Friday, September 02, 2005

Disaster and response

Bruce Ralston has posted a characteristically intelligent and bloodless look at two basic magnitudes of disasters, and the requirements, if possible, for response:
In the model I'm stipulating, first-order disasters, for the majority of those affected, are basically about the disruption of essential services: food, water, power. Examples would be the Canadian ice storm of 1999, or the major power outage of two years ago. These rarely seem to result, in Western countries, in extensive vandalism or the loss of social order.

Second-order disasters, as we're seeing in New Orleans, see the outright and rapid destruction of vast swathes of personal property and capital, with the resulting side effects of wage loss, personal mobility, etc: the main natural causes of these today are hurricanes, seismic/volcanic activity, or riverine flooding. If this kind of disaster affects the greater part of an urban area, it seems very difficult for even a fully Western society to keep order for long with local resources.

Interesting stuff, read it all. I think that his model should probably have three orders, though, simply because the other Gulfcoast areas affected clearly qualify as a 2nd-order disaster by his definition, and New Orleans is another problem altogether (at least when you're talking about loss of order). That may be attributable, at least partly, to all sorts of things, including the pre-existing order in New Orleans. However, it would also seem that "flood that doesn't recede all the way" is a special kind of disaster, with specific challenges that aren't scaleable from "smaller" disasters.

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