Community Resilience – Lessons from Katrina

This report was published in 2008. While there are problems with some of the assumptions, New Orleans is no better prepared today than in 2008 because none of the sociological factors have changed – denial is still the operative planning assumption.


From Robert Kates:

Here is a summary of eight major findings on resilience from the history of New Orleans that will appear in a forthcoming article with Tom Wilbanks on adaptation and resilience and is based on our CARRI report (Colten, Kates, and Laska 2008).

New Orleans

New Orleans has an extraordinary history of multihazard threats, experience, and resilience. Located on the  subsiding delta of the lower Mississippi River, much of the city is below sea level. It has experienced 27 major floods over the past 290 years (Kates et al. 2006), as well as nineteenth-century invasions, yellow fever epidemics, and twentieth-century drinking water pollution, and a declining population and economy (Colten 2005). Historically, yellow fever produced the highest number of fatalities, but advances in public health and environmental management have eliminated the most devastating diseases and improved water quality. The decline in population and economy was accelerated by Hurricane Katrina. Today, flooding remains the most pressing concern with future vulnerability increased by climate change increases in hurricane intensity, continued subsidence, loss of protective wetlands, and inadequate protection.

To deal with flooding, local and national institutions have combined to erect an extensive flood protection systems, to create river flood and hurricane forecasting, and develop evacuation plans. Exposure to flooding was relatively small in the most vulnerable locations until hurricane Betsy in 1965. Following that storm, new levees and improved internal drainage encouraged new development in low-lying areas, increasing the most exposed population by 170,000 households across the metropolitan area.

When Hurricane Katrina arrived in August 2005, the storm overwhelmed the levee system and flooded 80 percent of the city, caused about 1,300 deaths, forced a long evacuation, that led to the relocation (perhaps permanently) of 100,000 residents, damaged 70% of the city’s residences, and caused an estimated monetary loss of $40-50 billion. Almost four years after Katrina, a population the equivalent of 70% of the pre-storm population has returned, building permits for 30% of residences have been issued, and the hospitality economy has been restored.  But large areas of the city are still empty tracts, leading economic sectors in medicine and education have not recovered, organized reconstruction is just beginning, and some neighborhoods may have been  lost forever.

New Orleans’s resilience to repeated floods and hurricanes in the past relied primarily on short-term flood protection levees, rather than a strategy of enhancing overall community resilience. Resilience enables communities to rebound from disaster and reduce long-term vulnerability, thus moving toward a more sustainable footing. Lesson learned from the  New Orleans’s experience of the four key elements of resilience—anticipation, response, recovery, and reduced vulnerability—are detailed in a CARRI report (Colten, Kates, and Laska 2008). Here are the specific lessons from New Orleans for threats from climate change and associated hazards.

The United States is vulnerable to enormous disasters despite being the richest and most powerful nation on earth.

New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen with repeated warnings from both scientists and the media that a major storm would eventually hit the city. Today, most scientists and the media fear in differing degrees similar global threats from climate change. For the U.S. and the world, Katrina was a surprise as the world saw the failure of complete evacuation, the collapse of the levees, the inadequate rescue operations, the subsequent outmigration, and the plight of those remaining in the city, with the burden falling heaviest on the African-American, poor, aged, and infirm members of the population. What amazed many worldwide was that these extensive failures, often attributed to conditions in developing countries, occurred in the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world.

Creating community resilience is a long-term process.

Creating the elements of community resilience (anticipation, vulnerability reduction, response, recovery) takes many years. To improve anticipation, it took 40 years to create an effective tracking and warning system and 37 years to inform the community about the catastrophic threat. It also took 40 years to  reduce vulnerability with levees and drainage by a system that was only partly completed before Katrina and subsequently failed and it will take at least 6 years to rebuild a reliable levee system to protect against a modest 100 year storm. The emergency response period following Katrina was the longest of any similar disaster in U.S. history ( 6 weeks) . The existing plans for emergency response were remarkably deficient, and their intended improvement was incomplete at the time of Katrina.. To develop a community-acceptable reconstruction plan took 21 months and to reconstruct after Katrina will take at least a decade more.

