Newswise — Experts from the University at Buffalo are available to comment on the various social, technological and economic aspects of Hurricane Katrina and its wake of devastation.
Resettling the Gulf Region is Highly Questionable, says Urban Planning Expert
The wisdom of attempting to resettle the Gulf region "is highly questionable," according to Alfred Price, associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University at Buffalo.
"Researchers have warned for many years that a massive hurricane was destined to strike an unprepared New Orleans and drown it in a sea of water," Price says. "Not only was nothing done to address this, but President Bush went ahead and cut a vast amount of money from the area's Army Corps of Engineers, a principle agency responsible for flood control, levee maintenance and disaster engineering."
In any case, Price says, there is no protection from a 25-foot wall of water across a vast area, no matter how you engineer protection.
"Building development in this area was a mistake from the beginning," he explains. "Hundreds of thousands of buildings were built below sea level and protective wetlands and the delta were destroyed in order to make more land available for below sea level development.
"This was a disaster waiting to happen. I don't see how there can be any justification for simply building in the same place again. It would not be unlikely that another Category 4 storm would destroy it the minute it goes up."
Price is particularly concerned about what will happen to the poor in this region. Decades of federal housing programs and urban housing practice has disenfranchised the poor and provoked widespread homelessness, he says. For these people natural disaster is even more calamitous than for others.
"These are people for whom not only home and job, but the entire network of public programs upon which they depend for survival -- public hospitals, social services, etc. -- have been wiped out. When the waters recede enough to provide for bathing, reduce health concerns and make potable water available, we will be left with an absolutely massive number of poor people for which we have absolutely no shelter and no plan.
"Many thousands of displaced citizens will be left homeless, jobless, destitute, with absolutely no money at all with which to rebuild. Furthermore the reduction of federal housing programs that began under President Reagan have left us with no real federal infrastructure with which to address housing for the poor on this scale."
Price envisions tent cities and thousands roaming like gypsies throughout the region unless agency politics are abandoned and there is a collaborative plan among a vast number agencies to develop specific plans for housing and social services for the poor.
"Unfortunately, over the last 50 years, it rarely happens that such efforts are coordinated much less collaborative," he says.
Alfred PriceAssociate Professor and Interim ChairDepartment of Urban and Regional PlanningUniversity at Buffalo
Flood Bypass, Channel Modification Should Help Mitigate Katrina Flooding
Efforts to remove flood water from New Orleans and other areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, at this point, should focus on flood bypass, strategic pumping and channel improvement, according to Christina Tsai, Ph.D., an expert on open-channel hydraulics and water-resources engineering at the University at Buffalo.
"Channel improvement and modifications might be doable at this point," says Tsai, an assistant professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering. "If you can elevate some of the flooded locations or steepen the slope of a channel by dredging or using sandbags, the flow will go faster."
Tsai also recommends using flood bypass techniques to "divert the flow of water to somewhere it won't cause further harm.
"In terms of pumping the water, there's not much you can do right now," she says. "You need to do strategic pumping and set mitigation priorities, especially for areas of low elevation.
Christina Tsai, Ph.D.Assistant Professor of Civil, Structural and Environmental EngineeringUniversity at Buffalo
Nasty Social Behavior Common after a Disaster
"Nasty social behavior" is very common following the first 48 hours of a disaster, according University at Buffalo professor Charles Ebert, Ph.D., who teaches the course, "Disasters: analysis of natural and human-induced hazards."
"The social impact of a major disaster on a city the size of New Orleans is quite large," says Ebert, Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus in the UB Department Geography. "People there are still in shock, but their patience is running out."
"Forty-eight hours after a disaster is usually when social unrest begins, with rioting, looting, stealing and other unsocial behavior," Ebert explains.
"In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, survivors are in shock and don't have time to think. This is when you see people helping others and rising to the occasion, but after the first 48 hours it is common for people to become very desperate and that usually results in some very nasty social behavior."
Charles Ebert, Ph.D.Distinguished Teaching Professor EmeritusDepartment of GeographyUniversity at Buffalo
Looting an Act of Desperation, Not Crime, says Law Professor
Reports of widespread looting in New Orleans following the tragic flooding of the historic city sound less like actual criminal activity than desperation, according to a forensic psychologist at the University at Buffalo.
"Maybe looting isn't even the right word," says Charles Patrick Ewing, Jr., JD, Ph.D., UB professor of law. "They're taking the necessities of life. How much good are any of the perishables in the stores going to be to anyone if they don't take them."
Ewing calls the desperate efforts to find food and water by people in New Orleans "a primitive save-yourself mentality," and added that people are principally concerned about the basics of survival.
Reports that all the guns in a looted Wal-Mart store were taken didn't surprise him, Ewing says. "It's every person for himself. I can understand wanting to have a gun " not that I condone it. I'd be scared."
The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina have made New Orleans a "lawless state" and when you get like that, the law doesn't have any deterrent value.
"If you want or need something, you're going to take it. I understand taking food, or water, or clothes. It's devolved to basic survival," he says.
"It's beyond most people's comprehension or ability to imagine. And the trauma isn't going to just go away."
