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. 

So, what about recovery then?

(7min read)

By Caroline Austin and Jelenko Dragisic

In ideal circumstances, recovery from a major disaster would be free from aftershocks. But aftershocks are the norm. Hence the question: how well are we equipped for recovery from the current pandemic? This is the time for serious thought.

Firstly, it should be noted that recovery is not easy to define. While a seemingly simple term to grasp, it is used differently in different contexts. In some cases, for example, reconstruction might be a more fitting term. Broadly speaking, recovery can be understood as an overarching process of returning to normal, which encompasses all aspects of life.

The current pandemic of a zoonotic disease is shaping up to be the greatest economic shock of the last 100 years. Professor of Economics Nicolas Bloom believes it could be five years before we reach the level of pre-pandemic economic output and warns that the current event may, in the future, be referred to as the ‘the Greater Depression”.

However, economic recovery from our current pain is expected to happen and a few scenarios on how it could unfold are already being offered, which is not surprising given the number of studies on economic crises. Consumer behaviours are well understood. The larger issue is understanding the impact on broader societal changes. Each culture will interpret the current pandemic in its own way. This is where the results of responses to the pandemic come into play. When things were done better, i.e. when decision makers prepared for the likely scenario of a pandemic and invested in resilience, the decisions tended to dodge the ‘make it up as you go’ scenario.

Humans are incredibly well adapted to act quickly in a crisis. We mobilise fast. That quality will always be there. But the qualities we need to develop are preparedness and long-range focus. This is where our culture needs more work. A lot more work.

While it is clear that during crises decisions have to be made on the spot and improvisation is necessary, this should not be confused with adaptation and agility in the midst of a crisis. Agility is based on anticipation of disruption and prudent investment in preparadness for a host of scenarios. A good resilience plan is not meant to be some kind of ‘super risk management’. Instead resilience should be more about capacity to act adaptively, be agile and capable to deploy knowledge, resources and critical decision making.

We should remember there were plenty of voices declaring that the likelihood of a pandemic such as this was not a question of ‘if’ but rather ‘when’. While many have watched the TED talk by Bill Gates, who used his status to amplify what scientists were trying to tell us for decades, as recently as six months ago global experts were saying that the chances of a global pandemic were growing. In its first annual report published in September 2019, expert independent group, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, stated categorically that “the world is not prepared for a fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic”. Scientists also predict that there will be further and probably worse pandemics.

The upshot is this: executing a well-prepared plan reduces the chance of mistakes that leak into an already costly path to recovery.


As an independent monitoring and advocacy body, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) urges political action to prepare for and mitigate the effects of global health emergencies.

Recovery in our mind is about getting back to normal. Resuming life as we knew it. That has a nice ring to it, but research shows that it is much more complicated than that.

For a start, recovery is a painfully slow and frustrating process. While the link between the scale of a disruptive event and recovery is obvious, another link often ignored is that between the quality of response and recovery.

Perhaps it is worth noting that there is a good reason why recovery is often referred to as a ‘second disaster’. While original disasters tend to affect indiscriminately, the recovery process, unfortunately, can discriminate. In recovery, mistakes are often made, and some miss out. Moreover, recovery is not as heroic an act as responding to shock is. This means that the media also loses interest post-shock, leading to less of the attention that a well-executed recovery process needs.

Regardless, the story of recovery must be told. Why? It is during this time, the frustrating recovery process time, that we lay the foundation for our future capacity to respond to yet another shock.

Next time, the shock is likely to be bigger and more painful. This crisis is offering us a possibility to envision a very different world, and to move on to create it. It is also during the recovery phase that we can make mistakes that have a lasting impact. Things get overlooked, underestimated, ignored, or simply done poorly. The lessons from the virus responsible for SARS is a pertinent example. Vaccines were developed, but not supported to a testing phase. There is little profit in staving off some anticipated catastrophe. Undoubtedly, there is often good work undertaken which does prepare us for the future, but the risk of not getting it right is real.

