Hurricane Katrina Rekindles Thoughts about Fallacies of a So-Called “Natural” Disaster

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on October 20, 2009 with No Comments

Fragilecologies Archives
14 Octobe
r 2005

pen5My brother recently reminded me that 30 years ago I wrote an article about drought in West Africa. I called it “Nine Fallacies of a Natural Disaster.” In light of the impacts of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast states, he wanted me to discuss fallacies (these are statements that some people have said or may think are true but for the most part are either not true at all or are partly true in certain circumstances).

Until Katrina struck and the cascade of negative impacts followed, it had not crossed my mind to look at other disasters in terms of fallacies (or myths) about disasters. Also, I am not a hurricane expert. However, like millions of American citizens following the plight of victims of Katrina and the crumbling levees, I have been glued to newscasts about the horrifying situation there. In fact I have had many discussions about it with people selling me coffee at the local Starbucks, cashiers in supermarkets, salespeople in computer stores, and so on. The disaster situation in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama Ö and now the abysmal government response to it Ö is on everyone’s mind. It is THE ultimate reality show.

Taking my brother’s advice, I did some thinking about what fallacies (myths or misconceptions) have reappeared in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Here is my list. I will briefly mention what I have in mind for each in the section that follows.

Fallacies/Myths/Misconceptions

  1. Poor people want to live in dangerous places
  2. Technology is the answer (but what was the question?)
  3. All’s well that ends well
  4. Education is the answer
  5. Forewarned is forearmed
  6. People learn from their mistakes
  7. Global warming has nothing to do with disasters
  8. The Third World is more vulnerable to hazards than the rich countries
  9. Government leaders say what they mean and mean what they say
  10. America does not need help from other countries to cope with its disasters
  11. The impacts associated with Hurricane Katrina were the result of a natural disaster

Fallacies Explained

1. Poor people choose to live in dangerous places

People live in places that are at elevated risk to natural hazards for a variety of reasons, many of which are beyond their personal control. Some do it because of the view. These people generally speaking have funds available that allows them to rebuild if their property is damaged. They also have the wherewithal to “get out of town in a hurry” if they have to do so. For example, we saw on TV news channels the lines of cars and trucks leaving New Orleans the day before the hurricane was expected to hit. But, many of the city’s residence could not leave: No available cash in hand, No access to cash to flee, no money for gasoline, no way to move possessions, no where to go, and so forth. Making the response of those at-risk to Katrina even more difficult was the fact that there had been hurricane warnings and close calls before in recent times (such as Hurricane Georges in 1998). For a while there was still some uncertainty as to the exact location of landfall, and the impacts were not expected to be very threatening from the hurricane itself. So, many “stayed the course” to a tragic end. The combination of psychological, financial and political factors combined with a direct hit by Hurricane Katrina and the cascade of disasters that followed (the breakdown of the levees) underscored the vulnerabilities of the poor, the elderly, kids and racial minorities (nationally speaking). It also underscored the importance of educating people about the range of the local hazards that they may have to face. Many of the at-risk people living along the Gulf Coast do not choose to live in harm’s way; they are forced to do so by circumstances they cannot control.

2. Technology is the answer

Americans in general (myself included) tend to have a blind faith in technology. That means, as I see it that, if there is a problem, a hi-tech solution can be found that can save us from the impacts of that problem. And to date technology has frequently come to the rescue. Sometimes, however, technological fixes are often used as band-aids, meaning that they are only temporary solutions to chronic major underlying problems. They do not erase the problem but help us to circumvent it Ö at least for a while. A famous economist once suggested that technology actually helps to increase the total amount of misery, because when the problem does reappear, there are more people around to be negatively affected by its impacts. I tend to believe that technology is neutral. What determines whether it is a positive or a negative tool is how and whether it is used effectively.

