How should political leaders behave when natural disaster strikes?

Natural disasters are in the news a lot. Given that we know that on average there are at least two disasters every single day, and that roughly every two weeks disasters involve major evacuations of over 100 000 people, it makes one wonder whether we really pay enough attention to them. The agencies whose core business is disaster response and recovery are busy and often too tired to focus on raising awareness. I have always been particularly intrigued by the way politicians (amongst which there are also genuine leaders) behave in the face of natural disasters. After all, politicians can make a significant impact on raising issues such as resilience to natural disasters. How much interest they have in doing so is a moot point. So, I took a good look at what they tend to do and if there’s a lesson in their behaviour that could make one major thing a priority: disaster resilience!

I would go as far as to argue that political culture is the single biggest obstacle facing Australia and many other nations worldwide right now in terms of our ability to respond to the ongoing disruptions caused by natural disasters and also of ensuring that economic losses are reigned in and recovery is not as protracted. Not the political system as such, but the actual culture surrounding the way political leaders behave.

A good politician will, in most cases, follow the Rockefeller creed: never let a good crisis go to waste. But the diet of PR is addictive. It is also a tricky one to control. When a natural disaster takes place, politicians caught napping pay a high price. Some are ridiculed for years. US President George Bush continues to be a source of satire years after Hurricane Katrina. While he suffered a slump in approval ratings, he is also remembered for his reluctance to set foot in New Orleans after the disaster, preferring, rather, to stay on vacation. This incident even became part of the television drama Treme. Others hear the anger from the public but still ignore it. The Malaysian president famously continued to play golf with President Obama while Malaysians were dealing with one of their largest floods in history. Equally impressive was the failure of the leadership in Myanmar following Cyclone Nargis in 2008, when Senior Gen. Than Shwe refused to allow international aid or media into the country in hope of hiding the devastation and lack of government action. And earlier this year, following the most intense cyclone in the southern Pacific, Cyclone Pam, the President of Vanuatu left his country to attend an overseas conference.

The way politicians behave when a natural disaster strikes is the subject of serious research. As Carnegie Mellon Prof John T Gasper points out, ‘a good performance during a disaster can lead to a significant boost in public approval and actually change outcomes at the ballot box’. So it is not surprising that many politicians actually do well following a natural disaster. Perhaps the most famous example is the former New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Mayor Giuliani’s leadership became a global benchmark for aspiring politicians. Another example is Chris Christy, Republican Governor of New Jersey, who famously ignored the political divide and embraced a good relationship with Democrat President Obama, and showed strong leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

In Australia, we’ve seen pollies learn fast from the mistakes of others. Following the south east Queensland floods in 2011, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh gave an emotional speech in which she fought back tears. Every political leader in the country seems to have jumped on that and every disaster that has affected Australia since has been consistent in one way: a quick reaction by political leaders delivering emotion laden speeches to the public. It is now customary for Australian political leaders to get into it before the actual disaster is over. In April this year NSW Premier Mike Baird was on television urging people to head home to avoid being caught in the storm which was to hit Sydney. Premier Baird was active on social media (Twitter) ensuring his strongest possible presence.

The world over, politicians have either done really well, really badly or fallen somewhere in between. Some politicians lose serious political capital after a natural disaster. For instance, Kathleen Blanco, the Democrat Governor of Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina hit, saw her 70% approval rating before the event fall to 31% within several months. In Japan, Japan’s Prime Minster Naoto Kan resigned only five months after the devastating Fukushima disaster in March 2011, due to pressure which was largely based on criticism of his poor handling of the disaster. ,. Others, however, seem to have learnt some lessons and are far more responsive. Just a few days ago Indonesian President Joko Widodo decided to cut short his visit to the USA and return home to deal with massive forest fires which were causing a major health crisis in his country.

Regardless, whatever their choices have been, these leader have influenced (and continue to influence) what people think of resilience. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that to a significant portion of people, the concept of resilience is only as clear as what their political leaders manage to put out in the simplest of terms. And that is where things become convoluted. Resilience is a very complicated thing and while it can be expressed in a slogan of sorts, real resilience can’t be built unless people grasp the essential fact that we are dealing with a complex problem. Almost everyone can memorise the most famous scientific formula in the words penned by Albert Einstein; E=MC2, but directly proportionately, not too many can actually explain it.

