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. 

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