Too Many People in Nature's Way
04:40 PM Sep. 04, 2005 PT
The dead and the desperate of New Orleans now join the farmers of Aceh and the fishermen of Trincomalee, villagers in Iran and the slum dwellers of Haiti in a world being dealt ever more punishing blows by natural disasters.
It's a world where Americans can learn from even the poorest nations, experts say, and where they should learn not to build future settlements like the drowned old metropolis on the Mississippi.
The levees in New Orleans inspired a false sense of security, says Dennis S. Miletti, a leading scholar on disaster prevention.
"We rely on technology and we end up thinking as human beings that we're totally safe, and we're not," said Miletti, of the University of Colorado. "The bottom line is we have a very unsafe planet."
By one critical measure, the impact on populations, statistics show the planet to be increasingly unsafe. 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 reported at a conference on disaster prevention in January.
Those numbers don't include millions displaced by last December's tsunami, which killed an estimated 180,000 people as its monstrous waves swept over coastlines from Indonesia's Aceh province to Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, and beyond.
By another measure -- property damage -- 2004 was the costliest year on record for global insurers, who paid out more than $40 billion on natural disasters, reports German insurance giant Munich Re. Florida's quartet of 2004 hurricanes was the big factor.
But generally it's not that more "events" are happening, rather that more people are in the way, said Thomas Loster, a Munich Re expert. "More and more people are being hit," he said.
In the 1970s, only 11 percent of earthquakes affected human settlements, researchers at Belgium's University of Louvain report. That soared to 31 percent in 1993 to 2003, including a quake in 2003 that killed 26,000 people in Iran, whose population has doubled since the '70s.
The expanding U.S. population "has migrated to hazard-prone areas -- to Florida, the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, particularly barrier islands, to California," noted retired U.S. government seismologist Robert M. Hamilton, a disaster-prevention specialist. "Several decades ago we didn't have wall-to-wall houses down the coast as we do now."
The way America builds too often invites disasters, experts say -- by draining Florida swampland and bulldozing California hillsides, for example, disrupting natural runoff and magnifying flood hazards.
"We're building our communities in ways that aren't compatible with the natural perils we have," Miletti said.
The more advanced the nations, the bigger the blow may be. Terry Jeggle, a U.N. disaster-reduction planner, cites the New Orleans levee system -- dependent on pumps that run on electricity produced by fuel that must be transported in. One failure will lead to another along that chain.
"Complex systems invite compounding of complexity in consequences, too," said the Geneva-based Jeggle.
Experts fear more is to come.
The scientific consensus expects global warming to intensify storms, floods, heat waves and drought. Climatologists are still researching whether climate change has already strengthened hurricanes, whose energy is drawn from warm ocean waters, or whether the Atlantic Basin and Gulf are witnessing only a cyclical upsurge in intense storms. Computer models of climate change in the decades to come point to more devastating Category 5 storms.
The prospect of more vulnerable populations on a more turbulent Earth has U.N. officials and other advocates pressuring governments to plan and prepare. They cite examples of poorer nations that in ways do a better job than the rich:
• No one was reported killed when Ivan struck Cuba in 2004, its worst hurricane in 50 years and a storm that, after weakening, killed 25 people in the United States. Cuba's warning-evacuation system is minutely planned, even down to neighborhood workers keeping updated charts on which residents need help during evacuations.
• Along Bangladesh's cyclone coast, 33,000 well-organized volunteers stand ready to shepherd neighbors to raised concrete shelters at the approach of one of the Bay of Bengal's vicious storms.
• In 2002, Jamaica conducted a full-scale evacuation rehearsal in a low-lying suburb of coastal Kingston, and fine-tuned plans afterward. When Ivan's 20-foot surge destroyed hundreds of homes two years later, only eight people died. Ordinary Jamaicans also are taught search-and-rescue methods and towns at risk have trained flood-alert teams.
Like many around the world, Barbara Carby, Jamaica's disaster coordinator, watched in disbelief as catastrophe unfolded on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
"We always have resource constraints," she said. "That's not a problem the U.S. has. But because they have the resources, they may not pay enough attention to preparedness and awareness, and to educating the public how to help themselves."
Too many? I say not enough.
Magnitude 7+ earthquakes in the LA and SF areas are going to happen, probably within the next 30 years.
"On the basis of research conducted since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and other scientists conclude that there is a 62% probability of at least one magnitude 6.7 or greater quake, capable of causing widespread damage, striking the San Francisco Bay region before 2032."
"About half of these will be on the San Andreas "system" (the San Andreas, San Jacinto, Imperial, and Elsinore Faults [in southern California]) and half will be on other faults. The equivalent probability in the next 30 years is 85%."
The probability of EITHER of these occuring in the next 30 years is a bit greater.
The last major earthquakes Loma Prieta (1989) and Northridge (1994) were not the big ones but caused significant damage. The Loma Prieta epicenter was 60 miles SW of the Bay area caused $6B in damage. When the big one hits either LA or SF areas, the Katrina disaster will shrink in comparison.
Not to mention the seismic risk to the Seattle area or the area of the New Madrid fault zone.
Yup, we are overdue and I sweat every day here in SoCal. One of the big reasons I'm leaving. Not that I needed to see NOLA to know that a natural disaster in an urban setting is a disaster, but it sure cemented my reasoning for getting the hell out!
So we should model ourselves after Cuba, Bangladesh and Haiti?
And we should only build in places that are not affected by nature? Where would that be?
ETA that if you're leaving CA because of the threat of earthquakes...
time to move from tsunami prone areas
The solution is not avoiding Mother Natures wrath but designing/building and living somewhere to cope with the problems. If you look at all the disasters that can befall the USA - hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes have the biggest impact over the largest area. Now that we live in an interconnected and interdependent 'civilization', where there is only ~4 days of food in the stores and a few days of fuel at the gas station and society is only disaster away from anarchy, it does not make sense to subsidize millions of people living in danger's path. A Category 4-5 hurricane disaster along the Gulf Coast/SE United States was inevitable. Rebuilding after the smaller hurricanes (using FEDGOV flood insurance) was also not the best solution. You think your nice, new house, still within the range of 25' storm surge, is somehow invulnerable? This is like building in a dry river bed in Arizona hoping it won't rain too much. Coastal areas are vulnerable from major storms and there is damn little that can be done to build storm proof structures. It will all succumb to the forces of wind and water.
If there was no FEMA flood insurance program, there would be little reconstruction in areas that are prone to flooding. An inintended consequence of government 'help'.
The same things apply to areas with significant seismic risk.