Proceedings of the 54th Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2010, Waterloo, Canada, Proceedings of the 54th Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences

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A cybernetic approach to hurricane hazard management on O’ahu, Hawai‘i

Anja Reissberg


This dissertation was set out to reveal deficiencies in hurricane hazard management on the island of O’ahu, Hawai‘i. The hurricane risk for a strong hit or near miss on O’ahu lies at about 1-3%. This probability seems low, but risk is mathematically constituted by the probability of an event times the magnitude of the consequences of the event. Consequently, the severity of the impacts needs to be considered. As the vulnerability analysis showed, those impacts would be catastrophic.
Compared to the damage extent of Hurricane Katrina still vivid in the memories of many, O’ahu faces a much more vulnerable situation due to its isolation, high population density and fragile infrastructure. In human terms, the biggest difference is the infeasibility of evacuation of the island’s population of almost one mio. people, which would be highly vulnerable due to the failure of 80% of the island’s infrastructure. Honolulu International Airport would be unavailable for an extended time and the extensive damage to harbor facilities and smaller inland airports would limit the island’s resource access to a great extent. Overall, all critical infrastructure including energy, transportation, communications, food, sanitation and water distribution and emergency services would be severely impacted. Given the picture of great potential problems, there is a need for a way to maintain a society’s internal stability and reduce the vulnerability in face of such an external threat. Cybernetics in general and the VSM in particular, seemed to offer potential solutions.
The objectives of this dissertation were (1) to investigate if hurricane hazard management in Hawai‘i can be improved by the VSM looking both at the structure and the processes; and (2) to evaluate the VSM’s applicability to disaster management and the insights for Geography and hazard management research.
The VSM revealed that all system elements were in place, but the balance, quality and importance of some need urgent adjustments. A major structural drawback was the hierarchical structure of the National Incident Management System, even though it had cybernetically sound aspects such as a redundant system structure and a maximum of seven System 1 elements. System 2 was evident on paper, but overall it was an unpracticed system element. System 3* (audits) was failing through all Levels of Recursion. System 4 (intelligence) was evolving, but very weak at the time of investigation. System 5 (policy) was strong given the subject matter.
Overall, the application of the VSM to hurricane hazard management confirmed the model’s usefulness. It is specifically capable of dealing adequately with the discontinuous temporal character of a ‘hibernating’ system such as a disaster organization. Besides application problems such as the abstractness of its language and concepts, it was concluded that after the big effort in the beginning shortens with more experience, the model reveals its excellent diagnostic capabilities. The VSM is analogous to a treasure map: You can run around an island and find the treasure by chance. This way, one can know about the treasure, but take forever to find it. The VSM, in contrary, leads you right to it. The insights could maybe be found out without the VSM, but it would take a longer time to reach those insights, one would need a variety of other approaches to do so and therefore need a variety of experts that speak the same meta-language. This is the great advantage of a VSM application: it can integrate different fields of knowledge and fits therefore into the field of Geography. It is capable to grasps the full complexity of the very interdisciplinary field of disaster management. This shows why the cybernetic meta-language and abstract concepts are necessary, highly useful and worth learning.

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