Get Proactive with Disasters


Sep 27, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer on September 27, 2005.

Imagine if the Army's main strategy for protecting soldiers was to provide more ambulances, hospital beds, and doctors to treat the wounded - instead of relying on defensive measures such as fortifications, tanks, body armor and helmets to protect soldiers from being wounded in the first place.

The strategy of responding only after attacks instead of adequately preparing to defend against them sounds absurd. But it is exactly what the federal government, states and localities have done when it comes to protecting people from disasters such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and volcanoes.

Even if the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina had been far faster, bigger and better organized, the storm would inevitably have caused some death and severe property damage. But if more had been done earlier, New Orleans and other communities would have fared far better and many deaths would have been prevented.

In his Sept. 15 address from New Orleans, President Bush said: "This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina." Emergency response was clearly improved during Hurricane Rita. But a strategy based primarily on responding to a disaster after it hits is a losing strategy. We are far better off taking action to reduce and prevent disaster damage before it occurs.

While we don't know exactly when and where these calamities will strike, we do know that hurricanes often hit communities along the Gulf of Mexico, tornados are common on the Great Plains, and earthquakes often take place in parts of California. This knowledge can enable us to take action.

Even before the 2004 hurricane season, natural disasters were costing the United States an average of about $300 million per week, as documented in a 2003 RAND Corporation report I prepared for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The number of natural disasters has clearly continued to rise in the last two years, but there has been only limited federal action to prevent these types of losses.

We should be able to use research to develop better policies that determine where homes, businesses and other structures can be constructed - and where new construction is a bad idea. We should also use research to decide what building standards new homes and businesses must meet to withstand the forces of nature. These steps can greatly reduce the need for massive evacuation, and emergency response and recovery operations like those seen in the cases of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

A new national strategy to learn the lessons of Katrina and Rita about disaster preparation should do the following:

Focus scientific and technical efforts on reducing our vulnerability to disasters, changing the current emphasis on improving short-term weather forecasting. For example, as Katrina and Rita roared across the Gulf, they were extensively studied to predict landfall locations. But once the storms hit communities, there were virtually no measurements of wind force and direction near the ground. Such information could have been collected if instruments had been deployed ahead of time in areas likely to be hit by the storms. The information could be used to help develop better engineering and design standards.

Encourage tougher building codes requiring that new buildings be better able to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tornados or other natural disasters. Such codes typically increase the initial costs of new construction, but they dramatically reduce future losses if disaster strikes.

Provide federal financial incentives that would prompt state and local governments and property owners to reduce disaster losses. Owners of homes and business could get federal tax breaks if they strengthened existing structures or paid higher construction costs to build safer homes and businesses.

We haven't seen measures like these because past policies and budgets have been reactive rather than proactive.

In the case of Katrina, this strategic failure proved extremely costly. Estimates are that the federal government could ultimately spend about $200 billion on recovery and rebuilding efforts. It would have been far cheaper to shore up levees in New Orleans, toughen building codes, change zoning laws, and take other actions that would have dramatically lowered the death and destruction.

In 1736, Benjamin Franklin famously stated that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." If Franklin were alive today, he might say that "an ounce of preparedness is worth a pound of response." This is the most important lesson we can learn from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Charles Meade is a senior scientist with the Rand Corporation.

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