Posted by: Miriam | October 5, 2010

Re: But then what

I think the lack of distinction between what constitutes a natural disaster absolutely has policy implications and that the language used to describe these events underscores a flawed approach to dealing with hazards. The misuse of the word “natural” to describe most disasters implies that these events are somehow beyond our control – part of the natural world which occasionally wreaks havoc on our daily lives. There are still plenty of people who think disasters are somehow God’s will or “divine retribution.” This type of thinking, and yes, the language used to describe such events, underestimates our own ability to adapt and minimize our exposure to risk.

While this ability to adapt is nothing new, mitigation as official, government-sanctioned actions is a relatively new concept. James Lee Witt (FEMA Director under Clinton, back when FEMA sort of worked), spoke about this need to break the cycle of disaster destruction which the government was in part contributing to — for example, rather than provide funding to move a bridge which was repeatedly wiped out by flood waters, FEMA would only provide money to rebuild it exactly as it was, thus allowing the cycle of damage, repair, and repeated damage to continue. With the founding of the Mitigation Directorate in 1993 and Project Impact in 1997, FEMA began to change this approach, allowing for grants to mitigate against future damage. This shift, while still far from perfect at the program level, represented an incredibly important step in the way we deal with risk from natural and man-made hazards: rather than sit idly by and wait until a disaster response is required, we began to try to minimize the impact of hazard events.

There is still plenty of room for debate in how to best deal with risk. Some people have advocated that everyone just move in from the coasts (seriously), while others debated whether places below sea level, such as New Orleans, should be rebuilt. But every place experiences risk from hazards in some form. Think of risk as the probability of an event times the consequence of that event. We all live in places with risk: some have low probability, but high consequences (e.g. terrorist attacks in NYC & D.C.), others have high probability but low consequences (thunderstorms, winter storms, etc.). Other places, like New Orleans, have risks that are both existential threats (seasonal hurricanes) and comparatively low-consequence events (street flooding after heavy rainfall).

How we address these different kinds of risk is critical, and in order to do so effectively, we need to understand our own role in creating and adapting to risk from hazards. Even increasingly destructive weather patterns and stronger hurricanes have a human component, as global warming tests our ability to cope with such events. But if we’re going to deal with such hazards effectively, we first need to understand our role in shaping the consequences of risk.



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