Learning and failing

Houston (Texas) was recently ranked third on a list of ‘cities of the future’, based on its economic and human capital potential.  However, only a few years ago the city was affected by a ‘1 in 500 year flood’ three years in row.  The quick succession of these so-called unlikely events gives the concept of extreme weather events a whole new meaning.  In light of this, it makes sense to wonder whether the 2022 Australian floods (predominantly NSW and Qld) could occur next year and again the year after?  Should such a possibility be ignored? What can past lessons teach us that we can ill afford to ignore?

A recent report that looked at the first two decades of this century found that over seven thousand disasters in the period killed 1.23 million people, affected 4 billion people and created nearly $US3 trillion in economic losses.  The Human Cost of Disasters: An Overview Of The Last 20 Years study, conducted by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, only considered events that resulted in at least 10 people being killed, were declared a state of emergency or led to a call for international assistance.  These are staggering figures.  This alone should be enough to get us into gear and to start thinking about resilience with a strategic hyperfocus. 

The report showed that when compared to the preceding twenty years, there has been an alarming increase across all measures.  Perhaps two standout measures are the fact that extreme weather events have nearly doubled, and that major floods have more than doubled in the past twenty years.  Floods are also by far the most prevalent type of event, accounting for 44% of all disasters.  What more do we really need to know if 40 years of data is not enough?   

When considering what can be done to accelerate building a resilient society, there are other factors that come into play as well.  Three of these have been repeated ad nauseum for years as being of critical importance for an effective strategy.  The first is the fact that recovery from disasters can be a decade-long process.  The second are the findings that investing a dollar in disaster resilience saves at least a five-fold amount in recovery cost.  And the third, which is particularly important for Australia, four out of the top five countries affected by major disasters studied by the UN report are in its region; China, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. 

It is perplexing how stubborn we appear to be in moving faster to adopt a culture of resilience, despite mounting evidence and the strength of a business case for transforming to a resilience-informed society. By that, I mean understanding that every single area of our societal functioning needs to integrate resilience thinking into its processes.  There are no safe havens against the far-reaching disruptions and destructions that extreme weather events create.  Especially when they are happening at an increasing rate. 

If the often quoted ‘those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ pearl of wisdom means anything, then the question worth asking is this: where does the appetite for doom come from?  

While there is plenty of data available in our own backyard to examine and learn from, perhaps, given Australia’s tendency to look elsewhere for answers and true insights, it is also worth paying attention to what has been happening in North America.  In practical terms the USA has usually served as a reference point, a model and a benchmark for disaster management agencies in Australia. 

In looking for good sources of learning material, we can examine what happened in Houston (Texas) during a three-year period from 2015 to 2017. 

Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was the fifth major 500-year flood to hit Texas between 2010-17 and the third event in a row in Houston itself.  The events in 2015, 2016 and 2017 (all statistically 1 in 500-year events – i.e., a 0.2% chance of happening in any one year) have demonstrated that ignoring such possibilities today is downright irresponsible.  What’s even more alarming is that in the same 7-year period there were 25 such events in the wider USA. 

Putting the 2022 flooding across NSW and QLD into perspective means a few things.  Firstly, simply hoping that there will be enough time between major events to allow for recovery to be complete is a seriously flawed strategy.  What happens if we see peoples’ homes being demolished only days or weeks after being rebuilt from a previous flooding event?  What happens if people who are still reliving the traumatic emotions caused by the floods are faced with another event that is same or even stronger?  There are many questions that must be considered with renewed urgency. 

Australian studies have shown that there is an increasing trend in the frequency of major flooding events in the region that was affected by the 2022 floods.  This is also consistent with other studies globally.  But perhaps worth noting again are findings from the USA.  A recent study by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) of events that have caused at least $US1 billion in damage in the past 40 years has found that the number of such occurrences has doubled in the last ten years, compared to the preceding decade. 

When all these factors are taken into consideration, it seems that disaster resilience must be reimagined post-haste, and attitudes that guided inadequate investment in the previous decade need to be discarded as a matter of strategy. 

The lack of education about disaster resilience is a real problem.  A lot of so-called educational offerings by governments are simplistic and downright out of date.  People are taught to think of natural disasters as ‘events’.  Most awareness programs, workshops and other similar initiatives do not go far enough in helping communities, businesses and individuals grasp the fact that the natural disasters we are seeing in the 21st Century are a whole new ball game.  Thinking outside the box is good but, in the words of famed Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, ‘thinking outside the building’ is probably where we need to go. 

The essence of such thinking lies in acknowledging that we have to accept that natural disasters are complex; not as events in themselves but because of their relationship to economic, social and ecological interconnectedness.  It is not unusual to see people reacting with a mixture of bafflement and/or amusement when we ask them if they are prepared for an event that might take place thousands of kilometres away, or perhaps for a type of event that is not common in their region.  Most people see disaster events as local, immediate and acute.  Naturally then, all responses tend to be local, immediate and acute.  This, despite evidence that clearly tells us that we live in a climate, a new ecology if you like, where such perceptions are damaging.

And this is what needs to be addressed urgently if we want to see a genuine return on any investment in resilience in the long run.  Educational programs need to be redescribed to suit the new reality in which we live.  Getting ready for disasters is not exclusively about ‘readiness’; it is about creating new ways of thriving. 

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