Basically I think that when politicians seek to gain political capital through something which may or may not be a legitimate target for them, we are left unsure whether it is good for the public, especially in relation to resilience. Political entrepreneurialism, plain populism or opportunisms? Hard to tell from a distance, but when better examined one question emerges: is leadership by politicians translating into resilient outcomes measured by better systems, readiness, and changed behaviour by the public? Or, is it simply good politicking and great television?


Note by the author (Jelenko Dragisic):  

The above article is part of my ongoing private research looking at the role of political leadership in developing disaster resilience.

Hurricane Patricia SPECIAL COVERAGE

The strongest hurricane ever recorded has set another record.  Fortunately, the damage it caused was not catastrophic.  However, the past 10-15 years has been marked with a number of record breaking natural disasters where the impact has been catastrophic.  Resilience to such levels of destruction is slowly gaining momentum which is an encouraging sign.  In the wake of Hurricane Patricia, the GRC has prepared this collection of articles from a variety of sources.

This image was captured nearly 1 million miles from Earth at 4:00 p.m. EDT (19:00:18 GMT), on Oct. 22, 2015.

This image was captured nearly 1 million miles from Earth at 4:00 p.m. EDT (19:00:18 GMT), on Oct. 22, 2015.

Why Hurricane Patricia Didn’t Cause Epic Damage

Hurricane Patricia—the strongest hurricane ever recorded—made landfall on Friday without causing the catastrophic damage that many had anticipated. That lack of destruction is in large part due to the storm’s record winds staying confined to a small area and hitting a relatively unpopulated region. “The amount of damage is going to be entirely dependent on where the storm hits,” said Sean Sublette, a meteorologist at Climate Central. “If it had been a more heavily populated area, we’d be having a much different conversation.” The storm made landfall near Cuixmala, a luxury retreat in a sparsely populated ocean reserve, early Friday evening with winds of around 165 miles per hour. But the storm’s strongest winds didn’t extend much beyond 15 miles of its eye. The nearest city Manzanillo, which has a population of more than 100,000, is located more than 50 miles away…FULL STORY


Hurricane Patricia: how one Puerta Vallarta resident stuck out the storm

My home in Puerta Vallarta is an apartment one block from the ocean, behind several beachfront mansions. Because it’s around 40 feet off the ground, I decided to stay. Yes, I took precautions, of course. I had a fanny pack with cash, ID, cell phone, crank flashlight/radio, and my camera. I had bottled water to drink, bananas, a bunch of cold cuts and a loaf of bread. I stockpiled several gallons of fresh water, candles, and a first-aid kit…FULL STORY


Hurricane Patricia strikes: How natural disasters affect travel

Hurricane Patricia, the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, slammed into the southwest Mexican coast on Friday with winds of up to 200 miles per hour. The storm’s sheer power makes it “uncharted territory,” as meteorologist Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel said on Twitter. But complicating matters is its popular location: U.S. State Department officials estimate that tens of thousands of Americans may be living or traveling in Patricia’s path at such resort spots as Puerto Vallarta. Natural disasters can wreak havoc on travelers in many ways, from the emotional letdown of a peaceful getaway being ruined to urgent safety concerns. While Hurricane Patricia is historic, a guide for how travelers can respond to it can be found in past disasters, such as the destructive earthquake that hit Nepal in April…FULL STORY


Terrifying, Eerily Beautiful Photos Taken From Space Of Hurricane Patricia



Reimagining Resilience Speaker Series


Disruptions are not new. But in our hyper-connected world, disruptions have acquired a new relevance; they’re now a key feature of our lives. Some disruptions immediately trigger a recovery process. Others trigger more adaptive processes.

The Global Resilience Collaborative is launching a new initiative designed to create conditions for trans-disciplinary dialogue, learning and innovation that will lead to new ways of thinking about resilience.

