Returning to “Normal” After Natural Disasters

Editors note on our Sustainable Cities series:

2012 marked the first time in human history a majority of the world’s population lived in urban areas. Cities can be major drivers of economic growth and human development, and because city governments are often more politically flexible than national or international institutions, they can also act as laboratories for social innovation. But they can at the same time be centers of disease outbreaks and poverty traps. How successfully cities are able to generate sustainable solutions to their challenges will determine development outcomes for billions of the world’s population. Over the next year our series on Sustainable Cities will showcase how some cities are tackling this problem.

This past October marked the second anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s track of devastation through the Caribbean, across the Gulf of Mexico, and its eventual landfall on the northeastern coast of the United States. In the two years since then, much of the short-term recovery work has long been completed: 95% of power was restored to New York within 13 days; the majority of the 5.25 million cubic yards of debris strewn across New York City was removed within 95 days; by the end of the first year, more than $3.7 billion in flood insurance payments had been made to policy holders. However, a poll conducted in April 2014, almost eighteen months after Sandy, found that the majority of New Jersey inhabitants still felt that things were not “back to normal” after the occurrence of the superstorm.

There does indeed remain a lot of work to be done, with many large restoration projects ongoing to this day. The South Ferry station is a good example: those authorized to take a peek behind the scaffolding across the station’s entrance would see tunnel walls from which occasionally, tiles spontaneously drop because the screws holding them in place have rusted through from exposure to salty floodwater. The unlit control room is a tangled mess of rusted cables, all covered in a thick layer of brown river sediment. It will take an estimated $600 million dollars and three years of work to return this station to its full functionality. Throughout the region, these kind of long-term rebuilding efforts remain very much ongoing, with a vast amount of work left to be done to repair damaged power facilities, transportation infrastructure, hospitals and homes. So imagine that we can fast-forward another few years into the future: when all this work is completed, would these same New Jerseyans respond differently in a follow-up poll? Would they feel that things had finally gone back to normal? Where does this desire to return to normal come from? And more importantly, should we really be striving to go back to the way things were before?

The post-disaster rebuilding process brings together a number of complex and competing processes, encompassing politics, human emotion, psychology, as well as culture. The combination of all of these competing factors mean that the occurrence of a natural disaster can simultaneously act as a catalyst and as a hindrance to the long-term transformation of urban areas to be more resilient to the impacts of such extreme events.

On the one hand, a number of largely emotional and cultural factors encourage rapid rebuilding and a return to normal life. Disasters instantaneously bring loss to many people – loss of one’s home, loss of possessions, loss of one’s livelihood, loss of feeling secure, loss of certainty about the future, and in extreme cases, loss of life. Any kind of loss is followed by a natural grieving process, with people experiencing different stages of grief, from shock and denial, to anger, bargaining and sadness, and finally acceptance. Immediately after a disaster, the intrinsic human instinct is to yearn for the way things were–a nostalgic desire for life to return to normal as quickly as possible. This often results in rapid commencement of the rebuilding process, which may unfortunately result in shortsighted decisions. If rebuilding is conducted without careful incorporation of lessons learned from the disaster, we are unconsciously already contributing to the makings of the next natural disaster, which can be seen as a waste of the painful lessons learned from the preceding extreme event.

In addition to these emotional driving forces, culture and community also plays an important role in the post-disaster phase. Within the United States, the predominant sentiment at times like this is one of rallying together, one of rolling up our sleeves and setting to work on the rebuilding task, embodying the sentiment of “we will prevail”. The town of Moore in Oklahoma provides a good illustration of this: the town was devastated by a tornado in 1998. In 1999. In 2003. And in 2010. Each time, the community was rebuilt on the same site, knowing that year after year, the town will continue to be in the path of future tornadoes. In the US, this kind of resilience is implicitly seen as a strong quality, an ability to overcome any sort of downfall that may come to pass.

On the other hand, the post-disaster phase is in many ways an ideal time to initiate dramatic change, taking concrete steps to help ensure that similar devastation is never experienced again. The case has been made in the past that there is in fact no such thing as a natural disaster: certainly, an extreme weather event such as a hurricane or tsunami can be entirely natural, but the disaster itself is often entirely human in making. This is known as the disaster “pressure and release” vulnerability model. It reasons that the vast impacts of natural events can often be attributed to shortsightedness in urban planning, exacerbated by pre-existing socio-economic inequalities which push already struggling portions of the population to live in conditions and locations that make them extra vulnerable. Thus, while forced rebuilding is never truly desirable, it nonetheless provides the opportunity to get it right this time, to make changes to a city, reducing its future vulnerability. The occurrence of such an extreme event brings the issues of insufficient preparedness, shortcomings in long-term city planning and social inequalities into the public eye, and it forms a good platform to re-evaluate historic urban planning decisions and re-chart the future of a city.

Image Credit: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York via Wikimedia Commons


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