Coastal Processes, Hazards, and Society

Module 11: Vulnerability to Coastal Hazards: Policy for Coastal Resilience


Module 11: Vulnerability to Coastal Hazards: Policy for Coastal Resilience


In the last three modules of this course, we will explore the policy related to coastal hazards. The first of these modules (Module 11) will focus on the ideas of risk and vulnerability and the question of why coastal hazards cause more damage and suffering in some places than in others – and how policy can address these disparities and increase the resilience of the most vulnerable places. In Module 12, we will look at the emergency management cycle as it pertains to coastal hazards, thinking about the four stages of mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. In Module 13, we will examine policy pertaining specifically to sea level rise.

Module 11

We will explore this complex question “Why do coastal hazards cause more damage and suffering in some places than in others?” while applying lessons learned in earlier modules. We will examine the concepts of risk and vulnerability to a range of coastal hazards in coastal communities around the world.

Take a moment to think about how you might quickly answer the question above. If you brainstorm answers to this question with a friend or partner now, you may first start by discussing the physical aspects that lead to one place being more vulnerable than another, such as topography, geologic and geographic location in relation to hazards such as hurricanes or tsunami. This would be the beginning, but to really get to the answer in-depth, we must consider how the hazard we are thinking about affects the human elements of the place we have in mind. Who lives there? How many people, and how do they make their living? Are they rich or poor? Is the population largely made up of many more vulnerable people such as minorities, poor, elderly, or the sick? What kind of housing is there in the community? Is it designed to withstand the hazard? Are there industries and businesses in the community that could be at risk or that may pollute the community if affected by a coastal hazard? All these questions are asking: How vulnerable are this community and its inhabitants to a coastal hazard?

When a storm does strike a populated area, the amount of harm caused will depend on a complex interaction among several local physical and social factors. Long, narrow bays may worsen storm surge (as was observed during Sandy on the Long Island Sound), while certain kinds of coastal vegetation (such as mangroves) may protect coastal property from rising water. As seen during Hurricane Katrina, evacuation orders can save lives, but only if people have access to transportation, housing, and other resources needed to leave their homes and live elsewhere. And, as Typhoon Haiyan demonstrated, devastation can be extreme when a strong storm hits an area where buildings are built-in hazard zones and are not designed to withstand high winds or surge. Thus, to assess vulnerability effectively, compare the vulnerability of different people and places, and allocate resources accordingly, our policymaker would first need a consistent way to integrate these many factors into an overall vulnerability assessment.

Devastation in Tacloban.
Super Typhoon Haiyan causes devastation in Tacloban, Philippines. How can we identify and protect those who are most vulnerable to coastal hazards? A few palm trees remain standing amid the destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the city of Tacloban, Philippines.
Credit: DFID - UK Department for International Development, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Hurricane Katrina flooding. flooded flyway system
As Hurricane Katrina showed, vulnerability to coastal hazards is a product of complex interactions between people and their environment. Those who are unable or unwilling to flee are often among the most vulnerable.
Credit: AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi, via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)