For more information fill out the below form


How Natural Disasters Harm the Poor More Than the Rich

strandedThe following piece by Columbia Professor John Mutter, author of The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Even Poorer, and published in Slate is really highly recommended reading for anyone interested in the diverse range of factors impacting on the way natural disasters are managed.


By John Mutter

Adolph Hitler visited Paris just once, in June 1940, in an entourage that included his architect, Albert Speer, and Arno Becker, the official state sculptor. He saw all the usual tourist spots, stopping to look around landmark buildings and monuments. He came just a week or so after the army of the Third Reich had occupied the city, a Paris that was by then all but empty of Parisians. But in the anxious weeks after the fall of the French army, most people hadn’t known whether they should leave or stay. Some had even wanted to believe the Germans would not come to Paris at all.

At the height of the crisis in New Orleans there were three times the number of men in uniform there as there were German troops in Paris

A few people had no doubt what lay ahead. They were the elite of Paris, and they left immediately after their army failed. They took their best possessions, stuffed them into limousines, and sped south with their chauffeurs at the wheel. Why did they leave? The most obvious reason is that they had the most to lose. But elite status also brings, or comes by way of, connections at the highest levels of government and military. So those at the top of society knew what was coming and knew to get out fast. Others were left to do what they thought made the most sense, with only rumor and fear to guide them…READ ON


John Mutter is a professor at Columbia University jointly appointed in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and in the School of International and Public Affairs. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His new book is The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Even Poorer.

Remembering Katrina: State of Resilience 10 years on

by Jelenko Dragisic

Looking back, it is clear that Hurricane Katrina was one of the most intense natural disasters ever. Its devastation was horrific and lasting. But Katrina was not a surprise, unexpected, nor a ‘black swan’ event. Katrina was the fifth hurricane of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. Subsequent and numerous analyses and reports showed that failure to take the likely event seriously years, and even decades, before it took place proved to be the real disaster.

Since then we have seen many other events that have caught us by surprise. Maybe this is as good as it gets with us humans. We make a bit of noise when things go wrong, make a lot of plans and promises, and then go straight back to old habits. This is not the first time I’ve thought this. Here in Australia, the situation does not seem to be radically better. Right now, not a single major newspaper, or mainstream outlet is talking about disaster resilience. We are waiting for the season to start to begin thinking about it and if something big happens, well then it’ll be the hot topic.

Getting prepared for a disaster is not a two week or a month-long exercise. It is the way we should live. It is the way we should behave every single day of the year. Being resilient in the face of major natural disasters is not something that should be turned on and off like a water tap. It’s should be a permanent state of mind; one that is only possible when we act knowing that catastrophic disasters will happen; if not directly to us, then certainly to someone else in the society in which we live. Therefore we are likely to feel the disruption one way or another.

On the eve of its 10th anniversary, Katrina is still strongly present in the minds of many. Some of the affected are likely to still be restoring life as they once knew it. But the good thing is that many have learnt something and in the process have become resilient. Lessons from Katrina are critical and in so many ways unique. They teach us the importance of having a realistic response and recovery plan, the role of political leadership, the importance of inclusive communities, the critical decision-making skills that impact on long term planning of a good city, and many more.

I thought it would be appropriate to pay homage to the people who suffered through the ordeal and who are today reflecting on this enormous event. For that reason I have selected a handful of articles which reflect on Katrina. First up, and my favourite, is Walter Percy’s article about the reflection of Walter Isaacson, Chief Executive of the Aspen Institute who also was vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority after Katrina, and his interesting take on how humans change during hurricanes. For a more in depth look at the city today, the Washington Post’s article proclaiming New Orleans as a ‘resilient lab’, is a must.