What happens in the response stage (which immediately precedes the recovery stage) can have far more impact than the original event itself. A tardy response, marked by a lack of good preparation, causes people to make rash decisions with enduring consequences. Humans are incredibly well adapted to act quickly in a crisis. We mobilise fast. That quality will always be there. But the qualities we need to develop are preparedness and long-range focus. This is where our culture needs more work. A lot more work.

We are risk takers. We are also entrepreneurial. And we are downright optimistic. This won’t change. And it shouldn’t change because it is these traits that allow us to create and shape a better world. We can however apply those qualities to appreciate that future disruptions will be more testing. Being entrepreneurial means to adapt better and respond with more foresight. Recovery is very likely going to be a process entangled with events that demand response. The lines between responding and recovering are blurred at the best of times. Our own processes are disrupted.

Another thing that is often ignored is the fact that we assume conditions following a disaster, or any disruptive event, will be normal. We presume there won’t be any additional disruptions that hamper recovery. Here in Australia we should look no further than our recent mega-scale bushfires. Without a doubt, the bushfire recovery work is now further complicated by the coronavirus. This effectively makes recovery significantly more complex, more protracted, less complete and much costlier. We cannot rule out further disruptive events in the future that might just do permanent damage to regions impacted by bushfires. This could shape society beyond what may have previously been reasonable to assume.

The main thing to note is that recovery is becoming something altogether different. It is not a journey to restoring ‘normal’. It is more a process of change, adaptation and innovation towards new possibilities, potentially a society that conceives of a social and political order where profits are not above people. Rather than trying to get back to normal, maybe our plans for recovery should focus on adjusting to turbulence and finding better ways of living with instability.

How Art and Design makes us more disaster resilient

By Caroline Austin and Jelenko Dragisic

Most people will interact with art and design in some shape or form every day.  Knowingly or not, art and design shape our lives much more than we might think.  John Berger, in his influential book, Ways of Seeing, confirms our visual navigation of the world as a central component of today’s contemporary landscape, underlining the central role of art and design in our lives.

What inspires creative practitioners is what inspires us all to do things to make our lives better.  Artists and designers are great at doing something most of us can’t; creating an art or design practice that captures our emotional and intellectual lives and taps deep into our value and belief systems.  We can appreciate works of art partly because they resonate with our inner beings; they allow us to make meaning of things, that we often lack the words, or any other means for that matter, to express.

Panel from Graphic Novel by Josh Neufeld, exploring the experience after the hurricane Katrina

Panel from Graphic Novel by Josh Neufeld, exploring the experience after the hurricane Katrina

Interestingly, natural disasters, acts of terror and/or other major disruptions in our lives are often areas that artists look to as both a source and a focus of their creative efforts.  It is through this link between art /design and major disruptions, as well as a broader spectrum of creative output, that we can examine some of the many artistic sensibilities common to creators of things we all gravitate towards at some time or another. Metzl (2008) writes that there are several characteristics associated with creativity that seem likely contributors to processes of resilience, including but not limited to personal flexibility (Meneely & Portillo, 2005), divergent / elastic thinking (Torrance, 1995), high conscientiousness and social expressiveness (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Getzels & Jackson, 1963) and awareness of self, expressiveness (Barron, 1969).

Natural disasters impact on people because they disrupt many, if not all, our needs roughly along the lines of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Regardless of how current this well understood model of human needs is today, its relevance remains strong given that most people can understand how we humans function.  In most cases we are guided by needs that start with food and shelter and slowly graduate to our higher intellectual and emotional needs, such as self-actualisation.  Restoring these needs after a major flood or an earthquake means we look to different things for help.  An essential part of such a process is our ability to reflect on the events after they pass and to try and create a narrative that fits in with our belief system; and one that reinforces our values and our way of functioning as psychological beings.

