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.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Retail's Woes Point to Local Gold?

Okay, folks would probably suspect that I'd want to talk about the recent earthquake in Reno that caused a sewer-treatment-plant-damaging rock fall. (Remember, you don't need big earthquakes to cause big problems!) True, true: Renoites (Renoans?) need to be cognizant of their earthquake hazard and get prepared, as the seismologists and emergency managers are saying.

But us resilience researchers, we get excited about subtler things.

Like retail.

I've been wanting to write about retail for a couple weeks now. There have been a lot of numbers coming out showing that retail is struggling right now, with sales down and bankruptcies up.

At some level, bankruptcy is a normal part of the economic cycle. But when a lot of businesses start going under or having to drastically reorganize, I'm starting to wonder about the resilience of the system.

But we're in a recession. (Aren't we?!) You'd expect that if the dominant discourse is that our country and, noting global food prices, the world is in an economic slump, then people would change their buying behavior. This I think is not too dissimilar to how attitudes and priorities would shift in the weeks and months and maybe years after a significant hazard event, such as an earthquake.

Well, maybe, maybe not. According the New York Times, take a look at the changes in consumer purchases during our current GDP stalling:

In March, Americans spent less on women’s clothing (down 4.9 percent), furniture (3.1 percent), luxury goods (1.3 percent) and airline tickets (1.1 percent) compared with a year ago...

Wal-Mart Stores reports stronger-than-usual sales of peanut butter and spaghetti, while restaurants like Domino’s Pizza and Ruby Tuesday have suffered a falloff in orders, suggesting that many Americans are sticking to low-cost home-cooked meals.

Over the last year, purchases of brand name cookies and crackers have fallen, according to Information Resources, which tracks retail sales.


Not even beer is immune. Sales of inexpensive domestic beers, like Keystone Light, are up; sales of higher-price imports, like Corona Extra, are down, the firm said.


By no means has the economic downturn been bad for all product categories. For instance, sales of big-ticket electronics, like $1,000 flat-panel televisions and $300 video game systems, are on the rise, according to retailers and research firms.



So apparently when Americans are having to "tighten the belt" they need about as much or more as usual on "luxury goods," airline tickets, flat screen TVs, and video games.

I'm not so sure though. Those sales statistics are based on total receipts, not number of purchases. So while clothing and furniture and food sales may be "down," the demand and, I suspect, the number of transactions (in some form, such as repurposing or remodeling a piece of furniture), is not.

What this data is talking to me about is people's attitudes about substitutes -- how flexible they are in what they buy for a particular need or want.

Airline tickets, flat screen TVs, and video games? Well, there is not enough flexibility in preferences to provide significantly cheaper substitutes.

Food, clothing, and furniture? There is. The Keebler Elves and the Budweiser Clydesdales are really not that important to people, as long as their need is met for a reasonable price (or there is some other incentive).

Where am I going with this, you ask?

Import substitution and replacement.


Import substitution/replacement is a strategy for increasing community resilience by decreasing reliance on importing goods (and services) into the community. The (arguable?) potential benefits are many, including reduced monetary and environmental costs of transportation, increased local multiplier effect (i.e., dollars spent stay inside the community), insurance against failed systems outside of the community (of which the community has little or no control), and higher wages (shifting emphasis of an economy from retail to wholesale and manufacturing/processing).

These data that the New York Times are writing about show me where there is potential for import substitution/replacement: day-to-day needs. Food, clothing, shelter (including furniture) -- these are items that people apparently are not picky about who produces them and where they come from.

In other words, in implementing a strategy of import substitution/replacement to increase community resilience, these are the areas that a community should develop first. (Energy would be another category, as often promoted in the green power movement.)

And when should a community attempt to push an import substitution/replacement strategy? Well, obviously times like now would be good, when consumers are looking for convenient, lower-cost alternatives.

Or perhaps, in the recovery phase of a major disaster. Hmm....

Read More......

Friday, April 25, 2008

Do Presidential Candidates Understand Disaster Risk Reduction?

The recent news cycle describing John McCain's visit to New Orleans to criticize the Bush administration's response to the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe made me curious how the three current presidential candidates compare on the issue of community resilience and each compares with what the experts say on the topic.

