Reducing vulnerability is important lesson of Katrina

The Hurricane Katrina disaster is a hard lesson in the value of prevention, says York Professor David Etkin (right), coordinator of the first Emergency Management program to be offered in an Ontario university.

“As a society, we emphasize preparedness, response and recovery, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This lesson has been taught to us many times in the past, but we don’t seem to learn it,” said Etkin. Classes for the new Professional Certificate Program in Emergency Management begin at York this fall.

Etkin said it is clear there have been breakdowns in preparedness and response to the Katrina disaster, and certainly in communications, but points out this was an extraordinary natural disaster – the worst in US history.

Rather than simply criticizing the response to this event and the recovery, he said, it’s important to look at long-term decisions that have made cities such as New Orleans so vulnerable. “A case in point is the decision to put so much housing right next to the levees in New Orleans,” said Etkin, “and to build a city that is 80 per cent under sea level –  but New Orleans is not alone in this type of development decision.

“The people who live there aren’t the ones making these kind of decisions. They are made over long periods of time,” said Etkin. “But the people who live there are the people who are suffering.”

flooding in New OrleansLeft and below: Images from hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. Photos courtesy of the American Red Cross.

According to Etkin, there is a disturbing trend worldwide, including in the United States, to migrate to areas that are subject to hurricanes and other natural disasters. “In our emergency management course at York, we’re going to be teaching emergency management from a holistic, broad point of view,” said Etkin. “That means not just how to respond to emergencies, but how to take long-term actions that reduce your vulnerability.”

If a decision is made to rebuild New Orleans, Etkin said, it will be important to take better account of mitigating risks than has been taken in the past. He indicated that this will require a broad-based approach, including reconstituting the Mississippi River Delta.

The Professional Certificate Program in Emergency Management, which is being offered through York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, was established in consultation with the Ontario Association of Emergency Managers. It was set up in response to a demand for trained emergency management professionals in both government and the private sector.

An interdisciplinary effort by York’s Faculty of Science and Engineering, Faculty of Environmental Studies, and Atkinson, it will give students a basic grounding in the science of disasters and an overview of emergency management, from mitigation and prevention to response and recovery.