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13 Aug 15 13:14

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005, leading to devastating floods in New Orleans, the storm brought to light how unprepared even highly advanced economies could be for a natural disaster, from start to finish. Levee systems catastrophically failed in a spectacular manner, with over 50 breaches in the New Orleans metropolitan area. Many failed below their design limits. 

There was no comprehensive evacuation plan in place for the city; Mayor Ray Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans on August 28, one day prior to the hurricane's landfall, however no plans were preemptively set in place to address the poor and elderly populations many of which did not have the financial or physical means to leave the city. The Louisiana Superdome was haphazardly designated as the "refuge of last resort," the day prior to landfall, and became a disaster unto itself in the days after landfall, due to insufficient food, water and plumbing.

Additionally, the city itself seemingly had no plans in place to address the needs of their citizens in the immediate aftermath, forcing an overdependence on the federal government and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide relief. To obtain basic necessities like water, food, diapers and essential items, individuals had to resort to looting shuttered businesses and homes to obtain what they needed. Crime in the days after Katrina spiked, and New Orleans fell into a state of near anarchy.

FEMA took days to arrive, and when FEMA agents arrived, they were underprepared. The first wave of supplies ran out within hours. Geographic distance, bureaucratic red tape and the constant shifting of responsibility led to the general public perception that FEMA was a bumbling, disorganized, cumbersome agency that was unable to deploy adequate and sufficient means to address a crisis within the United States.  

Today, it is unlikely that Hurricane Katrina would have a sequel; the storm itself can happen again, bringing surge and winds to the US Gulf Coast. However, many lessons were learned from Katrina, and these learnings are being implemented in cities up and down the US Coast. In the last decade, cities have embraced the notion of being responsible for their own resilience, and acknowledging that resilience does not mean waiting for the federal government.  

In New Orleans, the Greater New Orleans Hurricane Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (HSDRRS), a $14 billion joint venture between the Army Corps of Engineers, academia, engineering firms and architecture firms, has reduced the risk of hurricane-induced storm surge that the population faces. The HSDRRS got its first real test in 2012, when a slow moving Hurricane Isaac made landfall, and successfully withstood the surging waters.

In New York, a city so badly battered by Hurricane Sandy, the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) laid out a comprehensive plan for recovering in the wake of Sandy and protecting the city against future storms.  The plan discusses infrastructure upgrades, new structures and both private and public funding mechanisms to make this a reality. Some recommendations in the SIRR have been implemented; the new boardwalk in the Rockaways, in Queens, "is made of steel-reinforced concrete fastened to steel support piles, and sits above the 100-year flood plain, allowing it to better endure huge storms. In addition, layers of protection are being integrated into the design, including planted dunes and retaining walls meant to help keep the sand in place. Not only is this boardwalk stronger than the old one, but its design will act as a bulwark against flooding to help protect the community from storm surges." 

Sector agencies in New York are also embracing their resilience, using insurance mechanisms to address disaster financing. The MTA issued a cat bond in 2013, the first to cover storm surge exclusively using a parametric index, to increase their private sector financing after a large hurricane. The Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund for the first time in its 23-year history purchased private reinsurance to help spread its risk away from taxpayers and into the global market.  

Globally, collaborative initiatives between the public and private sectors have been launched to help cities both quantify and understand their natural hazards risk. The 100 Resilient Cities initiative, launched by the Rockefeller Foundation, seeks to guide 100 selected cities to become more resilient. Each city is receiving funds to name a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO), who will focus, coordinate and lead the city's resiliency efforts, and will have access to tools and experts in the public, private and NGO sectors, who can help each city steer and implement their resilience strategies. Finally, the cities can help each other through their participation in the 100RC, and learn best practices from other participants exposed to similar hazards. Both New York and New Orleans are member cities, with the CRO in each city now appointed. 

Hurricane Katrina was a terrible, tragic event that cost billions of dollars and almost 2,000 lives.  But for all the hardship and devastation that Katrina caused, it was a very important catalyst in initiating the urban resilience discussion.  The discussion continues to this day, ten years later, and while there is much to be done, much has already been accomplished.

(Co-authored with Dr. Megan Linkin, Swiss Re Global Partnerships)

Category: Climate/natural disasters: Climate change, Disaster risk, Floods/storms, Resilience

Location: New Orleans, LA, United States


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