Why focus on post-disaster community recovery?

Lessons to be learned

It has only been two years since I visited the Mississippi Gulf Coast to study its community recovery after Hurricane Katrina (2005) and the BP Horizon Oil Spill (2010) struck the area. In cities such as Biloxi and Gulfport, impacts from hurricane Katrina and the oil spill were still visible and the recovery process ongoing. The disaster literature often neglects to discuss the recovery of the natural environment in urban areas and how this influences the economic recovery of a community. This is caused in part by the difficulty of measuring recovery.  However, despite its difficulties, it is a very important part of the post-disaster recovery to explore such ‘hidden losses’ as a declined contribution of a local fishery industry to its community but also to take lessons for the future to improve communities’ disaster preparedness and resilience.

Post-disaster recovery is one of the least studied topics within the research field of natural hazards and disasters (Comerio, 2005; Mileti, 1999; Rubin, 1985). However, the increased occurrence and severity of natural hazards as well as the increased vulnerability of disaster prone areas make the assessment of natural hazards and post-disaster recovery an urgent issue.

The pressure of humans on their environment is growing and this underscores the importance of how we assess recovery and mitigation efforts with regards to these natural systems in the post-disaster period. The impacts of global climate change, as caused by humans, on the risks of weather-related natural disasters has well been established.  More specifically, the predicted global warming will likely influence the severity and the number of weather related hazards such as heat waves, floods and hurricanes. The overall vulnerability of a community depends on its capability to deal with the changed situations in weather and climate, but the likelihood of these meteorological events happening is increasing (Van Aalst, 2006; Keller and Blodgett, 2009).

Munich Re (2007) writes in its annual report that the economic costs associated with the impacts of natural hazards are increasing every year. Densely populated areas are often found near or are part of hazardous areas. Moreover, according to the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University, 40% of the world’s population lives in coastal areas, defined as the area within 100km of the coast (CIESIN). Secondly, the value of the built environment as well as the intrinsic value of the natural systems is increasing. The increase in the economic costs is caused by humans’ growing dependence on technology and the growth in the value of the built environment and the increasing appraisal of the intrinsic value of ecosystems is caused by the pressure of both climate change and the expanding human population on the natural environment (Munich Re, 2007).

In Biloxi, it appeared that their tourism sector, in the study used as a proxy for their general economic recovery, recovered more easily after Hurricane Katrina than their environment dependent, fisheries sector. Besides assessing the changes in their economy, I also learned that there are many lessons to take from the disasters that hit the Gulf Coast in 2005 and 2010 and that are likely to continue to hit the Gulf Coast. Several of the recommendations made by the experts encourage the development of pre-disaster preparation plans in terms of training, education and mitigation. Putting into place pre-disaster building codes and maintaining those updates can decrease the damage caused by a Hurricane. An important issue raised by several of the experts is the importance of communication with the local community. They explained the importance of communicating the predicted storm track and the potential damage that can be caused by a Hurricane in order to decrease the number of people staying behind. I think that the response to Hurricane Isaac last month shows that the community, practitioners and policy makers have taken those lessons to heart. This increase in awareness and pre-disaster preparedness has also been accompanied by an increase in available information which contributes to the learning process.

Google has developed Crisis Response, a set of tools that allow everyone, practitioners, researchers and  communities to keep track of an occurring disaster (find the Google Crisis Map for Isaac here). It would be great if someone would make a tool available that also tracks all the different elements of post-disaster community recovery. I wish I could go back to the disaster struck communities in the Gulf Coast and show them how far they have come and what a great job they did in their post-disaster community recovery process.

Author: Marleen C. de Ruiter

Sources:

– Google Crisis Response: http://www.google.org/crisisresponse/

– De Ruiter, M.C., Post-Disaster Community Recovery: Linking Environmental and Economic Recovery, MSc Thesis, University of British Columbia, 2011.

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