FROM NOAH TO KATRINA TO FEMA:
HOW WE PLAN FOR NATURAL DISASTERS
~ Peter Connolly ~
What is always fascinating about the story of Noah and of most popular stories of disasters in films and TV is how they differ – radically - from actual disasters. Victim accounts of natural disaster do not resemble the biblical tale. For example, in both the story of Noah, and in any number of popular Hollywood movies, the central character learns well in advance what is going to happen, either because of a vision from God or from a scientific understanding. The world around our central character ignores her/him, so our protagonist makes preparations to survive and protect his/her family. When the event begins, it is great and terrible, and our protagonist is always in a position to see the event unfold. She or he may live through some terrifying moments, but is delivered safely from danger, and the world that exists afterwards is healthier, happier, and the people are united because of this tragedy. Morgan Freeman may give a speech.
In my experience and studies, this is not how it happens. My first disaster experience was in 1999, after Hurricane Floyd flooded eastern North Carolina. While we joked as we drove across the state that we would be assigned to rescue helicopters to pull people off their rooftops, I actually spent a week doing the less glamorous job of ripping moldy drywall out of houses and sorting can goods. Over the next couple of years I spent a lot of time with volunteer organizations, responding to disasters in Maryland, Virginia, and Mississippi. In 2006 I quit my job in Washington DC and moved to a FEMA trailer in a little town just east of New Orleans, where I spent nine months rewiring homes that had been flooded when the levees fell during Hurricane Katrina. In 2010, absent of a better idea, I moved to Haiti for what was supposed to be 8 weeks. Fifteen months later, after building a community center and a hospital, I departed back to New Orleans to study Homeland Security and Emergency Management at Tulane University. I now work in a cubicle for the state of Maryland, creating plans for a myriad of threats and analyzing the efficacy of response activities.
In my varied experience with disasters, I have learned that what we think disasters will be like is almost a hundred percent wrong. Generally, floods, storms, earthquakes, and random acts of violence pop up on some random Tuesday when you have PTA meetings and job interviews. You are busy with life, and then something terrible happens, and then that terrible thing becomes your life. Even hurricanes, which tend to advance slowly, build gradually, with very little signal that they are going to wreck your city. The wind blows, than it blows harder, than harder still, than really hard, and then the roof of the Superdome is flying into the French quarter and you are in water up to your knees. But when you stop to think about it, you realize you have been wet for a while. The entire experience is a huge cloud of confusion; your brain is literally overloaded with stimuli. Instead of ending suddenly and peacefully, the disaster tapers off slowly. Instead of a clean happy world at the end, everything is covered in mud and you haven't changed your underwear in three days. Dan Baum’s amazing book 9 Lives captures the confusion and uncertainty of Hurricane Katrina perfectly. It follows nine characters through the years and decades leading up to the storm, so when it comes, the reader is not thinking about the Superdome or news reports or Michael Brown. Instead, it is almost a surprise when the levees break and no one comes to help.
Vicki Arroyo, Let's Prepare for our New Climate
I know that it should surprise no one that life is not like the movies. The reason this matters is that our fascination with disasters—like Noah’s Ark—shapes how we deal with more mundane disasters and emergencies. This is especially the case in how the United States (as well as many other developed nations) direct resources to manage disasters. Disasters are thought of as immense, all-powerful events that will ruin society, instead of a series of natural and technological challenges that can be avoided through smart planning and wise investments. There are four mission areas in modern emergency management: 1) Prevention/Protection, which mostly focuses on stopping a disaster or attack before it starts; 2) Mitigation, which is all about defending against an event; 3) Response, which is what one does during an event; 4) and Recovery, which involves putting the pieces back together. Every study and analysis ever performed shows that investments in Prevention and Mitigation are the best, most cost-effective methods of dealing with hazards, and that focusing only on Response is both expensive and also dangerous. No matter how good emergency first responders are, they will not be able to ensure that not everyone will live to the recovery phase. But historically, states and federal agencies have Security focused most of their resources and attention on that Response phase. That is where most of the money for disaster management goes, both domestically and internationally. In essence, people think that we do not need to prepare, because a Noah will save them.
