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Political Scene

Confronting Natural Disasters
by David Applegate

Natural disasters command attention when they strike. They dominate the evening news and appear on the front page of the newspaper. Images of lives lost, homes wrecked and rescuers working against the odds engage our sympathy. But the images fade before we as a society can ask the difficult question: Why were the victims vulnerable to these forces of nature? How can we reduce that vulnerability in the future?

William Hooke, a senior policy fellow at the American Meteorological Society, has pointed out the difference in public attitude toward natural disasters and human-initiated ones. After an airplane crashes, we want to know exactly what caused the accident and how we can ensure that it never happens again.

Where is a National Transportation Safety Board for earthquakes, tornadoes or floods? After a natural disaster, our attention is on the undaunted survivors who are determined to rebuild just as before — in the floodplain, on the barrier island, at the base of the unstable slope, right back in harm’s way.

Such attitudes are a vestige of the perception that natural disasters are inexplicable acts of God. This perception is one of many obstacles we must overcome before we can effectively mitigate the impacts of these hazards and avoid repetitive losses. Those obstacles present a daunting challenge, but a broad coalition of organizations concerned with the toll of natural disasters has put together a blueprint on how Congress can start to turn the tide.

Getting congressional attention

That blueprint was released at a Jan. 22 roundtable forum held on Capitol Hill by the Congressional Natural Hazards Caucus. Its two speakers were Hooke and U.S. Geological Survey Chief Geologist Pat Leahy, who briefed the caucus on the recent earthquake and landslides that killed 600 people in El Salvador. Later that same week, a much larger earthquake would kill more than 15,000 people in India. And two weeks earlier in California, winter storms put more strain on power grids already near collapse, showing that natural hazards must be addressed in the context of many other policy issues — including energy policy — before Congress.

Established last summer by co-chairs Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), the caucus represents real progress toward improving the congressional attention span on natural hazards issues. Fifteen other senators have joined Stevens and Edwards on the caucus, one of many such informal, issue-oriented organizations in both the House and Senate.

Unlike congressional committees, caucuses do not serve an official function, but are an important mechanism for like-minded legislators to come together and raise the issues they care about above the noise. Caucuses are also incubators for legislation and policy initiatives.

The most successful caucuses are those with strong external support from groups that can organize events and generate publicity. AGI and the American Geophysical Union have spearheaded efforts to establish a Natural Hazards Caucus Work Group to support this caucus.

Forty-seven organizations are participating, including scientific and engineering societies, professional organizations of emergency managers and floodplain managers, university consortia, insurance companies, home builders, high-tech companies, the American Red Cross and even the Weather Channel. Despite their disparate interests, all these groups share a common mission to reduce the impacts of natural hazards on society.

Action items for Congress

At a kickoff event for the caucus last June, the senators directed the work group to lay out the key natural hazard challenges facing the nation and what Congress could do about them. The resulting discussion paper, released at the January roundtable, summarizes larger initiatives that will take many years to achieve and identifies six key actions that Congress can take right away:

New administration, new attitude?

Capitol Hill is not the only place in Washington where natural hazards issues could use a higher profile. The Natural Hazards Caucus Work Group also prepared a document for the Bush-Cheney presidential transition team. Signed by the leaders of 35 organizations, the transition document contains the same themes as the discussion paper. It urges the new administration to give priority to initiatives that will build the nation’s resilience to natural hazards.

As the cover of the transition document states, “The time has come for a new approach to natural hazards.” Reaching that goal will take a coordinated effort by Congress and the new administration. The caucus can play an important role in providing momentum to move the issue forward and, ultimately, ensure that fewer natural hazards turn into human disasters.

Applegate is director of the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program and is editor of Geotimes. E-mail:

 Read the discussion paper and other caucus documents at

For more on these issues, visit the AGI Government Affairs Program website at

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