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.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Disaster reduction and the sustainability challenge

Today I went to a lunch time discussion of sustainability. This concept promoted development with an equitable eye to the triple bottom line - financial, social, and ecological costs. We discussed the how it seemed relatively easier to discuss the connections between financial and ecological costs, than between social costs and other costs. Sustainable development often comes down to "green" designs that consider environmental impacts or critiques of the capitalist model of financing.

As I thought about sustainable development, or sustainable community management if you are a bit queasy with the feasibility of continuous expansion, I considered its corollaries in the field of disaster risk reduction. It struck me again that it is somewhat easier to focus on some components of the triple bottom line in relation to disasters.

The vulnerability approach to disasters has rightly brought into focus the fact that not all people are equally exposed to or impacted by disasters. Rather, it is often the poor or socially marginalized most at risk and least able to recover. This approach certainly brings into focus the social aspects of disasters.

The disaster trap theory, likewise, brings into focus the financial bottom line. This perspective is most often discussed in international development and disaster reduction circles. It argues that disasters destroy development gains and cause communities to de-develop unless both disaster reduction and development occur in tandem. Building a cheaper, non-earthquake resistant school in an earthquake zone, may make short-term financial sense. However,over the long term, this approach is likely to result in loss of physical infrastructure, human life, and learning opportunities when an earthquake does occur.

What seems least developed to me, though I would enjoy being rebutted, is the ecological bottom line of disasters. Perhaps it is an oxymoron to discuss the ecological costs of disasters, given that many disasters are triggered natural ecological processes like cyclones, forest fires, and floods. It might also be an oxymoron simply because a natural hazard disaster is really looking at an ecological event from an almost exclusively human perspective. Its not a disaster if it doesn't destroy human lives and human infrastructure. But, the lunch-time discussion made me wonder if there wasn't something of an ecological bottom line to disasters in there somewhere. Perhaps it is in the difference between an ecological process heavily or lightly impacted by human ecological modification. Is a forest fire in a heavily managed forest different from that in an unmanaged forest? Certainly logging can heighten the impacts of heavy rains by inducing landslides, resulting in a landscape heavily rather than lightly impacted by the rains. Similar processes might also be true in the case of heavily managed floodplains. Flooding is concentrated and increased in areas outside of levee systems. What does that mean for the ecology of these locations? Does a marsh manage just as well in low as high flooding? My guess would be no.

And of course, there is the big, looming disaster of climate change. This is a human-induced change that may prove quite disasterous to many an ecological system, everything from our pine forests here, to arctic wildlife, and tropical coral reefs.

Perhaps, we disaster researchers, need to also consider a triple bottom line when making arguments for the benefits of disaster risk reduction.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Civil Service In A Time Of Need

This past week the Northwest experienced a severe barrage of weather systems back to back. Everyone seemed to be affected. Folks were re-routed on detours, got soaked, slipped on ice, or had to spend money to stay a little warmer. In Whatcom and Skagit Counties, there are hundreds to thousands of people currently in the process of recovering and cleaning-up after the floods. These people live in the rural areas throughout the county, with fewer people knowing about their devastation and having greater vulnerability to flood hazards.

Luckily, there are local agencies and non-profits who are ready at a moment’s call to help anyone in need. The primary organization that came to the aid of the flood victims was the American Red Cross.

The last week I began interning and volunteering with one of these non-profits, the Mt. Baker American Red Cross (ARC) Chapter. While I am still in the process of getting screened and officially trained, I received first-hand experience and saw how important this organization is to the community.

With the flood waters rising throughout the week, people were flooded out of their homes and rescued from the overflowing rivers and creeks. As the needs for help increased, hundreds of ARC volunteers were called to service. Throughout the floods there have been several shelters opened to accommodate the needs of these flood victims. On Saturday I was asked to help staff one of these shelters overnight in Ferndale.

While I talked with parents and children, I became more aware of the stark reality of how these people have to recover from having all their possessions covered in sewage and mud and damaged by flood waters. In the meantime, these flood victims have all their privacy exposed to others in a public shelter, while they work to find stability in the middle of all the traumas of the events. As I sat talking and playing with the children, another thought struck me. Children are young and resilient, but it must be very difficult when they connect with a volunteer and then lose that connection soon after. Sharing a shelter with the folks over the weekend showed a higher degree of reality and humanity to the situation than the news coverage ever could.

