Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How to make a dangerous world safer with a few million dollars

Do you have a few million dollars? Know someone who does? Want to leave a legacy? Are you heartsick about the pain and suffering in Tuscaloosa, Joplin, New Orleans and southern Louisiana, Port-au-Prince, Sendai, Christchurch, Sichuan province, and so many other towns and cities across the United States and around the world?

Would you like to put a stop to such catastrophes? Or at least bring the rate of disaster way down? Would you like to make communities like these (and many others) more disaster resilient?

You can do this! Here’s how.

But before we dive in…two stories.

The first is present-day. Talk to hazards experts – whether seismologists or meteorologists; or sociologists, risk-management academics or policy analysts; or engineers – and you’ll find they’re dismayed. They see the trends, and the trends are not good. Losses to natural hazards average billions of dollars each week, and are growing rapidly, decade upon decade. The vulnerability in high-risk areas – coasts, seismic fault lines, etc. – represents a huge bill now coming due. To turn this around is going to take hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars of investment. Money we don’t have. Worse yet? It’s not just the money. We have to reconfigure our land use, adjust our building codes and their enforcement, change our dependence on critical infrastructure, improve our warnings and their communication, even as the world’s peoples are beset by social injustice, lack of trust, and preoccupation with dozens more urgent concerns, from jobs to education to poverty to health care.

The second story concerns the past…a miracle that has occurred over just the past thirty years or so. All those dire projections of population explosion of a few decades back? They’re failing to verify. Population growth looks to be at the very low end of all the forecasts.

What happened? Well, it wasn’t the result of any draconian social engineering. [There’s been some of that, but it hasn’t turned out well. Take the Chinese one-child policy. It’s had unintended consequences, accelerating the aging of the Chinese demographic and producing a stunning shortage of girls and young women.] Instead, the decline in population growth rate arrived from a different direction. It came from educating women, giving them information about and access to birth control, and improving children’s health to the point where mothers can expect their children to live to adulthood. In countries where these conditions have been met, birth rates have dropped to replacement levels or a little below. Problem solved…or at least under control.

Here’s the analog for community resilience in the face of hazards.

First – and nature has served up the necessary wake-up call here – make sure that people in every community understand with clarity that no town or city or region is immune to natural hazards. The Earth does its business through extreme events: floods and drought, winter storms, hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and on and on. These threats are everywhere. There’s no escape.

Second – and recent experience has borne this out – when disaster hits your town, or mine, no one from outside is going to make us whole. Our families and friends can’t restore the loss. Strangers from across the country away, however well-meaning, will provide no more than the briefest bit of sympathy, or the most temporary bit of concrete help. Those folks in other countries? They’ve got problems of their own. So the problem is inherently a local one, place-based. You and I have to step up and take ownership of our local problem. It’s our responsibility; we can’t duck it.

Third – national and international agencies have resources that can help any local effort we choose to make effective. This is key. Suppose this were not the case, what then? We could only be depressed by the impossibility of our task. We’d simply have to hope we’d be lucky. Who are those agencies? In the United States, this information, these assets, tools, products and services are distributed across virtually every federal agency: the obvious ones, like NOAA and USGS, and FEMA, but also others like USDA and NSF, and EPA and DoT and the military and on down the list. Information on the likelihood of all sorts of hazards. Information on hard (engineering) and soft (social science) approaches to reducing the risk of hazards, building community resilience. Cookbooks like the recent NAS/NRC reports on private-public collaborations to build community disaster resilience.

Fourth and finally – here’s the best part. We don’t have to guess that this might work. We don’t have to hope that it might work. We know from experience that it has worked. When? Where? Project Impact, back in the 1990’s. This FEMA-based project never had a budget of more than $25M. The agency parceled the money out in small grants to a relative handful of communities. But when the money ran out, do you know what happened? Other communities stepped forward and said, “We know there’s no money left. We’re not asking for any. But if we organize ourselves in our community along these lines, will you let us call ourselves a Project Impact community?” Then- FEMA-director James Lee Witt said, “yes,” and the rest was history. Communities found the money to plan for a more resilient future, and then they found, locally, and from other sources, the wherewithal to make those plans a reality.

At the beginning, I asked if you had a few million dollars. Where does that come into the picture? It’s needed to build and maintain web-based and other tools for helping communities sort through and gain access to federal and other resources. To give the notion some visibility. To build a network of cooperating individuals and communities. To spread the word about success stories. In short, to jump-start this catalytic, viral process. The American Meteorological Society, many of its members, and especially those of us on staff of the Policy Program would be happy to help out here. But if you’d rather work through or collaborate with someone else, that’s okay too. Many other organizations stand ready to help, and/or are already moving out. And after all, it’s your few million dollars. It’s your legacy!

by Dr. William Hooke

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