Beating Natural Hazards to
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 governments 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.
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.
|The effort must be
concerted to maximize the science, inform the policy, and to reduce the
loss of life, property and normalcy.
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 wont 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Back to top