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Avoiding a Catastrophe Of Human Error

By William H. Hooke
Wednesday, January 5, 2005; Page A17

We live on a planet of extremes and cataclysm. A year to the day before the Dec. 26 tsunami, whose death toll has surpassed 150,000, the Bam earthquake in Iran killed 46,000 people, injured 20,000 and left 60,000 homeless. In India the Gujarat earthquake of 2001 resulted in more than 20,000 deaths and 167,000 injuries. In 1998 Central America lost 10,000 lives to Hurricane Mitch. The 1976 Tangshan earthquake in China killed 250,000.

Nor are such losses confined to the developing world. In 2003 a European heat wave killed about 20,000 people; the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan killed 5,000. Insured losses worldwide for the 2004 hurricane season came to $35 billion; the total losses were far higher. Here's the sober truth. Hurricanes, brutal cold fronts and heat waves, ice storms and tornadoes, cycles of flood and drought, and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are not unforeseeable interruptions of normality. Rather, these extremes are the way that the planet we live on does its business. Hurricanes, in some parts of the world, provide a third of the average annual rainfall. What we call "climate" is really an average of extremes of heat and cold, precipitation and drought. And climate change? The issue is not the small increments in the averages but what lies behind them: the projected changes in storm patterns, intensity and tracks, and the altered outlook for floods and drought. For island nations, or even the United States, the impact of a one-foot change in average sea level over a century can in some respects be accommodated far more readily than the devastation of a single 6- to 15-foot storm surge sustained for just 24 hours during that hundred years.

(Destruction In Bam, Iran, After A Dec. 26 Earthquake In 2003/Wo)

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In this connection, the geological record is not comforting. All the evidence from paleoclimatology and geology suggests that over the long haul, the extremes we face will be substantially greater than even the strongest in our brief historical record. Can we blunt these catastrophes? What measures can and should we take to reduce loss of life and suffering, mitigate economic disruption and protect the environment and ecosystems in the face of extreme events? There are several:

• Monitor. This measure has been discussed repeatedly in the days since Dec. 26. Scientific research and technological development have led to great advances in our ability to anticipate the development, track and intensity of many natural hazards, and to detect many more. In the wake of the latest disaster it is tempting to focus attention on this particular threat -- namely by our attention to a tsunami detection system such as that developed by Eddie Bernard at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But nations of the world need to address the challenge of monitoring the entire range of natural hazards in a balanced, globally coordinated way.

Fortunately, thanks in large part to retired Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, the NOAA administrator, such a concerted international effort is underway. More than 50 nations will be meeting in Brussels next month to solemnize agreements governing a decade of cooperation in enhanced global monitoring for public safety, economic growth, and protection of the environment and ecosystems.

But for many participating nations, the agreements will simply mean changes and adjustments in the use of resources. New warning capabilities will not be in place for years -- at least not under current levels of investment. Here at home, Congress and the federal agencies could put meat on the bones of these proposals by increasing the funds available. Considering that the level of U.S. investment in such monitoring and the associated research and services is only about 0.1 percent of gross domestic product, and that weather-sensitive sectors (agriculture, energy, transportation, etc.) make up a third of our economy, this would be a matter of common sense.

• Warn. Monitoring doesn't tell the whole story. When information on an impending hazard is available to only a few government officials, it is virtually useless. The warning must be in the hands of the public -- those of us in harm's way. For many events, such as earthquakes and tsunamis, the warning time is too short to rely on the handoff of information between intermediaries. Nations must pay more attention to technical means for disseminating warnings directly to those affected. In this country, it means programs such as all-hazards NOAA Weather Radio, but also systems linked to cell phones, pagers and all the technology of the home and workplace. In the case of earthquakes, it might mean warning systems that automatically take the steps needed to protect critical infrastructure, without human intervention (and fatal delay).

• Prepare the public. Those in Sumatra, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and elsewhere simply did not know how to interpret the meaning of the scene before them -- an ocean suddenly receding far from the coast, with fish flopping around on sediment that moments before had been underwater. Such public awareness by itself, with or without government warnings, could have triggered an immediate and massive exodus to higher ground. Arguably, more lives might have been saved through such awareness -- and the precious seconds it would have bought -- than through any technical means.

Here at home, K-12 education offers a powerful tool for building public awareness and for providing additional benefits. We can teach children (society's most vulnerable population) about the hazards they face. As they enter adulthood, they will bring that awareness with them. Children are fascinated by natural extremes. Earth science education therefore serves as a gateway, stimulating their interest in all branches of science, including physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics.

But the earth sciences, including meteorology, climatology, hydrology, oceanography, geology and many other disciplines, can go only so far in protecting the public. Our community, and the warnings and forecasts we provide, have their limits. To protect ourselves on this wild ride on our untamed planet, we must take additional measures. Here are just a few:

• Adopt less risky behavior. Many of the dazed and injured in Asia have no livelihood to return to, no prospect of getting their lives back on track. The tragedy will not just persist for years -- it will grow. To protect against the property loss and economic disruption of disasters, we must adopt more prudent land-use policies, especially in coastal regions and other hazardous zones. We must strengthen building codes and their enforcement. When we ignore these measures we behave like the man who, instead of eating better, exercising, giving up smoking and making other lifestyle changes, just figures that when the heart attack comes, the ambulance will be there and the bypass surgery will make him as good as new.

• Focus on social equity. Like every such disaster, this one aggravates and compounds existing social inequities. Statistically, those hit the hardest are the ones who were struggling to begin with: the poor, the elderly, the sick, women and children, ethnic minorities. Do we want to protect ourselves (and others) from natural hazards? Then let's work together to take care of today's basic needs -- food, clothing, and shelter -- so there's a surplus to put toward greater safety over the long haul. In 1998 Hurricane Mitch undid a decade of World Bank investment in Central America. Donor nations and nongovernmental organizations such as the World Bank must link aid and investment to strategies for reducing vulnerability to natural hazards.

In the face of these realities, the United States has options. At one extreme, we can focus on domestic concerns and continue to be surprised by disasters abroad -- tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions -- and the horror they occasion, as well as their enduring and destabilizing effects on geopolitics. At the other, we can seize this unique opportunity to be a good neighbor.

Congress and the executive branch should think long-term about this threat to humanity's interests and work strategically with others to build a safer, richer, more congenial world. Address natural hazards and we'll build the international collaborations and trust needed to handle freshwater and resource issues, pollution, poverty and other global problems. Tackle those concerns and we'll defuse a lot of potential armed conflict. The investment amounts to pennies on the dollar; the unquantifiable social benefits are immense.

The writer, a former NOAA employee, directs the American Meteorological Society's policy program and chairs the Disaster Roundtable of the National Academies of Science-National Research Council. The views expressed here are his own.

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