Hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes are simply natural events—until humans get in their way. The resulting disasters are particularly devastating in urban areas, due to high concentrations of people and property. Losses from disasters have risen steadily over the past five decades, thanks to increased populations and urban development in high-hazard areas, particularly the coasts. There is also significant evidence that climate change is making weather-related events more frequent and more severe as well. As a result, it is more critical than ever that natural hazards research is being incorporated into emergency planning decisions.
Improving emergency planning for the public’s benefit
A handful of far-sighted urban planning and management researchers, with particular support from the National Science Foundation, began studying these events during the 1970s. I participated in two of these research studies. Both opportunities afforded me clear opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives, a major reason I chose my field.
In 2000, a group of researchers from the University of New Orleans and Tulane University looked into the effects of natural hazards on two communities: Torrance, CA (earthquakes) and Chalmette, LA (hurricanes). This research focused on the oil refineries in both communities. We looked at emergency-management protocols, potential toxic effects due to refinery damage, and population impacts.
Although California has a far better-developed emergency management system at all levels of government, Chalmette was less vulnerable than Torrance, due to the advanced warning available for hurricanes. We also found that, though even well-informed homeowners tend to be less prepared than expected, renters are more vulnerable to disaster effects due to inadequate knowledge, dependence on landlords to secure their buildings, and generally lower socioeconomic status. Our findings had major implications for community-awareness campaigns, suggesting that more than disaster “fairs”, public flyers, and media attention are needed. We concluded with a series of recommendations for emergency managers and planners to improve their communities’ prospects.
This conjoint-hazard research also stimulated in-depth studies of the various aspects of what is now called “natech”. For example, a pair of researchers subsequently found that natural hazards were the principal cause of more than 16,000 releases of hazardous materials between 1990 and 2008—releases that could have been prevented with better hazard-mitigation planning and preparation. The implications for regulation of businesses that use hazardous substances are obvious. So are the ramifications for public outreach and disaster response.
The second NSF-funded study, conducted at Florida Atlantic University, began in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Before starting, we scoured the literature for earlier research on housing recovery, only to discover that most of it dealt with either developing countries or one or two earthquake events in California.
We focused on housing recovery along the eight-state “hurricane coast” from North Carolina south and west to Texas. A case study of New Orleans quickly revealed the extent to which local circumstances, population characteristics, and state and federal policies and capacity impaired people’s ability to restore their homes and rebuild their lives. We assembled data on the socioeconomic, housing, and property-insurance characteristics of the first- and second-tier coastal counties, as well as information about state and local disaster-recovery policies and planning.
The research team then developed a vulnerability index that provides a numerical snapshot for each county, as well as a series of indicators that contributed to the overall rating. These indicators can be used to evaluate specific areas in need of improvement, such as building regulations, flood-protection measures, and reconstruction policies—for example, restrictions on temporary housing—as well as the extent to which each area contributes to overall vulnerability.
Science informs public policies
Although imperfect, indexes do provide policy-makers and stakeholders with valuable insights. Moreover, our analysis of post-disaster housing policies revealed the inadequacies in federal provision of temporary housing, the most critical need once community safety has been restored. The controversies surrounding FEMA’s travel-trailers—high cost, toxic materials, and haphazard placement—made national news. Now there is increasing recognition that small, pre-fabricated houses are a better approach, presuming that local jurisdictions allow them to be built regardless of pre-disaster construction regulations. More planners are engaged in looking at these regulations with disaster recovery in mind.
I’m proud of the research I’ve contributed to, but I’m even more gratified with the impacts of that research. Many of our recommendations have been directed at government actors, and it is through those actors that real differences are made in people’s day-to-day lives—and in their resiliency in the face of disaster. In an era of accelerating environmental change, helping communities endure will be ever more dependent on cutting-edge research of this kind. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in the endeavor.