Stream-of-consciousness impressions from the 2013 Hazards Workshop

Our nation owes much of its thinking on natural hazards and their risk management to a handful of hazards research centers sprinkled across the United States. One of the oldest and arguably the most influential of these is the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, housed in the University of Colorado at Boulder. For 38 years they’ve put on an Annual Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop, which brings together hazards researchers and practitioners from around the Nation and the world. The disciplines represented include the natural and social sciences, engineering, medicine and public health, and much more. Practitioners come from the federal, state, and local levels of government, from NGO’s, and the private sector, as well as from abroad. Some four hundred people are in attendance, despite a reduction in the numbers of federal experts resulting from the sequester and related cutbacks in funding for government travel and training. Many participants have been coming to this meeting for years, but one-third are first-time attendees, including a large number of graduate students and early-career professionals, as well as experts from as far away as the distant reaches of the Pacific Rim: Japan, China, Australia, and New Zealand.

The air crackles with interesting formal talks, ensuing Q&A, and hallway conversation. Here are a few snippets, including notions that have apparently been around awhile but are new to me, some familiar insights that bear repeating, and some personal thoughts and reflections triggered by what’s been said. My apologies; they’re presented in a bit of a jumble:

Keynoter David Aldrich’s reckoning that disaster recovery is shaped not by money, or governance, or population density or pre-existing social inequalities so much as by social cohesion. He sees this as shaping residents’ decisions to stay instead of leave after catastrophic loss, to act collectively to recover, to “insure” each other in informal ways. It’s all about pre-existing trust. In that spirit, he recommends that prior to any disaster, communities should invest in simple, inexpensive activities such as getting to know neighbors individually, throwing block parties, forming focus groups (the topic matters less than the getting-together on a regular basis over time), and providing incentives and opportunities for people to get to know and patronize their local businesses.

The Hurricane Sandy Plenary Panel. Mike Smith (AccuWeather) did a great job of reviewing the meteorology and the forecasts put out by the National Weather Service and private firms. Byron Mason showed how federally developed frameworks for disaster recovery of the health-care sector played out in New Jersey following the event. Irwin Redlener of Columbia University, Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, gave his own perspective on the disaster recovery. He emphasized that experts were too quick to speak of lessons learned, given that there’s little evidence that the experience is resulting in changed actions and behavior. He also emphasized that large-scale emergency response should not be confused with true preparedness for future mega-disasters. He suggested that the country was by no means ready for four scenarios: a pandemic; a major failure of the electrical grid due to cyber threats or space weather; a massive earthquake in an urban area; or nuclear terrorism. He closed with a discussion of what he called the “denominator problem.” As a society, we’re taking many measures in response to past events and future threats. These are all in a positive direction. But they represent progress that is miniscule in comparison with the steps we should be taken given the scale and immediacy of the problem.

A breakout session on the threat of an earthquake and tsunami in the Cascadia subduction zone of the Pacific northwest. This afternoon session unintentionally highlighted Redlener’s final point of the morning. Speakers spoke to the nature of a tsunami threat similar to that to hit Japan in March of 2011. However, it was easy to leave the discussion with the impression that each day that passes we’re another day closer to such a disaster, and nothing’s being done to significantly reduce the risk. If anything, that risk was understated today. For example, the audience was told we could expect power outages lasting for weeks. But nothing was said about the implications of such outages (or more direct flood damage) to major US corporate powerhouses such as Boeing and Microsoft. The effects of electrical grid failure might perhaps extend as far south as Apple and Google).

If we truly care about maintaining the position of the United States in the world, we can and should do better than leave our economic strength vulnerable to such a caprice of nature.

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