Empowering knowledge: A modest proposal for a broader social science research agenda in the wake of Katrina
Published on: Jun 11, 2006

James K. Mitchell is professor of geography at Rutgers University. He has led National Research Council-sponsored post-disaster survey teams, advised hazard policy bodies on four continents, chaired the International Geographical Union’s Study Group on the Disaster Vulnerability of Megacities and founded the international journal Global Environmental Change.

Katrina was such a big and complex disaster that it will be a long time before its many different manifestations are fully documented and understood. How the social science research community makes sense of this event will tell us as much about social science as it does about the human significance of Katrina; and how researchers set the boundaries of the task will be among the most indicative clues. Will we mainly focus on identifying the flaws of the existing disaster management system with a view to making it function more effectively in the future? Or, will we address the deeper problem of an inadequate fit between what the research community knows about the human dimensions of uncertain environmental hazards and what society chooses to do with that knowledge? Or, will we push even further, across largely uncharted intellectual territory, to consider how different systems of knowledge about our ambiguous physical environment, and competing systems of action within our fractious society, can be brought together in pursuit of survival, security, sustainability and the other diverse goals that humans wish to obtain?

Much of the present discourse about Katrina focuses on the performance of the nation’s disaster response system. This is judged by many to have been slow, insufficient, disorganized and inequitable. If these provisional conclusions are sustained, they might suggest that we social scientists should bend our efforts towards diagnosing flaws in the system and making sure that proposed modifications are informed by the best available knowledge about sufficiency, efficiency and justice as these pertain to the provision of emergency management services and the delivery of disaster relief. Such a remit is both ethically worthy and well within the capacity of the social sciences, but it does not make the most of our knowledge and expertise. For we know that the decisions humans make during non-emergency times have a major impact on the likelihood that disasters will occur in the future. Societies that anticipate the possibility of disasters and act to prevent, avoid or reduce them have far less need to rely on emergency management and relief as measures of last resort. Similarly, societies that ignore these anticipatory tasks or relegate them to the margins of the public agenda, invite catastrophe. Bearing this in mind, it will be important to discover ways of altering the processes by which public discourse and policy choices focus on proximal causes of disaster and reactive responses that have limited utility, while neglecting distal ones for which there are effective anticipatory loss-reduction alternatives.

There is already a great deal of reliable knowledge about reactive and anticipatory approaches to natural disasters. This has been derived from more than half a century of inquiry into extreme events viewed as social and natural experiments, including quick-response field investigations of ongoing disasters, formal post-audits of the performance of hazard-management systems and other kinds of evaluation research. Much of the relevant knowledge has been codified in the Second Assessment of Natural Hazard Research and more recent findings can readily be compiled from hazard information clearing houses and other authoritative bodies.1 There is a need to accelerate and retarget the delivery of this knowledge to appropriate decision-makers during fast-breaking disasters. Yet, simply bringing the body of existing knowledge to the attention of decision-makers will not be enough.

The outcome of hurricane Katrina is not just a vast physical and political mess with profound human consequences; it is also a direct challenge to the assumption that scientific knowledge promotes sound public policy. Almost nothing about the apparent failures of societal response comes as much of a surprise to seasoned hazards researchers. Well before this event, the research community had already identified most of the systematic problems and potential trouble spots; they had also developed many of the methods and tools for addressing them. The vulnerability of urban areas, like New Orleans, Biloxi, Gulfport and a string of other hard-hit places, is a typical example. Vulnerability is a basic attribute of the human contribution to disasters. It can be defined as the degree to which humans, and the things they value, are susceptible to loss when affected by extreme events. It is a joint product of exposure, inadequate protection measures and/or limited capacities to absorb and rebound from loss. Both the general finding that contemporary urbanization is a vulnerability-forcing process in cities throughout the world, and specific concerns about the vulnerability of Gulf Coast cities, have been identified and analyzed in the research literature for many years.2 Not only have established researchers produced case studies of vulnerability in specific cities, they have carried out comparative analyses of vulnerability across classes of cities, and systematic investigations of the relationship between urbanization and hazard management. A new generation of young scholars and graduate students has expanded the research frontier to examine vulnerability to new urban threats such as those associated with terrorism and climate change.3 Sophisticated place-focused vulnerability databases and indicators of vulnerability have also been compiled.4

