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.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Here's a video that will make you chuckle, but also illustrates the importance of robust, creative, and prepared communities when it comes to disaster response. We should all be looking for ways to build internal community resilience, and moving away from assumptions that rely upon external support and aid.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The forgotten disaster

Its been a week since Hurricane Ike slammed into Galvaston and Houston, Texas. The devestation is reminiscent of the worst disaster ever in the United States, the 1900 Galvaston Hurricane that, a mere hundred years ago, leveled the island of all inhabitants.

I've been struck by the almost complete lack of coverage of this event. Is it that after Katrina, our sense of risk has been recalibrated? A hurricane with *only several dozen deaths is great? Is it the lack of residents screaming for rescue from rooftops with its titillating specter of a modern-day, horrific replay of Swiss Family Robinson? Is it that in this looming slow-motion economic crisis? With the threat of loosing retirement savings and homes, do losses from a Hurricane seem more trivial? Do people subconsciously quip that at least the Texans impacted will get aid from FEMA? Or is it that at the end of a presidential cycle that has so blatantly mismanaged Katrina, people don't want to think about disasters until someone new is in the White House? Or is the destruction of Galvaston once a century simply an acceptable level of risk? I really don't know.

What I do know is that we are loosing an opportunity to continue the national conversation about how our Gulf Coast will relate to it natural environment.

Here is a slide show of images from Texas, sent to me by Diane Knutson, head of the Environmental Studies office here at Western Washington University. Unfortunately, I don't know the original source, but thanks to whomever took the photos and compiled the images.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Farming and floods

The local Seattle public radio station KUOW has been doing a series on farming and the eat local movement Sweet Earth: Lessons from the Land. The series covers a range of challenges to farming, including the relationship with government, urban encroachment, and interactions with environmentalists.

One particularly interesting segment, Winter Flood's Silver Lining, looks at Thurston County farmers recovering from the devastating 2007 Winter floods. The farmer interviewed speaks eloquently about the advantages but occasional shock of farming in fertile floodplains.

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Earthquake scenario and planning

This week I participated in EERI's very engaging Earthquake Scenario Planning Workshop. It was a fascinating mix of seismologist, engineers, planners, and a smattering of social scientists and public officials. While we were all bent on using developing earthquake scenarios, there was considerable fuzziness over what these scenarios could and should do.

Many scenarios have been developed as emergency response planning tools for massive planning exercises. The Great Southern California ShakeOut - a hybrid response exercise and public awareness campaign - is an upcoming example. For these purposes, the scenario development process seems rather straight forward, though often very labor intensive. Develop your hazard model, add in your infrastructure inventory and census data, develop fragility curves, etc. The results are typically presented as maps of shaking intensity, building damage, and calculations of death, injuries, and people displaced from their homes.

But what if the scenario is not for response planning, but for mitigation and planning? Are these outputs useful for people like city council members, majors,urban planners, and community service providers? The general assumption at the workshop was yes, but I have strong doubts. I'm not convinced that these decision makers would necessarily know what to do given maps of shaking, damage, deaths, injuries and displacement. These aren't exactly the indicators they work with on a daily basis. Nor are they, I suspect, the indicators that they consider when campaigning for re-election.

What is probably much more salient for this crowd is indicators such as poverty rate, unemployment, housing vacancy rates, and school overcrowding. If this is the case, perhaps we should challenge ourselves to further push our scenarios and models forward into the often fuzzy areas of social consequence. While it may be much more difficult, such enhanced scenarios may catch the imagination and raise concerns among planners, policy makers and service providers. These are the very groups needed to successfully develop and implement the mitigation and community resilience policies necessary to make a massive emergency response unnecessary.

It behooves us to think about the users of our scenarios. We should ask them early on what indicators they need...and what will jolt them into taking earthquake risk seriously.

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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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