Surprises should be expected.

Every hazard event brings surprises and every disaster even more. The central unanticipated event during Katrina was the failures of levees along the major canals. Levee overtopping had been anticipated, but the massive breaches, that flooded 80 percent of the city with upwards of 20 feet of water were not. In turn, these unanticipated events led to major failures in emergency response for events that had been anticipated. Thus surprises come from unanticipated events, correctly anticipated events but failed responses, or wrongly anticipated events. Resilient communities expect surprise, try to learn from the surprise experiences in other disasters, try to anticipate unexpected problems, and plan for redundancy in emergency response and recovery.

The  best scientific and technological knowledge does not get used or widely disseminated.

An extraordinary investment has been made in climate change research producing a growing body of scientific and technological knowledge. But New Orleans experience does not auger well for its utilization. The engineering designs for the new and improved protective works after Hurricane Betsy in 1965 were based on the estimated frequency and magnitude of a standard project hurricane and took into account the effects of storm surge, land subsidence, and rising sea level as measured at that time. But these estimates were still being used 19 years later,  when sea level had risen by 7 inches, storm waves and surges by similar amounts, and subsidence within the levees had lowered the land surface by 10 feet and (USGS 2004). The frequency of more intense hurricanes, possibly enhanced by global warming may have increased as well. Moreover, the widely used  risk assessments in the form of FEMA maps of the 100-year floodplain have never included sea-level rise or land subsidence effects.

Major response capability and resources were invisible, refused, or poorly used.

In coping with extreme events from climate change and other hazards, there is much talk of partnerships. In every disaster there are unanticipated or unaddressed needs and “shadow responders” often emerge from households, friends and family, neighborhoods, non-governmental and voluntary organizations, businesses, and industry. In responding to Katrina, they were sometimes refused or poorly used by government officials, even though they provided most of the initial evacuation capacity, sheltering, feeding, health care, and rebuilding, and much of the search and rescue, cleanup, and post-Katrina funding. For resilient communities, in advance of hazard events, the tri-level system (city, state, federal) of emergency response needs to welcome, effectively use, collaborate with, and coordinate the combined public and  private efforts.

Disasters accelerate existing pre-disaster trends.

One of the major limits to climate change adaptation is the context in which it needs to take place and efforts to slow or reverse negative impacts need to engage the long-term place based change in economy, nature, and society. Change following disaster generally follows the pre-disaster trajectory, with the disaster even accelerating previous trends. The New Orleans population had declined by 31 percent from a 1960 peak before Katrina, then lost two thirds of its population after Katrina, and now has regained only about 70% of its pre-Katrina population. Similarly, the economy was also declining pre-Katrina, and despite the inflow of recovery monies, substantial portions of the economy have not recovered.

Overall vulnerability to hurricanes has grown from multiple causes.

In New Orleans, geophysical vulnerability is characterized by its below-sea level, bowl-shaped location, its accelerating subsidence, rising sea level, storm surges, and possible increased frequency of larger hurricanes from climate change . These are only partly natural phenomena and they have been made worse by settlement decisions, canal development, loss of barrier wetlands, extraction of groundwater, oil, and natural gas, internal rainfall storage, and the design, construction, and failure of protective structures and inside  levees  rainfall storage. The increase in geophysical vulnerability has been matched by the increase in social vulnerability as new development in low-lying areas placed an additional 170,000 households at risk. Subsequent loss of population within the city (white flight) enhanced the social vulnerability and subsequent Katrina failure to respond to the distinctive needs of the elderly, the poor, and households without autos.

Efforts to provide protection reduced vulnerability to frequent small events but increased vulnerability to rare catastrophic events.

A major concern in adapting to climate change is whether successful short-term adaptation may lead to larger long-term vulnerability. This seemed to be the case from the 40 year period between Hurricane Betsy and Katrina, when new and improved levees, drainage pumps, and canals — successfully protected New Orleans against three hurricanes in 1985, 1997, and 1998. But these same works permitted the massive development of previously unprotected areas and the flooding of these areas that resulted when the works themselves failed were the major cause of the Katrina catastrophe.