As we are seeing, once the emergency response phase to Hurricane Katrina ends and reconstruction begins, debates will ensue about whether the levees should have been reinforced according to plans that were not only on the table but were already being undertaken. Clearly, the need to shore up the levees had been recognized at all government levels, local to national. The citizens in the Gulf states elected their official representatives and had the right to expect them to operate in society’s best interest. Nevertheless, a known effective technological solution to potential flooding that could logically have been expected to accompany a Category 5 hurricane was available but was not used. The funds that had been authorized by the US Congress to improve the levees had not been made available during the past few years. Technology may prove to be the answer, but one must ask “what is the question?” Should that question be about decision making related to the use of technology?

3. All’s well that ends well

Different perceptions already appeared within the first few weeks of Katrina and its associated aftermath. Some official government statements were busy putting a positive spin on the government’s hesitant as well as delayed response to the immediate needs of thousands of hurricane victims. The government initially suggested it did the right things, given the uniqueness of the event, the lack of expectation that flooding might ensue and the severity of the cascade of impacts that followed. Government spin doctors have claimed: that the magnitude of the number of people affected was surprising as well as unexpected; that the actual strength of the storm was not forecast; that the National Guard units were dispatched to keep order as fast as could be done; that it had not been asked for assistance by state or city officials, etc.

Toward the end of week one, after Katrina made landfall, it seemed that the Federal Government was starting to get its act together. Evacuation from the Convention Center and the football stadium was in progress to some extent. Food and water were being delivered in larger quantities. The National Guard and regular Army units were policing the streets. People were being airlifted to cities around the country where they have been greeted warmly and provided for now and in the immediate future. So, it seems that all is ending well. But how did we get here?

There was a poor response in the pre-hurricane landfall phase. There was poor response during the hurricane. There was sluggishly slow response during the first days after the hurricane had passed. At least a thousand people are dead. Hundreds of thousands are homeless and penniless. Families have been devastated. People were still being plucked off of rooftops after some days. Why so sluggish? For survivors perhaps “all’s well that ends well” are comforting words to some extent. Not so, though, for those who suffered or died in the earlier days, when quick responses from Federal officials, from the President, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the head of FEMA might have made a major difference in the outcome of death, destruction and misery.

While the adage “all’s well that ends well” sounds comforting, it also raises questions about another adage that many people already have trouble with: “do the ends justify the means?”

4. Education is the answer

Educating the public is very important and a very difficult task. This is true whether you are talking about K-12 kids, college students, older citizens enrolled in over-50 learning activities, or the general public at large. For some reason it seems to be especially hard to teach people about the specific aspects of hazards that they might have to face someday. However, education is not a process that ends when you reach a certain grade or age or with a certificate or a degree in hand. It is a life-long learning process which means it requires repetition as well as re-education on issues that are constantly changing and about which new information may become available. It is not just an intergenerational problem. It is a problem that can also be addressed by passing on, in this case, disaster-related knowledge within today’s living generations. What are needed are continual reminders of the risks people have to live with at the local level. Brochures about how to prepare for hurricanes were printed by NOAA following Hurricane Camille in 1969. These are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of more than a century of warnings and educational materials about coping with hurricanes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Are we applying the lessons we have identified in previous disasters?

5. Forewarned is forearmed

“Forewarned is forearmed” is an old adage that speaks well to early warnings and to knowledge in general. It is based on the popular belief that more information about the future enables one to prepare for it, at least to some extent, if not fully.

The projections and speculation about Hurricane Katrina’s category, location of landfall, potential damage from a variety of sources, of the intensity and storm track for Katrina were in essence forewarnings. However, they were not heeded by those with the power to encourage, entice or force people to move out of harm’s way by evacuating their homes and their cities along the Gulf Coast. Warnings are not enough. Actions must take place in response to them.

