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The Social Side of Planning for Catastrophe

One might think that planning for catastrophe would be one case where there is a unitary public interest. After all, floodwaters can't tell a rich person from a poor person. But it turns out that in initial vulnerability, safety and security immediately after the event, and in the longer term restoration and rebuilding phase, natural catastrophes do hit different categories of people very differently.

Consider the flooding of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. By and large it was poorer people who lived in the lower lying parts of the city and were thus most vulnerable to the initial event. Most of the evacuation from the city was by car, which obviously favored people who had enough income to own a car. People with adequate savings did much better in the aftermath than people who lived paycheck to paycheck or were dependent on public assistance. Just as poor people are more vulnerable, so too are older people. If nothing else, they are likely to have less strength, energy, and good health with which to tolerate stress, cold or extreme heat, exhaustion, anxiety, interruption of access to medical care, and the like.

Reconstruction after the event involves a host of distributional (who gets what) issues. What gets rebuilt, what gets written off, who gets compensated and by what amounts? If public funds are to be spent to harden the area against future events, who gets protected and how is that paid for? The subject is discussed in more detail in Chapter 14.

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