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Anatomy of a natural disaster

by Anna Cearley
Anatomy of a Natural Disaster
Hurricane Katrina storm surge damage in Pascagoula, Miss.

The impact of Hurricane Katrina continues to be felt in the New Orleans region and beyond as researchers and policymakers examine what went wrong and how to deal with the effects of a similar disaster in the future.

The latest contribution comes from a team of USC professors who edited and wrote chapters for Natural Disaster Analysis After Hurricane Katrina: Risk Assessment, Economic Impacts and Social Implications (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2008).

The book takes a look at the underlying factors that contributed to the 2005 devastation while also providing an analytical assessment of the aftereffects.

The 320-page book, which is targeted toward academics and policymakers, aims to become the most comprehensive resource of information on this pivotal event in the history of disaster mismanagement. While the book focuses on a natural disaster, it also explores parallels with terrorism-related events.

“Research on the post-Katrina situation provides a wealth of information on the impacts of disasters like this one that we can use to promote improvements in policy and planning preparations,” said Harry W. Richardson, professor at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development. “This includes preparing for the dispersion and return of residents, considering how policy decisions impact recovery and the mobilization of neighborhood constituencies to participate in the political process.”

The book is edited by Richardson; SPPD professor Peter Gordon; and James E. Moore II, chair of the Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

“The economic impacts of an event like Katrina aren’t easily documented using non-spatial models, and that’s part of what inspired us to tackle this problem – so that there is a more accurate and analytical way of determining the ripple effects of future events,” said Gordon, who contributed to a chapter about Katrina’s economic impact.

“Understanding the details of economic impacts of disasters like this one means providing policymakers with the tools to be better prepared and adept at reacting to other unforeseen events,” he said.

Almost 30 other researchers, many from USC, were involved in writing chapters.

Two contributors with strong ties to USC collaborated on the book and have since obtained postings with other universities.

Chang-Hee Christine Bae, who earneds Ph.D. from USC in planning, is now an associate professor of urban design and planning at the University of Washington. Jiyoung Park, who also earned his Ph.D. in planning at USC, is now an assistant professor of urban planning at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

“These contributors demonstrate the important role USC plays in placing graduates of its Ph.D. programs into top-notch faculty positions,” Moore said.

USC faculty members were involved in researching and writing about the following Katrina-related issues in book chapters:

SPPD professor Raphael Bostic investigated Katrina’s impact on New Orleans’ housing sector and considered alternatives for reconstruction.

J.J. Lee, a professor in the Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at USC Viterbi, examined how electrical power failure and abandonment of pumping stations contributed to the disaster.

SPPD professor Richardson examined how water flow protection worked along the Thames River in London. He found that strong leadership helped that region prepare for floods.

SPPD professor Adam Rose reported how individual businesses, markets and regional economies are disrupted in a major disaster when transportation modes are cut off and goods are not immediately available. His section explores the concept of “resilience” and considers how households in different income levels respond to a disaster.

Detlof von Winterfeldt, director of the USC Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events and a member of the World Economic Global Agenda Council, examined how engineers made overly optimistic assumptions about hurricanes in the New Orleans area when considering levee system improvements in the 1970s and ’80s.

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