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Hard Questions, No Easy Answers

July 14, 2010

This week I have been following updates from the Natural Hazards Center‘s annual workshop at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The workshop brings together an interesting mix of academics and practitioners to discuss a wide range of topics related to emergency management. Several of the sessions at this year’s workshop focus on public involvement, social capital, social media, recovery and resilience.

One of the more interesting comments emerging from the stream of updates coming out of the workshop’s dedicated Twitter feed during these sessions has been repeated calls from participants, presumably in the audience at the various sessions, asking for something more practical and less academic that they can put to use when they return home. The comment came up so often over the weekend that I started wondering whether I was witnessing some sort of anti-intellectual backlash in bursts of 140 characters or less. (I have been relegated to following the proceedings on Twitter because neither I nor my agency can afford to pay my way to attend.)

For many years, the emergency management and homeland security fields were plagued by a lack of theories upon which to base our interventions or upon which to evaluate our progress. This has begun to change as the fields have attracted the interests of a diverse array of disciplines seeking to bring their expertise to bear on our peculiar set of problems.

You would think that such interest would be greeted with enthusiasm and gratitude. Not so it seems. Why, you ask?

Any time new researchers come into a field such as ours, they start by scrutinizing and testing the cherished assumptions that constitute the collective’s conventional wisdom. More often than not the established worldview withers in the face of empirical evidence, which tends to present more complex and nuanced picture of an interconnected world than practitioners find useful.

Few areas of homeland security and emergency management have taken a bigger beating than the notion that ordinary citizens cannot handle the truth or be relied upon to act reasonably in emergent situations. Disaster sociologists have collected abundant evidence that people have a peculiar relationship to emergent evidence and behave in ways that are very sensitive to context. To others any individual’s actions might appear irrational. But from the perspective of the person taking action, their behavior often reflects a highly adaptive and often altruistic response to novel and rapidly-changing information accompanied by considerable ambiguity.

One of the most pressing questions confronting practitioners and researchers alike these days asks why so many people insist on staying put in places vulnerable to catastrophic events. The question itself should give us pause to consider our own assumptions. For starters, we might wonder what cause we have to consider this question answerable in the first place. Is it not reasonable to expect that the answers are as numerous as the people who call the place home? We could ask ourselves what grounds we have to even ask where people can or should live, much less how they should live once they choose to inhabit a vulnerable place. But this rarely happens. On occasion we manage to ask ourselves whether people dumb enough to put themselves at such risk deserve our help, but we never seem willing to answer that one and charge to their aid anyway. (Does that make us irrational?) The bigger question our response raises is whether the answers or lack of answers to the first and subsequent questions has (or should have) any bearing on recovery.

As someone with a foot planted firmly in each camp — theory and practice, academia and public safety — I am sympathetic to the calls for praxis. But I am more interested in phronesis (practical knowledge) than sophia (received wisdom). Any bridge between theory and practice must start with a systems perspective and proceed though thoughtful reflection on what works as well as what does not. As we reflect on conditions six months after the earthquake that killed an estimated 225,000 Haitians, we would do well to ask ourselves just these questions. What theories then should guide our assessments?

Rick Weil, a disaster sociologist at Louisiana State University and a Natural Hazards Center workshop presenter, offers some interesting insights from his research on the effects of social capital on survivors’ experiences of Hurricane Katrina (hereherehere and here) that might guide our search for answers. Expressions of community had the most powerful effects — for better and worse — on how people coped with the disaster and how they responded afterwards. Those individuals most deeply embedded in social networks were generally the best prepared, and the most likely to engage community rebuilding efforts afterwards. But they paid a heavy short-term price for this, as they experienced considerably more stress than less engaged individuals in similar situations (see also Wagner 2009). They also recovered faster and more fully afterwards than those less connected to one another and the place they called home (see also Solnit 2009).

Government for its part provides only part of the answer. Government failure was endemic in Haiti before the disaster, and the situation has clearly not improved despite development aid and expert assistance. But if government involvement was to ramp up dramatically, one might reasonably worry whether it threatened to undermine or displace other expressions of social capital thus eroding community cohesion and reducing resilience. The professionalization of emergency management and homeland security in the United States could present just such a moral hazard here at home.

The older I get and the more time I spend pondering what I have seen and learned, the more interesting I find questions than answers. Figuring out which questions are worth asking is harder than finding so-called right answers. Looking at Haiti now and hoping to find answers is a fool’s errand. On the other hand, observing the trials and triumphs of ordinary Haitians might well provide us with the opportunity to learn which questions to ask ourselves if we truly wish to avoid taking our own hard knocks in the future.

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