To see my quick comparison, keep reading.

John McCain

Unfortunately, the McCain campaign doesn't have anything on its website related specifically to Hurricane Katrina, emergency management, hazard mitigation, etc. Interestingly, they don't even have links to the New Orleans news coverage in the "In the News Section." So all I can go on are the news stories about his New Orleans campaign stop. For example, this New York Times article describes McCain as making three general recommendations:

  1. Use qualified people

  2. Allocate as much money in the recovery phase as is necessary

  3. Utilize the private sector, like FedEx, UPS, etc. in the response phase

Hilary Clinton

Clinton's campaign does have a section on their website specifically devoted to Hurricane Katrina and what could be done to prevent future catastrophe. The campaign lists 10 points related to disaster response and mitigation, though most of them are specific to on-going recovery in the Gulf Coast:

  1. Elevate the Gulf Coast federal rebuilding director

  2. Cut red tape

  3. Attract workers to rebuild New Orleans and the region

  4. Build a reliable hurricane protection system so there is not another Katrina

  5. Expand affordable housing

  6. Combat rising crime and give first responders needed tools

  7. Build 21st Century schools in New Orleans

  8. Revitalize a lagging health care system

  9. Promote smart development

  10. Revamp federal response so we are ready next time

Barack Obama

Obama's campaign definitely gets the nod for having the most verbiage on the issue, with a Hurricane Katrina fact sheet [PDF file] posted. The major points in the fact sheet are the following (caps below are theirs):



      1. Strengthen the Levees

      2. Restore the Wetlands

      3. Fight Crime


      1. Shake the Money Loose

      2. Rebuild Hospitals

      3. Rebuild Schools

      4. Restore Housing

      5. Improve Transportation


      1. Ensure Locals Can Get Recovery Jobs

      2. Provide Incentives to Employers in Hardest-Hit Areas

      3. Support Financial Infrastructure

      4. Fix FEMA Insurance Rules


    1. Fix FEMA

    2. Fix the Small Business Administration

    3. Adequately Plan for Emergency

    4. Direct Rebuilding Efforts from the White House

    5. Minimize Waste and Abuse

    6. Provide an Insurance Backstop

The "Experts"

Of course there are many experts related to various facets of emergencies and disasters and there is not a enough room to put all their views here. So I chose one expert, Kathleen Tierney, who gave congressional testimony on this subject [PDF file]. As part of her testimony she discussed the following seven points towards reducing the potential for another Katrina-scale disaster:

  1. Ensure that the nation develops a fully-functional intergovernmental emergency management system, placing a priority on the nation’s most vulnerable urban areas.

  2. Ensure that an all-hazards approach to emergency management is implemented at all levels of government.

  3. Ensure that FEMA and other crisis-relevant organizations center their efforts on comprehensive emergency management [meaning all phases: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery].

  4. Explore organizational arrangements and authorities that de-politicize high leadership positions within FEMA, DHS, and other crisis-relevant organizations.

  5. Invest in and mobilize institutions that provide the “backbone” for effective emergency management.
  6. Develop and implement a strategic emergency management workforce strategy for the nation.

  7. Build oversight, accountability, and evaluation into emergency management programs at all levels of government.

The Verdict

Sorry, there's no verdict. This is just a quick (i.e., way longer than intended) blog post and the information synthesized is incomplete and not directly comparable.

That said, it's interesting to note the emphasis of each of the above on the components of resilience (loss reduction and recovery facilitation). The emphasis overall seems to be on response/recovery, rather than risk reduction.

Isn't it always? [Sigh.]

McCain makes no mention of loss reduction, unless of course the qualified person he would appoint will focus on it. Clinton does not specifically mention loss reduction, but certainly investing in flood protection, smart development, good schools, and quality housing could count as risk reduction, depending on how implemented. Obama mentions several similar points, in addition to restoring wetlands, investing in transportation infrastructure, and taking a local approach to economic development. Tierney was asked to testify specifically on issues of response and recovery, but if you read her testimony she takes many opportunities to emphasize the important of loss reduction, particularly in her points 1, 2, and 3.

Read More......

