We can learn a lot from disasters – but some areas never recover

New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Image: Getty.

Natural disasters were once regarded as a problem for the developing world, with reports of these rarely leading the news. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy punctured that insularity in the US, thanks to a malevolent combination of extreme weather events and population growth – especially in highly inappropriate places like storm-surge zones. The Conversation

Elsewhere, seismic events struck the heart of major cities such as Christchurch and Kobe where the cities’ structures were woefully ill-prepared.

Away from the big cities, though, disasters can still be “over the horizon” events. Remoteness from centres of economic and political power impedes long-term recovery. Some towns never recover.

Rebuilding small communities on the same site in the same way seldom works. Instead, this lengthens the recovery or prevents it happening altogether.

Disasters hit rural, remote and small fringe communities particularly hard. The impacts range from property and infrastructural damage, deaths and injuries, stock, crop and other agricultural losses to destruction of wildlife habitats and even iconic landscapes.

In some places the local economy may consist of little more than one or two “industries”. Examples include Marysville in the Australian state of Victoria (retail and hospitality have still not recovered from the Black Saturday bushfires of 7 February, 2009), Wilcannia in western New South Wales (arts and crafts), and Malanda (timber) and Millaa Millaa (sugar) in north Queensland. The economic resilience of these towns is wafer-thin.

These small places are less able to respond quickly to disasters because they are not critical parts of the global economic infrastructure and have a less powerful political voice. They also have less capacity to tap into the human capital and material resources of larger, more recognised centres.

Living in the danger zones

The simple dichotomy between rural and city, though, is becoming muddied. Particularly in the developed world, once-isolated regions are undergoing urbanisation.

“Sea-changers” and “tree-changers” are moving in unprecedented numbers from cities in Australia and the western US to non-metro and peri-urban areas prone to storm surge and fire.

These are not “rural and remote areas” in a traditional sense; they are often closely connected with cities that can buffer them from the worst economic effects of a disaster. But fringe areas of major cities have poorer infrastructure, which hampers recovery. An example is the holiday location of Queens in New York, where one of the authors was engaged in the recovery program. The area has struggled after Sandy.

Seafront homes in Queens, New York, bore the brunt of the damage inflicted by Superstorm Sandy. Image: Ed Blakely/author provided.

As well as not being as well resourced, these “wildland–urban interfaces” can be more hazardous places to live. In particular, the setting of new dwellings in treed landscapes creates a greater fire hazard. Residences are often located away from good roads, which hinders access and makes fires harder to deal with.

Being in city workplaces for much of the day, new inhabitants often have little feel for the local ecology. As a result, they may alter vegetation and wildlife patterns. This has marked impacts on the potential for fire and flooding.

City-siders may also import pets that endanger local flora and wildlife. They may even think they can “fight rather than flee”. They often do not know how or where to evacuate, which heightens the risks to fire and rescue personnel.

Response, recovery and rebuilding

There are two distinct post-disaster phases: first-response rescue and relief; and later recovery and rebuilding. Rebuilding clearly is an intrinsic part of recovery, but recovery also requires social and cultural rehabilitation.

Furthermore, the distinction between rescue/emergency/response and recovery/rebuilding depends on the area in question: the recovery phase in developed countries may not begin until the response phase has run its course. After the Black Saturday bushfires in Kinglake and Marysville, for example, the coroner first had to complete her work, which took several weeks.

The impact of a single event may be compounded by the triggering of one or two further events. For instance, the January 2003 fires in Canberra led to pollution of the city’s water supply following torrential rain in the catchments.

Water authorities, made wiser by this event, acted to protect Melbourne’s drinking water after Black Saturday. They transferred water from dams in fire-affected catchments to unaffected reservoirs.

Can targets promote recovery?

The organisation of the recovery after the Kobe earthquake in Japan in 1995 provides a developmental model for measuring progress. In particular, Hyogo Prefecture was able to meet three key targets:

  • rebuild all damaged housing units in three years;

  • remove all temporary housing within five years; and

  • complete physical recovery in ten years.

In 1995, Kobe was hit by one of the biggest earthquakes on record, but the city benefited from a highly structured approach to recovery. Image:Kobe City/EPA.

Having targets was critical to directing and motivating all the stakeholders, including the national government’s investment. This proved to be the foundation for Japan’s approach to recovery following the 1995 earthquake.

Unfortunately, it usually takes a string of major disasters for governments to start integrating disaster resilience and recovery into their legislative programs in any meaningful way. A rethink is overdue of where disaster response emphases should lie, especially in economically well-resourced countries given the rising incidence of major disasters within them.

Preparation aids recovery

A focus on hardening structures provides a better return in limiting damage. Italy has had at least eight devastating earthquakes in the past 40 years.

Despite this, less than 20 per cent of renovated buildings comply with earthquake standards – even though it would add hardly anything to the final bill.

Hurricane Sandy’s impact focused attention on the resilience of emergency preparedness and response capabilities. Image: Justin Lane/EPA.

Preparedness for disaster improves economic recovery should such sites (or their like) fall victim to extreme events again. The NYS Respond Commission adopted measures focused on “improving the strength and resilience of New York State’s emergency preparedness and response capabilities” after Superstorm Sandy.

As the frequency of disasters rises, few countries in the developed world have chosen to establish standing national recovery programs or authorities. Authorities should also mandate shifting settlements away from high-risk zones, such as ridges, floodplains and shorefronts.

The costs of failing to act are likely to cripple future government budgets and seriously impact economic growth. Australia’s Productivity Commission has recommended:

Australian government post-disaster support to state and territory governments (states) should be reduced, and support for mitigation increased.

Don’t just rebuild, reposition!

Disasters offer a one-off opportunity for renewal of a different kind, rather than more of the same. Examples are Kobe’s repositioning from a port to a high-technology-oriented economy after the 1995 earthquake, or New Orleans reinventing itself as a centre for medical research after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In addition, disasters provide opportunities to toughen buildings and other infrastructure to withstand future events and even to embody low-carbon measures.

Recovery needs to be treated differently according to place, history and size. It’s not about getting back to where you were, but rather grasping a repositioning opportunity to create a better, more resilient place.

Ed Blakely, Extraordinary Professor of Economic Policy, North-West University and Peter Fisher, Adjunct Professor, Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University

This article draws on the authors’ paper, Assessing non-metro recovery across two continents: issues and limitations, which appeared in the September 2016 issue of Disasters.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.