Category Archives: New Orleans

Haiti, Disaster Sociology, Elite Panic, and Looting

Book CoverIn her book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster writer Rebecca Solnit describes how people responded to disasters – from San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake to the Halifax explosion of 1917 to New York City after 9/11, and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina – by taking care of one another (She’s interviewed on CBC’s the Current here; podcast here).  Solnit’s Harper’s article The uses of disaster: notes on bad weather and good government preceeded the book, and outlined some of its themes.

That the victims of disaster have a substantial ability to self-organize to help themselves is one of the recurring themes of disaster sociology, as I mentioned on Resilience Science previously:

A prime example of spontaneous cooperation was the extraordinarily successful evacuation of Lower Manhattan during the September 11 attacks. James M. Kendra, an assistant professor of emergency administration and planning at the University of North Texas, estimates that nearly half a million people fled Manhattan on boats — and he emphasizes that the waterborne evacuation was a self-organized volunteer process that could probably never have been planned on a government official’s clipboard.

Or following the Haitian earthquake a  New York Times article Fighting Starvation, Haitians Share Portions writes:
At 59 Impasse Eddy on Monday, three women behind a blue house stirred a pot of beans and rice, flavored with coconut, spices and lime juice.They started cooking for their neighbors the day after the earthquake. On many mornings, they serve 100 people before 10 a.m.

“Everyone pays a small amount, 15 gourd,” or a little less than 50 cents, said Guerline Dorleen, 30, sitting on a small chair near the bubbling pot. “Before, this kind of meal would cost 50.”

Smiling and proud, the women said they did not have the luxury of waiting for aid groups to reach them in their hilly neighborhood. The trouble was, they were running out of food. They used their last bit of rice and beans on Monday.

However, there is a more negative side to the response to disasters in which authorities, fearful of disorder, take a command and control approach that at best stops people from helping themselves and at worst ends up with massacres of civilians.  What disaster sociologists, like Lee Clarke call the panic myth (pdf) – that people will run wild in the absence of authority – is the opposite of what is found in disasters, rather there is sometimes “elite panic”, when after a disaster the powerful imagine that the public is a source of danger, and then elites begin protecting property and stop people from acting to help themselves.This reponse was vividly demonstrated in the incompetent and inhumane response to Hurricane Katrina (e.g. The bridge to Gretna and  Zeitoun).

Dams limit wetland restoration in Mississippi Delta

Cornelia Dean in the New York Times writes Dams Are Thwarting Louisiana Marsh Restoration, Study Says. She describes recent research by Michael Blum and Harry Roberts Drowning of the Mississippi Delta due to insufficient sediment supply and global sea-level rise (doi:10.1038/ngeo553) that estimates that dams have reduced sediment outflows by 50% reducing the potential for New Orleans wetland restoration:

Desperate to halt the erosion of Louisiana’s coast, officials there are talking about breaking Mississippi River levees south of New Orleans to restore the nourishing flow of muddy water into the state’s marshes.

But in a new analysis, scientists at Louisiana State University say inland dams trap so much sediment that the river no longer carries enough to halt marsh loss, especially now that global warming is speeding a rise in sea levels.

As a result, the loss of thousands of additional square miles of marshland is “inevitable,” the scientists report in Monday’s issue of Nature Geoscience.

The finding does not suggest it would be pointless to divert the muddy water into the marshes, one of the researchers, Harry H. Roberts, said in an interview. “Any meaningful restoration of our coast has to involve river sediment,” said Dr. Roberts, a coastal scientist.

But he said officials would have to choose which parts of the landscape could be saved and which must be abandoned, and to acknowledge that lives and businesses would be disrupted. Instead of breaking levees far south of New Orleans, where relatively few people live, Dr. Roberts said, officials should consider diversions much closer to New Orleans, possibly into the LaFourche, Terrebonne or St. Bernard basins.

“It’s going to be an excruciating process to decide where that occurs,” Dr. Roberts said of the levee-breaking.

Sediment carried by the Mississippi built up the marshes of Louisiana over thousands of years, but today inland dams trap at least half of it, Dr. Roberts said. He pointed out that there were 8,000 dams in the drainage basin of the Mississippi.