Charles P. Ewing, JD, Ph.D.Professor of Law andProfessor of Psychology University at Buffalo
Disaster-Planning Expert Available to Comment on Katrina's Aftermath
Emergency managers and first responders must work under very high stakes, limited resources and events that unfold in unexpected directions. Disasters like this one result from a chain reaction involving rare and largely unpredictable events. Those reporting and commenting on the response to the Hurricane Katrina and its effects should remember this and be wary of the "hindsight bias" rampant after 9/11, cautions University at Buffalo professor Ernest Sternberg, Ph.D., whose current research involves the study of the ethics of complex decision-making in averting terrorist, natural or technological disasters.
"This particular situation evolved from the terrifying confluence of a super hurricane, bad settlement patterns and upstream development," says Sternberg, professor of urban and regional planning, School of Architecture and Planning. "Americans are used to localized disasters to which public institutions can adequately respond, but New Orleans reminds us that we are also susceptible to catastrophes in which the ability to respond is itself severely damaged.
A principle feature of the New Orleans tragedy could have been anticipated, however, Sternberg points out. "Disasters discriminate against those who have bad housing, no private vehicles and nowhere to go. This also was true of Hurricane Andrew, the Northridge Earthquake, and the Mississippi floods of the '90s.
"As we can see, they also discriminate against the handicapped, elderly and sick. We have not yet heard what went on in hospitals and nursing homes as the waters approached, but be assured that there are terrible stories yet to emerge from this tragedy."
Sternberg says the federal government will have to take even more seriously the possibility of catastrophic natural disaster. "Hurricanes have dominated our disaster news of late, but the U.S. is susceptible to a mid-continental earthquake, malicious attack with explosives , biological weapons, and new infectious diseases.
"The Department of Homeland Security will have to recommit to its combined mission of fighting natural and technological disaster as well as terrorism."
Ernest Sternberg, Ph.D.Professor of Urban and Regional PlanningUniversity at BuffaloSchool of Architecture
Some Survivors Will Suffer from Acute Stress Disorder
A large percentage of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina and its catastrophic aftermath will suffer from Acute Stress Disorder, according to Nancy J. Smyth, Ph.D., LCSW, a University at Buffalo expert on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"I don't expect widespread PTSD after an event like this, but it's normal for people to have a range of emotional reactions to an event like this, and some of those symptoms will be symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder, which is the disorder that precedes PTSD," says Smyth, dean of the UB School of Social Work.
According to Smyth, survivors' physical needs usually take precedence after a traumatic event, and often times the full weight of the emotional and psychiatric reaction doesn't come into play until after the physiological needs have been addressed.
"Most of the people who go through something like this will have strong emotional reactions to the experience," Smyth explains. "However, about 15-30 percent will experience Acute Stress Disorder, and only some of those people will have symptoms long enough to qualify for PTSD. There may be others who don't get PTSD symptoms until later...months or years."
Nancy J. Smyth, Ph.D., LCSWDeanUniversity at Buffalo School of Social Work
Skin Infections, Not Disease, a Major Concern for Katrina Survivors Survivors of damage caused by Hurricane Katrina are not at risk for the spread of infectious disease, according to John Crane, M.D., Ph.D., a specialist in bacterial-related diseases at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
"The current situation along the Gulf Coast does not raise serious concerns about outbreaks of infectious diseases," says Crane, assistant professor of clinical medicine. "People are more likely to develop skin infections from scrapes from debris or from stepping on nails and other sharp objects, or pneumonia from swallowing water, as happened with the tsunami."
"Despite what people may think, corpses are not a health risk," he adds. "Although it is an indignity to the dead, have corpses lying around for a couple days is not a risk factor." John Crane, MD, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Clinical MedicineUniversity at BuffaloSchool of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences
Earthquake Engineering Techniques Can Help Mitigate Hurricanes and other disasters
The civil engineering expertise developed to address other natural disasters such as earthquakes may also be relevant to damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, according to Stuart S. Chen, Ph.D., P.E., associate professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering at the University at Buffalo and an investigator with UB's Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research.
Chen notes, for example, that the multi-span bridge on U.S. 90 leading into Biloxi that failed as a result of Katrina may not have sustained as much damage if it had been retrofitted with a "seismic restrainer" to protect against earthquake damage. "If the bridge had been retrofitted to make it better withstand earthquake damage, by tying the spans of the bridge to each other and to the piers, this could have prevented the bridge spans from ending up in the water," he says.
"Building codes don't currently require engineers to design buildings to protect against multiple hazards," he notes, "but the case of this bridge is a classic case where if you address one hazard, earthquakes, you would in this case get some fringe benefits by protecting against other hazards - floods and hurricanes -- for no additional, incremental dollars."
Stuart S. Chen, Ph.D., PEAssociate Professor of Civil, Structural and Environmental EngineeringUniversity at Buffalo
Economic Impact of Katrina Will be Minimal
The long-term impact of Hurricane Katrina on the economy overall will be minimal, according to Lawrence Southwick, Ph.D., an expert on the economic impact of natural disasters.
"There will be bottlenecks in the system, however, that cause short-term effects," says Southwick, associate professor emeritus of management science in the University at Buffalo School of Management.
"For example, damage to the refineries in the Gulf of Mexico will cause gasoline prices to spike, but they will go down again. If tourists can't go to New Orleans, they'll go elsewhere, but the reasons for having the city in the first place still exist and it will be rebuilt in the long run."
Lawrence Southwick, Ph.D. Associate Professor Emeritus of Management Science University at Buffalo School of Management