Walker Percy’s Theory of Hurricanes

Walker Percy had a theory about hurricanes. “Though science taught that good environments were better than bad environments, it appeared to him that the opposite was the case,” he wrote of Will Barrett, the semi-autobiographical title character of his second novel, “The Last Gentleman.” “Take hurricanes, for example, certainly a bad environment if ever there was one. It was his impression that not just he but other people felt better in hurricanes.” Percy was a medical doctor who didn’t practice and a Catholic who did, which equipped him to embark on a search for how we mortals fit into the cosmos. Our reaction to hurricanes was a clue, he believed, which is why leading up to the 10th anniversary of Katrina, it’s worth taking note not only of his classic first novel, “The Moviegoer,” but also of his theory of hurricanes as developed in…Read on


What Katrina left behind: New Orleans’ uneven recovery and unending divisions

Ronald Lewis finds it hard to believe it is 10 years since the water came, even though the newspaper clippings he hoarded in a scrapbook and pinned to a wall are yellowed now by age. The horrors in those decade-old stories cannot seem like distant history to anyone who lives in the Lower Ninth Ward, as Lewis does. This is where the flood rose 14ft and the partial, capricious nature of the recovery is obvious to day-trippers, never mind lifelong residents. Lewis returned, like many of his friends, but the Lower Ninth is still a section of New Orleans defined by absence. The neighbours who died or never came back. The stores and services that no longer exist. Those who had no savings or were unable to negotiate the labyrinthine insurance and compensation processes and were submerged by bureaucracy…Read on


A ‘resilience lab’

On the “sliver by the river,” that stretch of precious high ground snug against the Mississippi, tech companies sprout in gleaming towers, swelling with 20-somethings from New England or the Plains who saw the floods only in pictures. A new $1 billion medical center rises downtown, tourism has rebounded, the music and restaurant scenes are sizzling, and the economy has been buoyed by billions of federal dollars. Above: The “sliver by the river” — seen across the Mississippi from Algiers, foreground – has become a hive of activity since Katrina. Farther out, the picture is more mixed in the city’s lower-lying neighborhoods. The next Big One: New Orleans has built the infrastructure to protect itself from hurricanes, but can it win the battle against rising seas? A decade into the Katrina diaspora: Where some of those affected by the hurricane stood in the months after the disaster, and where they stand now. The city is now swaddled in 133 miles of sturdier levees and floodwalls, and it boasts of the world’s biggest drainage pumping station. But on the porch stoops of this place so fascinated by and so comfortable with the cycles of death and decay, they still talk about living in some kind of Atlantis-in-waiting. As if the cradle of jazz might still slip beneath the sea…Read on


5 Topics for…Hurricane Katrina Anniversary

Hurricane Katrina made landfall nearly 10 years ago. The deadly storm killed approximately 1,800 people, displaced more than 400,000 residents and cost billions in property damage. The effects of the natural disaster are still felt in the areas hardest hit, including parts of Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. Speaking nearly 10 years ago from New Orleans, President George W. Bush described Katrina as a “cruel and wasteful storm.” “In the aftermath, we have seen fellow citizens left stunned and uprooted, searching for loved ones, and grieving for the dead, and looking for meaning in a tragedy that seems so blind and random,” Bush said in 2005. “We’ve also witnessed the kind of desperation no citizen of this great and generous nation should ever have to know—fellow Americans calling out for food and water, vulnerable people left at the mercy of criminals who had no mercy, and the bodies of the dead lying uncovered and untended in the street.”…Read on


How my goat lived through Katrina – and became a New Orleans celebrity

New Orleans icon Chauncey Gardner passed away quietly of old age on 20 February 2015, at his home in Algiers, New Orleans. As local residents will attest, Chauncey was a genuine participant in many music and arts communities throughout his 10 years of life. Chauncey went quickly and peacefully, his owners at his side. Born on Rosedale Farms in 2004, Chauncey was bottle-raised and lived in a Ninth Ward backyard for nine years. Not long after his birth, Chauncey traversed the country in our car while evacuating after hurricane Katrina. The whole month we remained locked out of New Orleans, Chauncey dictated our lives in Texas, where we found refuge. We ended up living for a month on a Houston goat farm after Chauncey urinated on my mother’s beloved mauve carpeting in Conroe, Texas, which led to an argument wherein she kicked us all out. While on the farm, Chauncey was attacked by a dog, which I wrote about in my temporary position as a staff writer for the Houston Press. At the time, I was being offered everything I’d ever wanted as a writer, simply because of Katrina. Literary agents fought over a book I’d half-written about evacuating with Chauncey. I finally chose the agent who got me published in Newsweek, but America tired of Katrina books before he could sell mine…Read on


100 Resilient Cities Challenge: The Last Round or Applications NOW OPEN

100 Resilient Cities—Pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation (100RC) is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.

