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The Human Storm
Jon Lebkowsky, 2 Sep 05

David Brooks in the New York Times wrote that

Hurricanes come in two waves. First comes the rainstorm, and then comes what the historian John Barry calls the "human storm" - the recriminations, the political conflict and the battle over compensation. Floods wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done. They expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities. When you look back over the meteorological turbulence in this nation's history, it's striking how often political turbulence followed.

Katrina's aftermath is indeed a nightmare of social chaos that would have been hard to imagine in simulations or scenarios before the fact. As bad as we knew the worst case could be, I don't think we could have predicted human response. Who would've thought that snipers would target hospital evacuations, and armed gangs would try to take control of the city?

If we accept the the growing evidence that global climate change is an incontrovertible fact of our present and future, the answer is definitely no. Catastrophic storms are an inevitable aspect of climate change. And if climate change is unavoidable, and we have to think about adaptation, part of that adaptation is preparing for a potential cascade of catastrophic events. We must take seriously the potential for disasters and breaches that may alter parts of our world irreversibly. (New Orleans may be uninhabitable for a decade, and some are questioning whether it should ever be rebuilt, given its vulnerability.)

The experience of New Orleans teaches painful lessons about the kinds of planning and preparation catastrophic 21st century weather events might require. It's not enough to think about relief efforts, physical infrastructure, transportation and communication issues, issues that tend to be the focus of emergency management planning. Effective response depends on social infrastructure as well. Conditions of extreme stress, situations where we meet potentially catastrophic challenges, demand better leadership and robust social capital, an integrity and commitment to community that seems weak or missing in much of post-Katrina New Orleans.

What's been missing in New Orleans since Katrina struck is clear authority and leadership on the ground, and that lack has been exacerbated by complete failure of communications infrastructure. I've heard the question "Where is New Orleans' Giuliani?" This question overlooks an important point: on 9/11 New York's physical and communications infrastructures were intact, and the local government hierarchy was still functioning. Giuliani had formal supports that are mostly unavailable to Ray Nagin in New Orleans, and was dealing with a disaster that, though profound, was relatively well contained within one part of the city.

How do we prepare for a disaster of this scale? I attempted research this morning into the management and sociology of disasters, and found many pointers but relatively little information that wasn't specialized, academic, and generally inaccessible to most of us. I think it's time to develop disaster management curricula and tools for broad distribution and have as our goal that everyone will have some sense what action to take when the sky falls or the earth quakes. Training would include social and psychological info as well as best practices for survival.

I acknowledge that I seem to have found my inner surivalist-crank, but it feels like the right mode for this piece of the 21st century.

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I'm kind of groggy from all the disaster stuff I've been reading lately.

One item caught my eye: A description of Cuba's low-tech grass-rootsy disaster management style. Interesting stuff. It kind of employs neighborhood yentas and busybodies to keep track of everyone (and their pets during a crisis). No way this would work "as-is" in the U.S., but it couldn't hurt to steal and repurpose elements of it.

Hmmm. Survivable disaster communications gear. Maybe that's something that Bruce Sterling's design students should be working on.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 2 Sep 05

This is an unbelievable mess.

One quick comment.. why would you move people from one domed stadium to others hundreds of miles away? Is this the only available accomodations that FEMA can come up with? It sounds truly idiotic to me....

Posted by: Joe Deely on 2 Sep 05

This man-made disaster shows the true nature of America's social system. It's horrible.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 2 Sep 05


You say "It's not enough to think about relief efforts, physical infrastructure, transportation and communication issues, issues that tend to be the focus of emergency management planning. Effective response depends on social infrastructure as well. Conditions of extreme stress, situations where we meet potentially catastrophic challenges, demand better leadership and robust social capital, an integrity and commitment to community that seems weak or missing in much of post-Katrina New Orleans."

I think that's absolutely right. I also think that it's important not to forget that we're talking about a city which is extremely poor, even by the standards of urban American poverty; and that the outflow of wealth and services from central cities to what Myron Orfield calls "the favored quarter" of wealthy suburbia, is part of both the ecological crisis here, and the social crisis.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 2 Sep 05

Stefan, I also keep thinking about that comparison with Cuba. With respect to social capital it seems as though New Orleans is a truly backwards place- and shuttling people off to distant places is only going to make matters worse.

As for communications infrastructure- Jamais posted a piece about Ad Hoc Network Leapfrogging. Visiting, they had a link to an article suggesting using their software to help in post-Katrina recovery

Rebuilding like we want it afterwards... that seems like a promising avenue.

Posted by: Daniel Haran on 2 Sep 05

I agree completely, in fact I thought about addressing that point in the already-long post, and found it difficult to figure exactly how to get into the subject while avoiding ethnic and class stereotypes. There are, of course, political implications here...

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 2 Sep 05

Some moments I feel like we are living through John Brunner's _Sheep Look Up_ (and this sheep looked up August and September to find things much worse in that particular dystopian scenario). Other times it feels like a bad mix of Jack London's _The Iron Heel_ and _The Scarlet Plague_ (one aftermath of Katrina is going to be a flare-up of some contagious diseases but we mustn't forget the Avian flu either).

