Prepare for Disaster


Sep 27, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on September 27, 2005.

The glaring lesson in the aftermath of the largest emergency response and relief effort in U.S. history following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is that it is far less painful and expensive to prepare for disasters than to respond to them. We've seen the same lesson following earlier disasters, but have failed to learn it.

In 1988, for example, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in Armenia killed at least 25,000 people. The next year, a more powerful 7.1 earthquake struck the densely populated San Francisco Bay area and killed just 62 people. Why the staggering contrast? A building code imposing strict requirements on construction in earthquake-prone areas had prepared San Francisco far better than Armenia. Such requirements increase the cost of construction, but this is small compared with the human tragedy and economic losses that are prevented when an earthquake hits.

Unfortunately, natural hazards are inevitable. Killer hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and fires are certain to hit the United States again. And try as we might to prevent them, terrorist attacks, plane crashes, industrial accidents and other incidents caused by deliberate or unintended human conduct will occur again as well.

The damage these calamities cause can vary widely depending on how prepared we are. Reducing risk entails long-term investment in planning, prevention, and protection. Emergency response is the last resort and should never be relied on as a primary strategy for preventing disasters.

The bulk of the damage in most disasters comes within minutes or hours. While local response agencies can meet this timeline, even the biggest can't contend with the scale of response needed for massive disasters like Katrina and Rita. Instead, local first responders must rely on assistance from state and federal emergency response agencies. But the state and federal responders will rarely be on the scene in the first critical hours. Instead, their primary purpose is to serve as back-up support to reinforce and relieve local response efforts.

The evidence from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is that the emergency response needed after the storms struck exceeded even state and federal capabilities. Of course, response could be improved, and there were some clear examples of poor coordination and execution in responding to Katrina and Rita. But we can't expect the state and federal response agencies to have an unlimited capability queued up and ready to employ instantly no matter how severe the disaster.

As with local response, there is a point beyond which the cost of maintaining standby resources exceeds their benefit. Although it is not clear where this point is, if we accept that this point exists we need to look to alternative approaches. The better prepared a community is to deal with a disaster, the lower the emergency response needs.

There are several approaches to preparation. Zoning laws are used to control development in such hazard-prone areas such as flood plains and low-lying coastal areas susceptible to storm surge or tsunamis. Building codes are used to minimize damage from the forces of nature. Community-wide protection steps, such as the levees surrounding New Orleans, can also help minimize damage. And advances in prediction and diligent response planning can help facilitate evacuations, get people into shelters and protect valuable infrastructure.

As the earthquake example illustrates, these approaches work and it behooves us to strengthen incentives to undertake them. Federal funding for disaster prevention and preparedness can be made contingent on local governments toughening ordinances focused on prevention and preparation, and the availability of insurance coverage can be subjected to similar requirements for individuals and businesses.

Although much effort has gone into protecting New Orleans from flooding, the infrastructure is old and was never designed to withstand a hurricane the size of Katrina. Ambitious steps — such as an expansion of the levee system from New Orleans to the Mississippi border that is estimated to cost $2 billion — were put off in the past and have now effectively been traded for a catastrophe.

An impediment to preparation is that we don't know as accurately where to focus our efforts as we do for response. Of the many possible hazards this country faces in the future, which one should we prepare for next? The value of preparation is so much greater, however, that we can prepare several times as many areas as we can respond to for the same amount of money. And improvements in disaster and hazard modeling continue to enhance our ability to accurately target preparation efforts.

Investing up front to avoid paying a lot more later is not a profound insight, nor is the tendency to ignore this advice. We hope the tragedy of Katrina will inspire America not simply to rebuild New Orleans, but to design a future where the probability of such enormous disaster occurring again is a great deal lower. While we all hope for the best when a disaster strikes, it is important to prepare for the worst.

“Outside View” © 2005 United Press International

Tom LaTourrette is a physical scientist and Ed Chan is an associate operations researcher at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

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