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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation
Stephen FlynnRandom HouseNew York, NY2007ISBN 978-1-4000-6551-6$25.95,
This is a very timely publication. It argues for a shift in US disaster response to a more comprehensive and proactive approach that aims to enhance national resilience. By this is meant a broad approach from infrastructure through to community cohesiveness. The I-35W bridge collapse in Minnesota on August 1 2007 highlights the argument that the author makes throughout this book.
Disasters are unavoidable. We live in a hazardous world and there is much that can be done to minimise the risks we face from hazards of all kinds. The author points out that nearly 90 per cent of the US population live in locations that place them at a moderate to high risk of earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfires, hurricanes, flooding or high wind damage. Couple this with aging infrastructure, under-funded support systems and funding cutbacks on maintenance and preparedness programmes and you are creating the right conditions for increased levels of risk. The author argues that too great a focus on one source of threat in the USA, terrorism, is hindering efforts to address these wider concerns. And this is where the bridge collapse serves as a timely reminder. In 2005, the I-35W was one of thousands across the USA rated as “structurally deficient” on the federal National Bridge Inventory database. The author does not discount terrorism and believes an attack is inevitable. In fact the book opens with a very plausible scenario of a terrorist attack on an oil refinery. It is the consequences of the attack that the author draws attention to, as the refinery uses a chemical that when released, as is envisaged in this scenario, forms into dense clouds that are potentially lethal. There are a number of such facilities adjacent to urban populations in the USA.
And it is this theme, aging and neglected infrastructure, inappropriate processes, lack of investment and an almost wilful disregard, that the author uses throughout the book to argue that the America is increasingly vulnerable, not just to terrorist attacks, but to a range of hazards. The author does speak with some authority. He is a recognised expert on homeland security and trade and transportation security and is a senior fellow with the National Security Studies Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. He argues that tackling vulnerability should be a priority for the US authorities and advocates a national resilience programme as the counter or antidote to national vulnerability. For practitioners in the disaster management field then this does resonate. Resilience is a term increasingly used in disaster management to describe a desired characteristic of societal responses to disastrous situations. Resilience in this context has a wide meaning covering individual and community characteristics through to anticipatory mechanisms that seek to avoid or adjust to hazards. For example in flood prone areas this could entail warning systems, defence measures or simply avoidance of development in those areas. In all cases it is a process that involves identification of hazards and measures to reduce the risk either to individuals, communities or to human support systems. It is not a one-off task but an ongoing process that requires an evolving response to the ever-changing nature of hazards, both natural and anthropogenic in origin.
The author uses a number of scenarios to illustrate vulnerability to a range of hazards such as an avian flu outbreak in New York; destruction of a chemical plant in New Jersey (mentioned earlier); an earthquake in San Francisco that compromises levees and leads to massive flooding. The book does not argue that every eventuality can be planned for, but that preparedness can be enhanced and consequences minimised. The starting point for embedding national resilience is outlined in the closing chapter. Here the author sets out 10 areas where changes are needed. Many of these will be familiar to those involved in disaster management, for example, an all-hazards approach, fostering a culture of preparedness, preventing development in hazardous areas such as floodplains and investing in infrastructure renewal and maintenance. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that author argues that this will simply not happen of its own accord but will require new political thinking and new sources of funding. For addressing infrastructure issues the author advocates an Infrastructure Resiliency Trust supported by an independent commission that would effectively scrutinise federal infrastructure spending. He argues that taxation needs to be re-evaluated with greater emphasis on promoting public goods, for example, raising gasoline taxes to help wean Americans off their addiction to oil. It is clear that undertaking such a large renewal programme aimed at increasing national resilience is an idea that many will support. But the rub comes in paying for this. No one really likes paying home insurance, but we are all glad that we have it in the aftermath of a flood or fire. What is clear, and has been evidenced by the recent flooding events in the UK, is that we are likely to face increasingly extreme weather related hazards driven by a changing climate. Whether a larger public can be persuaded that it is necessary to invest now to prevent or minimise future disruptions, or whether there is sufficient political will to do so, is debateable. But it is a debate that we need to have.
Geoff O’BrienDivision of Environmental Management, Northumbria University, UK