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The myths of recovery

By Edward Blakely - posted Monday, 7 February 2011

Hopefully the very worst is over in Queensland and Victoria is settling down. We can now turn our attention to what went wrong and how we can get it right in the future. But before, we try to get thing moving in the right direction, we need to know what the best directions to go in are. As the Cheshire Cat said to Alice: “If you don’t know where you are going, any direction will do.”

Some directions provide false hopes and inevitably lead to repeating the same or worse problems. Here are a few myths that can and should be avoided. Here are the issues I suggest are the five big myths of disaster recovery.

  1. Put it all back together - she'll be right mate! - It is tempting to think that if we just do what we have been doing and leave people to their own devices, everything will work out well. We feel the only thing government can do is get in the way. We want to get back to normal with everything in the same place. In fact, this idea is re-enforced by government leaders saying after disaster: "We are going to put it all back just like it was and soon."
  2. Just fix what's broken - putting in another dam and cleaning up will not be enough, no matter how tempting such ideas are. New Orleans had many levee failures pre-Katrina. If the levees don't work in one time, more of them will not serve in another disaster. It is time to look at the fundamentals of what is causing and what will cause new disasters and make fundamental changes, as the Dutch have done, to deal with the problem or to recognize it can't be dealt with.
  3. We can do it alone - we had the disaster and we don't need anyone from another place telling us how to handle our problems. We have plenty of smart people. It is true local people have a lot of good local knowledge but other experts may have more information and more experience - borrow it.
  4. Property rights are first - our nation is built on the fundamental right to own and dispose of property as one sees fit - with a few rules. But how do we deal with property that exposes everyone to danger? Who pays for rescuers and what is the role of government when the property rights conflict with the safety of the total community? We have to tackle this issue by making sure that everyone is re-settled in ways that benefit the entire community and without financial loss or too great a personal sacrifice.
  5. Better warning systems is all we need - warnings are good but the new storms are coming faster and hitting harder than our systems can cope with. Since we know the primary cause of the problems, we need to use the first warning by making sure natural systems flow properly and that new building in the hills or on flat land do not disrupt natural systems to the point greater dangers are created.

In essence the truth is always the best antidote to any myths. so we need to get as much information as we can before we act. Unlike Alice, we have to know where we intend to go.

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About the Author

Edward J. Blakely is Honorary Professor of Urban Policy at the United States Studies Centre, Sydney University. Professor Blakely is an international expert on urban planning and development and most recently head of recovery in New Orleans. He also served as the Chair of the Sydney Metropolitan Plan Reference Panel 2003-2004. He can be heard on the radio Sunday nights at 8PM on internet radio Blakely City Talk broadcasts the same podcast anytime.

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