10 Years On, Hurricane Katrina Has Taught Towns How to Be Resilient



Does the area you live in have a clear evacuation plan and resources in place in case of a catastrophic event? No one can prevent a disaster, but planning and a strong understanding of what it means to be resilient can make all the difference.

On Aug. 29, the country marks 10 years since Hurricane Katrina leveled 500,000 homes in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, creating $41 billion in property damage and displacing more than 1 million people.

Since the Category 5 hurricane struck the Big Easy, the city has installed a $14.5 billion system of levees, flood walls, and pumps. Redevelopment in New Orleans’ nine main residential communities has cost $1 billion, and the population is back to 90 percent of what it was before the storm.

These efforts among local, state, and federal governments; public and private organizations; and individuals are all part of what experts call a “resilience effort.” And it appears that such movements aren’t limited to Louisiana. They’ve gained traction across the country.

During a recent webinar, representatives from the Urban Land Institute defined resilience as “the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events.” Resilience includes both recovery and improvement: what can and should happen before, during, and after hazardous events such as flooding, wildfires, winter storms, and tornadoes.

In order to build resilience in areas prone to disasters, ULI’s Byron Stigge listed six steps to help towns and cities assess risk. The idea of risk is based on the concept of the probability of an event (percentage) multiplied by the damage from the event ($), although damages such as health issues and the reputation of a city can’t always be determined monetarily.

  1. Define types of relevant hazards: The events that typically happen in the Midwest are different from those on the West Coast, for example.
  2. Define event scenarios: Are the hazards very likely to happen (10 percent annual probability), moderately likely (1 percent annual probability), or highly unlikely (0.2 percent annual probability)?
  3. Identify affected assets: These assets can include response facilities such as police stations and hospitals, infrastructure, and operating facilities, including government buildings and schools.
  4. Assess the damage to each asset: Direct impacts can include property damage, inventory losses, and loss of life. Indirect impacts can include reduced home values, higher insurance rates, and job losses.
  5. Calculate annual risk exposure: How much money would have to be spent on each asset after each type of hazardous event?
  6. Calculate cumulative risk exposure: Analyze what the damage will be 10, 20, and 50 years from now.

These steps are meant to reduce the risk of catastrophe as much as possible. However, Jim Heid of UrbanGreen, a San Francisco-based sustainability consultancy, noted that “much like sustainability, resilience is … really something that’s never achieved, but it’s something we continually work toward over time.”

Heid stressed the importance of examining actions needed for different types of rural or urban landscapes. He said often it’s smaller communities that need the most resources, but they rarely have the ability to handle them. Strategies that are applicable for a wide range of communities include avoiding new development in high-risk areas, anticipating events by having resources available, and accepting that some challenges are unavoidable.

Though these steps toward resilience seem intended for local government officials, it’s important to be aware of the planning that may be happening in your community. For real estate professionals and home owners, these plans can be an important factor when looking to buy, sell, or show a home. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the city had weak, out-of-date levees and an insufficient evacuation plan. Now, with a resilience movement long underway, the city has collected data to determine which areas need evacuation first in the event of another disaster. It has an evacuation plan, which was tested in the wake of Hurricane Gustav in 2008, to move every resident out in 36 hours and bring them to shelters with food.

Chloe Dale

Chloe Dale is an intern for REALTOR® Magazine. She can be reached at cdale@realtors.org.

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  1. Great article, I think sometimes municipalities regardless of size do very little by way of proper evaluated contingency planning despite all the examples of disasters we have to reference for potential shortcomings in all types of public services and resources. Em.

  2. Helen Luna Fess

    It all comes don to funding. The decision makers of most govt. agencies ( including municipalities)
    Prefer to kick the can down the road ( exampled by retiree pension plans generally under- unfunded )
    So build a storm drainage system or address, plan & fund the vital infra structure expenditures.
    Naw…let the next guy do that.