Urban Issues Research


Eric Klinenberg
Sociology, Faculty of Arts & Science
T: 212.998.8375    F: 212.995.4140    eric.klinenberg@nyu.edu


Recognizing NYU’s unique characteristic of being one of the nation’s premier research universities located only two kilometers from Ground Zero, Dr. Eric Klinenberg leads CCPR’s inquiry into urban security and preparedness issues. This effort addresses topics such as the history of disaster planning programs and how social factors may enhance existing programs, and the state of crisis communications, including:

Disaster planning enhancement - In the last decade, cities throughout the United States have adapted and expanded their existing emergency preparedness programs to address emerging “urban security” problems. The rapid evolution of a professional emergency management field has helped cities find expert knowledge about how to prepare for and respond to disastrous events. Yet social scientific studies of disaster have consistently shown that there are important limits to the amount of security that acute disaster management programs can provide. One reason for this, we suggest, has to do with the context in which emergency preparedness techniques were first developed and applied.

Most existing emergency planning projects were initially developed as part of military tactics in the context of warfare, or the preparation for battle. The question is which aspects of these approaches apply in civilian disaster settings and why. The occasion for the initial application of military techniques to the civilian sector was the threat of atomic attack during the Cold War. Gradually, through the development of “all-hazards” planning, such methods were applied to an increasing number of possible disasters. Recent history, from the heat wave in Chicago to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, as well as projected future hazards, such as avian flu, give us reason to believe that all levels of government need to learn how to (and how not to) adapt established emergency strategies for contemporary crises.

This effort could build on the President’s Katrina lessons learned report by examining the recent history of how government agencies have transferred military techniques of preparedness into the civilian sphere, and assessing whether and how social factors might be integrated into disaster planning. For example, this effort could investigate which methods and skills initially honed in the context of the possibility of surprise attack are appropriate for dealing with different species of trouble, such as the outbreak of a novel epidemic diseases or extreme weather events. This effort would further analyze whether the kinds of catastrophe management programs that scenario planning brings to planners’ attention help to address the social vulnerabilities that, as recent disasters have shown, determine who lives and dies during urban disasters. For example, can addressing the special needs of segregated populations, hospitals and nursing homes, or the isolated elderly, be folded into preparedness techniques such as scenario development and simulation exercises? Or similarly: if the lack of access to health care is a major source of vulnerability in the case of an avian flu epidemic or a bioterror attack, how can such a social factor shape preparedness planning?

Evaluating the transfer of military techniques of preparedness into the civilian sphere, and assessing whether and how social factors might be integrated into disaster planning, could be invaluable to the National Guard’s efforts to respond to catastrophic incidents.

Crisis communications - Communications breakdowns have compounded the damage wrought by extreme weather or terrorists in a number of recent catastrophes. On September 11th, for example, communications problems prevented New York City’s emergency personnel from conveying vital information about the state of the towers. During a recent heat wave in Chicago, similar problems resulted in a slow and uncoordinated City response. It took days to call-in back up ambulances and paramedics, for example, and even longer for someone to recognize that the City had failed to implement its own heat emergency plan. These breakdowns certainly exacerbated the mortality and morbidity levels that spiked with the heat.

There were multiple failures around Hurricane Katrina; before the disaster, local government and media organizations did not effectively issue evacuation orders to all parts of the city, and they failed to conduct special outreaches to the most vulnerable populations. During the event, all but one local broadcaster went off the air, leaving residents with few sources of emergency information and instructions about where to evacuate or get help. And immediately after the hurricane, hundreds of thousands of residents lost access to their home and cellular phone lines, as well as to Internet services run through local servers. Communication among family and neighbors was a major challenge, and many evacuees spent days trying to learn what happened to their loved ones, their homes, and their communities. Thousands displaced, however, discovered that they could get quite detailed information about people and places through new media channels, such as online bulletin boards, blogs, and civic journalism projects. Many of these resources continue to play a role in local disaster recovery projects.

Future research will include case studies of disaster communications during recent U.S.-based catastrophes, and will use these cases to assess the state of crisis communications in large, mid-size, and small cities.

The following is a summary of potential linkages to DoD programs and examples of products the CCPR urban security project could produce:

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