Posted by: Miriam | October 4, 2010

Living with Risk

I realize this is a departure from our previous topics, but I wanted to bring up some things I’ve been thinking about lately. Namely, how we deal with risk. Last week I attended the Deltas in Times of Climate Change conference in Rotterdam, an event devoted to exploring how vulnerable places will deal with increasing risk due to climate change. With world populations concentrated on coasts, rising sea levels and subsidence pose major threats in the coming decades. The conference was chock full of panels about flood risk management, urban planning, and governance strategies (I was all kinds of geeking out), and was well attended by researchers from around the world (the conference was also the kick-off of the Delta Alliance, a cooperative endeavor between deltas in California, Indonesia, the Netherlands and Vietnam).

This all has me thinking about a couple things I wanted to air,* starting with:

The myth of natural disasters

This is a pet peeve of mine, but I think the term “natural disaster” should be stricken from the record. When the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina passed a month+ ago, the media attention still focused on the “natural disaster” that flooded 80% of New Orleans. I bristle every time I hear this mischaracterization. There are natural hazards (hurricanes, tornadoes, winter storms, etc.) and man-made hazards (dam/levee  failures, oil spills, hazardous material contamination, etc.). But what turns a hazard into a disaster is how the hazard interacts with our environment.** If a river overflows in an open field, it’s not a disaster, it’s a hazard event. But if that flood strikes a downtown area, destroying buildings and causing loss of life, it’s a disaster. This is because the natural hazard has interacted with our built environment; the disaster comes in how well we’ve designed our built environment to handle natural and man-made hazards. The common misunderstanding about the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina is that it was a natural disaster. In fact, it was largely an engineering failure – the levees and flood walls constructed to keep New Orleans safe failed.

At the Deltas conference, Prince of Orange Willem-Alexander gave the opening speech and pointed out this mischaracterization of floods as natural disasters. We need to accept our responsibility in creating these disasters – this isn’t some sort of act of God; there is a man-made component of how we live and build that interacts with water.

This is where hazard mitigation comes in. We have the ability to require planning and building standards that dramatically reduce our flood risk. We can construct levees, limit development in areas known to flood, improve drainage, or require structural elevation and flood venting to equalize hydrodynamic forces. Of course even when we take steps to mitigate, residual risk remains. No matter where we live, we will face a certain level of risk, whether from flooding, winter storms, or the occasional terrorist attack. Usually, we accept this level of risk because the benefits of living in a particular place outweigh our perceived personal risk. The real responsibility comes in deciding what levels of risk we’re willing to live with and what lengths we’ll go to in order to safeguard our ability to live in a given place.

* Thank you for indulging the ranting nature of this post.

** I  realize that natural disasters do occur in terms of ecological impacts. I think the BP oil spill was a man-made hazard that created a tremendous natural disaster in the Gulf. But I guess my argument is that the term “natural disaster” is incorrectly applied to natural hazard events that impact our [human] environment, instead of natural or man-made hazards that affect our natural environment.


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