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. 

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.

25 Devastating Effects Of Climate Change

disasrer induced displacement

I found this article by Leslie Baehr, Chelsea Harvey published recently in the Business Insider (Australia) which I think makes for mandatory sharing.  The authors make a compelling case with a list of issues that are already taking serious toll on socio-economic sustainability globally. 

The world is getting warmer and that’s already causing disasters that will devastate lives and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Those problems are only getting worse, as shown by recent reports from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) and the White House, among others. The greenhouse gas emissions that drive warming “now substantially exceed the highest concentrations recorded in ice cores during the past 800,000 years,” the IPCC said. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which primarily come from the burning of fossil fuels, have risen 40% since preindustrial times…READ ON

Research shows the behaviour of business leaders could be directly linked to their experiences in childhood

I found this piece on phys.org and it immediately reminded me of a number of people whom I’ve met over the years during disaster response, recovery and resilience building activities.  The research results described in this piece are telling in so many ways.  Hope you enjoy it!

Tsunami Hits Minamisoma. Credit: Warren Antiola via flickr

Tsunami Hits Minamisoma. Credit: Warren Antiola via flickr

What makes a great leader? Effectiveness? Experience? Volcanoes? It might seem unlikely, but new research from a team of academics, including Raghavendra Rau, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild Professor of Finance at Cambridge Judge Business School, suggests that experiencing a natural disaster at first hand during your early childhood can have a profound impact on your strategic and tactical decisions in later life. The team studied the impact of natural disasters on leading CEOs and, remarkably, found that those who experienced a number of moderate disasters actually had a greater appetite for risk-taking than those who had experienced none (unsurprisingly, those who experienced the most extreme natural disasters were most risk averse). It also found that they were more likely to take on more risk in response to a threat to the business…READ ON