Hurricane Katrina: Location, Relocation, Abandonment…

Why have risk managers been so quick to give up on New Orleans?

Steve Gibson

Topics Politics

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It has been suggested in risk, disaster and business-continuity management circles that one way to avoid the consequences of natural disaster is to not be there in the first place.

The Mississippi river and the ports of Southern Louisiana, centred on New Orleans at its mouth, have been America’s import route to its own hinterland and export gateway to the world. The area is geo-politically crucial to the USA if not globally – the jewel in the crown of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase from the French, defended from the British in 1815 (even after the Treaty of Ghent was signed), and vigorously protected against Mexican interest for much of the nineteenth century.

Historically, it has been instrumental in bringing the USA to its dominant trading status, contributing to the transformation of America from agricultural giant to industrial giant. Latterly, it has added energy, in the form of oil extraction, gas extraction, and petroleum refinement, to its inventory. Some 25 percent of US crude oil extraction originates offshore and a significant proportion of refinement onshore (1). Indeed, and in no small way, New Orleans and the region may claim material credit for America’s current geo-political status (2).

In much of life, risk-taking rather than risk-avoiding usually precedes progress. The Mississippi was tamed and New Orleans’ own precarious below-sea-level position was protected in order to take a risk for the potential national benefits that might be exploited. Not to have been there would have been the bigger ‘sin’, and so would not being there in the future. Indeed, the exit and apparent dispersal of the primary and supporting workforces that run these critical port and maritime assets could well prove to be the debilitating factor in the region’s recovery and revival.

Tongue in cheek, I wonder where you would locate an American enterprise – the earthquake-prone west coast, the hurricane-prone south-east, ‘tornado alley’ in the middle, the snow-bound north-east, or the states where no one lives presumably for very good reason? Where, for that matter, would you locate a port facility that needs deep-water facilities, access to an industrial and agricultural heartland, a workforce to support it, and a near perfect position to conduct world trade? What would be your advice to the extractive industries that almost universally work in challenging conditions – if not challenging locations, politically and environmentally? Would it stretch the point to ask where you expect the uniformed services – fire, ambulance, police and armed forces – to operate, other than in challenging locations?

Business continuity is an extremely important and valid discipline; but it should not be the tail that wags the dog of risk management, and especially not from the jaundiced position of the precautionary principle. Risk management is about dealing with uncertainty in order to maximise the achievement of objectives (3). That does not mean minimising risk in order to be safe or secure. Optimising safety or security does not equate to zero risk – these considerations are accompaniments to achieving business objectives, through a recognition of the uncertainty pertinent to those objectives. Safety and security are means to ends, not ends in themselves.

Turning to the question of society: the application of technology, particularly in a technocratic system that fails to accommodate the social, political, and environmental context, will probably fail. While terrorism, unlike ‘natural’ disaster, attempts to precipitate a breakdown in social cohesion, all such incidents, whatever their origin, will eventually reflect the strength of pre-existing bonds across a community. At such times, societies that are together pull together, and those that are apart, fall apart (4). Even taking into account the hyperbole of reportage from Louisiana, the alleged breakdown of elements of America’s ‘fourth-world’ southern communities provides advance warning of an incoherent society, at least (5).

Deficiencies in practical disaster management will undoubtedly emerge. A failure to develop environmental defences fit for what we do know about contemporary environmental risk, and an inadequate response to the risk event itself, are already broadly apparent. The resignation of Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, signifies as much. However, ‘social resilience’ – attitude, or an apparent lack of it – is an equally significant deficiency in New Orleans’ disaster preparedness armoury. The growth of a risk-averse rather than a risk-taking culture, together with an attitudinal malaise that neglects community and societal resilience, weakens the totality of the risk management response needed when times get tough.

Human beings are capable of achieving many great things on behalf of their societies. Indeed, human ingenuity, willpower and a little luck have made many societies great. Of course, human failings have also contributed to their downfall. However, to begin from a misanthropic view – which the precautionary principle does – will be to begin from a position of disadvantage (6).

The preparation (or lack of it) for a Katrina event, and, more importantly, the response to it, reveal the social, political and environmental ‘bottleneck’ that EO Wilson articulates for humanity (7). It is only human ingenuity and (political) will that can get us out of it. Not being in New Orleans signals a giving up. Returning New Orleans and the region to normality represents mediocrity. Building something better is a statement of positive intent. Geography determined the siting of New Orleans – politics directed it. It is the worst possible place to build a city; but the optimum place to build that city. As George Friedman suggests – it has to be there, the alternatives are too devastating to contemplate.

Recognising and exploiting opportunity that comes from adversity is surely a preferred option to wallowing in man-made catastrophe. Please, no more talk of relocation or abandonment. New Orleans, the Mississippi, its ports, and the US Gulf Coast are geo-political strategic assets – quite possibly of global significance. Resurrect them, improve them, and at the same time deal with the social matrix that makes them work.

Steve Gibson is a research fellow at the Resilience Centre at Cranfield University, England, looking at risk, security and intelligence

(1) Oil and Gas: Supply Issues After Katrina, Robert L Bamberger and Lawrence Kumins, Federation of American Scientists, 31 August 2005

(2) See New Orleans: A Geopolitical Prize, George Friedman, Strategic Forecast, 1 September 2005

(3) See Hillson, D, and Murray-Webster R, 2005, Understanding & Managing Risk Attitude, Aldershot: Gower

(4) See Durodié, W, 2004, ‘Sociological Aspects of Risk and Resilience in Response to Acts of Terrorism’, World Defence Systems, 7, 214-6

(5) See the prescient Putnam, R, 2001, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, London: Simon & Schuster

(6) See Furedi, F, 2002, Culture of Fear: Risk-taking and the Culture of Low Expectation, London: Continuum

(7) Wilson, EO, 2002, The Future of Life, London: Abacus

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Topics Politics


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