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Emergency planning in our schools

Over the last week, I have been in Los Angeles talking with school administrators about emergency plans. This is in preparation for the largest earthquake drill California has ever done - the Great Southern California ShakeOut scheduled for November 13, 2008. In the process I have been inducted into some of the real-world headaches of school emergency planning.

At the Team Safe-T office, a non-profit organization helping to create education material on safety, emegency preparedness and social responsibility, I learned of the hazards of doing earthquake drills....not the hazards of a real earthquake, but the hazards of the drill.

Every time there is a fire drill or earthquake drill, the students file out of the building. In some inner city LA schools, some students go to the designated field and are accounted for. Others just disappear- and get in trouble. Following the drill, teachers cannot account for all of their students. The number of hall fights and vandalism goes up that day. Police report increased gang violence on the days schools do such drills.

Fire and earthquake drills are mandated by the state of California, yet so is keeping students in school and learning. Its a tough call and some school administrators have chosen to stop doing drills. This does not bode well for an actual emergency. Students and staff will be unprepared and unpracticed. Moreover, what is occuring in drills may very well indicate major issues that could arise in a real emergency. Following a major earthquake, staff charged with accounting for students and searching for injured and unaccounted students may be looking for students who have left the premises all together. Looting may also be an intensified issue if students take off after the shaking subsides. I also do not envy the school administrators facing anxious parents and telling them then have no idea where their kids are.

In other conversations, I heard about issues of special needs kids. Students on life-saving medication may not have extra supplies to last until their parents can re-unify with them. Nor may staff have the authority to administer needed medications, even if it was on the premises.

Finally, I read a recent new report out of Florida where post-hurricane building code improvements for schools is interfering with police radios. You can look at the article yourself here. Hurricane-resistant concrete walls are so thick they block police radios and have led to difficulties in on-premise police calling for back-up when dealing with security issues.

There are obviously a lot of questions to ask about how to better address the underlying causes of school violence and how to address the needs of disabled students. Those larger questions aside, I was reminded of the vast difference between clear-cut emergency plans on paper and the complicated reality that occurs when they are implemented.

Read More......

Friday, April 11, 2008

No Federal Funding for Flood Works

So... if there isn't money to repair and retrofit levees, like say on the Chehalis River in Lewis County, what should be done?

From the Bellingham Herald:

Sen. Patty Murray sharply criticized the Bush administration Thursday for failing to include any money in its budget request for flood-control projects along the Chehalis River and summoned U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials to explain why.

Read More......

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Popular Mechanics on Our Ailing Infrastructure

The Stranger is boasting that Seattle's Alaskan Way viaduct made Popular Mechanic's list of most deficient infrastructure. It's number five on the list!

This top 10 list is part of a bigger feature on the US's ailing infrastructure and what we can do about it. I haven't read much of it -- there seems to be some sensationalizing and I may not agree with all of the solutions proposed in dealing with the failing infrastructure (i.e., we don't always have to repair and replace; we can remove or repurpose). I absolutely agree though that our risk of disaster is directly tied to our inability to repair and maintain our most critical infrastructure. Perhaps we should fix it first before we build something new.

Read More......

Friday, April 4, 2008

Disaster Caused Increased Food Stamp Participation in Washington?

In this New York Times article about the near-record rise in food stamp recipients over the past year, a graphic is included with a map showing that Washington State participants in the USDA's Food Stamp Program (FSP) has risen by about 25% -- unfortunately, the highest enrollment increase in the country.

Clark Williams-Derry over at Sightline, who I recently linked to on the related issue of public health and the wealth gap, read the NYT's article and took note of one cited reason for increased FSP participation: natural disasters. The NYT article was specifically referring to the effect of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on FSP enrollment, not Washington State. However, Clark suggested that the December 2007 flood disaster in Western Washington (Lewis, Thurston, and Grays Harbor County) might be associated with Washington State's FSP statistics for last year.

Typically, rising food stamp enrollment is a clear sign of a slowing economy. But Washington's worst-in-nation food stamp surge likely had another cause: the flooding in west-central Washington late last fall that put many folks in shelters, and still more in dire financial straits.