Vulnerability is sufficiently well studied that some institutions have been able to address the task of developing management approaches for vulnerability reduction, especially in urban communities. These include vulnerability mapping and assessment systems, preparedness procedures that prioritize the protection of vulnerable groups and, especially, mitigation measures that address the human components of hazards and disasters.5 The translation of these applied research initiatives into formal public policies has also proceeded, albeit more slowly and cautiously than many in the research community had hoped. At the global level the World Bank, the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, regional inter-governmental bodies, and private entities like Swiss Re and Munich Re - the major global reinsurance firms – have been particularly prominent advocates. In the United States, throughout the 1990s the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also appeared to have joined in these efforts. Agency leaders announced a major policy shift towards anticipatory forms of mitigation and there was an upsurge of interest in urban hazard reduction. FEMA adopted the HAZUS-GIS system for estimating potential losses as a basis for mitigation planning, especially in urban areas. Project Impact demonstration programs were begun with the goal of encouraging grass roots hazard mitigation in vulnerable cities. A Task Force on Urban Wildfire and Urban Search and Rescue Teams were also created by FEMA. Both the recognition that urban areas required special attention in the hazard-management system and the new emphasis on mitigation appeared to demonstrate a long sought after sensitivity to the human dimensions of disaster at the highest governmental level. As the new millennium approached, a White House-sponsored Public Private Partnership for natural hazard reduction grasped the importance of these developments and foreshadowed the potential for new contributions by the social sciences. Using words that sound eerily prescient in the wake of Katrina they noted: “Our ability to respond effectively to urban natural disasters is closely linked to larger social issues and to the structure of our society. The fault lines in a city or a society become apparent under the stress of a natural disaster; true natural disaster reduction requires strengthening the social fabric.” 6

Unfortunately, the momentum towards vulnerability-sensitive hazards mitigation that developed in the 1990s was not sustained. Katrina caught the country after the national apparatus for addressing environmental risks had been restructured to give primacy to terrorism and broad-based hazard mitigation had been eclipsed by tasks of emergency response and infrastructure protection. These changes had the effect of narrowing the focus and reducing the flexibility of public policies for coping with natural disasters.7 Since the reorganization of FEMA, mitigation has taken a back seat to emergency management while vulnerability has become conceived as a static attribute of urban infrastructure systems rather than a process that pervades all aspects of society and is constantly being modified by human actions. In other words, there has been a fundamental misunderstanding of research findings about vulnerability, with the result that a fund of hard-won scientific information about the human dimensions of hazard has been rendered moot. As the Katrina experience suggests, the gap between what we know and what we do is now yawning dangerously wide.

Perhaps amid the inquiries that follow Katrina, hazards researchers and hazards policy makers will return to a more productive association. But social scientists should be under no illusions that the task of reconnection will be easy. Many factors are at work to change the role of science and scientists in everyday life and, by extension, the role of social scientific knowledge in public decision-making. Unprecedented hazards that are surprising in kind or degree increasingly test the limits of existing knowledge and challenge scientific procedures for handling uncertainty. Moreover, the growing role of humans as contributors to hazard has given more laypersons a stake in decisions about hazard that were formerly the preserve of experts. In addition, not only are laypersons increasingly privy to specialized scientific information via the Internet and other electronic dissemination channels, but they have become important producers of experiential information about hazards though the medium of personal recording and transmission devices like video cameras and cell phones. Challenges to the public standing of science also have the effect of elevating non-scientific systems of knowledge and meaning into positions where they might compete for public attention and allegiance. Trends like these tend to work against a privileged role for scientific knowledge in relation to hazard policy-making.

Assuming that we can find ways to address the preceding problems there is still no guarantee that scientifically grounded programs for the reduction of natural hazards and disasters will command sustained broad-based support from the American public. For that to happen it would be necessary for the goal of natural hazard reduction to achieve a continuing level of political salience that it has never possessed in modern times. Typically, in the past, new departures in hazard policy-making have been closely tied to great disasters. Such time-pressured circumstances are rarely propitious for reasoned consideration of alternative policies and usually do not favor a central role for scientific knowledge in the decision process. Moreover, the permanent constituency that supports improved hazard management has historically proven too small to bring about many of the changes that have been recommended by scientific researchers, especially those that focus on strengthening the social fabric to decrease vulnerability. The larger and looser coalitions of interests that sometimes emerge after great catastrophes rarely last long enough to sustain the kind of efforts to reduce hazards that are needed. As a result, problems that should have been attended to on a continuing basis over many decades have been left to fester or else have received hasty crisis-response fixes (after lesser emergencies), that turned out to be inadequate or inappropriate when tested by events like Katrina.