Listening to a piece of music can be a powerful way of building resilience for those who have experienced a devastating event.  A musical performance can bring people together; uniting them through a shared experience and creating a sense of community.  Together with music, other creative forms of expression like film, television drama, sculpture, painting, literature, graphic novels, performing arts and so on have provided rich ground for artists and creators of all persuasions to explore large devastating events and help individuals and communities to cope, recover and continue to thrive.  Art and design can also carry powerful messages related to resilience and can be potentially be transformative or re-directive. (Fry, 2009)

The past 10-15 years have seen a significant increase in the frequency of natural disasters globally.  More significantly, the effects of many of those disasters have had larger global impacts because of increasing interdependencies.  Decades ago any form of art chronicling these events would have been only locally relevant; now they are afforded global relevance and are of interest to a much larger audience.  Given that many disasters are global in impact, a work of art that deals with local disasters can become globally appreciated.  Somewhat ironically, natural disasters then create a space for connectedness and concern for one another globally more effectively than what otherwise would be the case.

Take for instance the TV series Treme, which lasted for four seasons starting in 2010, five years after Hurricane Katrina.  The series explores a diverse set of issues which affected the New Orleans community after the infamous disaster.  As a drama it explored many things that have not been well understood or explored in media coverage following the disaster.  The limitations by which traditional and emerging media operates translated into a perhaps limited understanding of how the residents of New Orleans and surrounding areas were affected.  Treme, as a drama, was critically acclaimed and conveyed a story that many felt was true and vital.  Similar examples of sinetrons (soap operas) in the Asia Pacific region weave issues of resilience throughout their narratives and have the ability to reach of millions with their message and inspire a sense of community.  Indonesia, the supermarket of disasters, is one such example with an increase in recent years of dramas exploring issues of adaption in the wake of the many disasters across the archipelago.

But one did not have to follow a TV series to learn the story of Katrina.  There were other forms of expression.  Graphic novels have also become a vital means of creative expression resonating with diverse audiences.  The importance of Josh Neufeld’s A.D New Orleans After The Deluge lies largely in the very experience of the author who volunteered for The American Red Cross during the response and recovery period.  Neufeld initially blogged about his experience, which later led to serialisation of an online graphic novel by SMITH magazine, and subsequently to the release of a printed version that was praised for its raw emotion and depiction of truth.  It is worth noting that graphic novels and comics often draw many artists to write/draw stories about natural disasters or other major catastrophes such as the 9/11 terrorist attack.  Many of these stories reveal information, events and situations that rarely attract mainstream media without diminishing the power to move us.

Art has been used to tell stories about natural disasters forever really.  Look at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cave paintings for instance.  It’s not a new thing.  What may be new is the meaning that art presents, perhaps to new audiences.  It captures different interpretations of events from say those that took place centuries ago.  Artistic sensibilities and trends are different today. Disasters also impact us differently.  All these things come into play when we consider forms of art we feel close to and how they can best tell the story of an event or experience of disruption.

It is not always simple to define where art starts or stops and where other disciplines take hold.  The case in point is this year’s Venice Biennale which featured installations by Kashef Chowdhury and URBANA that combine architecture and art focusing on events such as floods.  This unique manner of presenting built spaces allows for a more interactive way for people to get closer to the idea of what some communities (in this case in South East Asia) face with regular flooding events.  Likewise the work of Fiona Hall responded to core concerns around the persistent role of human development in nature’s demise.  Hall’s work highlights the interdependency of disruption today to the intersecting concerns of global politics, world finances and the environment.

Adding artistic elements to contributions for the Biennale may also help people see more than what evening news programs (and increasingly less often) are able to present.  Art may help us to see natural disasters in a fresh way, which is important as we are becoming increasingly immune to these events over time.

Disasters have inspired many people to seek creative ways to express their inner sensibilities.  One interesting example is the work of Dakota Sandras who recycles materials found in the debris after natural disasters and turns them into works of art.  Another is “Baptism of concrete estuary”, inspired by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, by painter and multimedia artist Jave Yoshimoto.  The figurative ‘scroll project’ (42 inch-by-30-foot) as explained by Yoshimoto is a homage to victims of the 2011 disaster and deals with the surge of images that flooded the internet and began to haunt him in the wake of the disaster.  The list of similar art projects is seemingly endless.

A combination of the increased rate of natural disasters over the past three decades and the ease with which these stories can be shared globally has created an almost permanent source of artistic inspiration, which conversely is starting to appeal to global audiences that seek to better understand disasters and, more importantly, shelter their lives from what can be an overwhelming experience.



