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3Qs: Urban and coastal planning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

This is the second story in news@Northeastern’s three-part series commemorating the 10th anniversary of what FEMA called the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history.

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina a decade ago is still being felt today along the Gulf Coast. Thousands of lives were lost and entire neighborhoods were wiped out. Many evacuees have still not returned home.

Stephen FlynnAmong the many lessons learned in the aftermath is how to improve infrastructure resilience and disaster mitigation, says professor of political science Stephen Flynn, who is the director of Northeastern’s Center for Resilience Studies and co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute.

Here, Flynn examines what the resiliency field learned from Hurricane Katrina and how it has influenced his work.

How has Hurricane Katrina influenced how resiliency experts, emergency management officials, and urban developers have approached their work over the past decade?

Perhaps the one silver lining to arise from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is that it helped spark a growing focus on bolstering resilience as a national imperative. In the aftermath of 9/11, Americans became fixated on the risk of terrorism to the exclusion of almost all other hazards, and our elected leaders aggressively pursued a “prevention-at-all-costs” approach to confronting that risk.

When Katrina roared ashore on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and triggered the flooding of New Orleans, it served as a brutal reminder of two things. First, naturally occurring disasters can cause as much or even more mischief than man-made threats. Second, you can’t prevent hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires so you have to be willing to invest in ways to mitigate their impact and be prepared to nimbly respond to and recover from them.

Today, there is a growing recognition among urban planners and developers that the tragedy New Orleans experienced a decade ago could still happen in many of the places where we live. Climate change is real and coastal cities like Boston, New York, Miami, and Norfolk, Virginia, are increasingly in the crosshairs of the risks associated with it. Resilience experts are informing planners on how to calibrate a mix of design, conservation, and sustainability efforts so that built and natural environments are better able to meet the challenges of rising sea levels and extreme weather. They are also working with emergency management professionals on helping communities go beyond improving their readiness to respond to a disaster. Equally important is investing in mitigation and recovery measures.

What advancements or new practices have the resiliency field adopted as a direct result of Hurricane Katrina?

One of the most important resilience-related outcomes from Hurricane Katrina has been a stronger appreciation for the role of the natural environment in either reducing or elevating resilience. “Green infrastructure” such as wetlands and sand dunes can play as important a role in protecting a community from storm surge as a floodwall.

Another is the importance of social capital when it comes to coping with a disaster. Along the Gulf Coast, hard-hit communities in Mississippi like Gulfport, Biloxi, and Bay St. Louis demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to pull together and rebuild in the aftermath of the storm.

Lastly, there is a new appreciation for how important it is to plan for and invest in recovery and adaptation after a disaster. It is insane to simply fix what is damaged and return to “business as usual.” The goal must be to rebuild better and smarter.

In what ways has the impact of Hurricane Katrina affected the courses you teach?

Hurricane Katrina played an important role in my decision to come to Northeastern and launch the new Master of Science in Security and Resilience Studies program. It highlighted the enormous stakes associated with managing the risk of naturally occurring and man-made hazards.

I am convinced that it will take a new generation of thinkers and doers, informed by cutting-edge interdisciplinary research, to help ensure that our cities are well positioned to avoid the kind of trauma that New Orleanians experienced a decade ago. Northeastern University has the perfect mix of students, faculty, and research to respond to this urgent need.

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