Editor’s Note: Jesse M. Keenan is an associate professor of real estate in the School of Architecture at Tulane University in New Orleans. Keenan is an internationally recognized expert in climate adaptation and the built environment. He formerly served as chair of the US Community Resilience Panel for Buildings and Infrastructure Systems under the Obama White House Climate Action Plan. He and his family evacuated their home in New Orleans and are in Florida. The opinions expressed here are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
In the 16 years since Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana and the federal government have engaged in a massive experiment called “disaster resilience,” the idea that physical and community infrastructure are integrated and built to recover and maintain operations in the face of extreme events. Yes, thankfully, the single-purpose, cost-effective flood levees that the US Army Corps of Engineers built after Hurricane Katrina worked. Yet, nearly every other infrastructure system that disaster resilience adherents promised to integrate has either failed or performed extremely poorly in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida – from collapsed transmission lines to 911 system outages.
As Hurricane Ida has demonstrated, there are limits to what emergency management can do. Over the weekend, New Orleans did not even have enough time to coordinate an evacuation. Off-the-shelf disaster management protocols take time to execute, and Hurricane Ida demonstrated, with the rapid climate-attributed intensification of hurricanes, there is less and less time to respond.
In practice, disaster resilience is a flawed concept that has given us a false faith in our ability to withstand extreme weather and climate change.
The concept was popularized after 9/11, when the federal recovery efforts sought to protect America’s infrastructure from future attacks. To plan for the next big attack, the government acknowledged that fail-safe systems could indeed fail and shifted focus to the idea that systems should be designed so that, when they do fail, they can recover as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. Power outages are already expected to last weeks or possibly even months.
By the time Hurricane Katrina hit, the Bush administration already believed in the power of disaster resilience as an organizing concept to bring stakeholders to the table to plan for the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. When the multibillion-dollar recovery efforts kicked off in 2005, the flag of resilience was hoisted up by consultants, engineering conglomerates, foundations and even state and federal agencies who all wanted a piece of the billion-dollar pie. From resilience conferences and awards to resilience protypes and even districts, it became the defining rally call for post-Katrina recovery.
During the Obama administration, resilience policies proliferated, but only a small group of technical experts knew how to make use of many of them. Some policies effectively helped coordinate federal, tribal, state and local disaster and climate planners, while other policies associated with stronger building codes were wishful thinking. The outcome was a mix of practices, plans and rhetoric that never fully lived up to its promise.
During my time co-leading resilience efforts across the country, I saw great success among public, private and civic stakeholders. But one major challenge was the fact disaster resilience is a highly technical concept with vague policy principles centered on recovery. Stakeholders in interconnected infrastructure systems, such as cellular telecom and electrical distribution, often defined resilience in entirely different and sometimes conflicting ways.
Defining and measuring any strategic concept is key to the stewardship of public investments. Yet, policymakers have had trouble distinguishing between competing ideas of resilience, and the result is dozens of different policy definitions for resilience.
Over time, communities and vulnerable populations began to take on more and more of the responsibility for disaster resilience and disaster preparedness. The good news is disaster resilience investments within communities and local governments did significantly improve their emergency management capacity for a range of hazards. The bad news is the scale of the challenges facing these communities on the edge of the climate crisis is bigger than many of these communities can manage by themselves.
By the same token, these disaster resilience investments have focused on responding to disasters – not necessarily preventing disasters or adapting to climate change.
The core problem with disaster resilience is that politicians and bureaucrats use the concept as a means to avoid the tough questions about the structural issues that make people vulnerable to catastrophes such as hurricanes in the first place: If your community struggles to rebuild, a finger is often pointed at a lack of community resilience. No one wants to stand up to ask why poor and historically marginalized communities are subject to a disproportionate amount of environmental risk or why state and local government allow people to build – or even live – in high-risk areas.
Instead of doing the hard work of changing how you do things, disaster resilience allowed for an easy way out for politicians. It allowed them to always say yes to more infrastructure investments, but it never forced them to say no to building in high-risk areas in the first place, such as along the Louisiana coast.
President Joe Biden’s slogan of “Build Back Better” is directly borrowed from a popular slogan of the disaster resilience movement. While his administration has made resilience a funding priority, the entire paradigm of disaster resilience will need to be rethought and his administration will need to commit to ensuring climate adaptation and hazard mitigation work hand in hand. This means planning for managed relocation of high-risk areas, having more federal preemption over risky local land use decisions, and reforming the National Flood Insurance Program and other policies to better support smart and equitable housing and infrastructure investments.
Hurricane Ida will be remembered as the storm from which many, many people were not able to build back – much less build back better. Some people will be displaced, while others will choose to migrate to other parts of the country that are not as terminally at-risk as coastal Louisiana.
There is a threshold of resilience, and beyond that threshold you either adapt or you fail. As one of the poorest cities in the country, New Orleans cannot afford to fail. It can barely afford to survive. We have to transform our cities and our infrastructure to adapt to climate change. In some cases, this means building back better, but, for many, it also means building back somewhere else. We have to ask some tough questions about where we are going to rebuild and who has the resources to rebuild.
New Orleans will recover, as it has done time and again for hundreds of years. But, we can no longer afford to live in denial with the faith that we will be forever resilient. If Hurricane Ida marks the end of the age of resilience, it can also mark the beginning of a new age of our sustainable stewardship of the built and natural environments.