In their article Blum and Roberts conclude that significant sea level rise is inevitable even if sediment loads are restored, because sea level is now rising at least three times faster than the building of the Mississippi delta.

Kim Stanley Robinson on nature, architecture, and society

Geoff Manaugh recently interviewed ecological science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson about ecology, architecture and socieities on BLDGBLOG.  Manaugh writes:

Robinson’s books are not only filled with descriptions of landscapes – whole planets, in fact, noted, sensed, and textured down to the chemistry of their soils and the currents in their seas – but they are often about nothing other than vast landscape processes, in the midst of which a few humans stumble along. “Politics,” in these novels, is as much a question of social justice as it is shorthand for learning to live in specific environments.

Robinson responds to a question about the idea that catastrophe can allow new forms of social organization to emerge:

It’s a failure of imagination to think that climate change is going to be an escape from jail – and it’s a failure in a couple of ways.

For one thing, modern civilization, with six billion people on the planet, lives on the tip of a gigantic complex of prosthetic devices – and all those devices have to work. The crash scenario that people think of, in this case, as an escape to freedom would actually be so damaging that it wouldn’t be fun. It wouldn’t be an adventure. It would merely be a struggle for food and security, and a permanent high risk of being robbed, beaten, or killed; your ability to feel confident about your own – and your family’s and your children’s – safety would be gone. People who fail to realize that… I’d say their imaginations haven’t fully gotten into this scenario.

It’s easy to imagine people who are bored in the modern techno-surround, as I call it, and they’re bored because they have not fully comprehended that they’re still primates, that their brains grew over a million-year period doing a certain suite of activities, and those activities are still available. Anyone can do them; they’re simple. They have to do with basic life support and basic social activities unboosted by technological means.

And there’s an addictive side to this. People try to do stupid technological replacements for natural primate actions, but it doesn’t quite give them the buzz that they hoped it would. Even though it looks quite magical, the sense of accomplishment is not there. So they do it again, hoping that the activity, like a drug, will somehow satisfy the urge that it’s supposedly meant to satisfy. But it doesn’t. So they do it more and more – and they fall down a rabbit hole, pursuing a destructive and high carbon-burn activity, when they could just go out for a walk, or plant a garden, or sit down at a table with a friend and drink some coffee and talk for an hour. All of these unboosted, straight-forward primate activities are actually intensely satisfying to the totality of the mind-body that we are.

So a little bit of analysis of what we are as primates – how we got here evolutionarily, and what can satisfy us in this world – would help us to imagine activities that are much lower impact on the planet and much more satisfying to the individual at the same time. In general, I’ve been thinking: let’s rate our technologies for how much they help us as primates, rather than how they can put us further into this dream of being powerful gods who stalk around on a planet that doesn’t really matter to us.

Because a lot of these supposed pleasures are really expensive. You pay with your life. You pay with your health. And they don’t satisfy you anyway! You end up taking various kinds of prescription or non-prescription drugs to compensate for your unhappiness and your unhealthiness – and the whole thing comes out of a kind of spiral: if only you could consume more, you’d be happier. But it isn’t true.

I’m advocating a kind of alteration of our imagined relationship to the planet. I think it’d be more fun – and also more sustainable. We’re always thinking that we’re much more powerful than we are, because we’re boosted by technological powers that exert a really, really high cost on the environment – a cost that isn’t calculated and that isn’t put into the price of things. It’s exteriorized from our fake economy. And it’s very profitable for certain elements in our society for us to continue to wander around in this dream-state and be upset about everything.

The hope that, “Oh, if only civilization were to collapse, then I could be happy” – it’s ridiculous. You can simply walk out your front door and get what you want out of that particular fantasy.

Lessons of Katrina

From TimeIt was roughly two years ago that New Orleans spectactularly failed to cope, technologically and socially, with Hurricane Katrina. Over 1,8oo people died, neighbourhoods and livlihoods were destroyed, and the storm is estimated to have caused over $80 billion in damage.

One of the fundamental principles of successful ecological management is learning from your mistakes, and incorporating those lessons into management practices. Two recent retrospectives, one in Time and the other in Mother Jones, on what has followed the storm indicate not a lot has been learned by the various institutions responsible the ecological management of the Mississippi and the Gulf Coast.