6. People learn from their mistakes

That people learn from their mistakes is generally considered to be true. Some societies have a saying that supports this: “Once burned, twice shy.” Unfortunately, there are all too many examples in disaster response studies from different countries, cultures and times that suggest that lessons are indeed identified but not necessarily learned. By learned I mean that the lessons identified would have influenced future behavior in some significant way. With regard to disasters, problems encountered from warning to reconstruction that hinder effective response to victims, are identified by the public as well as by disaster experts, and plans are usually drawn up to overcome those problems. However, follow-up reviews of the reconstruction phases that follow major disasters show that many of the lessons identified remained unapplied. Any one of a variety of reasons (excuses really) from political to economic to cultural can be found as to why known solutions to chronic problems (known, expectable recurrent hazards) had not been implemented. The bottom line message here is that people and societies sometimes do learn from their disaster-related mistakes, while often they do not.

We must not assume that people will automatically do the right thing by learning from experience. They have to be encouraged to learn from and apply the lessons that they had identified. We have to break the cycle of denial as people seek to get back to a semblance of normal, when it was “normal” that put them in harm’s way in the first place.

7. Global warming has nothing to do with disasters

Some researchers suggest that there will be an increase in the frequency as well as magnitude of climate and weather-related extreme events as a result of the warming of the earth’s atmosphere. Others suggest that there is no definitive proof that would be the case. They argue that records are being set every year and that we are to expect such extreme blockbuster episodes under normal climate conditions. Scientific uncertainties notwithstanding, there is mounting evidence suggesting that stronger extremes are linked to a warmer atmosphere. Whether these dangerous and deadly extremes, like Hurricane Katrina, are the result of natural variability or human-induced changes to the chemistry of the atmosphere provides little comfort to the victims. In either case, the “precautionary principle,” as well as the historical record about hurricanes that have made landfall, need to be taken into account.

Many climate change scenarios for the year 2050 have been produced by large computer models. They are suggestive and illustrative but not definitive. Researchers on social issues are then expected to determine how best society might react to such a happening as well as how society might prepare for such an eventuality. However, Hurricane Katrina — and Ivan, Georges, Mitch and Andrew — have underscored the fact that societies today are not well prepared to cope with climate, weather and water extremes under the present day conditions. In this regard improvements in the way we deal with contemporary hazards and disasters can help future generation to prepare for and deal with the hazards that they will fact.

Bill McKibben recently reported in Grist ( September 9, 2005),

Consider the first problem for just a minute. No single hurricane is “the result” of global warming, but a month before Katrina hit, MIT hurricane specialist Kerry Emanuel published a landmark paper in the British science magazine Nature showing that tropical storms were now lasting half again as long and spinning winds 50 percent more powerful than just a few decades before. The only plausible cause: the ever-warmer tropical seas on which these storms thrive.

8. The Third World is more vulnerable to hazards than the rich countries

There has been a prevailing view among climate scientists and policy people, both those who believe in global warming and those who don’t, that developing countries are more vulnerable to climate change impacts than are the industrialized countries. I continue to believe that this belief — that developing countries are more vulnerable — is unrealistic. I think it relates more to the self-deception of people in rich countries who are surrounded by technologies that they believe can protect them, technologies that those in developing countries can only dream about.

We have watched from a distance as superstorms of one kind or another have impacted societies in developing countries. A most recent geophysical event (not weather-related) was the 26 December 2004 killer tsunami in the Indian Ocean when hundreds of thousands perished. Another was Hurricane Mitch in late 1998 (over 17,000 dead). Yet another was the 1999 SuperCyclone in Orissa, India (20,000 dead). SuperTyphoon Maemi hit South Korea in 2003. There seems to be an increase in the number of blockbuster, record-setting, killer natural disasters since the late 1980s: tropical storms, winter storms, fires, and the biggest most damaging El Niño event of the century in 1997-98, and so on.

In most of these cases we watch poor people in great numbers sifting through the debris where their homes had been for anything that they can salvage. A sad difference between poor and rich countries is that people in poor countries are accustomed to adversities and are often left on their own to cope with natural and other disasters. In the rich countries, the people expect and usually get help from their governments because they have the resources to cope with the problem and to pay for the solution, an option that many poorer countries do not have. Rich countries, however, have much lower thresholds of tolerance for inconvenience.

