Robert R.M. Verchick recently completed a two-year stint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and returned to his work at Loyola University in New Orleans, and, happily, to the rolls of active CPR Member Scholars. While at EPA, he published Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World, and just a few days after returning to CPR, he’s published two op-eds on disaster preparedness and recovery.
In the Christian Science Monitor on April 13, he asked whether Japan’s recovery from the recent tsunami and nuclear disaster would be “heavy-handed or hands-off”? He goes on to contrast the recovery efforts in Japan after a 1995 earthquake laid waste to the city of Kobe with the ongoing post-Katrina recovery in Verchick’s home town of New Orleans. In Kobe, Verchick says, strong-willed Mayor Kazutoshi Sasayama developed a master plan for reconstructing the city, and pursued it with iron determination. Verchick writes,
Progress came at great cost. That “makeover” became for some a “takeover,” as residents of modest means saw their property downsized or expropriated. Japan’s emergency management office officially refused to allow government aid to go directly to residents (although some local governments ignored the edict), foisting hardship on the city’s elderly and disabled populations, as well as the working poor. Public hostility mounted. On the first anniversary of the quake, the city’s vice-mayor committed suicide. Eventually, city leaders reversed their previous stances and invited greater community involvement; but among some, resentment continues to this day.
By contrast, the New Orleans recovery has been marked, in Verchick’s description, by a “light touch.” Then-mayor Ray Nagin
unwittingly became the “Anti-Sasayama.” Moved by the passion of neighborhood activists (and political expediency), Mr. Nagin embraced a laissez-faire approach to the rebuilding: Property owners, aided by Louisiana’s federally-funded “Road Home” program, would be permitted to rebuild nearly anywhere they pleased. Even so, market forces appear to be driving private investment (and residents) toward the more protected areas near the city’s core. And, almost against the odds, New Orleans seems headed toward a future that is more economically robust, inclusive, sustainable, and safe. A new city master plan, developed with significant public input, is now in effect with the force of law.
He goes on to write that Japan’s recovery will require something in between the two models:
Japan’s leaders must be honest with the public about what coastal areas can be reasonably protected against future surges and what areas cannot be, particularly given climate-induced sea-level rise. Design and safety standards for buildings, rail lines, and nuclear facilities must also be addressed. On the other hand, local communities should be brought into the process early to make sure that proposals reflect cultural values and local attitudes toward risk. The needs of those hardest hit by tragic events – coastal fishers, the elderly, those exposed to radioactive emissions – should be given special attention.
Then on April 28, Verchick penned a piece for his hometown paper, the great New Orleans Times-Picayune, a paper that earned a place in journalism Valhalla by continuing to publish during the worst of Katrina. Here, Verchick’s topic is advance planning for disasters, a timely and locally relevant topic in a city whose recovery from the 2005 hurricane and flooding disaster is now being complicated by the economic and environmental challenges of last year’s BP Oil Spill. He writes:
Policy makers are used to managing threats to safety or the environment according to a loose formula in which risk is the product of an event’s probability multiplied by its potential harm. This equation helps government set priorities. The probability-impact relationship informs a wide array of government standards, from the quality of your drinking water to the wattage in your car’s headlights. But what if you don’t know the probability of an event or the full dimensions of its impact? If that formula is your only decision-making tool, a black swan will eat you for lunch.
The way out of this quandary is to supplement standard risk management strategies with a robust array of planning and economic initiatives designed to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience on a broad scale, doing as much as is reasonably affordable and preferring options that provide multiple benefits. Such a strategy would present risk categories from a holistic perspective. It would educate policy makers and the public about a range of plausible worse cases and work toward acceptable resolutions. In addition to asking, “What would make this oil rig safer?” we would ask, “What would make us less vulnerable to the risk of blowouts and more resilient afterwards?”
In addition to oil rig safety, the answer might include a host of other concerns like strengthening deep-sea fisheries and shoreline ecosystems, developing contingency plans for native tribes that rely on fish, diversifying coastal economies and diversifying our sources of energy production. Planning for resilience is like eating a healthy diet. You don’t eat right only to avoid colon cancer; you eat right because it makes your body stronger, more vital and less vulnerable to risks of all kinds. No one can say what the next black swan will look like. All we know is that it’s coming.