Continue reading

Mississippi meanders

NASA’s Earth Observation newsroom presents satelite images to go with the geological map of Mississippi Meanders used to make the top image of this blog.

NASA EOS image

NASA explains:

As it winds from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River is in constant flux. Fast water carries sediment while slow water deposits it. Soft riverbanks are continuously eroded. Floods occasionally spread across the wide, shallow valley that flanks the river, and new channels are left behind when the water recedes. This history of change is recorded in the Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River, published by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1944.

This map of an area just north of the Atchafalaya River shows a slice of the complex history of the Mississippi. The modern river course is superimposed on channels from 1880 (green), 1820 (red), and 1765 (blue). Even earlier, prehistoric channels underlie the more recent patterns. An oxbow lake—a crescent of water left behind when a meander (bend in the river) closes itself off—remains from 1785. A satellite image from 1999 shows the current course of the river and the old oxbow lake. Despite modern human-made changes to the landscape, traces of the past remain, with roads and fields following the contours of past channels.

In the twentieth century, the rate of change on the Mississippi slowed. Levees now prevent the river from jumping its banks so often. The levees protect towns, farms, and roads near the banks of the river and maintain established shipping routes and ports in the Gulf of Mexico. The human engineering of the lower Mississippi has been so extensive that a natural migration of the Mississippi delta from its present location to the Atchafalaya River to the west was halted in the early 1960s by an Army Corps of Engineers project known as the Old River Control Structure (visible in the full-size Landsat image).

The delta switching has occurred every 1,000 years or so in the past. As sediment accumulates in the main channel, the elevation increases, and the channel becomes more shallow and meandering. Eventually the river finds a shorter, steeper descent to the Gulf. In the 1950s, engineers noticed that the river’s present channel was on the verge of shifting westward to the Atchafalaya River, which would have become the new route to the Gulf. Because of the industry and other development that depended on the present river course, the U.S. Congress authorized the construction of the Old River Control Structure to prevent the shift from happening.

For some related reading, John McPhee discusses the Old River Control Structure and US Army Corps attempts to regulate the Mississippi in his great 1989 book the Control of Nature. John Barry provides a history of the regulation of the Mississippi in his book Rising tide: the great Mississippi flood of 1927 and how it changed America.

I previously wrote about the ecology of the Mississippi, Michael Grunwald has an article in Grist Rotten to the Corps arguing that the Corps is behind New Orleans destruction, and wikipedia has an article about levee failures in New Orleans.

Ecological Engineering and New Orleans

Robert Costanza, William Mitsch, and John Day, three ecologists with long experience with wetlands, New Orleans, and ecological economics, have an editorial in the journal Ecological Engineering on Creating a sustainable and desirable New Orleans (pdf). Their arguement is a more ecological version of the vison of a new bright green city presented by Alan AtKisson in his post Dreaming a New New Orleans.

Costanza et al write:

The Federal government has pledged over US$ 100 billion for the New Orleans and Gulf coast region to be rebuilt after this terrible (but predictable) tragedy. The question is not if but how it should be rebuilt. What was there can simply be replaced, but this would merely be setting the pins up to be knocked down again by a future big hurricane, the destructive powers of which are increasing worldwide, probably due to global warming. In addition, sea level is rising and New Orleans continues to sink, making the city even more vulnerable over time.

What is needed is a new vision of a truly New Orleans—one that can provide a sustainable and high quality of life for all of its citizens while it works in partnership (not in futile opposi- tion) with the natural forces that shaped it. This New Orleans can serve as a metaphor and a model for the sustainable devel- opment of western industrial society more generally.

The built capital of New Orleans has been radically depleted and must be rebuilt. We can recreate the vulnerable and unsustainable city that was there, or we can reinvent New Orleans as a model of a sustainable and desirable city of the future. To do this, we need to redesign and restore not only the built infrastructure, but also the social, human, and natural capital of the region. How do we do this and what would a truly sustainable and desirable New Orleans look like? Here are some of the elements of a sustainable vision:

1. Let the water decide: Building a city below sea level is always a dangerous proposition. While parts of New Orleans are still at or above sea level, much of it had sunk well below sea level since the first quarter of the 20th century. It is not sustainable or desirable to rebuild these areas in the same way they were before. They should be either replaced with coastal wetlands which are allowed to trap sediments to rebuild the land (see below), or replaced with buildings that are adapted to occasional flooding (i.e., on pilings or floats). Wetlands inside the levees can help clean waters, store short-term flood waters, provide habitat for wildlife, and become an amenity for the city. Coastal wetlands outside the levees should be rebuilt so that the city has both wetlands and levees to protect the city.

