About The Resilience Institute

The Resilience Institute is part of WWU Huxley’s College of the Environment. It facilitates scholarship, education, and practice on reducing social and physical vulnerability through sustainable community development, as a way to minimize loss and enhance recovery from disasters in Washington State and its interdependent global communities.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Disaster as Process

Residents of New Orleans are returning after the recent evacuations in front of Hurricane Gustav. The hurricane passed to the south and west of the city, only causing storm surge waves that occasionally splashed over the city's weakest Industrial Canal levees.

Many people view disasters as events and will see Gustav as the disaster near-miss, the disaster that didn't happen. Other disaster researchers have come to understand disasters as a process:

Quarantelli: "we should conceive of disasters for sociological purposes only"

Beck: "threats are produced industrially, externalized economically, individualized juridically, legitimized scientifically, and minimized politically."

Disaster as process means we should move away from an intense focus on disaster events. Instead we should look at the ongoing social process, power disparities, resource disparities, and cultural understandings of the environment and environmental risk that may exacerbate the consequences of a natural hazard event. With this view, disasters are no more than clarifying moments when these social processes are often most apparent.

For New Orleans, this is certainly apparent in both Katrina and Gustav. Katrina, more than any other recent event, exposed a significant disregard for the needs and resources of the urban poor (e.g. in the planning of evacuation protocol and the development of recovery grants based upon pre-storm housing values). Both Katrina and Gustav continue to highlight a hurricane-exposed city that relies almost exclusively on levees and pumps for disaster risk reduction. Gustav’s surge again highlighted that the Lower and Upper Ninth Ward – low and moderate income African American neighborhoods – continue to be the most vulnerable. Both events continue to point to major issues of coastal erosion and the ever increasing risks of un-fettered storm surge straight in from the Gulf.

The idea of disaster as an event may help response and emergency preparedness, but it certainly does us all a disservice when we can then ignore the everyday and ongoing social and ecological issues that are the real disaster.

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