Sunday, November 06, 2005

Natural Disasters Increase

"Natural disaster in the United States has morphed to a dangerous new level" concludes Joseph Verrengia (2005) in a recent article in Associated Press. He adds that "Some experts say the nation can expect to be pummeled by more of these mega-catastrophes over the next 20 or 30 years in a nasty conspiracy of unfavorable weather patterns, changing demographics and political denial."

One of these experts, Carnegie Mellon University risk strategist Baruch Fischhoff, asks the question "Are we prepared to lose a major city every year?" Sociologist Havidan Rodriguez, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, suggests that "We failed quite significantly" in the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Verrengia adds that "New Orleans and the Gulf Coast might serve as a living laboratory for sustainable development and commerce that can withstand future calamities. For example, New Orleans' historic core might be reopened for tourism, but neighborhoods could be rebuilt on safer, firmer ground using more efficient 21st century technologies."

Environmentalist Paul Hawken, a leading voice in the green design and green commerce movements, cautions us that "The first rule of sustainability is to align with natural forces, or at least not try to defy them. There is no reason to go backwards in redesigning the city."

Verrengia illustrates the point with some numbers:

Globally, more than 2.5 billion people were affected by floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters between 1994 and 2003, a 60 percent increase over the previous two 10-year periods, U.N. officials report. (Those numbers don't even include the millions displaced by last December's tsunami, which killed an estimated 180,000 people).

Damage to insured property around the world in 2004 by natural disasters totaled $49 billion, according to the Zurich-based insurance giant Swiss Re. And that figure doesn't include the tsunami, either. Of the total, some calculations suggest that as much as $45 billion in losses came from a quartet of Florida hurricanes — Charley, Ivan, Frances and Jeanne.

The overall insured loss for 2004 is more than twice the $23 billion annual average in property losses since 1987, confirming a "discernible upward trend," Swiss Re said.

The weather might be changing for the worse, but the real difference, asserts Verrengia, is demographics. How and where Americans live today make the nation especially vulnerable to these unstoppable events.

More than half of the nation's 300 million people live in coastal areas. Florida's population has increased fivefold since 1950, and now 80 percent live within 20 miles of salt water. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, seven of the nation's top 10 fastest growing states are coastal, including California, whose population has increased from 10 million in 1950 to more than 33 million today.

Verrengia reminds us that "it's not just coastal populations that are at risk. Infrastructure supplies food, energy and materials nationwide like the body's circulatory system distributes blood and nutrients. If the New Madrid fault ruptures in the Midwest, the loss of key roads, railways, power grids and pipelines over the Mississippi River would likely choke off vital supplies to distant cities for months, including Washington, D.C. and New York City."

Other demographic changes not often associated with natural disasters are an aging population, the growth of assisted living communities and dependent-care facilities in warm-weather states and the increase in immigrant populations where English is not widely understood. All of these factors will make evacuations even more difficult, researchers say.

"All of the plans have assumed that people have cars and they speak English," Rodriguez said. "If you forget the population in your planning, the population will ignore your plans."

Solutions recommended by architects, civil engineers and sociologists can be roughly sorted into a few categories:

Infrastructure: Communications systems, power grids, roads and flood control measures — especially levees — should be expanded and hardened, they advise. Roads, bridges and other key features have been neglected. The interstate highway system that was clogged with evacuees is now 50 years old.

Preparedness: Katrina was perhaps the most-anticipated natural disaster in history, but elected officials and top bureaucrats were reluctant to act aggressively on the advice of scientists and other experts. Simulations of the impact of a monster hurricane and other exercises focusing on terrorism and infectious disease outbreaks have pointed out serious flaws in communications, medical care and evacuations. Many question whether government agencies have done a good job of acting on the lessons of these activities.

Political will: "What we are missing, utterly and completely, in this government is accountability," Hawken said. "I don't see anybody talking in terms of shame," Fischhoff said. "I don't see any soul-searching."

Many recommended an independent commission led by an independent figure outside of government. Former Fed chairman Paul Volcker's inquiry into corruption at the United Nations was one example cited. Another was the investigation into the space shuttle Columbia disaster led by retired Adm. Harold Gehman Jr.

Verrengia, Joseph B. “Experts: Future of Big Hurricanes Looms” Associated Press. October 1, 2005. Various outlets, including


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