I posted this bit about my volunteer experience because it made me realize something about my education and degree track in disaster reduction and emergency planning. We look at ways to create a more sustainable community, and we need to remember that community service is an important part of creating this ideal. Underlying sustainable development is the triple bottom line (social, economy, and environment). Volunteers and non-profits are a major part of this social line of sustainability. Organizations like the American Red Cross only exist because of volunteers. So embrace President-elect Obama’s call for a culture of civil service this coming week and make a commitment to the organization of your choice with your actions or even your pocketbook. Know that sustainable development cannot exist with out social responsibility.

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

And Here We Flood Again

Its been two days now that schools have been closed in Whatcom County, not for snow, but for rain and flooding. This unusual event coincides with record flooding throughout Western Washington, just a year after record flooding closed I5 for three days and Lewis County businesses experienced what they then called an unprecedented 500 year flood. I guess not.

There are many strange things about flood risk notation, and this idea that a 500 year flood often trips people up. They often believe a flood of that size will happen only once in 500 years. On a probabilistic level, this is inaccurate. A 500 year flood simply has a .2% probability of happening each year. A more useful analogy might be to tell people they are rolling a 500 sided die every year and hoping that it doesn’t come up with a 1. Next year they’ll be forced to roll again.

But, this focus on misunderstandings of probability often hides an even larger societal misunderstanding . Flood risk changes when we change the environment in which it occurs. If a flood map tells you that you are not in the flood plain, better check the date of the map. Most maps are utterly out of date and many vastly underestimate present flood risk. There are several reasons this happens. Urban development, especially development with a lot of parking lots and buildings that don’t let water seep into the ground, will cause rainwater to move quickly into rivers rather than seep into the ground and slowly release. Developers might complain that they are required to create runoff catchment wetlands when they do build. They do, but these requirements may very well be based upon outdated data on flood risk. Thus, each new development never fully compensates for its runoff, a small problem for each site but a mammoth problem when compounded downstream.

Deforesting can have the same effect, with the added potential for house-crushing and river-clogging mudslides. Timber harvesting is certainly an important industry in our neck of the woods. Not only is commercial logging an important source of jobs for many rural and small towns, logging on state Department of Natural Resource land is the major source of funding for K-12 education. Yet, commercial logging, like other industries, suffers from a problem of cost externalization. When massive mudslides occurred during last year’s storm, Weyerhaeuser complained that it wasn’t it’s logging practices, but the fact that it was an unprecedented, out of the blue, 500 year storm that caused it. While it is doubtful the slides would have occurred uncut land, that isn’t the only fallacy. When the slide did occur, the costs of repairing roads, treatment plants, and bridges went to the county and often was passed on to the nation’s tax payers through state and federal recovery grants. Thus, what should have been paid by Weyerhaeuser, 500 year probability or not, was paid by someone else.

Finally, there is local government. Various folks within local governments set regulations for zoning, deciding what will be built and where. Here is the real crux of the problem. Local government also gets an increase in revenue in the form of property, sales, and business income taxes. Suppress the updating of flood plain maps, and you get a short term profit and often, a steady supply of happy voters. You might think these local governments will have to pay when the next big flood comes, but often that can be avoided. Certainly, they must comply with federal regulations on flood plain management to be part of the National Flood Insurance program, but that plan has significant leeway and little monitoring. Like the commercial logging, disaster-stricken local governments can often push the recovery costs off to individual homeowners through the FEMA homeowner’s assistance program, and off to state and federal agencies by receiving disaster recovery and community development grants and loans. Certainly, some communities are so regularly devastated, and are so few resources, that disasters simply knock them down before they can given stand up again. But others have found loopholes and can profit by continuing to use old food maps and failing to aggressively control flood plain development.

What is it going to take to really change this system and make it unprofitable to profit from bad land use management?

Here’s a good in-depth article on last year’s landslides in Lewis County. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2008048848_logging13m.html

An interesting article on the failure of best management practices in development catchment basins can be found here: Hur, J. et al (2008) Does current management of storm water runoff adequately protect water resources in developing catchments? Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 63 (2) pp. 77-90.

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