Brisbane City: GRC Hopes that the city can step up and join the global network of leaders ensuring a different path for the local economic and social prosperity.

Brisbane City: GRC Hopes that the city can step up and join the global network of leaders ensuring a different path for the local economic and social prosperity.

The 100 Resilient Cities Challenge seeks to find 100 cities that are ready to build resilience to the social, economic, and physical challenges that cities face in an increasingly urbanized world. Is your city ready to become resilient?

We can’t predict the next disruption or catastrophe. But we can control how we respond to these challenges. We can adapt to the shocks and stresses of our world and transform them into opportunities for growth. If your city applies for the 100 Resilient Cities Challenge, it could be one of 100 cities eligible to receive funding to hire a Chief Resilience Officer, assistance in developing a resilience strategy, access to a platform of innovative private and public sector tools to help design and implement that strategy, and membership in the 100 Resilient Cities Network.

The deadline to apply is November 24, 2015. Ignite the urban resilience movement.

Apply Here…

Natural Disaster Funding (Australia): Inquiry report 2015

report imageGlobal Resilience Collaborative (GRC) welcomes the recently produced report by the Productivity Commission examining the funding arrangements.  To most people involved in resilience to disruptions such as natural disasters it was not a surprise to learn that the report found that ‘governments nationally focus too much on recovery, at the expense of redirecting resources towards better-preparing for the future disasters”.

Following are key points from the report.  The full report can be accessed via the link at the end of page.


  • Australia is exposed to natural disasters on a recurring basis. Effective planning and mitigation of risks is an essential task for governments, businesses and households.
  • Current government natural disaster funding arrangements are not efficient, equitable or sustainable. They are prone to cost shifting, ad hoc responses and short-term political opportunism. Groundhog Day anecdotes abound.
  • Governments overinvest in post-disaster reconstruction and underinvest in mitigation that would limit the impact of natural disasters in the first place. As such, natural disaster costs have become a growing, unfunded liability for governments.
  • The funding arrangements matter because they impact the incentives to manage risks, including by using potent but politically challenging levers like land use planning. The reform imperative is greatest for states most exposed to natural disaster risk, like Queensland.
  • The recommended reforms comprise a coherent policy package across recovery and mitigation funding, budget treatment of recovery costs, and accountability requirements for all governments. ‘Cherry picking’ component parts would see the much needed balance between mitigation and recovery, as well as greater state autonomy, remain elusive.
  • Australian Government post-disaster support to state and territory governments (states) should be reduced, and support for mitigation increased. Greater budget transparency and some provisioning is also needed.◦States need to shoulder a greater share of natural disaster recovery costs to sharpen incentives to manage, mitigate and insure against these risks. The Australian Government should provide a base level of support to states commensurate with relative fiscal capacity and the original ‘safety-net’ objective of disaster recovery funding, with the option for states to purchase ‘top-up’ fiscal support.

◦Australian Government mitigation funding to states should increase to $200 million a year and be matched by the states.

◦These reforms would give state and local governments autonomy in how they pursue disaster recovery and mitigation. The reforms should be supported by performance and process based accountability mechanisms that embed good risk management.


  • Governments have a role in providing emergency relief payments to individuals seriously affected by natural disasters, to defray immediate economic and social hardship. Such relief should be provided in a consistent, equitable and efficient way.
  • Governments can do better in terms of policies that enable people to understand natural disaster risks and also to give them the incentive to manage the risks effectively.◦Information on hazards and risk exposure has improved significantly in recent years, but there are opportunities to improve information consistency, sharing and communication.

◦Regulations affecting the built environment have a significant influence on the exposure and vulnerability of communities to natural hazards. While building regulations have generally been effective, there is a need to transparently incorporate natural disaster risk management into land use planning.


  • Insurance is an important risk management option. Insurance markets in Australia for natural disaster risk are generally working well, and pricing is increasingly risk reflective. Insurers can and should do more to inform households on their insurance policies, the natural hazards they face and the indicative costs of rebuilding after a natural disaster