Even more dangerously, there are always people that are excited to be Noah in the next disaster, although not the Noah of warning individuals, and sacrificing so much to survive; they want to be the Noah who saves the day. The current fascination with the apocalypse, which will ostensibly result in the destruction of almost everything, co-exists peacefully with the self-centeredness of most Americans. In other words, the end of the world may be coming, but each person thinks they are clever enough or special enough to survive. Disasters are not times for people to be heroes, or to see “what they are really made of”. After every disaster, a group of well-intentioned but poorly informed individuals with grand egos and big hearts rush into disaster sites and start helping. (Disclaimer: I have done this several times.) After Katrina, for example, groups were in such a rush to rebuild homes, to have a feeling of righted a wrong that they failed to properly clear houses of mold, putting the future inhabitants at risk. It is easy to draw a line from the story of Noah to the current mindset of heroes saving the day, when in reality emergency management is mostly about paperwork, planning, and long, long, meetings. The work I have done that I am most proud of has mostly been incredibly boring and routine, and would never be mistaken for anything that Noah is reported to have done. The concept of a hero saving the day in a disaster, which has its roots in the story of Noah, is unrealistic and has caused numerous problems in disaster situations.
In contrast to a small group of “heroes” who try to swing in and save people from disasters, I think that society as a whole has begun to see disasters as inevitable. This too has an origin in Noah’s Flood. If there is an all-powerful, all knowing God, and He or She wants to flood the world, I imagine the world is going to flood. But the regular hurricanes, earthquakes, snowstorms and tornadoes that are not caused by the Almighty but are still defined as “Acts of God” can always be prepared for, mitigated against, or prevented in some way. One can look at it this way – if the Mississippi River reaches a height of 20.5 feet above the average, it will overtop the levee, and the resulting flood will be deemed an “Act of God.” But if the height is only at 19.5 ft, it is an ordinary day in the Crescent City. Somewhere along the line, someone made the decision that 20’ of water is not a risk that is worth preventing. (For more on how this decision came to be made, read the amazing book Rising Tide by John M. Barry.)
The decision is often made to ignore risks because implementing disaster risk reduction policies or projects are thought to be too expensive or too disruptive of business or economic activity. It is worth noting that the people who make this decision are almost never the people who will suffer or whose lives will be disrupted by a disaster. For example, it is getting more and more difficult to find a scientist who doesn’t believe that our maniacal use of fossil fuels is powering the change in the climate that will result in sea level rise, the spread of tropical disease, and a myriad of other disastrous effects. And yet, instead of reducing this fossil fuel use through simple steps we can all take, most Americans, and certainly most American legislators, have taken the view that it can’t be stopped and we will all have to deal with what comes. But these Americans won’t be dealing with this climate change – it will be future generations, and likely the poor who will feel the brunt of this choice. While the decision has a basis in racism, xenophobia, greed, misogyny, and politics, it also stems from a belief that disasters like Noah’s flood are inevitable. It is another example of the story from the Bible being co-opted to excuse actions that would otherwise be inexcusable.
The story of Noah also leaves out the most dramatic, gut-wrenching part of any flood – the recovery. At the end of the story of Noah, the waters have abated, and God tells Noah to exit the ark and be fruitful and multiply. Any sort of discussion of rebuilding is sidestepped so completely that it might as well be the Bush Administration’s post-Katrina blueprint. In reality, living through the disaster is the easy part – rebuilding is the challenge, an endurance test every bit as exhausting psychologically as it is physically. Biblical and popular culture stories rarely focus on this problem, concentrating instead on the more exciting event and the strong, righteous people who survive and the weak, craven people who do not. It is an under reported fact that of the 4,081 deaths attributed to Hurricane Katrina, well over half of these deaths occurred in the weeks and months after the storm, when people were supposed to have been “safe.” The stress associated with surviving caused a spike in suicides, domestic violence, and drug abuse. In one county in Mississippi, suicides in the five years after Katrina claimed more lives than the storm itself. This sort of turmoil is rarely addressed in disaster stories, and so when we lean on the Bible or popular culture to help us understand the effects of floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes, we remain blind to this problem.
While we think of disasters as public events, they are actually collective events, full of individual actions, effects, and consequences. The legend of Noah, and the dozens of books, movies, and TV shows about the apocalypse that it has inspired, have shaped the public consciousness about disasters. Like every story from the Bible, Noah and the flood has a message to pass on. Perhaps its original message is that God can and will punish wickedness (a theme that is stoned to death in the Bible) but it has survived as a way for humanity to grapple with disaster. Unfortunately, the challenges we face are significantly more complex than the flood of Genesis. To protect communities, families, and the future, we must look at these complexities rather than the simplified story in order to understand actual threats and our place in them.
You are busy with life, and then something terrible happens, and then that terrible thing becomes your life
Victim accounts of natural disaster do not resemble the biblical tale
People think we do not need to prepare, because a Noah will save them
The story of Noah also leaves out the most dramatic, gut-wrenching part of any flood – the recovery.
Flood in Rockhampton, Australia
Flood from South Platte River, Colorado
John Wark, Reuters