Dealing With Natural Hazards Requires New Approach, Study Says

first_imgNSF Media Contact:Joel Blumenthal, (703) 306-1070/[email protected] of Colorado at Boulder Contacts:Dennis Mileti, (303) 492-6818/[email protected] Caughey, (303) 492-4007/[email protected] The cost of natural hazards in the United States has averaged as much as $1 billion per week since 1989 and is expected to keep rising, according to a major new study released May 19 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.In some cases, steps people have taken to reduce the impact of natural hazards may actually make the situation worse when more extreme disasters occur, said Dennis Mileti, who led the team of 132 experts who conducted the study. The team was charged with evaluating everything that is known about natural hazards and coming up with ways of reducing their social and economic costs.The five-year, $750,000 study -– Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States — was funded by the National Science Foundation [NSF] Engineering Directorate, with contributions from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.Mileti, who chairs the sociology department and directs the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, noted that seven of the 10 most costly U.S. disasters during the report’s 20-year study period occurred between 1989 and 1994. The states that experienced the greatest losses from natural hazards from 1975 to 1994 were California, Texas and Florida.The 1994 Northridge earthquake in California, estimated to cost at least $25 billion, was the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history. Japan’s 1995 Kobe earthquake was the world’s most expensive disaster, at $100 billion.”The really big catastrophes are getting larger and will continue to get larger because of, among other reasons, everything we’ve done in the past to reduce risk,” Mileti said.For example, Mileti noted, building a dam or levee may protect a community from the small- and medium-sized floods the structures were designed to handle. But any additional development that occurs because of this protection will mean even greater losses during a big flood that causes the dam or levee to fail. Such incidents occurred during the 1993 flooding in the Mississippi River basin.”One central problem is that many of the accepted methods for coping with hazards have been based on the idea that people can use technology to control nature to make them safe,” he added.Mileti hopes people will look at hurricanes and other natural disasters in a new way as a result of the study. The report, published by Joseph Henry Press of Washington, D.C., is intended to guide research and policy in the field of natural hazards over the next 20 years.The report urges community leaders to “design future disasters” for their communities, actually setting the number of deaths and injuries and dollar losses they are willing to accept – and take responsibility for – as the result of the most extreme disasters their community could face during the next 100 to 200 years.”It is wrong to think of natural hazards and disasters as problems that can be solved, because problems mean there are solutions and disasters are actually symptoms of a more basic problem,” Mileti said.”The much more basic thing is how our communities engage in non-sustainable development. You can’t have sustainable development if what you build falls down in a major earthquake.”While actions taken to mitigate disasters, such as building codes that require buildings to withstand certain magnitudes of earthquakes, save lives and dollars in the short term, Mileti said, “we are shifting the risk to future generations, much like the national debt. We need to change the culture to think about designing communities for our great grandchildren’s children’s children.”Until people are ready to address the interdependent root causes of disasters and to do the difficult work of coming to a negotiated consensus about which losses are acceptable, which are unacceptable, and what type of action to take, our nation’s communities will continue on a path toward ever-larger natural catastrophes,” he concluded.(Broadcast Editors: B-roll natural disaster footage to accompany this story is available by contacting Dena Headlee at the National Science Foundation Office of Legislative and Public Affairs at (703) 306-1070/[email protected]) Share Share via TwitterShare via FacebookShare via LinkedInShare via E-mail Published: May 18, 1999 last_img read more