2. One should avoid abrupt boundaries between deepwater sys- tems and uplands. Gentle slopes with wetlands are the best division, and avoid putting humans, particularly those who have few resources to avoid hydrologic disasters, in harm’s way. Of course the abrupt boundaries of the levees are nec- essary, since wetlands alone cannot protect the city, but we need to use both as appropriate.

3. Restore natural capital: Coastal wetlands in Louisiana have been estimated to provide US$ 375/acres/yr (US $940/ha/yr—these and all subsequent figures have been converted to US$ 2004) in storm and flood protection services. Hurricane Katrina has shown this to be a large underestimate. Restoring Louisiana’s coastal wetlands and New Orleans levees has been estimated to cost US$ 25 billion. Had the original wetlands been intact and levees in better shape, a substantial portion of the US$ 100 billion plus damages from this hurri- cane probably could have been avoided. Prevention would have been much cheaper and more effective than recon- struction. In addition, the coastal wetlands provide other ecosystem services which when added to the storm pro- tection services have been estimated to be worth about US$ 5200/acres/yr (US$ 12,700/ha/yr). Restoring the 4800 km2 (480,000 ha) of wetlands lost prior to Katrina would thus restore US$ 6 billion/yr in lost ecosystem services, or US$ 200 billion in present value (at a 3% discount rate).

4. In order to do this we should use the resources of the Mississippi River to rebuild the coast, changing the current system that constrains the river between levees, and allow the resources of freshwater, sediments, and nutrients to flow into the deeper waters of the Gulf. Diversions of water, nutrients, and sediments from the Mississippi are a major component of the LCA plan. These planned diversions should be greatly expanded in order to allow more rapid restoration of the coastal wetlands. Levees are necessary in some locations, but where possible the levees should be breeched by structures in a controlled way to allow marsh rebuilding.

5. We should restore the built capital of New Orleans to the highest standards of high-performance green buildings and a car-limited urban environment with high mobility for everyone. New Orleans has abundant renewable energy sources in solar, wind, and water. What better message than to build a 21st-century sustainable city running on renewable energy on the rubble of a 20th century oil and gas production hub. In other words, New Orleans should be built higher, stronger, much more efficient, and designed to make extensive use of renewable energy. One can imag- ine a new pattern for the residential neighborhoods of New Orleans with strong, multistory, multifamily buildings surrounded by green space, each with enough water and fuel storage for several weeks, and operating principally on wind and solar energy.

6. We should rebuild the social capital of New Orleans to 21st-century standards of diversity, tolerance, fairness, and justice. New Orleans has suffered long enough with social capital dating from the 18th (or even the 15th) century. To do this the planning and implementation of the rebuilding must maximize participation by the entire community. This will certainly be difficult for a number of reasons, including the historical antecedents of racism and classcism in the region, and the fact that much of the population has been forcibly removed from the city. But it is absolutely essential if the goals of a sustainable and desirable future are to be achieved.

7. Finally, we should restore the Mississippi River Basin to min- imize coastal pollution and the threats of river flooding in New Orleans. Upstream changes in the 3 million km2 Mississippi drainage basin have significantly changed nutrient and sediment delivery patterns to the delta. Changes in farming practices in the drainage basin can improve not only the coastal restoration process, but also improve the nation’s agricultural economy by promoting sustainable farming practices in the entire basin.

Rebuilding New Orleans: Don’t build on quicksand

Down to Earth points to a Washington Post editorial (June 7th) that writes:

… the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers admitted responsibility for much of the destruction of New Orleans. … As the Corps’ own inquiry found, the agency committed numerous mistakes of design: Its network of pumps, walls and levees was “a system in name only”; it failed to take into account the gradual sinking of the local soil; it closed its ears when people pointed out these problems. The result was a national tragedy.