This argument has been difficult to prove about the relative vulnerability of rich versus poor countries; difficult to proveÖ until now. Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005 slammed into the Gulf of Mexico coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and exposed how vulnerable all societies are, regardless of level of technological development, and how ill-prepared they are to respond to their impacts.

9. Government leaders say what they mean, and mean what they say

It is not possible when it comes to forecasting, as well as coping with disasters and their aftermaths, to get through the entire early warning process perfectly. There is always a high probability that some part of the disaster early warning system will fail and those in charge will attract blame. It is inevitable. Some of that blame is probably not deserved, but some of it will be. Nevertheless, those in power will unleash what are called spin doctors. Their job is to put a positive light on the entire early warning process from hazard forecast to the response to its impacts to reconstruction. Platitudes abound about the fantastic job that the government at all levels had done. But, close scrutiny reveals that there are half-truths, cover-ups, and attacks against those who raise questions about disaster response effectiveness and appropriateness.

In the case of Hurricane Katrina it remains to be seen if the government follows through on its pledges to help the victims, rebuild the city and protect the city from similar occurrences in the future. Meanwhile the spin doctors have praised the government for its “quick response” to the victims needs. Aside from the spin doctors, few members of the general public believe those claims, if public surveys are an indicator. The battle that will play out in reviews and reports from the government agencies involved in disaster-related activities and other assessments of Katrina and its impacts will be between “disaster management” and “disastrous management.”

10. America does not need help to cope with its disasters

In my lifetime America has always been a superpower and has acted as such. It took on the role of one of the political poles in a bipolar world, with the other pole being the USSR. We were often the leaders with troops in foreign conflicts. The United States was the superpower representing the West that dominated the workings of the UN General Assembly and the Security Council. The USA was often (though not always) a leader in calling for aid to victims. It offered food aid to Cuba during recent drought-related severe food shortages in that country and Cuba is considered a major enemy in the political sense.

I had never imagined over the past few decades of dealing with one type of disaster or another that I would see such a dire situation in the United States, following a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina. Several countries, including countries that the United States considers unfriendly ñ Cuba and Venezuela — offered assistance, especially during the first few days following the hurricane’s landfall. To me it was at first embarrassing that foreign governments would feel compelled to offer disaster assistance to one of the strongest and wealthiest nations on earth. But they did, and sadly it was really needed in the first week following the appearance of Katrina along the Gulf states’ coasts.

11. The impacts associated with Hurricane Katrina were the result of a natural disaster

Hurricane Katrina reached Category 5 level at or about the time it made landfall in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. It was called a massive hurricane, a top-strength storm, an incredibly strong storm, and one webmaster referred to it as a superstorm; that is, the natural hazard that was sure to have brought about death and destruction at some expectable level. However, the damage from this event was much higher than even the experts expected. A lot of the reason for extreme levels of death, destruction and human misery rests with society’s contribution to the adverse impacts of the naturally occurring hurricane. The poor, for example, often end up living in locations that are at high risk to whatever the local natural hazard happens to be. The levees in the New Orleans area were known to be in need of repair as well as upgrading. The impacts of a Category 5 hurricane were projected in many scenarios over the years. This event was not wanted, but was expected to occur at some time. In fact, there had been several near hits in the past few decades. So, that raises the question about what part of the disastrous impacts of a natural disaster (death, destruction, and misery) can be correctly blamed on nature and what part on societal, especially political, decision making. To be sure there will be considerable discussion, finger pointing and blame, as well as spin doctoring and claims of success, but in America there is the expression that the “buck stops at the US President’s desk.”

In sum, the reason for pointing out what I consider to be
fallacies/ myths/ misconceptions is that, even if such views are proven to be incorrect, the actions taken by individuals and governments based on them will be real and therefore will have real consequences. When it comes to disasters, people have to be careful about the generalizations they make because people will not necessarily evaluate them for their validity. Myths and fallacies, like unfounded rumors, are very misleading and can have dangerous long-lasting consequences for societies as well as for the victims of natural-hazard-related disasters in the distant as well as near future.


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