Disaster Preparedness Researcher Says We Failed to Learn Our Lesson from Hurricane Katrina

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Irwin Redlener speaking at yesterday's conference at Columbia's Low Memorial Library.
A pretty catastrophic hurricane hit the Gulf Coast in 2006 that should have served as a lesson to the rest of the U.S. on the importance of disaster preparedness.

Unfortunately, the problems we've seen in the wake of Hurricane Sandy are all too similar to those that persisted during Hurricane Katrina, Irwin Redlener, a professor of public health at Columbia University, said at yesterday's "After Sandy: Climate and Our Coastal Future" panel discussion at Columbia.

"Every single problem that you may have seen or may see as the weeks and months roll on, was forewarned by our experiences back then," Redlener said. "All of it was forewarned by what happened in Katrina in 2005."

Redlener acknowledged the admirable courage that many first responders displayed during Sandy. But, he ultimately concluded that the overall preparation and response to the storm was unacceptable -- a conclusion supported by the myriad of power, public health and structural mishaps that crippled many parts of the Tri-State Area.

"We get very excited. We're having symposiums like this. There's a lot of media coverage. At some point we're going to be hit with another blast of complacency," Redlener said. "And, this is what I really am concerned about: 'how to keep up the momentum that we currently have, for at least a few minutes now, to try and make sure that we really reach towards real solutions."

Redlener was particularly critical of our evacuation systems, infrastructure systems, and lack of dedication to protecting the vulnerable members of society: the young, the elderly and the poor from natural disaster.

He said he's been calling for sweeping improvements to the country's infrastructure since 2006 -- an ambitious project which the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates would cost the U.S. $2.2 trillion to undertake.

Redlener understands what an enormous price-tag the project carries but believes it would serve as a tremendous stimulus and job-creator for the economy. He noted that if his call for nation-wide infrastructure improvement had been heeded back in 2006, we'd be several years into construction by now, and it would've cost the country $1.7 trillion back then.

He and other panelists also argued for more substantive discourse about climate change in politics and the media. NASA Climate researcher Cynthia Rosenzweig said Hurricane Sandy was a very unique and rare type of storm -- in terms of size, direction, surge and speed.

"It was a one-in-multi-century event. It's hard to know exactly because we don't have a lot of data for 500, 600, 700 years storms. But absolutely, it was a multi-century event," Rosenzweig said.

Despite her analysis of the "unique" storm, Rosenzweig's research indicates that global warming is having a real effect on the impact of strong storms -- particularly when it comes to rising sea-levels and flooding.

"When you have sea level rise, it's like having a higher basketball court," she said. "When you're going to try and do a slam-dunk, or have a coastal flooding storm, your base is higher and it's easier to have that slam-dunk of coastal flooding."

Fellow panelist Adam Sobel, a researcher of ocean climate physics at Columbia University, projects that storms are becoming increasingly more intense, but cautions that there's not enough data available to be absolutely certain.

"Our understanding of the physics tells us that they will, and our best computer models tell us that they will," Sobel said. "It's too soon to see ahead in the observations -not because of any scientific problem other than that the hurricanes vary so much naturally. There's so much natural fluctuation that it takes a long time to see a trend."

Redlener called for the conversation about climate change to move beyond just the realm of science, and seriously enter into the dialogue of national and local politics.

"The fact of the matter is that science alone rarely brings about the changes that we all desire," he said. "At the end of the day, we are really going to have to address [the problem], with the big dollars, big commitment and big-boy pulpits."

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