Natural Hazards

Mar 21, 2014

Floods and avalanches are on Montanans’ minds right now.  That means it is also an appropriate time to take a step back and think about natural hazards more generally.  We are accustomed to thinking of these disasters as acts of God or bad luck, or otherwise entirely outside of our control.  However, if we look carefully at disasters worldwide, we see an important result: natural disasters are more often—though not always—human disasters, because the largest influences on the outcome are social and ethical considerations.  Let me give you an example: the Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco bay area in 1989 and the 2010 Haiti earthquake were almost identical.  They were the same type of earthquake, the same size, with the same amount of shaking.  Both occurred in densely populated areas of the world. Yet 62 people died in California and something like 316,000 people died in Haiti.  The difference was not on the natural side, but on the human side.  Everyone in California knows about earthquakes and acts to reduce their impact; children do earthquake drills, builders must design and build houses, schools, and sports arenas to withstand shaking, and emergency response teams practice for large earthquake response regularly.  Almost no one in Haiti knows about earthquakes; no building standards are enforced, there was no emergency response plan, and individuals were completely unprepared.  So the difference, more than 300,000 fatalities, came from the human side of the equation.  This is a clear example of utilitarian ethics: an investment in preparedness and education spares great later costs and literally saves lives, sometimes lots of them.  Furthermore, communities of any size, from neighborhoods to nations, can share the costs of preparedness and consequently share the benefits, protecting those among us who are at greatest risk or least able to protect themselves.  These ethical imperatives should inspire us to do a better job of planning for and mitigating natural disasters within our own communities. 

So how do we do this?  First, we should take stock of what risks apply to our own area.  The most important are flood, drought, extreme weather, wild fire, avalanche, landslide, volcano and earthquake, in different amounts for different parts of Montana.  For all of these, it is impossible to say exactly what will happen exactly when, and we will probably never be able to do that, but for most of them, we do have enough data and knowledge to know when and where risks are relatively high or relatively low.  We also have the capacity to improve our preparedness for the times and places with highest risk.  How do we do this?  First of all, every Montanan should take a bit of time to think about which risks apply to their own community and family.  Then, there are three things that we all can do to reduce the impact of those risks: first, support large scale efforts to improve both the science of and planning for major events; second, work within our smaller communities to create local disaster response plans; third, make an emergency kit and emergency plan for your own family. 

For the biggest disasters, only large scale preparedness and response works.  So, we should demand of our government institutions that they take the necessary steps to protect us; protecting citizens is the fundamental purpose of government. Many earthquake survivors I’ve met worldwide are more angry than sad about their experience; they feel that their governments failed to meet that basic purpose. In order to satisfy their responsibilities, federal, state, and local government entities in the western U.S. need to cooperate to improve the science of hazard assessment and the practices of disaster mitigation and response. 

For smaller disasters, local response is the most important.  As we saw with the Mount Jumbo avalanche, quick assistance of neighbors by neighbors can make a big difference.  This works even better if there are already community organizations and emergency plans in place.  Something like a pre-designated local meeting place, sometimes with staged aid like clean water and tools, can speed response organization and make it much easier for separated family members to find one another.

Finally, at the smallest scale, an emergency kit has everything you need to survive for three days without help: water, food, warm clothes, and first aid materials.  An emergency plan is a family plan for exactly what to do in a disaster.  In this case, families can mean any group of people who care for one another, and utilitarian ethics demand that we include elderly, disabled, or isolated neighbors and friends.  There are a few disasters that we can’t possibly anticipate or prepare for, but in the majority of cases, just a few little things done in advance can make all the difference.