Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center

Levitt Speaker Series

Laura Steinberg: "Community, Infrastructure Resilience, and Disasters: Why Can’t We Get It Right?"

By Brady Sprague '15

On November 7, 2012, the Hamilton community had the opportunity to attend a lecture titled “Community and Infrastructure Resilience: Why can’t we get it right?” The lecture was delivered by Dr. Laura Steinberg, who now serves as a Dean of the L.C. Smith college of Engineering and Computer Science at Syracuse University. Dr. Steinberg began her talk with an overview of the lecture’s four key areas: disaster management, the case of Hurricane Katrina, identifying vulnerability and resilience, and cascading disasters with an environmental focus.

Dr. Steinberg wasted little time and dove into her section on disaster management. Steinberg divides the process of disaster management into four discrete phases: mitigation, preparation, response, and recovery, all of which were explained in great detail.

First, mitigation: Dr. Steinberg argued that mitigation does not receive the attention that it deserves from governments and others, mostly because of the fact that it is often quite expensive. As Dr. Steinberg explained later, many natural disasters are predictable. However, the short-term costs of properly mitigating for such disasters are difficult to justify when such disasters are not guaranteed. Dr. Steinberg recommended that Americans spend more time and energy focusing on mitigation, because response costs would be greatly reduced.

Second, preparation: Dr. Steinberg explained that preparation is far less expensive than mitigation. This is because it is normally much “softer” than mitigation, in that it can be as simple as family plans for emergency response. Practice and drills for first responders come into play as an inexpensive form of insurance against enormous disasters.

Third, response: Dr. Steinberg decided to leave most of her explanation of response to her case study on Hurricane Katrina, stating that response is primarily, for better or worse, the prevue of state and local government.

Fourth, recovery: again, Dr. Steinberg decided to leave the majority of her explanation of response of recovery to her case study on Hurricane Katrina.

Next, Dr. Steinberg explained in depth the reasons why Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city of New Orleans. She began by establishing that NOAA had predicted the chance of the storm hitting New Orleans proper at 21%–which may not sound like much–except for the fact that NOAA also predicted with a scary amount of accuracy how the devastation would look. Dr. Steinberg explained that when the levees and floodwalls surrounding the city broke, the city was essentially left in a topographical bowl, which filled with water. This waster was saturated with sediment, so when the water was pumped out, the sediment was unfortunately left behind as sludge, which caused dust and respiratory problems for the city’s residents.

Hurricane Katrina offered an anecdote of improper disaster management. But Dr. Steinberg took the analysis a step further by showing how people can identify vulnerabilities and resiliencies in the future. Dr. Steinberg argues that vulnerably are fairly apparent: floodplains, oil refineries, and heavy industries are all vulnerably. These are exacerbated with increasing proximity to large population centers and their danger tends to increase with changes in natural systems, particular anthropogenic changes such as global warming. Dr. Steinberg noted that resiliency is also easy to see in the wake of a disaster: infrastructure need not survive the disaster itself, but if it can be easily rebuilt, there is still resiliency. Additionally, Dr. Steinberg noted that people and areas of means are more resilient than those that are not.

Concluding her lecture, Dr. Steinberg lacked time to fully explain cascading disasters and decided instead to offer insight into a fundamental problem with disaster relief. Scientists as a group do not tend to mobilize. Thus, they find it extremely difficult to mobilize others. Thus, no one listens in time to the warnings of scientists. NOAA warned people to a high degree of accuracy about Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Hopefully, in the light of recent disasters, people will pay more attention to the warnings of scientists in the future.