Caroline Austin, Director Communications, The Global Resilience Collaborative

Caroline has extensive experience in emergency communications, management and strategy in the not for profit / humanitarian sector gained in a variety of senior level positions. She has developed and managed large-scale communications, partnership and development projects in various locations worldwide, with a particular focus on disaster-affected communities. She has a particular interest in the role of technology in supporting resilience communities and has developed and managed projects that support this objective.


Jelenko Dragisic, Founder, The Global Resilience Collaborative

Jelenko is the founder/editor of ResilienceReporter.com, a seven day a week resilience news, analysis and resource portal focusing on making resilience a recognisable topic for the general population.


Resilience….isn’t that just good old preparation?

It was not that long ago when a conversation about disaster resilience was only a code word for disaster preparation the old fashioned way. I can’t recall all the conversations I had about this subject but I do recall some really well. I still recall some conversations, when in the aftermath of the Queensland Floods and the Cyclone Yasi (just about the time when Australian government released the first National Disaster Resilience Strategy) when the resilience certainly was a big word, how some felt that resilience was really nothing new. The existing model of disaster preparedness was more than adequate, was the thinking despite the simple fact that it was not. For instance, we rarely saw any activity on the part of government/s during the winter period that talked about disasters. Mostly those things were done seasonally, just before the natural disasters were likely to happen. The resilience culture is not something that can be built seasonally. It is something that marks our behaviour all year round. On surface it seems as if no real benefit can be derived from talking about cyclones in July. But, I think that is where we go wrong. Not all preparation can be done only weeks ahead of a storm or cyclone. Brisbane North storms took place only two weeks into the season and it certainly caught many residents off guard. As someone once remarked; culture eats strategy for breakfast; so it is with resilience. It should be a culture and not merely a strategy.

The Gap storm 2008One of the most important lessons about the way resilience to disasters needs to be approached I gained when I was talking to different groups of people across Queensland when I was thinking about various projects that I wanted to include in the proposal to funding via National Disaster Resilience Program. Two points emerged then. One was what I considered clear lack of awareness in general public about the disaster resilience and what governments meant by that. It is not that hard to come across member of public today who would not be able to elaborate on the concept of disaster resilience. But a few years ago, especially before the Queensland Floods and Victorian Bushfires before that, that was almost the default state. So, on local level people essentially thought the disaster resilience is just another fancy government speak. To an extent that was that too, but in reality there was an emergence of a new thinking about the way we engage with natural disasters. The second part of the lesson was the way how communities assessed their own resilience. Essentially, there was no real consensus that was based on common understanding on what matters in relation to resilience. People were looking at different indicators of resilience in order to make a right call. That may not have been necessarily a bad thing because it also indicates that there are different things that matter to people. However, a good policy as an ingredient for resilient community and society at large can’t be developed without some degree of consensus. Which is precisely why a national strategy has to dovetail with local factor.

Those were only very small part of long list of insights that when compiled into a coherent narrative reveal some crucial principles of what resilience should be. I’ve come to think that the overarching narrative of resilience has to be expressed in subtle manner. Perhaps that is well summed in the words of Rolf Jensen formerly from Copenhagen Future Studies Institute when he states “A society without a positive attitude towards the future – one that does not believe that the challenges can be met and the problems can be solved – is not a healthy society.”

The aspect of resilience that remains unclear to many is the total benefit it delivers not only to community but also individual. I am reminded of point that Scottish philosopher David Hume made centuries ago when he asserted that government plays a unique role in mediating the shortsightedness that is so common among individuals pursuing self-interest and the long term interest of society as a whole. So far we have not explained to people what they have to gain by being resilient. Instead we preached to the converted. Resilience does deliver immediate and long term benefits and that has been observed globally in variety of situation. How much of that was a result of a direct strategy behind it is not completely known. But we can learn from that.

The above article is an excerpt from When We Stopped Eating Bananas, an e-book reflecting on disaster resilience since Tropical Cyclone Larry. It is available now on Amazon. 