…the New Orleans disaster has illustrated the folly of building flood defenses for vulnerable low land: Some of the worst-hit areas would not have been developed in the first place if the Corps hadn’t decided to build “protections” for them. Encouraging the Army Corps of Engineers to build Category 5 defenses for all of Louisiana, including parts that are sparsely populated for good reason, would not merely cost billions that would be better spent on defending urban areas. It would encourage settlement of more flood-prone land and set the stage for the next tragedy.

On Down to Earth, Daniel Collins comments on how this behaviour falls into the pathology of natural resource management:

The engineering that the Corps offers provides residents and residents-to-be with a false sense of security. There is an implicit belief that since we have re-worked nature as much as we have in the past, or that we have been given dominion over the Earth, that we can continue in the same vein without limit. Modern societies endeavour to isolate themselves from the vagaries of the environment. What that has given us is a higher quality of living, offset by disasters like Katrina. Hurricanes will continue to roll into Louisiana, with or without global warming; New Orleans will continue to sink; and eventually the Mississippi will transfer its discharge into the Atchafalaya.

Building buffers against nature is a sound strategy, but it should be supplemented by building into society a degree of resilience and flexibility. Part of this is the ability (strength even?) to impose limits on building in unsafe regions. This may constrain liberties, but Katrina constrained the ultimate liberty of at least 1,800 people.

Hurricanes, Risk Models, and Insurance

Roger Pielke Jr has an interesting post Are We Seeing the End of Hurricane Insurability? on the Prometheus weblog. The insurance industry uses models of expected losses to set rates for catastrophic losses – from things such as huricanes. However, the models that are properitarity and not open to public evaluation. Now consumer groups are attacking the providers of “catastrophe models” arguing that these models main purpose is to justify increases in insurance rates.

In the past consumer groups have argued:

Consumers were told that, after the big price increases in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, they would see price stability. This was because the projections were not based on short-term weather history, as they had been in the past, but on very long-term data from 10,000 to 100,000 years of projected experience. The rate requests at the time were based upon the average of these long-range projections. Decades with no hurricane activity were assessed in the projections as were decades of severe hurricane activity, as most weather experts agree we are experiencing now. Small storms predominated, but there were projections of huge, category 5 hurricanes hitting Miami or New York as well, causing hundreds of billions of dollars in damage. Consumers were assured that, although hurricane activity was cyclical, they would not see significant price decreases during periods of little or no hurricane activity, nor price increases during periods of frequent activity. That promise has now been broken.

While the catastrophe modelling firms argue:

Given a constant climatological state (or if annual variations from that state are short lived and unpredictable) the activity rate in a catastrophe model can best be represented as the average of long-term history. In this situation there is no need to characterize the period over which the activity is considered to apply because, with current knowledge, it is expected that rate will continue indefinitely. The assumption that activity remains consistent breaks down, however, where there are either multi-year fluctuations in activity or persistent trends. It then becomes necessary to characterize the time period over which the activity in the Cat model is intended to apply.

Pielke argues that the disaster modellers are implying

…that the historical climatology of hurricane activity is no longer a valid basis for estimating future risks. This means that the catastrophe models that they provide are untethered from experience. Imagine if you are playing a game of poker, and the dealer tells you that the composition of the deck has been completely changed – now you don’t know whether there are 4 aces in the deck or 20. It would make gambling based on probabilities a pretty dodgy exercise. If RMS [Risk Management Solutions – a catastrophe modelling company] is correct, then it has planted the seed that has potential to completely transform its business and the modern insurance and reinsurance industries.

What happens if history is no longer a guide to the future? One answer is that you set your expectations about the future based on factors other than experience. One such approach is to ask the relevant experts what they expect. This is what RMS did last fall, convening Kerry Emanuel, Tom Knutson, Jim Elsner, and Mark Saunders in order to conduct an “expert elicitation”.

… RMS conducted its elicitation October, 2005 with the intent that it will shape its risk estimates for the next 5 years. This is wholly unrealistic in such a fast moving area of science. It is unlikely that the perspectives elicited from these 4 scientists will characterize the views of the relevant community (or even their own views!) over the next five years as further research is published and hurricane seasons unfold. Because RMS has changed from a historical approach to defining risk, which changes very, very slowly, if at all over time, to an expert-focused approach, it should fully expect to see very large changes in expert views as science evolves. This is a recipe for price instability, exactly the opposite from what the consumer groups, and insurance commissioners, want.

