The Problem With Disaster Preparedness

Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy has a post about “A Sleeping Giant.”    A little history first.  Back in A.D. 79, there was a city called Pompeii.  It’s rather famous, because it was buried by a volcanic eruption, by a volcano called Vesuvius.

Since 79 AD, the volcano has also erupted repeatedly, in 172, 203, 222, possibly 303, 379, 472, 512, 536, 685, 787, around 860, around 900, 968, 991, 999, 1006, 1037, 1049, around 1073, 1139, 1150, and there may have been eruptions in 1270, 1347, and 1500.  The volcano erupted again in 1631, six times in the 18th century, eight times in the 19th century (notably in 1872), and in 1906, 1929, and 1944. There has been no eruption since 1944

Obviously, not a place people would really want to live in, and definitely would never consider building major cities near, right?  Think again.

This is a picture that was taken on New Year’s Day from the International Space Station:

Photo credit: NASA

Not too far away (bottom right) is Naples.  But you notice all the buildings around it?  Phil Plait’s comment was “I have a hard time seeing this as anything other than a paean to humanity’s inability to learn.”

Which is not uncommon.   Prevention, or mitigating the damage, of disasters is not usually politically important:

Bowman has spent years warning officials of the storm surge risk to New York City.

Less than a month after Katrina, he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times warning that the same thing could happen to New York City — and outlining his storm barrier system solution to prevent it from happening.

He tried again in 2008 as part of a climate change panel convened by New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

But no barriers were built.

Even after a disaster happens, it’s tough to implement prevention measures:

Projects such as that are expensive to build — but sometimes the cost isn’t the only hurdle standing in the way.

Some oceanfront residents in New Jersey have stymied a federally funded effort to build storm-protecting dunes — even after witnessing the devastation from Sandy and Irene.

While they have their “reasons,” the problem in the longer term is that they will be affected by one or more natural disasters, and without mitigation efforts, suffer the consequences of that.    But, at least they’ll have adequate warning, right?  Maybe not:

By Friday, the models were highly predictive, pointing to a mid-Atlantic hit around Delaware and New Jersey, with forceful winds, rising water and massive tides endangering coastal areas for hundreds of miles. And that’s exactly what happened.

The tireless effort by weather forecasters made a difference. All the work and money that goes into developing and maintaining a first-class meteorological service paid off.

Here’s what you may not know: Advance warnings, made possible by an array of images and information delivered by satellite, could be a thing of the past. Or, almost as bad, they could be less accurate, and less timely, due to a looming gap in our weather eye in the sky.

Yes, our current weather satellites, the ones we rely on as our “eyes in the sky” to spot and track these storms are reaching the end of their usable life.  The problem is that their replacements aren’t ready,

NOAA has warned that, starting in 2017, there will be at least a year-long gap between the newest polar orbiting satellite’s design lifetime and the scheduled launch date of its replacement.

That would mean the U.S. could become reliant on just one polar-orbiting satellite, rather than the two that have long been in service. NOAA ran up billions in cost overruns for the next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites, and delays and a lack of funding from Congress have put that program, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), years behind schedule.

and budget cuts may mean they’re not going to be ready.   So we may not have the advanced warning we’ve come to expect.  Along with that are the effects of climate change.  Besides the sea level rise which may flood many of these areas regardless, it’s been predicted that we’ll likely see more and more intense storms, with concurrent increased storm surges.  Which means more damage, and more costs to rebuild, move, or build increased protection.

All of which will happen after the fact, instead of before.  A personal story:  In 1999, I attended a professional conference in New Orleans.  During one of the breaks, I took a stroll down River Street.  When I looked up, I realized that the embankment I saw was a levee, because there was a ship passing by.  The thought crossed my mind “If that ever goes, this whole area is going to be under water.”  Several years later, I saw the pictures of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, and the area I’d been standing in was under several feet of water.  Now they’re rebuilt their protection, but sea level rises, the loss of wetland barriers, and other factors may mean those are inadequate.

Which is the real problem with disaster preparedness.  We don’t want to do it, and even afterwards, we build to prevent the last one, not the next one.  As a species, we’re not always able to learn.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Problem With Disaster Preparedness

  1. overseasgranny

    The Mediterranean area is also subject to earthquakes and landslides and large tsunamis reading its history. Do we build away from the coasts? Of course not. Constantinople will be hit with a giant earthquake not too long from now, historically speaking, with an unbelievable death toll. Seems nothing will be done to avert those casualties.
    We ignore all evidence of pending disaster.
    I keep reminding our county board that if the sea level rise approaches 3 feet, or more, it will wipe out the major city in our county and the whole county’s water system as well. Might as well not even bother.

    • I think what bothers me is not that people build along a coast, etc., it’s that there’s a big “it can’t happen to me” attitude. I can look at virtually any ocean shoreline in this country, and see new developments springing up, right on the ocean front. One look would tell anyone that a good sized wave – even absent sea level change – would do some serious damage. After every major hurricane elsewhere, it was pointed out that the same surge seen there would do … much of what Sandy did … although Sandy was even worse than those projections.

  2. addisnana

    Great piece, Norbrook. It can’t happen here or it won’t happen to me is SOP for humans. I wonder what the evacuation plan is for Naples. Scary spot to live.

  3. see above

    In the middle of the country they build homes on land that was previously a lake and then whine in wet years when their basements flood or have to be bought out when the lake comes back and doesn’t recede. There are maps that show all this stuff but it still happens.