RAND Report Stresses Importance of Advanced Planning for Flood Recovery

For Release

October 23, 2006

Experience shows that communities recover fastest from major floods when all levels of government and the private sector work together to prepare coordinated response plans ahead of time, according to a RAND Corporation report issued today.

The findings come from a study by the RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment Division conducted for the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute (RGSPI).

RAND and seven universities created RGSPI in late 2005 to develop a long-term vision and strategy to help build a better future for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The seven universities are: Jackson State University and the University of Southern Mississippi in Mississippi; Tulane University, the University of New Orleans and Xavier University in Louisiana; and Tuskegee University and the University of South Alabama in Alabama.

The study issued today examined four cases of severe flooding in the past 60 years to determine how lessons from each were incorporated into future water management practices. The floods – two in the United States, one in the Netherlands and one in China – all caused widespread death and destruction.

In addition to noting the benefits of a coordinated emergency response in which responders have clearly defined roles, the study notes from past experience that officials in many flood-prone areas eventually choose to surrender some of the land back to the water by forgoing development of floodplains or letting reclaimed lands revert to their natural state.

“After a flood, the temptation is to rebuild and recreate what was previously there, but that's not always the best idea,” said James P. Kahan, a RAND researcher who is the lead author of the study. “The aftermath of disaster often presents the opportunity to address multiple long-standing regional problems.”

The study was issued as RAND Corporation President and CEO James A. Thomson and RGSPI Director George Penick were set to begin a series of meetings with business and government leaders in Mississippi on Tuesday (Oct. 24) and Louisiana on Wednesday (Oct. 25) to discuss rebuilding in the Gulf States.

“RAND is committed to helping improve the lives of the people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama by using the highest quality objective research and analysis to identify the most effective ways to rebuild and revitalize the region,” Thomson said. “We opened the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute in Jackson, Miss., because our work in this region has become an important part of RAND's mission as a nonprofit research organization dedicated to serving the public interest.”

The study found that when entities involved in disaster preparation and recovery all had roles that were clearly defined and understood, their efforts generally went well. However, when there was a lack of clear definition and understanding, the consequences of the disaster were magnified. “Lack of coordination among governments, the private sector and the public can lead to a whole host of prevention and mitigation problems, ranging from poor maintenance of levees to not having a response and rescue plan in place,” Kahan said. “Even worse, if the responsible parties don't act on post-disaster recommendations, history can tragically repeat itself.”

The study points out that damage from most major floods – and all of those studied – typically exceeds local and regional capabilities and overwhelms expectations. This was certainly the case with the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina, Kahan said.

“In common with many previous floods, the biggest blind spot throughout the region was the failure to anticipate the possibility of widespread breakdown in services and infrastructure,” Kahan said. “In the future, regional leaders and the federal government must together consider more robust policies and plans, as well as a wider range of disaster scenarios.”

In each of the four historical disasters examined, researchers studied what they called a “cycle of restoration.” This includes planning, detection, reconstruction, compensation and implementation of the lessons learned.

The four historical disasters studied were:

  • The destruction of Vanport, Ore. when the Columbia River broke through a protective dike on May 30, 1948.
  • The flooding of the Dutch province of Zeeland, where high tides and a huge storm overwhelmed sea walls on Jan. 31, 1953.
  • Extensive flooding of the upper Mississippi River region during the summer of 1993.
  • Floods and mudslides along the Yangtze River in China during the summer of 1998

Kahan and fellow study authors Mengji Wu, Sara Hajiamiri and Debra Knopman – all of RAND – noted that since flooding can rarely if ever be completely prevented in flood-prone regions, areas such as those damaged by Hurricane Katrina must focus on building and maintaining sound infrastructure.

“We need to choose engineering projects that are compatible with other approaches intended to achieve longer-term safety,” Wu said. “Properly integrated water resource management takes into account the role of political, economic, environmental, and cultural factors as well as concerns about safety when reacting to floods.”

One problem researchers found is that when there was a long period of time between a previous flood and an imminent one, “memories fade, training and readiness can become lax, and complacency among residents and public officials can set in,” according to the report.

Such was the case in the Netherlands, when residents of the Zeeland region were left virtually helpless in the face of a storm surge that overwhelmed sea walls and killed 1,835 people. However, the Dutch learned from the incident and have continued to improve the sophistication of their water management systems.

RAND used funds raised from donations and funds earned on contracts to conduct the study.

RGSPI seeks funding from nonprofit institutions, other donors, government and the private sector to conduct a broad range of studies. It is the first organization of its kind in the region to conduct a full spectrum of policy research on pressing challenges facing the three states, including problems that existed even before the hurricanes struck.

The RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment Division's mission is to improve the development, operation, use and protection of society's essential physical assets and natural resources, as well as to enhance the safety and security of individuals in their workplaces and community.

Printed copies of “From Flood Control to Integrated Water Resource Management: Lessons for the Gulf Coast from Flooding in Other Places in the Last Sixty Years” (ISBN: 978-0-8330-3984-2) can be ordered from RAND Distribution Services (order@rand.org) or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642.

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