The dead and the desperate of New Orleans now join the farmers of Aceh and the fishermen of Trincomalee, villagers in Iran and the slum dwellers of Haiti in a world being dealt ever more punishing blows by natural disasters.
It’s a world where Americans can learn from even the poorest nations, experts say, and where they should learn not to build future settlements like the drowned old metropolis on the Mississippi.
The levees in New Orleans inspired a false sense of security, says Dennis S. Miletti, a leading scholar on disaster prevention.
“We rely on technology and we end up thinking as human beings that we’re totally safe, and we’re not,” said Miletti, of the University of Colorado. “The bottom line is we have a very unsafe planet.”
By one critical measure, the impact on populations, statistics show the planet to be increasingly unsafe. More than 2.5 billion people were affected by floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters between 1994 and 2003, a 60 percent increase over the previous two 10-year periods, U.N. officials reported at a conference on disaster prevention in January.
Those numbers don’t include millions displaced by last December’s tsunami, which killed an estimated 180,000 people as its monstrous waves swept over coastlines from Indonesia’s Aceh province to Trincomalee, Sri Lanka and beyond.
By another measure — property damage — 2004 was the costliest year on record for global insurers, which paid out more than $40 billion on natural disasters, reports German insurance giant Munich Re. Florida’s quartet of 2004 hurricanes was the big factor.
Not more happening, just more being affected
But generally it’s not that more “events” are happening, rather that more people are in the way, said Thomas Loster, a Munich Re expert. “More and more people are being hit,” he said.
In the 1970s, only 11 percent of earthquakes affected human settlements, researchers at Belgium’s University of Louvain report. That soared to 31 percent in 1993-2003, including a quake in 2003 that killed 26,000 people in Iran, whose population has doubled since the ’70s.
The expanding U.S. population “has migrated to hazard-prone areas — to Florida, the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, particularly barrier islands, to California,” noted retired U.S. government seismologist Robert M. Hamilton, a disaster-prevention specialist. “Several decades ago we didn’t have wall-to-wall houses down the coast as we do now.”
The way America builds too often invites disasters, experts say — by draining Florida swampland and bulldozing California hillsides, for example, disrupting natural runoff and magnifying flood hazards.
“We’re building our communities in ways that aren’t compatible with the natural perils we have,” Miletti said.
Another domino effect
The more advanced the nations, the bigger the blow may be. Terry Jeggle, a U.N. disaster-reduction planner, cites the New Orleans levee system — dependent on pumps that run on electricity produced by fuel that must be transported in. One failure will lead to another along that chain.
“Complex systems invite compounding of complexity in consequences, too,” said the Geneva-based Jeggle.
Experts fear more is to come. The scientific consensus expects global warming to intensify storms, floods, heat waves and drought.
Climatologists are still researching whether climate change has already strengthened hurricanes, whose energy is drawn from warm ocean waters, or whether the Atlantic Basin and Gulf are witnessing only a cyclical upsurge in intense storms.
Computer models of climate change in the decades to come point to more devastating Category 5 storms.
Some poor nations better prepared
The prospect of more vulnerable populations on a more turbulent Earth has U.N. officials and other advocates pressuring governments to plan and prepare. They cite examples of poorer nations that in ways do a better job than the rich:
- No one was reported killed when Ivan struck Cuba in 2004, its worst hurricane in 50 years and a storm that, after weakening, killed 25 people in the United States. Cuba’s warning-evacuation system is minutely planned, even down to neighborhood workers keeping updated charts on which residents need help during evacuations.
- Along Bangladesh’s cyclone coast, 33,000 well-organized volunteers stand ready to shepherd neighbors to raised concrete shelters at the approach of one of the Bay of Bengal’s vicious storms.
- In 2002, Jamaica conducted a full-scale evacuation rehearsal in a low-lying suburb of coastal Kingston, and fine-tuned plans afterward. When Ivan’s 20-foot surge destroyed hundreds of homes two years later, only eight people died. Ordinary Jamaicans also are taught search-and-rescue methods and towns at risk have trained flood-alert teams.
Like many around the world, Barbara Carby, Jamaica’s disaster coordinator, watched in disbelief as catastrophe unfolded on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
“We always have resource constraints,” she said. “That’s not a problem the U.S. has. But because they have the resources, they may not pay enough attention to preparedness and awareness, and to educating the public how to help themselves.”