How a Low-Income San Francisco Neighborhood Is Building a Culture of Disaster Preparedness, with lessons from New Orleans ~Justin Gerdes, Atlantic Cities

Posted on May 9, 2014 By


Hurricane Katrina base radar reflectivity August 29, 2005. Click the gif for more information from NOAA on Hurricanes & Tropical Storms – August 2005

My original quote in the masthead upper left used to read: “These days, it is only through disasters, be they natural or man-made, that Americans may know any sort of cultural cohesion.” This concept came to me soon after the Federal Flood of New Orleans 8-29-05, when the Army Corps of Engineers levees and flood-walls failed catastrophically, due to their own bad design, devastating the city.  I shortened it after starting, as our work in disaster mitigation and resilience with communities around the country increasingly encompasses both sides of the coin with natural and man-made disaster.  I was living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina missed the city and the Corps’ levees failed -many at half load. Yet, it was not only surviving that tragic event which inspired me to get into this line of work, but the nation’s reaction and response to it. This, in and of itself, taught me the function of Resilience as a manifestation of Cultural Cohesion.

That our nation is Culturally Fractured, or at the very least Culturally Challenged, is not in doubt to anyone. Yet, when disaster strikes our country pulls it together. That is a function of Cultural Cohesion, to wit: Culture comes from Nature > Society comes from Culture > Resilience comes from the cohesion of both in times of disaster.  I no longer belabor our Federal response to Katrina writ large or New Orleans in particular, because it is our entire nation’s reaction over all that taught me we are not alone, and  has led me to move past the painful mistakes and into a place of healing resilience, of faith in our nation’s ability to make ourselves whole. Disasters are one of the only things all Americans experience first hand.

Atlantic Cities‘ gracious support and continued pristine coverage  of New Orleans in the aftermath and recovery from Katrina is, to me, a perfect example of Cultural Cohesion. I recommend them to everyone seeking to live in our nation’s cities in these times of inevitable calamity. This is one of the best articles I’ve read on Disaster Preparedness and Resilience ~Bruce Biles

Defining a Buzzword

The diligent efforts undertaken at Providence Baptist Church are a grassroots example of building something local governments, civil society groups, NGOs and businesses around the world are talking about a lot these days: “resilience.”

That’s a term that still means different things to different people.

In the Bay Area, many people understand it in terms of earthquakes, and preparing for “The Big One.” (A quake destroyed the city in 1906; the 1989 quake caused significant damage.) Others see it largely in the context of climate change and preparing for rising seas and prolonged droughts like the one California has been suffering through for three years.  Some talk of resilience in terms of strengthening at-risk communities, increasing economic opportunity and decreasing crime. And still others see it as diversifying local economies to protect against housing busts, stock-market crashes and other kinds of economic shocks.

“Resiliency is an all-encompassing term,” San Francisco’s Patrick Otellini recently told Green Biz. Otellini was recently named the city’s first (and the world’s first) Chief Resilience Officer. “At some point, it actually becomes such an encompassing term that it’s hard to define. It’s not just sustainability. It’s not just seismic safety. It’s not just energy assurance. It’s all of these things together.”

Lessons from Louisiana

The Bayview is a good place to see how this thinking plays out on the ground. While earthquakes may be the most visceral risk, what many people here cite as motivation is a hurricane that struck 2,000 miles away. It was after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 that Hodge’s church stepped up its disaster preparedness; many congregants owned property there or had family members affected by the storm and its flooding.

Katrina also influenced Daniel Homsey, San Francisco’s impassioned director of neighborhood resiliency. Homsey went to New Orleans after Katrina to survey damage, offer help and bring home lessons learned. He is convinced that much of Katrina’s wrath was preventable. Katrina “was a man-made disaster,” Homsey told me. “No one had to die. No one had to even lose their home. It was all a cascading series of really bad decisions, bad planning, and corrupted social capital.”Read more.

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