To address these limitations on science as an aid to the reduction of hazards requires a more ambitious national project and a broader social science research agenda. This should allow us to focus on the provisional and contextual character of scientific knowledge about hazards and on the relationship of such knowledge with non-scientific systems of interpretation and action, especially in the large rapidly changing urbanized regions that are home to a substantial portion of the global population. The storm that could devastate might also connote an opportunity for profit, a welcome test of personal resilience, a heightened aesthetic experience, a catharsis and a wide range of other meanings that are rooted in our society’s diverse interests and values. If the dominant rubric of hazards research thus far has been the elucidation and management of uncertainty, we now need a framework that also addresses matters of contradiction, paradox, ambiguity and indeterminacy that extend beyond the uncertainty rubric. Among other things, it will be necessary to explain how humans take account of the multiple roles that extreme natural events play in our lives, their everyday significance in the warp and woof of popular culture as well as the heightened meanings they take on during disasters, the fact that they can be interpreted in many different ways that go far beyond images of threat and loss. In short, we need to recognize that interpretations of hazard are multiple, unstable, contested and often mutually incommensurable. In the process of addressing this enlarged canvas of topics we will also engage a much bigger constituency for reform of the relationships between society and environment. We will not only situate the scientific understanding of hazard within a broader discourse about different forms of knowledge, we will also increase the likelihood of public actions that are better grounded in scientific knowledge.

Such a strategy requires much of the social science community, but it promises even more in the way of intellectual and practical rewards. Without this kind of radical reframing of our research agenda, we will probably be revisiting the issues raised by Katrina after every big disaster.


1 Denis Mileti. 1999. Disasters by design: A reassessment of natural hazards in the United States. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. Patricia Jones Kershaw. 2005. Ed. Creating a disaster resilient America: Grand challenges in science and technology. Summary of a Workshop of the Disasters Roundtable, Division on Earth and Life Studies, National Research Council, Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. Subcommittee on Disaster Reduction of the National Science and Technology Council, 2005. Grand Challenges for Disaster Reduction, Washington, D.C.: Executive Office of the President, Office of Science and Technology Policy. Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center (http://www.colorado.edu/hazards); Radix – Radical Interpretations of Disaster (http://online.northumbria.ac.uk/geography_research/radix/katrina.htm).

2 James K. Mitchell. Ed. 1999. Crucibles of Hazard: Mega-cities and disasters in transition. Tokyo, New York, Paris: United Nations University Press. Mark Pelling. 2003. The vulnerability of cities: Natural disasters and social resilience. London: Earthscan Publications Ltd. Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella. 2005. The resilient city: How modern cities recover from disaster. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. Craig E. Colten. 2005. The unnatural metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from nature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. Raymond J. Burby, Arthur C. Nelson, Dennis Parker and John Handmer. 2000. “Urban containment policy and disaster: Is there a connection?” Paper presented at the 2000 Conference of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, Atlanta Omni Hotel at CNN Center, November 2-5 ( http://www.planning.unc.edu/facstaff/faculty/burby/Urban_Containment_Policy.pdf). V. R. Burkett, D. B. Zilkoski, and D. A. Hart. 2003, “Sea-level rise and subsidence: implications for flooding in New Orleans, Louisiana,” in K. R. Prince and D. L. Galloway, Eds., U.S. Geological Survey Subsidence Interest Group Conference, Proceeding of the Technical Meeting, Galveston, Texas, pp. 63-70.

3 Julie L. Demuth. 2002. Countering Terrorism: Lessons learned from Natural and Technological Disasters, National Research Council, Washington, DC, February 28-March 1, 2002 (http://books.nap.edu/catalog/10414.html). Susan L. Cutter, Douglas Richardson and Thomas J. Wilbanks. Eds. 2003. “The Geographical Dimensions of environmental change and a global city: Lessons for New York,” Environment, 43(3): 8-18.

4 United Nations Development Programme. 2004. Reducing disaster risk: A challenge for development – A Global Report. Bureau of Crisis Prevention and Recovery. New York: United Nations ( http://www.undp.org/bcpr/disred/documents/publications/rdr/english/rdr_english.pdf).

5 Among the latter are: information, education and training schemes; investment and budgeting mechanisms; insurance; controls and incentives for guiding land use and development; non-structural engineering works; environmental restoration programs; and activities that build social capital or expand the capacities of civic institutions.

6 Timothy A. Cohn, Kathleen K. Gohn and William H. Hooke. Eds. 2001. Lessons from PPP2000: Living with extremes. Report from the PPP Working Group to the Office of Science and Technology Policy Subcommittee on Natural Disaster Reduction. Tampa: Institute for Business and Home Safety. IHBS 2001: 19.

7 James K. Mitchell. 2003. “The fox and the hedgehog: Myopia about homeland vulnerability in US policies on terrorism,” Terrorism and Disaster: New Threats, New Ideas. Research in Social Problems and Public Policy Volume 11: 53-72. William L. Waugh Jr. and Richard T. Sylves. “Organizing the war on terrorism,” Public Administration Review (62) (September 2002): 145-154. William L. Waugh. 2004. “Terrorism, Homeland Security and the National Emergency Management Network,” Public Organization Review. 3:373-385.