Hurricane Katrina raged ashore on Monday, August 29th 2005 carrying with it a storm surge that caused over 50 breeches of New Orleans’s protective levee system and submerged some 80% of the city. Much of the city of New Orleans is built below sea-level and a majority of the suburbanization that has shaped the city has been hastily built in areas that were once marshland and swamps. Construction in these low lying areas has also been done without effective controls in place to sufficiently regulate the form of the built environment, creating a society that is considerably more vulnerable to damage caused by flooding from hurricanes and other sever weather.
“Nearly 228,000 housing units were ﬂooded in the New Orleans metropolitan area (Brookings Institution, 2005). In the city of New Orleans alone, over 70% of 188,000 total housing units were damaged by the storm and subsequent ﬂood (Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 2006)” (Olshansky et.al., 2008).
Studying “Natural Disasters” is first and foremost a process of understanding the events as “Human-Scale” or “Unnatural” disasters, as they are less the outcome of high winds, heavy rain or storm surge themselves but instead a result of the “inappropriate way we have designed and built our communities and buildings in hazard-prone areas” (Geis, 2000, 151).
Our research asks the question “What factors of the built environment of New Orleans had an effect on damage and recovery for local communities?”
Understanding the vulnerability of the built environment is important not only for disaster preparedness but also for creating building guidelines for construction within the city. By identifying factors of the built environment that lead to increased risk of damage from extreme events, government agencies, developers and citizens alike can work toward creating a more resilient urban form. Similarly, understanding factors of the built world, both use and form, that contribute to the recovery of communities in New Orleans can help officials recognize where and in what ways to direct future recovery efforts.
The general theories behind this research are that certain physical manifestations of the human environment are intrinsically more vulnerable, due to form, than others and that a greater density of social institutions to be utilized during disaster recovery are the product of higher population densities. Because humanity creates an urbanized world for itself to inhabit, the question then becomes how to properly measure the physical characteristics of neighborhoods, the density of the built environment and the population living in it.
Masten and Obradovic (2008) reinforce the common argument that “all disasters are local, at least in the short term (Longstaff, 2005) [and] in the same sense, it could be said that all human resilience is local” (p13). Our research explores the concept that measuring vulnerability and resilience must exceed generalized measures of the well respected Hazards-of-Place Model of Vulnerability (Cutter, 1996; Cutter, Mitchell, and Scott, 2000; Cutter, Boruff, and Shirley, 2003) by taking into consideration specific characteristics of the built environment in New Orleans.