Earth Matters: Sensible decisions can protect lives when disaster strikes

How can similar natural disasters result in such wildly varied human and economic tolls? Why does it seem that places already cursed by poverty are so much more likely to endure terrible consequences?

The 10th anniversary of hurricanes Katrina and Rita gives us a chance to explore such questions and reflect upon how much we have learned since those two dreadful storms in 2005.

The reasons that different disasters bring such varied levels of damage are sometimes obvious and easy to figure out, yet we sometimes repeat the mistakes anyway. And like so many other things in life, the details can confound us, making the solutions more complicated than we expect.

Scarce and Disorganized – When resources are scarce or relief efforts are disorganized, death tolls and property damage can reach much higher levels than they should. The Louisiana hurricanes and the Haiti earthquake of 2010 are relatively recent disasters that testify to that point. These sorts of catastrophes are not only devastating events but are usually especially hard on poorer people.

Preparation the Key to Success – Being prepared for the aftermath of any sort of disaster is essential. Whether it be transportation to get people out of harm’s way, emergency services for the injured, food and shelter for the displaced, planning and sound organization help bring some degree of normalcy more quickly.

An Ounce of Prevention – It is especially difficult to take preventive measures when the resources to do so are scarce. When people are living in shacks (as was so often the case in Haiti), it’s difficult to implement earthquake-resistant construction practices. Yet preventive measures (especially strict building codes) are often ignored even in more well-to-do places. Much of the building damage in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake occurred because some buildings were not well-constructed and built on unstable man-made fill.

Living in the Wrong Place – All that said, we have made great strides in building earthquake-resistant structures near faults and elevated buildings in coastal and flood zones. Likewise, many places have relocated people or pushed development away from flood-prone and high risk areas. (Kentucky Avenue in Altoona is a local example.) Yet many billions world-wide still live in coastal zones and flood plains, and too much new construction still sometimes occurs in these places.

Where the People Are – Sometimes, even when preventive measures are in place and resources exist to handle a disaster, damage and casualties can still be high when tragedies occur in highly populated places. The damage and casualties connected with the Haiti earthquake (a 7.0 on the Richter scale) was much worse than the Chilean earthquake that struck earlier this month (an 8.3 quake) because it hit near the populous city of Port au Prince.

Planning and preparation are all important in avoiding and dealing with natural disasters but avoiding risk may be the most important tool on our shelf. As population densities increase (which they inevitably will) pressures to build in high risk places will grow.

Whether it be along the coast of Louisiana, the flood plain of the Mississippi or along a flood-prone creek here in Blair County, making sensible land use decisions isn’t just good public policy, it saves lives and protects our individual and community investments.

John Frederick (jfrederick@ ircenvironment.org) writes about the environment every other Saturday.