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Foresight in the Age of the Storm
Jamais Cascio, 30 Aug 05

katrina0829.jpgIn the age of climate disruption, clear-eyed foresight is a necessity -- but hurricane Katrina was a reminder that foresight means more than imagining the worst and preparing for it.

Katrina came as a surprise to few of its victims. The storm, which had been just a Category 1 when it crossed Florida, grew stronger over the warm ocean as it drew towards the Gulf Coast; in the age of real time satellites and doppler radar, residents of the region had ample warning that danger was coming. Nor was Katrina's arrival a surprise to meteorologists at the National Weather Service, who had earlier this month predicted that this hurricane season would be a strong one. Katrina's strength was certainly no surprise to climate scientists such as Kerry Emanuel or Kevin Trenberth, each of whom had published recent articles in top-notch journals arguing that greater hurricane intensity is the inevitable effect of global warming.

No, climate foresight means recognizing the signs that the game has changed, and that simply doing more of the same, but better, won't suffice.

It means, for example, that the reconstruction of New Orleans and the other devastated Gulf Coast cities has to take into account more than "what if this happens again in the next 50 years?" -type questions. The real question needs to be, "what if this starts happening every decade?" What kinds of changes to building codes would be required if buildings are to regularly withstand 165+ mile per hour winds? What kinds of changes to zoning regulations are needed when flood plains are the hardest-hit areas over and over again? What kinds of changes to building density and construction materials have to happen to allow for better runoff during rain storms that happen with tropical intensity and troubling frequency?

On that last point, there's a telling moment early in this video (WMV), taken yesterday from a news helicopter over New Orleans after Katrina had passed through. In the midst of the survey -- showing drowned buildings as far as the eye can see, toppled structures, sunken communities, and even fires -- one of the newscasters makes a frustrated point, saying that the last time a big hurricane hit the area, large green areas could absorb much of the rain and flood in the soil and plants, allowing less of it to overrun the built-up zones. Now those green spaces are gone, covered over by development and concrete, so the water has nowhere to go.

We have at our disposal enormously powerful tools for telling us what might and likely will happen with our climate and weather. Although refining and improving those tools will be of great value, what we really need to do is to use those insights into the changing nature of, well, nature in order to change our own behaviors. We need better tools for alerting people to imminent danger, for making certain that evacuations cover everyone (many of those who stayed behind did so because they simply couldn't afford to evacuate), for assessing the risk to buildings and infrastructure.

Over the coming days, and weeks, and months, we will learn the scale of the damage (Katrina is already estimated to be one of the costliest storms on record) and lessons in how to respond better to disasters of this magnitude. Recovery from the December tsunami will inform the process of recovery from Katrina; rebuilding after this hurricane will, in turn, inform the efforts of subsequent storms and natural disasters. But the real lesson we need to be learning -- the real goal of foresight -- is how to prepare ourselves for disasters we know are coming. We need to know how to minimize our losses (of life, of property, of hope) before they happen, not just how to rebuild after they are gone.

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Comments

I was surprised to see so many comments in the media from affected people that they were taken by surprise, didn't have time to react, move to higher ground etc. I'm also surprised that the local govt etc there didn't make an effort immediately before to organise buses to move out the people without cars or money to pay for transport: they knew New Orleans would probably flood, so getting peeps out on buses is cheaper & safer than plucking them off rooftops afterwards with choppers & boats.

They clearly had sufficient time to be far better organised - the days and hours beforehand, not just the months and years beforehand. And now the people who are stranded apparently are receiving little info to guide their decisions on how to get themselves out. If you can't be better prepared and more responsive than this in the richest country in the world with comprehensive communications technologies, then how to carry out contingency plans for densely populated poor areas in developing countries with inadequate infrastructure?


Posted by: Flannel Flower on 31 Aug 05

Well the went to bed seeing a class 1 storm in florida and woke to a class 5 headed toward them.

On top of this its a poor city and the surrounds are also poor so all the busses available were already full supposedly.

Finaly they have a lousy road system in that area and didnt have enough roads to get people out.

This isnt like say california where if something bad comes there are 27 different wide freeways out in varuous directions and so many have cars.


Posted by: wintermane on 31 Aug 05

we saw the severe warnings of this storm being likely to hit that area before it did and plenty of poeple had time to get out well in advance. I know there are many poor people in that area, but there *are* resources available that could have been mobilised, including getting buses from wherever to assist. I've seen it done in other areas for non-emergency transport situations. It could have been done, had there been sufficient concern to mobilise the effort and the resources - they mobilise them (choppers, rescue boats) afterwards at much greater cost.


Posted by: Flannel Flower on 31 Aug 05

Maybe there was some incompetence when it came to evacuation but I think there was genuine surprise too.

Unlike California, these are poor states and it's hard for them to support expensive flood and hurricane relief infrastructure. Citizens in these areas are fully aware of the dangers of flood plains and tropical storms but they don't have the money to contain the damage and deal with it.

Which brings us to the how to help cities in all regions of the world cope with periodic and sporadic disasters. Imagine if the Aswan Dam was shattered by terrorists or a dormant volcano erupts near Seattle? Venice and Chittagong continue to sink into the sea. What do we do about this?


Posted by: Pace Arko on 31 Aug 05

There are indeed lessons in our experiences of this disaster. Lessons that can be learned. Lessons that need to be learned. What we actually choose to learn remains an empirical question.


Posted by: Bill Anderson on 31 Aug 05

Seems like the bad ol' mainstream media has actually been on the case here. The New Orleans Times-Picayune did a righteous 5-part series in 2002 (http://www.nola.com/hurricane/?/washingaway/) that warned of impending disaster and noted that coastal erosion, sinking land and unwise construction had made the city more vulnerable. How's this for a money quote: "A flood from a powerful hurricane can get trapped for weeks inside the levee system." The article also noted that building codes needed to be strengthened. See "Day 5" of the series for a look at the brave new future of making the city safe from hurrican disasters. (thanks to Romanesko--http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=45--for showing the way to the Times-Picayune series.)

Now, let's take a political angle. The magazine New Orleans City Business noted back in June (see: http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4200/is_20050606/ai_n14657367) that the Republicans in Congress were seeking to slash the local Army Corps of Engineers budget by $71 million, or 21 percent. Among the projects due for severe cuts: flood control and levee improvements and strengthening. (thanks to Joshua Micah Marshall's Talking Points Memo--http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/--for the link.)

Sure, this is funding for future projects. And, yes, the Army Corps bears some of the blame for the extent of the disaster in New Orleans. I just wanted to say that it's not as if everyone's been an ostrich on this.


Posted by: robert neuwirth on 31 Aug 05

True, Robert, and thank you for pointing that out. I do think that one key question is how we can make sure the rebuilding conversation doesn't simply focus on making everything the same as it was before -- it's pretty clear that what was there wasn't enough to handle something this big. It's good that there are some important actors in this already thinking along the lines of how to do the rebuilding right.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 31 Aug 05



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