After the disaster, who cares?

Click to read the report
Click to read the report

Today’s post is from Kate Lancaster, editor in charge of publications on regional development at the OECD.

Earthquakes. Droughts. Tsunamis. Landslides. Floods. Fires. Tornadoes. Epidemics. Hurricanes. Volcanic eruptions. Stories of disasters punctuate recorded history and resonate even now. Consider Pliny the Younger’s detailed account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, which destroyed Pompeii and Herculanum, or Daniel Defoe’s journal recounting the 1665 plague in London, or even the less carefully documented tale of the cow that set Chicago ablaze in 1871.

Today, however, disasters unfold live and pass quickly. They fill our televisions, computers, even phones, as events are happening and in their immediate aftermath. Striking photos, heart-wrenching stories. But then, it’s all over. Once the initial shock has passed, the material and economic damage assessed, a death toll announced, the media often goes home and we turn our gaze away, back to our regular lives, until the next “big one”.

It’s easy to forget that the effects of a disaster linger long afterwards, shaping the places and regions in which they took place.

The Italian region of Abruzzo, already in economic decline, was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2009. Concentrated in the capital city, L’Aquila, the quake also affected more than 50 other small towns nearby. Nearly half the region’s population was displaced by the quake and 309 people died. Thirty-seven thousand buildings were damaged, with devastation concentrated in the renowned historic centre of L’Aquila. Emergency relief in the immediate aftermath of the quake totalled around EUR 3 billion, and another EUR 8 billion was earmarked for reconstruction.

The biggest challenge of reconstruction is not just financial, however, as a recent OECD report, Policy Making after Disasters: Helping Regions Become Resilient – The Case of Post-earthquake Abruzzo, explains. Rather, it is simply how to “get it right” going forward. Reconstruction should help make the afflicted area more resilient, which means not only better able to weather future exceptional shocks or disasters, but stronger than before, with a sustainable local economy and a long-term development strategy. Citizens’ voices should be an important part of this process, the report argues. Authorities should create spaces for community deliberation, both physical and online, and should ensure that the opinions expressed can influence the decision process.

Yet in the three years since the quake, community engagement in strategy setting for the future of L’Aquila has, in fact, been very weak, though first steps towards improvement started in 2012. This has worsened social fragmentation and distrust of local governments.  Nevertheless, international experiences show that community engagement does have an important role in post-disaster regions. It can help decision makers to  determine redevelopment plans and can help ensure that these fit local circumstances, thus creating a sense of community ownership.

In Christ Church, New Zealand, for example, University of Canterbury has publicly shared its own experiences during and in the wake of the city’s 2010 earthquake, while Lincoln University has made public its research into the economic impact of the quake. In New Orleans, a local non-profit research group, the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center has been monitoring the quality and pace of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, through its New Orleans Index. The index tracks key social and economic recovery indicators, chosen based on input from local residents and when published, the limitations of each indicator’s data set are clearly spelled out in plain language to ensure transparency.

The experience of these cities, of Abruzzo, and of other regions examined in this report, provide valuable lessons to areas where natural disasters have forced a rethinking of the development model, or where long-term decline has done so. The report concludes with a list of eight practical recommendations for building resilient regions of interest to governments, decision makers, opinion leaders and community residents alike.

Useful links

 L’Aquila earthquake: relaunching the economy Workshop organised by the OECD in partnership with the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance.

Recommendation of the OECD Council on Good Practices for Mitigating and Financing Catastrophic Risks

Large-scale disasters: Lessons learned

OECD Methodological Framework on Disaster Risk Management

OECD International Network on the Financial Management of Large-scale Catastrophes

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