Reimagining Resilience: Women, Resilience and Disasters (audio recording)

On 11 March 2016, the Global Resilience Collaborative hosted another event as part of its Reimagining Resilience initiative.  The event was supported by a number of collaborating partners, including the Queensland State Government which assisted in funding for the event.

GRC's Moderator Leonie Sanderson in action

GRC’s Moderator Leonie Sanderson in action

The session started with an acknowledgment that “women are disproportionately affected by disasters and disruption”.  That statement, shared by the session’s moderator Leonie Sanderson, provided a backdrop for what followed over the next two hours.  We heard many insightful things about resilience from a group of women who shared their professional experiences, interlaced with personal anecdotes.  As always the power of personal narrative combined with specific professional input made for very engaging dialogue.  Such was the latest session of Reimagining Resilience.

We are pleased to share the audio recording here, courtesy of PopUp Radio Australia.  We encourage people to listen to the session in full and share it with colleagues.




Why Reimagining Resilience

Panel of speakers shared insights into resilience

Panel of speakers shared insights into resilience

The Global Resilience Collaborative (GRC) firmly believes in the power of conversation; particularly the kind of conversation where every participant is a valued contributor. Lived experience, knowledge, ideas, information, relationships all matter. The initiative is designed to create conditions for trans-disciplinary dialogue, learning and innovation that will lead to new ways of thinking about resilience. Our hope is that new ideas will lead to new solutions and projects and programs that will make resilience a genuine value.

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.

Natural disasters generate a special kind of disruption. The disruption associated with a natural disaster lasts longer. Recovery can take more than 10 years. There may be several disasters that ‘roll over’, one on top of the other, as seen recently in Nepal when a second damaging earthquake was experienced only days after the first.

Natural disasters increasingly tend to have a knock-on effect that reaches far beyond the area of immediate impact. The damage to nuclear power plants from the Fukushima tsunami in March 2013 resulted in an impact far beyond the tsunami itself. This type of disruption renders traditional notions of disaster management almost irrelevant. In a world where there are on average 2-3 disasters per day, this is particularly important.

Disruption is the new normal. Cultivating our resilience will give towns, cities, countries, businesses, indeed all of us, the edge to survive and more importantly prosper in a world dominated by the unknown and the improbable. Now is the time to extend our discourse on disasters beyond Prevention, Preparedness, Response and Recovery, to Resilience. Resilience has increasingly proven to be the best possible answer to the relentless level of disruption brought on by natural disasters.

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.

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


Disaster Resilience: an emerging class issue?

One evening six years ago I went to meet a small group of locals in a north Brisbane suburb who were affected by an unusual storm. Many remember the event as The Gap storms and I think they are officially known as the Brisbane North storms.

Residents of the area I visited had organised a small gathering, in fact so small I hesitate to use the word ‘gathering’. Nevertheless, the residents had welcomed me to present a small donation to me as the head of a not for profit organisation I had started to assist in disaster response. We were one of a number of organisations that helped people affected by the storm. So far there’s nothing really special about this story. But the twist, for me at least, was some insight I gained during that quiet evening. You see my hosts had preferred to give the donation to someone else. I, or should I say our organisation, was the ‘last cab off the rank’ and these good people had hoped to give the donation to any one of several larger or better known charities who had assisted in this disaster stricken area. I know this because they were honest and explained it to me. They did not mean any disrespect to me or our organisation. It was just the simple fact of their intentions. I was, and still am, comfortable with that. Especially since we put the donation to good use to further develop a service that helps people following disasters.

Now, the main thing about my insight was not the above mentioned circumstance, but another slightly uncomfortable fact they shared with me while we drank coffee in a circle with no table to divide us. They felt forgotten, abandoned and ignored. Their street was not in The Gap, the suburb that was well covered by the mainstream media. They said it themselves; because their street was in a less affluent postcode the silence was deafening. So maybe their donation was an attempt to get their voice heard. They were also affected but it seemed that help was not as forthcoming to them as to their better-off neighbours.

