I mentioned in an earlier post that the American Political Science Association was thinking about canceling our annual meeting because Hurricane Isaac was predicted to land in New Orleans. In fact the meeting was canceled (although Mark Purdon organized a virtual session for our group, which turned out wonderfully) and New Orleans remains on my list of places to see.
It was extremely interesting to follow the coverage of the hurricane and APSA’s decision making — in part because Hurricane Isaac landed in New Orleans seven years to the day after Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest hurricanes ever in the U.S. The question everyone was asking: is New Orleans now better prepared?
The answer turns out to be yes. Hurricane Isaac produced more rain than Hurricane Katrina but was responsible for only 9 deaths and, perhaps most importantly, the new levees protecting the city from flooding held and new evacuation plans worked much better. Nearly everyone has cited better coordination among local, state, and federal governments as a big reason that things went more smoothly this time around. However, some additional levees that had been approved for funding were never built and meant that some surrounding areas experienced unnecessary flooding. While the two storms aren’t directly comparable, Hurricane Isaac did provide a good test for the new systems.
One interesting player in the decision making processes surrounding Hurricane Isaac was the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu. When APSA was deciding whether or not to cancel the meeting, a key decision point was the press conference held by the mayor on August 27. At the press conference he declared a state of emergency for the city, emphasized coordination among decision makers in the city, and stressed the amount of uncertainty that surrounded Hurricane Isaac. He also later told reporters that throughout the storm (which stayed over the city for 50 hours) he was in regular contact with the White House and the military.
The mayor’s press conference gave APSA confidence that the city was prepared for the storm and so the meeting was still expected to proceed. However, the following day, August 28, the meeting was canceled due to “concerns about safety and deep inconvenience to our membership.” I would love to have listened in on the conversations between the city and APSA — how was the uncertainty presented? What was used as reassurance and what was used as deterrence? Airlines started to cancel flights, was this the turning point? It could be an excellent case of risk management and perception for urban natural disasters.