Disasters Roundtable. The name of the study committee is meant to be expansive rather than restrictive. Thus, the term “national resilience” refers to resilience at the federal, state, and local levels. Also, while the committee is focused on hazards and disasters arising from natural processes, its purview includes events caused by humans, such as acts of terror, with effects comparable to those of major earthquakes, floods, storms, or fires.
The overarching goal of the committee is to increase the nation’s resilience at federal, state, local, and community levels through actionable recommendations and guidance on the best approaches to reduce adverse impacts from hazards and disasters. Specifically, the committee seeks to
• Define “national resilience” and frame the primary issues related to increasing national resilience to hazards and disasters in the United States.
• Describe the state of knowledge about resilience to hazards and disasters in the United States.
• Provide goals, baseline conditions, or performance metrics for resilience at the U.S. national level.
• Outline additional information or data and gaps and obstacles to action that need to be addressed to increase resilience to hazards and disasters in the United States.
• Present conclusions and recommendations about the approaches that are needed to elevate national resilience to hazards and disasters in the United States.
At its first meeting in September 2010, the committee adopted a provisional definition of resilience:
The ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, or more successfully adapt to actual or potential adverse events.
This definition encompasses a very wide range of topics and considerations, including
• Improving coordination and organization among the various entities that have roles in all phases of disasters.
• Determining successful practices, as well as means to improve on these practices.
• The need to integrate information from the natural, physical, technical, economic, and social sciences.
• Measures of a community’s ability to withstand disasters.
• Assessments of progress toward successful recovery from a disaster.
• Cross-cutting topics, such as critical infrastructure, insurance and reinsurance, and ways that hazards cascade into disasters or catastrophes.
Underlying these issues are several more fundamental questions: 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?
Also at its September 2010 meeting, the committee made plans to conduct regional workshops in three locations—the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, the Midwest, and Southern California. The first of those workshops was held in New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast on January 18–21, 2011, and focused on addressing the points of the statement of task through examination of the effects of hurricanes, including Hurricane Katrina, and human-induced disasters on the Gulf Coast and the resilience of areas near the coast to future disasters (Appendix B). Experts who provided input to the committee at the meeting represented a wide range of perspectives on disaster resilience, including physical and engineering sciences, social sciences, local and state government, the private sector, public health, and community-based organizations (Appendix C).
This report summarizes the presentations and discussions that occurred during the workshop. After this introductory chapter, Chapter 2 provides two complementary perspectives on New Orleans before and after Katrina. Chapter 3 summarizes what the committee saw and heard on a day-long tour of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast to gather information relevant to the committee’s charge. Chapters 4 through 8 summarize the presentations and discussions that occurred as part of workshop panels on five key themes: (1) insurance and real estate, (2) critical infrastructure, (3) governance, (4) social capital, and (5) healthy populations and responsive institutions. A final chapter summarizes the observations made in the open discussion during the final session of the workshop.
A national strategy to increase resilience to hazards and disasters can take advantage of substantial assets in the United States. The nation has a rich body of technical, natural, and social science knowledge about disasters, disaster causation, cascading effects, preparedness and planning, response, recovery, and mitigation. Both the workshop on the Gulf Coast and the committee’s overall study seek to build on this knowledge to increase public safety, sustain economic productivity, and protect the human and natural environment.
Statement to the Committee from Senator Mary Landrieu
At the beginning of the committee’s workshop, Senator Mary Landrieu, who in 1996 became the first woman from Louisiana elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate, spoke to the committee in a videotaped presentation about its project. Her remarks below have been slightly shortened. The complete video of Senator Landrieu’s remarks is available on the study’s Web site at http://www.dels.nas.edu/global/dr/Collaborative-Projects.
I’d like to commend you for undertaking this research that is so critical to our nation’s future, and frankly of such interest to the world. Increasing our resilience
to disasters through solid science, targeted investments, and community and political will, will ultimately save countless human lives and billions of dollars.
I’m so pleased that the National Academy of Sciences has chosen to hold its first regional workshop with this important study in Louisiana. Louisiana has benefited from the wise counsel of the National Academy of Sciences on issues such as coastal restoration, flood mapping, flood protection, and levee construction.
Gathering in New Orleans allows the Academy to hear directly from people who have experienced disasters firsthand. Frankly, and unfortunately, I guess, there are no better experts than those who have lost their homes and suffered through the tragedies of so many hurricanes and floods, and then the oil spill in our part of the country. The stories you will hear are about survival, hope, and a never-ending well of resilience.
In the aftermath of the federal levee failure during Hurricane Katrina, the flooding and widespread destruction brought by Rita, Gustav, and Ike, and the massive oil spill that followed the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig last year, we have overcome many significant challenges and learned a great deal about ourselves in the process. We’re happy to share what we have learned with you.
Significant hurdles lie ahead for the people of the Gulf Coast as we continue to recover from these events, but the people of this region press on, sustained by their unwavering determination to rebuild homes, lives, and livelihoods—a commitment to our communities. We are blessed with an immense and wonderful culture and a great plethora of natural resources.
We also know in our hearts and in our minds that people can live safely at or below sea level. We have to have the right science, the right engineering, and the right commitment to make that possible. We’ve dedicated ourselves not only to rebuilding, but to building smarter and stronger; not to rebuild what we were but to build what we dreamed we can be.
Restoring our fragile coastline, bolstering emergency plans and capabilities, and improving offshore drilling so that we can do it safely and securely are all important goals of ours. In addition to becoming more resilient, we’re also creating communities that are more sustainable by making them safer, healthier, more livable, and more economically vibrant.
In New Orleans alone, we’ve rescued a failing public school system; developed the largest per capita presence of charter schools anywhere in the country having tremendous success; and embarked upon a comprehensive reconstruction program to offer state of the art facilities to our children. The region has developed a network of community healthcare clinics better than the healthcare system that existed before, offering preventive care and mental health services throughout the city.
Governments must do a better job of communicating disaster risk, training, and exercising for emergencies. Adopting and enforcing building codes, investing in hazard mitigation, and leveraging the skills and resources of community nonprofits and the private sector are only a few things that we must continue to do.
Households, in turn, and individuals must do their best to plan ahead, maintain their property, prepare a supply kit, heed local evacuation orders, and purchase reasonable levels of insurance.
Improving resilience to disasters must not be an afterthought, nor is this merely an academic exercise. It is my sincere hope that this study will increase the urgency around this important issue and help transform it into a national priority.
We also can look to other nations. The Netherlands is one. I’ve made three trips to the Netherlands to think about how they operate using water—not running from it but learning to live with it. We are a water city in New Orleans. We hope to incorporate many of the lessons we’ve already learned in the Netherlands and from some of our partners around the world. I know that your eyes will be national, but international opportunities are there as well, for what we can do better here in the Gulf of Mexico.