That episode never left me. Over the years I have mentioned it in meetings, discussions and conversations which were all part of the larger narrative of disaster resilience building. I can recall every time that the response was something along the lines of ‘oh well, that’s how it is’. Ever since I have been bothered by one question: are we developing disaster resilience for the whole of society? I have detected a similar undercurrent of what may be benign negligence (discrimination may be a more apt term but I am not willing to admit to it yet) in other parts of the country. I saw signs of it in Central Queensland (Australia) with aboriginal people. I saw similar things in North Queensland in relation to one of the local CALD groups. In all cases the events were different and significant.

Over the years as my work in the area of disaster recovery matured, and even more so in disaster resilience building in a variety of capacities, I noted a semblance of a pattern emerging; a pattern that reflects a genuine lack of understanding as to what resilience really is about. It simply does not work if inclusiveness is not the guiding principle. It does not work because the sense of injustice that a lack of inclusiveness brings can cost the entire enterprise dearly. Resilience needs ‘whole-of-system’ support, be it ecological, social, technological, political or economic. The system and process has to be all encompassing and based on genuine and multifaceted collaboration.

I am convinced that I am not alone in my observations. There must be more people who realise that the past decade has shown that natural disasters tend to impact the disadvantaged slightly more than others who have the means to bear the disruption with more grit and recover to the point where they can continue to grow, flourish and face the future (including future disruptions) with more courage and confidence. The capacity to live in such a way alone has to be the centrepiece of any political or economic platform that is ingrained into the policy and practice of disaster resilience building. Anything short of that is a populist excuse designed to ignore the dangers of social divisions that threaten every society, regardless of their material riches.

About the author:

Self 2Jelenko Dragisic is a resilience planner and collaboration strategist.  Jelenko is currently writing a book on disaster resilience. 

Multi-disciplinary collaboration during Cyclone Sandy: FEMA and Frog design consultancy example

In late October of 2012, as Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the eastern seaboard, some important members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency were toying with an idea that was a little bit unusual, at least for members of a government agency in the midst of a huge disaster. They were wondering if designers could help.

As part of the “Field Innovation Team,” Frog and others brought a new perspective to disaster relief. Image: Frog

As part of the “Field Innovation Team,” Frog and others brought a new perspective to disaster relief. Image: Frog

That’s how the design consultancy Frog was tapped to become part of FEMA’s Field Innovation Team, a group that brought an unlikely mix of minds into the Sandy recovery process, including experts in fields ranging from art and science to mathematics, technology, and design. According to Desi Matel-Anderson, who served as FEMA’s Chief Innovation Adviser during the period, convening this sort of team and putting them to work during a crisis was not the usual way of doing business. “I don’t know of any time in history where a federal agency like FEMA has tasked a team to innovate in a disaster and to solve in real time like this on the scale that we did,” she told me after her stint at FEMA had wrapped up late last year. “This fundamentally shifted the ideological underpinnings of an entire field.”

By the time FEMA reached out to Frog, a number of employees from the company’s New York office were already on the ground, volunteering their time at Disaster Recovery Centers, or DRCs, throughout the area. Through that exposure and official visits to other recovery centers in subsequent weeks, Frog’s designers got a first-hand look at how disaster recovery worked–and, sometimes, how it didn’t.

Over the several months that followed, Frog and the other members of the Field Innovation Team looked at those Disaster Recovery Centers through the lens of design, drawing up a series of proposals for improving the experience. In January of last year, the team travelled to the White House to present its vision to FEMA representatives and the Secretary of Homeland Security. It was well received. The agency has already put a number of the easiest fixes, like color coded signage, in place, and it’s continuing to refine its operation in light of Frog’s findings.

Government agencies are like large ships in that changing course can be a slow, gradual process. But according to Rich Serino, FEMA’s Deputy Administrator, the agency is indeed looking at things differently in light of the Innovation Team’s work. “They saw things that perhaps we hadn’t seen before,” he told me. “They’ve literally changed the way we do business.”

It’s an ongoing process, but it all started with FEMA going against conventional wisdom. Instead of trying to drum up some new thinking through workshops or simulations, it brought a fresh set of eyes to a disaster as it was happening. That bold decision gave designers a chance to see how FEMA works in the real world, in real time…READ ON