Public Safety: Natural Disasters Research Paper Starter

Public Safety: Natural Disasters

Natural disasters include a range of events such as earthquake, hurricane, avalanche, flood, severe storms and volcanic eruptions. As such, they constitute risks to lives, health and the environment. It has become axiomatic within the social sciences that modern society is generally understood as a risk society (Beck, 1992). In risk society, risk is globalized and generalized in ways that seem out of the individual's control; nonetheless, science and technology are presented as solutions to the problems of uncertainty and anxiety that risk generates. Natural disasters exemplify events that seem out of the individual's control, that generate uncertainty and anxiety, and that have several elements in common: they are relatively unexpected; emergency and rescue personnel may be overwhelmed; and lives, public health and the environment are endangered (Department of Homeland Security, 2003). They disrupt "lives, spaces, organizations and institutions" (Iverson & Armstrong, 2008, p. 2) which policy and research responses have tended to assume were functioning adequately prior to the event. Moreover, natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, as forms of "catastrophic risk," follow the poor (Beck, 2006) and exacerbate pre-existing social and economic divisions and vulnerabilities. Policy research and development therefore has focused on the intersection of local, regional and federal responses to natural disasters.

Keywords Community Emergency Response Team; Disaster Preparedness; Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA); Hurricane; Natural Disaster; Policy; Risk Society; Risk Assessment

Social Issues

Overview

Natural disasters include a range of events such as earthquake, hurricane, avalanche, flood, severe storms and volcanic eruptions. As such, they constitute risks to lives, health and the environment. It has become axiomatic within the social sciences that modern society is generally understood as a risk society (Beck, 1992). In risk society, while risk is globalized and generalized in ways that seem out of the individual's control, nonetheless, science and technology are presented as solutions to the problems of uncertainty and anxiety that risk generates. Natural disasters exemplify events that seem out of the individual's control, that generate uncertainty and anxiety and that have several elements in common: they are relatively unexpected; emergency and rescue personnel may be overwhelmed; and lives, public health and the environment are endangered (Department of Homeland Security, 2003). They disrupt "lives, spaces, organizations and institutions" (Iverson & Armstrong, 2008, p. 2) which policy and research responses have tended to assume were functioning adequately prior to the event. Moreover, natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, as forms of "catastrophic risk," follow the poor (Beck, 2006) and exacerbate pre-existing social and economic divisions and vulnerabilities. Therefore, policy research and development has focused on the intersection of local, regional, and federal responses to natural disasters.

Hurricane Katrina

There is perhaps no recent natural disaster that has touched the lives of Americans as did Hurricane Katrina (though some would argue that 2012s Hurricane Sandy, the largest and second most expensive hurricane in terms of damages, was equally devastating). In combination with Hurricane Rita, this natural disaster:

… displaced more than 1.5 million people, took more than 1800 lives, destroyed more than 200,000 homes and businesses, and left a scar of devastation on Louisiana and the Gulf Coast- both physical and psychological — that is likely to persist for decades (Allen, 2006, p. 2).

The images of people (and animals) standing on rooftops hoping to be rescued; homes being washed away under the force of the storm; news reports of elderly people stranded in nursing homes; and the sheer devastation to one of the country's most treasured cities continues to be an issue in America. Moreover, social and economic divisions played a role in saving peoples' lives. As Tierney (2006) notes, "When mandatory evacuations were ordered, those with automobiles and cash and credit to purchase gasoline and hotel rooms were able to act on those orders more readily than those without transportation and financial resources" (p. 13).

Many people have accused various levels of government of incompetence and indifference to the impact of Hurricane Katrina, and there continues to be debate as to why the levees, which were in such a poor state, had not been maintained over the years. Like the events of 9/11, Katrina continues to haunt the lives of many people who live in New Orleans as well as those who once did, but have been unable to return home. Much of the ensuing debate focused on blame, and as Wyatt-Nichol and Abel (2007) comment:

There was plenty of scapegoating in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Local governments blamed the state and federal government; state government officials blamed the local and federal government; federal government officials blamed the state and local governments; and on occasion, all levels of government blamed the victims themselves (p. 567).

There is a degree of consensus that all levels of government responded poorly to the impact of Hurricane Katrina, in part because there was little to no pre-existing risk assessment or disaster preparedness policies in place. Of course, the hurricane was predicted, but other than that, there was little warning to the people of New Orleans about the hurricane's potential for devastation. As a result, it became one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in American history (Tierney, 2006). Wyatt-Nichol and Abel (2007) argue that one of the reasons for the high death toll was the inadequate response by the federal government and its failure to recognize the strength of the disaster until it was too late. This understanding begs questions about the role of public policy in preparing for and responding to natural disasters and what theoretical frameworks support public policy responses.

Explaining Natural Disasters as Forms of Risk

Disaster scholarship focuses on different aspects of events that can be categorized as natural disasters, such as how different social groups’ response to disaster, factors that exacerbate the magnitude of the event, unintended consequences, suffering, and the role played in relief and response efforts by emergent community networks (Iverson & Armstrong, 2008).

In recent examples of what have been termed natural disasters (such as Hurricane Katrina), science and technology have played an increasingly significant role in explaining, predicting and preparing for disasters and managing their outcomes. Such approaches to natural disasters focus a "technological, techno-political or techno-health lens on creating and implementing institutional or organizational strategies for disaster preparation and management" (Iverson & Armstrong, 2008, p. 7).

Moreover, public policy and research has also been focused on the ways that such disasters exacerbate pre-existing social, cultural, environmental and even political divisions. As Neil Smith, an environmental geographer, notes:

It is generally accepted among environmental geographers that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. In every phase and aspect of a disaster — causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction — the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus (Smith, 2006).

In such a view then, the impact of a natural disaster is highly dependent on the social and political contexts in which it occurs and in many cases contributes to increasing existing vulnerabilities. Moreover, the risk of natural disasters is unevenly distributed (Maruyama & Ruscher, 2006) and many recent disasters have highlighted how deeply interdependent economic and social activities are and how far-reaching the effects are of one event. For instance, Hurricane Katrina, which at the time was the largest natural disaster in US history, also had global impacts on global oil, gas and insurance markets (Kunreuther, 2006).

Despite these far-reaching effects, events that are categorized as natural disasters, like Hurricane Katrina, are classified as "low-probability-high-consequence" (LPHC) events. Yet, natural disasters appear to be increasing in frequency. Consequently, risk assessment and management have emerged as key strategies in the process of predicting and preparing for natural disasters.

Further Insights

Risk Assessment

Risk assessment is the field that determines the level of risk associated with a particular situation or perceived threat. However, as Schmidt-Thomé (2007) points out, risk assessment is relatively new area of research and requires international cooperation, which makes the development and implementation of policy very challenging.

For instance, hurricanes are considered one of the most dangerous forms of natural disasters. They are generally considered to be violent, tropical storms that originate in the western North Atlantic with winds that reach over 72 miles per hour. They are also sometimes referred to as "cyclonic storms." As these storms usually have devastating effects when they touch land, there is an increasing need to assess the kinds of damage that are likely to occur with an oncoming storm. However, the research in this field suggests that such assessments are not easy:

For hurricanes, the shortness of data series, and their often poor quality, explains why most of these questions cannot be answered with certainty. Even for the North Atlantic and the U.S. coastline … high-quality data on hurricane properties are very recent, and the rarity of the most extreme events makes landfall statistics uncertain (Hallegate, 2007, p....

(The entire section is 4455 words.)