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Disaster Resilience: When To Walk Away

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
August 28, 2023

The goal of modern emergency management is to create disaster resilient communities. To achieve this, emergency management uses a comprehensive, all-hazards approach integrating the phases of mitigation/prevention, preparation, response and recovery. Generally, it is considered an effective model. However, there is an inherent flaw in that it presumes eventual success. It might be time to discuss when and how to abandon an urban area, even if only in theoretical terms.

This might sound harsh or pessimistic, but the reality is that any planning efforts which presume that success is inevitable are built upon a weak foundation. Certainly, current efforts to create disaster resilient communities should continue, but it might be time for practitioners and scholars to at least discuss the potential of a worst-case scenario where an entire community might have to be abandoned.

Is this a realistic concern? This might sound like a dark fantasy, and in truth there are limited modern examples. The abandonment of the Ukrainian city of Pripyat in 1986 after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster is probably the best known. The city of over 49,000 was completely abandoned within two days. Images of a decaying cityscape, of nature encroaching upon developed areas and of wildlife returned to the previously urban setting are all that remain of a once thriving community. The current exclusion zone is approximately 1,000 square miles. New York, Chicago and San Diego all have nuclear power plants within 50 miles of their urban centers.

Over the years, we have seen individual homes and small communities devastated by riverine flooding, coastal erosion or sea-level rise. In the past, this has contributed to the loss or relocation of homes and businesses on a small scale. Coastal communities have recorded increasing coastal erosion over the years, and over the past few decades we have seen increased flooding due to sea-level rise. While there might be some debate of the cause, the unquestioned truth is these trends have become worrying. Major urban areas like Miami and New York have experienced increased coastal flooding over the past few decades. What might happen if this trend worsened, affecting larger portions of those communities? Have we truly considered what this might do to not only those communities, but to the fabric of our political, social and economic spheres?

In 1998, Mike Davis’ Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, he explored the potential impacts of catastrophe on urban centers. He noted several communities built on a landscape more fragile than was imaginable at the time they were settled. Los Angeles, San Franciso and Memphis were established on major earthquake fault lines. Portland, Oregon, rests on the side of a dormant volcano potentially subject to a major landslide. Several major communities in the southwest including Las Vegas and Phoenix were established with a misunderstanding of the availability of water. Over time, these issues have become better understood, contributing to planning efforts to protect these communities.

In his 2001 book Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster, Lee Clarke found many emergency plans were premised on best case scenarios, with a presumption all hazards and risks could be effectively identified and addressed. These faulty presumptions might easily contribute to a policy environment where community leaders “over promise and under deliver.” To minimize the potential for this, it might be time for emergency management to develop a dialogue on when and how to abandon a major urban setting.

Today, we see reports of sea level rise threatening major urban centers. We see communities devastated by wildfire. We see major metropolitan areas struggling to find sufficient freshwater. Our environments are changing. In part, this is because we have developed some communities in an unsustainable manner. In part, this is because of the effects of climate change. Each of these are complex issues which transcend our individual communities. Each pose significant potential political, economic, social and technological challenges.

We will not solve these challenges in the short-term, but we should not wait until action is required to even debate these concerns and how they might affect us. If a community is abandoned, we will likely see the following impacts. Emergency management has planned for many challenges to make communities more disaster resilient. It is time to at least discuss a worst-case scenario where an urban area must be abandoned in part or in whole, where we are likely to see:

  • The disruption of basic social structures, as families, communities and support systems depart for differing locales.
  • The erosion of the local economy as businesses close.
  • The destruction of the tax base, inhibiting the ability officials to continue basic service delivery, let alone their capacity to fund remediation efforts.
  • An increase in abandoned buildings and urban decay, exacerbating the social and economic impacts, increasing the demand for social support systems.
  • In coastal areas, structures abandoned to increased flooding will contribute to decaying structural materials, destroying tourism and the fishing industries and damaging the environment.
  • As communities shrink, political influence will shift with population changes. Local economic potential shall diminish or disappear.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, SHRM-CP, IPMA-CP is a training and development consultant and independent scholar. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. He served over 30 years in local government, and has been teaching at the graduate level since 2005. He may be reached at [email protected]

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