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Science and Sustainable Rebuilding

Hurricane Katrina 29/08/2005An active hurricane season is upon us, and the vulnerable Gulf Coast is in the spotlight again. Policy-makers need to include the latest science in order to put the rebuilding effort on a sustainable track. Katrina taught us that policies that don’t incorporate science are unsustainable in the bluntest sense.

Unsustainable policies are not just the fault of policy-makers or scientists but from the lack of dialogue between the two. Former director of the U.S. Geological Survey Charles Groat saw the communication gap between scientists and decision-makers, and laid down a challenge in the American Geophysical Union’s newspaper to

… decision-makers who have treated scientific understanding as a minor ingredient but who now have an opportunity to listen more carefully to scientists and act more responsibly…[and scientists]…who now have an opportunity to be organized, reasonable in their expectations, effective in their communications, and persistent in engaging those responsible for the next steps in the recovery and rebuilding of New Orleans and hurricane-affected areas of the Gulf Coast

AGU, the foremost organization for Earth and space sciences, isn’t confined to the ivory tower, but advocates for science to be more active in policy. Indeed, AGU responded to the challenge by preparing a report for the policy world written by twenty Earth scientists and engineers who met to

…review and assess the scientific knowledge in the areas most relevant in hurricane protection, to identify gaps in knowledge that could be filled by focused research, and to propose mechanisms to link science to the most effective reconstruction of New Orleans and other coastal areas affected by the recent hurricanes.

The authors assess seven areas key to sustainable rebuilding: hurricanes, storm surge and flooding, subsidence, climate change, hydrology, infrastructure, and disaster response. The report is full of information that policy-makers should be thirsting for, and suggests short-term and long-term research directions.

Although a wealth of knowledge about the Gulf Coast already exists, it isn’t always detailed enough when crises strike. Small uncertainties in sea level and topography can make it impossible to predict which neighborhoods will be flooded or escape routes cut.  Better satellite measurements of the land and sea surface using air-borne LIDAR and other remote-sensing technologies could reduce these uncertainties.  Accurate measurements, however, aren’t useful by themselves. The report also stresses the need for improving the models used for storm tracking and prediction. (We should note that some take issue with AGU’s criticism of current hurricane prediction models, and point to difficulties in conducting assessments representative of the entire scientific community (link).)

In the chaos of a crisis, knowledge means nothing without preparedness and foresight. Over the long term, the Gulf needs to engineer stronger levees and to use the natural flow of sediment from the Mississippi River to rebuild the islands that once acted as a shield from hurricanes. Long-term planning also matters for short-term response—especially the 72-hours following a crisis. Disaster responders need exercises in disaster scenarios and real-time access to high-resolution satellite images, maps, and visualization tools. On-the-ground disaster responders can in turn collect data on water levels, levee condition, and the location of vulnerable people.

Measurements, models, and preparedness, however, won't happen without better communication between scientists and policy makers. Three overarching recommendations come out of the report to make that happen:

1) Establish a multidisciplinary steering committee to maintain an overview on reconstruction and new threats to the region from natural disasters, and charge that committee with monitoring the rebuilding and identifying key scientific issues and assets to address them;
2) Assemble a database of experts who would be available to provide scientific guidance as needed; and
3) Provide periodic assessments of reconstruction and planning efforts.

These measures have yet to be taken and indicate that the dialogue between scientists and policy-makers is weak.  As a result, the scientists writing the report needed to guess policy-makers’ needs.  Some sections of the report are therefore too technical and jargon-laden for the scientifically uninitiated.  More telling of the lack of dialogue is the report’s intentional avoidance of political, economic, and social issues.

Better communication between scientists and policy-makers could fix these shortfalls. AGU admits that the easy part was writing the report, and we're encouraged by AGU’s attempt to deliver information outside its scientific circles and eagerly await its evolving conversation with policy-makers.  This report adds to other projects that make us hopeful for a time when scientists don’t need to go out of their way to get the attention of policy-makers nor where policy-makers use scientists to sidestep debates over values—but where the two continually converse from the beginning.


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