He uses this supposition to support two claims: 1) That disaster's aren't natural and 2) that this provides even more reason for "stopping global climate change."

I had three reactions to Clark's interesting post:

1) Right on! The idea (fact!?) that disasters are not "natural" is a major theme that we teach here at WWU. It's great to see people who are not in disaster studies making this link and putting it out there.

2) Sightline really likes to use flooding in Washington as evidence for global climate change. I worry about over-selling this point. Flood disasters as the result of unsustainable residential, commercial, and economic development practices are a major issue we need to contend with regardless of climate change. And I would argue that development practices are ultimately more important (and easier) to focus on than the vague notion of "stopping climate change."

3) So what's the deal with the FSP and the Western Washington flood disaster anyway? Did the flooding increase FSP enrollment? And, if so, does this explain the 25% increase in FSP recipients in Washington State?

To answer these questions I did a bit of data compilation and crunching. For those who just want the answers without the explanation: Yes, the flooding likely increased participation in the FSP, but not for the reason you'd probably think. And no; it's unlikely that the flood disaster in Lewis, Thurston, and Grays Harbor Counties accounted for the 25% FSP increase in Washington State from 2006 to 2007.

The upshot is that Washington State lawmakers (and other concerned folks) should not brush of this 25% increase in FSP participants as the result of the December 2007 flood disaster. It's a signal, but not a big one, not even big enough to bump Washington State out of the top spot in terms of FSP participant increase compared to other states. It's important that we do figure out what the bigger signal is. (Anyone?) We need policies and plans to increase our resilience to flooding, but more importantly we need to first increase the resilience of folks to economic disaster who don't experience a natural hazard.

If you're interested in the lengthy details of what I found and how I found it, keep reading.

Before I get into things, let me say that this should be considered a "back of the envelope" analysis. I've done several hours of synthesis and analysis on this, but much more could be done and I wasn't able to find all the data I want.

So like what kind of data couldn't I find? Data on how many FSP participants enrolled as a result of the December 2007 disaster declaration in the three counties.

A minor issue.

So I did what any geographer geek would do: construct a census data spreadsheet to in order evaluate my two questions.

Question 1: Did enrollment in the FSP increase as a result of the December 2007 flooding?

To lighten the analytical load, I only looked at Lewis County for this question. After compiling the household and family income data from 2006 (the most current available), I realized that I didn't even need to compile the data to determine that more Lewis County residents were eligible (if not enrolled) for the FSP than normal.

The USDA has different eligibility requirements [pdf file] in the case of disaster declarations. In many instances, the income level (minus deductions or, in the case of disasters, losses) required to be eligible is higher. That is, it's easier for people to qualify for the disaster FSP.

Well, some people.

The maximum one-month income for a single person to qualify for the FSP goes from $1107 to $1416 -- a 28% increase -- in the event of a disaster declaration.

This appears to make sense -- in the case of disaster more money is available to assist more people in need. However...

The maximum one-month income for a family of four goes from $2238 to $2295 -- a measly 2.5% increase.

Does this make sense? It's significantly easier for an individual to be eligible for food stamps in the event of a disaster, but for a family of four it's negligibly easier.

Perhaps someone with more knowledge about this policy could tell us why the difference.

Regardless of the apparent disparity in disaster FSP eligibility, the fact remains that more people are eligible as the result of the higher income thresholds and thus more people are likely to be participants. In addition to the easier income requirements, of course one would assume that the disaster losses would increase the number of eligible people even without a change in the income requirement. That is, those people who would not qualify for the basic FSP based on income would qualify after the disaster because they can deduct their losses from their gross income.

I was curious which would have the bigger effect on eligibility: the easier income requirements or the increased deductions from flood loss.

Based on the little "what if" analysis I did with the census data, it appears the change in income level has a much greater effect on eligibility than direct disaster losses, in the case of Lewis County specifically. I estimate there was about a 40% more people eligible for the FSP just based on the income requirement difference. Conversely, the eligibility numbers were not very sensitive to losses, which I modeled as proportional to one month of home ownership cost -- data available in the census. In fact, I had to assume that every household incurred over 80% damage to their house to include the next income bracket, resulting in 92% more people being eligible for the FSP. (If anyone wants to look at the spreadsheet, just email me.)

