“A river is made drop by drop.” – Afghan proverb.
Last week, the 43rd Annual Natural Hazards Workshop ran July 8-11 in Broomfield, Colorado. Several features make the occasion unique. For example, though the meeting is largely invitational, every year about a third of the participants are first-timers. The crowd is international and diverse. The organizers work hard to get academics in the same room with practitioners. The result is a lively learning environment!
The workshop is hosted by the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center. The newest Center director – Lori Peek – has taken a more hands-on approach to crafting the workshop than some of her predecessors. This, her second meeting, comes hard on the heels of a catastrophic 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, California wildfires, and volcanic activity on Hawaii’s Big Island.
Workshop sessions treated in succession twenty questions, designed to get past mere understanding of the causes of disaster losses and concentrate minds on the actual reduction of risk and loss on the ground:
- Question 1: What is our moonshot—that big, exploratory, ambitious, groundbreaking idea—for the hazards and disaster community?
- Question 2: What environmental and social conditions produce cascading disasters, and how do they, in turn, ultimately influence what society can deal with and what it cannot?
- Question 3: How can the public sector, investors, and capital markets be encouraged to invest in risk reduction and resilience building activities?
- Question 4: To what extent, and under what conditions, do culturally competent initiatives increase representation of and reduce disaster vulnerability among underserved communities?
- Question 5: We know that natural hazards mitigation saves, but where do we go from here?
- Question 6: How can we best encourage a culture of preparedness, communicate risk, and promote meaningful action from the public?
- Question 7: How do we align research questions and policy applications to save lives, reduce injury, and improve mental health outcomes in disaster?
- Question 8: In light of recent catastrophic environmental extremes, how can we ensure that communities that experience “low-attention” disasters get the resources and support they need?
- Question 9: How do we plan for just and equitable disaster recovery?
- Question 10: How useful is the continuing expansion of disaster research and its regular creation of new concepts and jargon?
- Question 11: How do we best use hazards information to reduce disaster losses?
- Question 12: How do we continue to address the needs of vulnerable populations in emergencies, while also working more systematically to reduce social, economic, and health disparities?
- Question 13: How can we imagine equitable and resilient infrastructure design when so much of our existing infrastructure is in such dire need of repair?
- Question 14: If there is no such thing as a “natural” disaster, then who should be held responsible when catastrophe strikes?
- Question 15: Considering the investments being made in emergency response and recovery in the areas affected by recent major disasters, how can we also ensure resources and attention are dedicated to those who are at high risk of disaster, but that haven’t recently experienced one?
- Question 16: How can we better coordinate post-disaster research and integrate the findings from those efforts into education, training, practice, and policy?
- Question 17: What would it take to build a national movement focused on hazards mitigation, while still supporting local, grassroots mitigation champions?
- Question 18: What did the 2017 disaster season teach us that we did not already know?
- Question 19: How do we ensure that those who care for survivors—the first responders, volunteers, and others caught up in the disaster aftermath—receive the proper health care and support that they need?
- Question 20: Why, if this is so easy, is it so hard? What is stopping us from taking decades of knowledge and moving it into action?
Whew! What a mix! Expansive breadth, big-picture, rich detail. The several days barely allowed time to scratch the surface of these topics. And it by no means ends there. If you’ve read this far, chances are good you can raise additional issues meriting equal attention.
The make-up of the list invites a couple of conclusions. Consistent with the charter of the Center, the emphasis is not so much on the advance of knowledge per se but on converting that knowledge into societal benefit. Second, societal uptake of knowledge doesn’t seem to have progressed much in the seventeen years since the classic paper by Gilbert White, Robert Kates, and Ian Burton, Knowing better and losing even more: the use of knowledge in hazards management (Environmental Hazards 3  81–92). Losses from hazards vary significantly year on year, but generally ratchet upward, as shown below:
White, Kates and Burton offer four putative explanations for the dreary trend: (1) knowledge continues to be flawed by areas of ignorance; (2) knowledge is available but not used effectively; (3) knowledge is used effectively but takes a long time to have effect; and (4) knowledge is used effectively in some respects but is overwhelmed by increases in vulnerability and in population, wealth, and poverty.
Contrast this with another arena, one in which knowledge about the root causes of catastrophe is put into practice to reduce losses more effectively – commercial aviation:
This graph shows that despite a four-fold increase in air traffic over the past half-century, losses have declined since about 1970. As has been noted in previous LOTRW posts, this inflection in what had been a steady prior rise in aviation fatalities is roughly coincident with the establishment of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The NTSB is central to the commercial aviation community’s effort to make air travel safer. The NTSB/community response to an aviation accident or (importantly) to any near-miss is to learn from experience, that is to assert “this must never happen again.” Important to note here is that the NTSB adjustments can be sweeping but also quite particular.
While an NTSB and an associated national policy framework is hugely helpful, perhaps it is not absolutely necessary. The lesson for the natural hazards community is that efforts to reduce losses can be guided by general principles, many of which are implicit in the framing of the twenty questions, but can only be accomplished by concrete individual, place-based actions. Here’s one example of such local action, this from Yankeetown, Florida – interestingly, one accomplished in the face of an unsupportive policy environment.
We need more of such initiative. A river is made drop by drop.
Yankeetown: “The data shows the sea level here is rising seven inches per century, about the global rate, and the rate is accelerating.” So at most you might get perhaps an inch a decade rise: this is not a huge near-term threat. But the local approach, of having those best informed and most affected by changes in the locality assessing the problem and determining how to deal with it may well be optimal (so long as people remain level-headed about the potential risks).