From the perspective of the basic functioning of the insurance and reinsurance industries, the change in approach by RMS is an admission that the future is far more uncertain than has been the norm for this community. Such uncertainty may call into question the very basis of hurricane insurance and reinsurance which lies in an ability to quantify and anticipate risks. If the industry can’t anticipate risks, or simply come to a consensus on how to calculate risks (even if inaccurate), then this removes one of the key characteristics of successful insurance. Debate on this issue has only just begun.

Hedging ones bets with insurance is a good strategy to deal with risk – where known outcomes are expected to occur with some known probability. However, when confronting more uncertain situations other approaches such as building resilience to potential classes of shock, engaging in experimental management to decrease uncertainty, and accelerating learning by integrating sources of knowledge across a wider variety of domains (e.g. meterology, ecology, and urban planning) and different regions (e.g. Sri Lanka, the Netherlands, and New Orleans).

Mapping Sea Level Rise

Sea Level Rise Jonathan Overpeck and others have a paper Paleoclimatic Evidence for Future Ice-Sheet Instability and Rapid Sea-Level Rise in Science (24 March 2006) that suggests that sea level rise due to anthropogenic climate change could occur much faster than people have previously expected. Possibly an increase of 5 to 10 m of several centuries. (For news articles see BBC, NYTimes, & Toronto G&M).

To visualize the consquences of sea level rise:

WorldChanging points to Flood Maps. A site that mashes up NASA elevation data with Google Maps, and offers a visualization of the effects of a single meter increase all the way to a 14 meter rise. Some examples are: Vancouver with 6m sea rise, New Orleans, and the Netherlands.

Also, Jonathan Overpeck‘s lab also has a visualization of the consquences of sea level rise for the US and the world.

Richard Kerr writes in a news article in Science, A Worrying Trend of Less Ice, Higher Seas:

The ice sheet problem today very much resembles the ozone problem of the early 1980s, before researchers recognized the Antarctic ozone hole, Oppenheimer and Alley have written. The stakes are high in both cases, and the uncertainties are large. Chemists had shown that chlorine gas would, in theory, destroy ozone, but no ozone destruction had yet been seen in the atmosphere. While the magnitude of the problem remained uncertain, only a few countries restricted the use of chlorofluorocarbons, mainly by banning their use in aerosol sprays.

But then the ozone hole showed up, and scientists soon realized a second, far more powerful loss mechanism was operating in the stratosphere; the solid surfaces of ice cloud particles were accelerating the destruction of ozone by chlorine. Far more drastic measures than banning aerosols would be required to handle the problem.

Now glaciologists have a second mechanism for the loss of ice: accelerated flow of the ice itself, not just its meltwater, to the sea. “In the end, ice dynamics is going to win out” over simple, slower melting, says Bindschadler. Is glacier acceleration the ozone hole of sea level rise? No one knows. No one knows whether the exceptionally strong warmings around the ice will continue apace, whether the ice accelerations of recent years will slow as the ice sheets adjust to the new warmth, or whether more glaciers will fall prey to the warmth. No one knows, yet.

Ruin and Recovery

Ruin & Recovery is a special series of newspaper articles in the New Orleans Times-Picayune on how other cities responded to disasters:

  • Galveston, TX – Galveston almost went under in the hurricane of 1900, but city leaders saved it, and a new economy reshaped it.
  • Charleston, SC – Historic Charleston survived Hurricane Hugo and rebuilt, keeping its charm
  • Grand Forks, ND – Lessons learned after devastating floods in 1997
  • Homestead, FL – Hurricane Andrew nearly wiped Homestead off the map. But after early stumbles, and a lot of help from private enterprise, the town is stronger than ever
  • Kobe, Japan – In seconds, buildings collapsed, bridges toppled and thousands died when an earthquake hit Kobe, Japan, 10 years ago. Despair was rampant. But with dogged determination, the city rebuilt, repopulated and rebounded
  • The Netherlands – After a North Sea flood killed nearly 2,000 peole in the Netherlands in 1953, building a state-of-the-art flood defense became a national priority.