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Political Scene

Beating Natural Hazards to the Punch
Emily Lehr Wallace and David R. Millar

Each year, Congress appropriates billions of dollars in emergency assistance to states hit hard by earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters. The costs of natural disasters have been increasing tremendously, largely due to increases in population and wealth density, as well as questionable land-use practices. Charting the federal government’s expenditures for natural disasters as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (taking into account its exponential increase in the last four decades) reveals that the costs of natural disasters have tripled. The federal government, along with state and local governments, must better prepare for and help mitigate the costs of natural disasters.

Between 1988 and 2002, the United States experienced 45 weather-related disasters that each cost at least $1 billion (normalized for inflation), contributing to a total expenditure of $200 billion during that period, according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA). This year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has already earmarked $2.1 billion in aid to Florida residents hit hard by four major hurricanes, in addition to an estimated $23 billion in insurance claims from the events. Every year, insurance companies and federal, state and local governments, as well as average American families, spend billions of dollars to restore utilities, infrastructure, homes, businesses and lives in response to disasters.

The effort must be concerted to maximize the science, inform the policy, and to reduce the loss of life, property and normalcy.
Dollar amount losses may not be particularly indicative metrics for measuring disaster costs. The loss of life and the loss of feeling safe are often the true costs of a disaster. Each region, state and locality must be able to prepare for and endure a natural hazard, as well as return to normalcy after the event. Policy-makers at all levels of government should make it a priority to lessen the impact of hazards.

Proactive strategies have yielded real savings. Following the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, the East Bay Municipal Utility District in California performed a comprehensive seismic study of their key infrastructure. They found that for a magnitude-7.0 earthquake on the Hayward Fault, 63 percent of their customers would be without water for at least six months. The district approved a 10-year $189 million infrastructure retrofit known as the Seismic Improvement Program in 1994. So far, the project has yielded savings beyond just seismic events: saving an estimated $1.2 billion by avoiding losses due to fire, costs to rebuild the district system, lost revenue, economic impact to business in the region, and flood losses.

Hazard mitigation takes many forms at all levels of government. Hazards, however, tend to be “stovepiped” into a number of different agencies. For example, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) manages earthquakes and landslides, NOAA manages hurricanes and tsunamis, and the U.S. Forest Service manages wildfires. Earthquakes, however, can cause tsunamis, landslides and wildfires; thus, these agencies must better work together to not only monitor and predict hazards, but also to explain to the state and local government decision-makers the impact their choices have on their vulnerability to these hazards.

The effort must be concerted to maximize the science, inform the policy, and to reduce the loss of life, property and normalcy. It is incumbent on each government entity to seek out opportunities for collaboration. The federal government has already taken some important steps.

For example, EarthScope is a program funded by the National Science Foundation, and carried out in partnership with USGS and NASA. It uses the latest observational and information technologies to understand the dynamic processes of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Although it has not yielded any savings yet, the physical data that EarthScope generates should help to inform hazards mitigation through a better understanding of fundamental processes on Earth, according to Greg Van der Vink, director of EarthScope.

The federal government is also planning the Global Earth Observation System of Systems to integrate and improve earth observation technology in order to help scientists predict hazards. Agencies such as NOAA, the National Weather Service, USGS and the Department of Homeland Security, among others, have the responsibility for data analysis, risk assessment and public warning of impending hazards. The capability for hazard prediction and advanced warning translates into lives saved and damage minimized.

But the real life-or-death work in disaster response is done at the state and local level. State geological surveys play a critical role in hazard mitigation through their mapping programs. Geologic, flood-plain and landslide mapping initiatives help communities understand their unique hazard vulnerabilities. State and local emergency managers who make the most important decisions during a crisis need the most accurate updated information on demand.

The pieces are in place for an effective response strategy: the science, the application and the local emergency responders. What we need now is better coordination and communication between the federal, state and local levels of government. There is a tremendous opportunity for scientists to help inform emergency managers about the risks they face. Likewise, it would be extremely valuable to the scientists for the emergency managers to explain in detail information they need immediately following an earthquake or a flood, and in what format that data and information would be most helpful. And in advance of any event, scientists, especially locally, can play an important role when it comes to land-use development — not just where to (or not to) build houses, but also where to permit a county landfill so that they it does not add harmful toxins into the groundwater.

An “all-hazards” approach to disaster response is on the horizon. General preparedness is the best mitigation strategy for hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, the threat of invasive species and even terrorism. Strategies should be specific to local needs while also educating the general public about being prepared for anything.

Public amnesia about disasters, including the “it won’t happen to me” syndrome, is a major hurdle for state and local governments that wish to promote mitigation strategies. We can no longer afford to be as good as our response to the last major hazard. In the future, we must be as good as predicting the next major hazard, and we must have informed local decision-makers who have devised wise land-management policies to lessen impacts from natural hazards. Only then will we be a prepared and resilient citizenry.

Wallace is with the Government Affairs Program at the American Geological Institute. Millar is the 2004 AGI/AAPG Fall Semester Intern. Email:

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