The outlook for reducing losses from natural hazards

The other day a colleague was in my office and as part of the conversation she and I did a quick walkthrough of a powerpoint presentation I’d given about a decade ago on natural hazards. As part of that presentation back then, I had forecast the outlook for progress with respect to the various elements that added together reduce losses from natural hazards. The forecast doesn’t look so bad ten years later…and in fact much of it might be just as relevant to the next ten years. So in the hope of stimulating a bit of thought, here’s a summary:

Progress is LIKELY over the next decade with respect to advances in

Warning and emergency response. If anything, the progress here has far exceeded what I’d expected only ten years ago. The front-end part… the observations and the modeling… have made great strides, as evidenced by the Hurricane Sandy forecast. Emergency responders have grown more savvy in their use of forecasts and in pre-positioning assets prior to any emergency. And social scientists are improving the content of warning messages.

Insurance, other mechanisms for spreading risk. Hurricane Andrew, 9/11, and the financial-sector meltdown of 2008 have each triggered the development of new financial mechanisms for spreading risk over ever-larger pools of assets. [However, the sector’s tools are limited. Despite attainments in spreading risk, it has yet to succeed in markedly reducing risk.]

Information access. Time was that disaster-zones were also information-starved. Now, thanks to IT and social media, the disaster-zone is information rich, even when and where cellphone infrastructure is temporarily saturated. Search and rescue and many other elements of emergency response are being transformed in consequence.

Progress is POSSIBLE, BUT MORE PROBLEMATIC with respect to advances in

Public awareness and education. The media have discovered that public interest in catastrophe is essentially unlimited. A whole lot of learning is going on every evening in front of the television and the computer screen. School kids are utterly fascinated by weather extremes, and this continues to be a gateway for American children into science more broadly. But knowledge in the abstract doesn’t always translate to more effective behavior in the actual hazard event.

Pre-event mitigation. There’s growing appetite for this, especially at the local level. Local officials and individual homeowners are increasingly aware that Washington bailouts after a disaster are likely to be slow in coming, less than needed, and in any event will not make them whole. Community leaders are realizing that community survival is a holistic thing. Small businesses won’t survive and big business won’t avoid disruption unless the workers, their families, their schools, their hospitals, and more aren’t equally resilient. As for the flip side, a community isn’t resilient unless the jobs are still there after the hazard has come and gone. Appetite and enthusiasm for the NOAA/NWS Weather-Ready Nation initiative reflect this.

Sustained international cooperation. Emergency response and disaster relief continue to bring countries together, if only momentarily. But progress with respect to pre-event mitigation measures continue to challenge multi-national approaches.

SUCCESS MAY PROVE MORE ELUSIVE with respect to

Reducing vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure. There are several challenges here. Dependence on critical infrastructure (communications, power, transportation, sewage, water, healthcare, schools, financial…) is still relatively new, historically speaking. We haven’t accumulated a lot of experience in seeing how critical infrastructures can fail and how disaster impacts cascade through such infrastructures to immobilize communities and even entire nations… look at the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and its effect on Japanese (mainly nuclear) electrical utilities. And the costs of retrofitting critical infrastructure to build in resilience and continuity are staggering.

Challenges posed by megacities. The world’s megacities are essentially massive job shops competing for global business. The competition is often based on price and to keep costs down, megacities build in floodplains and on fault zones, and compound risk by jerry-rigging cheap but fragile infrastructure. Poverty is often endemic.

Newly emerging hazards. It is sadly true of all of us individually and collectively that we learn best through practice. By definition, we’ve had no experience with newly emerging hazards. Threats waiting in the wings include pandemics, major asteroid strikes, WMD, cyber-attacks, climate change and more. These threats are not only novel but global. They portend bitter future lessons.

Equity issues. This challenge is old but stubbornly resistant to cure. Every evidence shows that disasters aggravate pre-existing social inequities, whether based on gender, religion, ethnicity, or economic fault lines. Jesus said the poor are always with us… and He could have added that they would also always be more disadvantaged by hazards.

These last four issues are particularly challenging because they’re interwoven.

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What do you think? Has this been the story of the last ten years? If so, would you double down for the next ten? Do you believe persistence is the best forecast here?  And here are two more telling questions:

  1. Which of these trajectories could you change for the better? and
  2. What are you waiting for?
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