On Risk and Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

On Risk and Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

On Risk and Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

On Risk and Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina


Named one of Planetizen's Top 10 Books of 2006

Hurricane Katrina not only devastated a large area of the nation's Gulf coast, it also raised fundamental questions about ways the nation can, and should, deal with the inevitable problems of economic risk and social responsibility. This volume gathers leading experts to examine lessons that Hurricane Katrina teaches us about better assessing, perceiving, and managing risks from future disasters.

In the years ahead we will inevitably face more problems like those caused by Katrina, from fire, earthquake, or even a flu pandemic. America remains in the cross hairs of terrorists, while policy makers continue to grapple with important environmental and health risks. Each of these scenarios might, in itself, be relatively unlikely to occur. But it is statistically certain that we will confront such catastrophes, or perhaps one we have never imagined, and the nation and its citizenry must be prepared to act. That is the fundamental lesson of Katrina.

The 20 contributors to this volume address questions of public and private roles in assessing, managing, and dealing with risk in American society and suggest strategies for moving ahead in rebuilding the Gulf coast.

Contributors: Matthew Adler, Vicki Bier, Baruch Fischhoff, Kenneth R. Foster, Robert Giegengack, Peter Gosselin, Scott E. Harrington, Carolyn Kousky, Robert Meyer, Harvey G. Ryland, Brian L. Strom, Kathleen Tierney, Michael J. Trebilcock, Detlof von Winterfeldt, Jonathan Walters, Richard J. Zeckhauser.


The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of think
ing that created them

Albert Einstein

More than four months have passed since Hurricane Katrina struck. We now know that our affluent country failed both to take adequate precautions against the hurricane’s deadly impact and to respond effectively to its devastation of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast areas. We do not yet know what lessons will be learned—or heeded—from one of the greatest catastrophes our country has ever experienced.

As the suffering grew ever more alarming in the hurricane’s immediate aftermath, we at the University of Pennsylvania rapidly mobilized our community to help survivors rebuild their shattered lives. We invited 100 displaced students to take their fall classes at Penn. And as generous donations poured into relief agencies, students and staff volunteers traveled to the Gulf Coast to support efforts on the ground.

At the same time, we began to confront the problems that contributed to making the devastation of Katrina so troubling not only in its breadth and depth but also in its unbalanced effects across different segments of the population. Katrina’s aftermath raised perhaps the most profound and disturbing moral question that our society has yet fully to confront: How willing is the United States to compensate for the increased risks to life and health associated with poverty, race, growing economic inequality, inadequate emergency preparedness, and antiquated urban infrastructures? This overarching question cannot be answered by one person thinking alone or by a single institution acting alone.

Nor can the underlying social, economic, and environmental problems that have been magnified by Katrina be solved by the level of institutional thought and action that created them. A shocking amount of shoddy thought and action—from the denial of scientifically manifest risks to the . . .

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