And then there's Samuel R. Delany's _Dhalgren_, the Kid in the city of perpetual chaos always with a pall of smoke in the sky.

I keep a drop bag myself (thank you Robert Heinlein and Octavia Butler) and have a couple of solar/dynamo flashlight/radios that I've modified so that I can charge rechargeable AA batteries. That's the flashlight, radio, and extra set of batteries recommended each family should have on hand for emergencies and disasters with the additional advantage of being able to produce low voltage DC power day or night, by sunlight or hand-crank.

I'm trying to get the local bike community interested in exploring the combination of small scale solar and pedal power for some day to day and emergency uses. The next step is charging additional batteries with the alternator of your car as you drive, just in case.

There are many simple things we can do now, today, with the technology available if we only apply a little imagination and effort to the process.

This is going to be a cold fall and winter. It is always cold, hungry, and thirsty for far too many as well. Time we started preparing for a disaster future individually and collectively just so it doesn't happen to us, if we can help it. I say we have to look out for ourselves and each other because it is demonstrably evident that the George W. Bush administration can't do it for us.

Gary Snyder quoted Lew Welch as saying, "We remain alert so as not to get run down, but it turns out you only have to hop a few feet to one side and the whole huge machinery rolls by, not seeing you at all."

That's one version of what it means to be a mammal, isn't it?

Posted by: gmoke on 2 Sep 05

I can't decide if it's "Sheep Look Up" or "Shockwave Rider". Although sometimes I'm convinced it's really "Marching Morons"......

Posted by: donna on 3 Sep 05

The comments here show how little understanding of the infrastructure there is among the public, and how critical it is. In October 2001 the President issued an Executive Order on Critical Infrastructure that created an Advisory Council that has not even created a list of critical infrastructures, or prioritized which are the very most critical.

I've been watching the relay of WWL-TV in New Orleans that Houston's KHOU is generously providing on their second DTV digital channel. Unlike more remote TV stations, they are presenting long interviews with officials from outlying Parishes, and presenting lengthy reports from the field, unlike the 60-second soundbites of desperate faces that you see on national media. These reports show that the President's comment about the unimaginable scale of the destruction was insightful. Typical news reporting simply cannot capture the enormous magnitude of the problem.

Internet technology now has the seeds of the remedy for fixing this "media is the message" problem. Bob Cringely's NerdTV concept can create a "long tail" of video reporting that is not constrained by limitations of expensive station licenses for a limited number of channels (even 50 or 150 cable/satellite ones), and the expense of providing continuous entertainment for the apathetic masses in order to provide a few seconds of information for concerned citizens. BitTorrent and other P2P technologies can provide the logarithmic scalability that eliminates the need for highly centralized newsgathering and redistribution organizations.

The classic Associated Press mode was the freelance reporter phoning in his hot story to the local editor that was picked up by the wire services for massive redistribution. Once video blogs move from HTTP to BitTorrent, this mode could easily reappear, with the role of mass-market aggregators becoming
that of selecting the best of the best.

But enough of media, back to content: what we are learning from Katrina is that the very most critical needs for civilization are public safety, clean water, food, medical care, and shelter. Electric power comes later. And in a disaster of total destruction where local capabilities are gone, clear roads (and gas stations to feed the vehicles) and communication capability are essential to getting those critical resources to the people who need them. This means that any disaster recovery plan that doesn't include road- and bridge-repair contingencies is doomed. (Planners in earthquake-prone areas take note.)

We've now had two of the three top national disasters that were predicted by studies in 2000. It would be shameful if we didn't use these lessons to prepare for the third.

Posted by: Alton Naur on 3 Sep 05

25 ideas to help:

Posted by: Dimitar Vesselinov on 3 Sep 05

I think they should add another 10 billion in the Federal relief package and build more refineries here in America. After all the whole nation is feeling the gas prices go up as a result of Katrina. The President should have been quicker to act as well as the rest of our always fast acting and honest Governments around the world lol. I remember when gas was 89 cents a gallon and for 10 bucks you could get almost 11 gallons I put 10 bucks into today and got 3 gallons. I am only 27 years old so I am not talking about 1960, 70, or even 80 1990 just almost 8 9 years ago.

Posted by: Jerry on 4 Sep 05

even at current prices US gas is half of the price that's paid in Europe. You should be paying more: cheap fuel in the US is a tax on the rest of the world.

Posted by: Sturt's Desert Pea on 4 Sep 05

Jerry - you'll never see gas prices that are much lower than they right now again.

No oil company is going to be building more oil refineries in the US for the simple reason that oil production is approaching its peak and the existing refineries will be more than adequate to process the volume of oil you'll be seeing in future (although some will need to be converted to process heavier grades of crude). Do some research on "peak oil"

What you should be thinking about is how to build a functional economy that requires much less oil - one because you have to, two because its better for the planet and everyone living on it...

Posted by: Gav on 5 Sep 05

Great idea to do this. Jeff Jarvis at is trying to get something going; he's all about post-disaster information assistance. I've donated to Habitat for Humanity for the longer term; I hope Architects for Humanity are talking green to them. A lot of the social chaos in NO was due to modern mass communication being unavailable to the folks left behind. That's 2 issues in 1 sentence: any ideas for solutions?

Posted by: mle on 5 Sep 05



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