Now obviously, this is as an estimate based on several assumptions, but I'm confident of the relative upshot: there was increased participation due to expanded eligibility, but that eligibility is more related to a policy decision (income threshold increase) than from direct losses from the flooding.

I don't have actual numbers on flood-related participants from the December disaster, but the USDA certainly keeps track of these numbers for all disasters [word document]. The USDA's data for past disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, clearly shows an increase in FSP participation.

The first question that came to mind when I looked through their data from Katrina and Rita is why didn't the NYT (or whoever they interviewed) actually crunch the numbers to see IF those disasters contributed to the increase of participants in the Gulf Coast states? Because, honestly, it's rather unintuitive that a disaster that started in 2005 resulted in a bigger FSP enrollment spike between 2006 and 2007, then it did between 2005 and 2006. The disaster FSP benefit period after Katrina and Rita was, as far as I can tell, less than a year in all cases. So the NYT (or their source) is arguing that Katrina and Rita had knock on effects that lead to folks enrolling in the basic (non-diaster) FSP in 2007, but not in 2006. Disasters unfold. It certainly is possible that there are folks who live(d) in the Gulf Coast states who have fallen on worse times in the past year than in 2005 and 2006. But I'm not sure the numbers would be that large.

And this brings us to my second question....

Question 2: Did the December 2007 flood disaster in Western Washington result in the 25% increase in FSP participants in Washington State?

First of all, I'm not even sure if the USDA would consider the disaster enrollees from the December 2007 flood disaster part of 2007 reporting. The application period was December 10-14th, 2007. I'm guessing that all disaster FSP enrollees were authorized before 2008, but it's not unimaginable that they weren't.

Second, and most importantly, it doesn't appear to me that there were even enough eligible people in Lewis, Thurston, and Grays Harbor County to represent a dominant portion of the 25% increase of Washington State FSP participants. I estimate that in 2006 there were about 540,000 FSP participants in Washington State. A Washington State press release from 2007 say there are 500,000 participants in the state. The 2002 (the most recently available) Washington State Department of Social and Health Services "Blue Book" says there were 527,000.

The entire population in the three counties represents about 70% of the number of FSP participants in Washington State (depending on which of the above numbers you use!). In other words, about 35% of the population of the three counties would need to be new FSP participants as a result of the disaster to comprise the full 25% FSP participant increase for the entire state. Based on DSHS's "Blue Book," this represents over 100 times more FSP participants in Region 6 (which includes the three counties and eight others) than normal. My estimate for Lewis County was that an additional 18% of the population of Lewis County were eligible for the disaster FSP. Lewis County was the hardest hit, while Thurston County has the highest population, and certainly not all 18% of eligible people enrolled in the FSP.

The take home message is that, even though these numbers are very rough and the analysis quick, it's unlikely that the December 2007 flood disaster contributed to a majority of the 25% FSP participant increase in the State of Washington. My estimate is that the disaster represents 20 to 40% of the increase. So even without out the December 2007 floods, the State of Washington still had the greatest increase in FSP enrollment in the country between 2006 and 2007.

Now let's start talking about what we should do about this....

UPDATE: In response to Rebekah's comment, I looked a little harder at what counties were eligible for the disaster FSP. The info I read referred to just Lewis and Grays Harbor (and I included Thurston as an assumption for larger population numbers). The confusion was from the fact that more counties were deemed eligible later [Word doc]:

Those counties approved for the food stamp assistance are Clallam, Grays Harbor, Kitsap, Lewis, Mason, Pacific, and Thurston counties.

Deadlines for processing and receiving the benefits are January 2, 2008, for Grays Harbor, Lewis, Mason, Pacific, and Thurston counties, and January 7 for Clallam and Kitsap counties.

This snippet from DSHS answers two questions for me: 1) I haven't rerun the population count, but Thurston I think is still the biggest county, so the general conclusion above would remain the same. 2) The deadline for application was in 2008. The 25% increase in FSP recipients refer to the change from 2006 to 2007. So there were participants associated with the flood who could not be in that statistic.

Read More......