What can we do about disasters?

Hurricanes in the Gulf Coast. Devastating earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. The news is filled with vivid stories of disasters, both sudden and -- as with the case of incremental global climate change -- slow-moving.

At first, the calamities are blamed on "Acts of God," natural events outside our control. But further investigation usually reveals how very human-made problems -- bad planning, thoughtless development, poverty, environmental degradation -- have made certain communities more vulnerable to destruction, or helped create the disasters in the first place.

With Hurricane Katrina, the failure of policy-makers to fortify New Orleans levees, protect Louisiana's storm-buffer wetlands, and provide an evacuation plan that didn't rely on driving to flee the storm -- when one-third of city residents didn't own a car -- all helped turn a natural storm into a human-caused disaster (for more on these and other examples, see the Institute's report on Katrina and human rights).

So what issues do disasters raise about law, policy and society? And how can these lessons be translated into better decisions and arrangements that can lessen the devastation for communities and the planet?

This past July, the Institute was invited to join a group of scholars in the growing field of "disaster studies" in Oñati, Spain -- the center of Basque country -- to grapple with these and other questions. The conference, hosted in the striking 16th century buildings of the International Institute for the Sociology of Law and organized by Susan Sterett of Denver University, offered a fascinating survey of the range of issues and problems researchers are grappling with in how to approach disasters, from big-picture legal and policy dilemmas to local case studies in disaster preparation and response.

Arthur McEvoy of Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, for example, laid out the way that current law makes disasters more likely through encouraging greater exploitation of natural resources, an argument that resonates with U.S. energy policy leading into BP's Deepwater Horizon oil disaster last year:

What people perceive as "natural disasters" typically take place when extractive industries operate at levels high enough that the ecological systems from which they draw resources lose their ability to buffer transient shocks, whether of environmental or technological origin. Legal institutions whose purpose it is to prevent such disasters from taking place may in fact encourage them, insofar as they must also broker competing demands for greater access to resources.

The same kinds of sociological and legal issues are revealed in how we respond to disasters, both in the short-term relief and response phase, and in long-term recovery. Joining me on a panel about media coverage of disasters was Lisa Grow Sun of Brigham Young University, who offered an eye-opening look at media hype about crime after disasters.

You remember the stories after Katrina: TV coverage was filled with accounts of looting, violence and chaos. A New York Times editorial opined that the city was descending into "a snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding thugs, suffering innocents, a shattered infrastructure, a gutted police force, insufficient troop levels and criminally negligent government planning."

But as Sun points out:

These unrelenting tales of anarchy, violence, and bedlam in post-Katrina New Orleans proved to be, at best, greatly exaggerated, and, at worst, utterly false. Nearly a month after Katrina struck New Orleans, major news outlets retracted many of their previous reports of widespread violence and crime in Katrina's wake. Unfortunately, the early reports have proved resilient and the truth has never fully caught up with the myth.

In fact, while media coverage of post-disaster crime and mayhem are common, it's a well-documented "disaster myth": In reality, disaster victims are just as likely to work together and find common purpose. But the media-fueled myth lives on, with destructive consequences: Sun argued that, as with Katrina, it can cause lawmakers to delay humanitarian assistance and focus on a militarized, police-style response that limits freedoms. It can also escalate fear, paradoxically leading to more violence and looting.

But if disasters can expose broader social problems, can they also force us to confront them? They say it often takes a disaster before the public will pay attention to a problem; after the inequities revealed by Katrina, many hoped it would force issues of poverty and racial justice into the public debate. But do disasters really lead to change?

Maybe. According to Thomas Birkland of N.C. State University, disasters can be "focusing events" that thrust previously-ignored issues into the public debate. He found that disasters "do not often alter existing organizational or stakeholder relationships based on economic or political power" -- e.g., that grand post-Katrina debate about race and class in America. But in the wake of events like the 1999 Columbine school shootings and 9/11, there was a clear change in U.S. debate and policy.

One of the key differences with Katrina: Unlike gun deaths and military crises, hurricanes are more episodic, and unfortunately there's not a big enough constituency of people affected to keep our attention. While Katrina did lead to short-term fixes in FEMA administration and other response issues, there simply weren't enough people pushing the bigger issues to create more far-reaching change.

One sign of hope, however, might be the public's interest in climate change. Polls show 52% of U.S. residents are "very" or "somewhat" worried about the planet warming. That might be lower than many would like, and is no guarantee the public will act on their concern. But that a majority are paying attention to a slow-moving and hard-to-visualize -- but potentially immensely destructive -- calamity could be evidence that, at least sometimes, we can focus on disasters that transcend immediate TV drama.

Given how much is at stake, let's hope so.

By Chris Kromm