Summit focuses on Pacific Rim

BY PJ HELLER | PALO ALTO, Calif. | August 7, 2001



"The next disaster that strikes the Rim will reverberate in New York, Cape Town, London and in New Delhi."

—Donald Kennedy


Warning that natural disasters

are increasing in intensity resulting in near catastrophic losses,

delegates from 40 Pacific Rim countries gathered here to discuss

preparedness, mitigation and the regional and global repercussions of

a major disaster striking their region.

"The next disaster that strikes the Rim will reverberate in New York,

Cape Town, London and in New Delhi," warned Donald Kennedy, president

emeritus of Stanford University and co-chair of the "Crowding the

Rim" summit. "The connections that link Rim nations to all the others

are simply too pervasive and too robust to make it possible to

believe that the next event is going to be a regional or an isolated

one."

"The rippling effects, the cascading consequences (of a disaster) are

quite unimaginable and will certainly be far and wide if not global,"

added David Howell, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological

Survey (USGS) and the other co-chair of the conference.

Some 160 delegates representing fields including emergency

management, science and research, business and industry, and

government, attended the three-day conference held on the Stanford

campus here. The event was sponsored by the American Red Cross, the

Circum-Pacific Council, Stanford and the USGS.

Sessions included speeches as well as a disaster simulation game in

which participants role-played and then discussed risk assessment and

disaster preparation and mitigation issues.

Kennedy said the goal of the conference was to spur people from

different fields of expertise to action.

"We'd like to seed a meeting in 10 or 20 different countries or

regions among people who are both on the prediction and analysis side

and people on the mitigation, preparedness and relief side to get

together and make plans for their own regions," he said. "The idea is

to stimulate some follow up."

Speakers at the conference said such an interdisciplinary approach

was critical for the Pacific Rim, known as the "Ring of Fire"

because of the seismic and volcanic activity there.

"We as scientists can define the hazard, but I don't think our

responsibility ends there," said Mary Lou Zoback, chief scientist

with the USGS. "I think we need to work with the engineers to find

solutions. We need to work with policymakers to try to figure out how

to create economic incentives so that we can really encourage

mitigation.

"Even if we could predict an earthquake and we could get all of the

people out of harms way, the structures could still fall down," she

said. "Even though lives would be saved, which is of course our goal,

there would be nothing to come back to."

James Lee Witt, former head of the Federal Emergency Management

Agency under the Clinton administration, stressed that people needed

to take responsibility for preparedness and mitigation in order to

avoid disaster costs which he said have grown to "almost catastrophic

levels."

"What I have seen not only here at home in the United States but

around the world is that a lot of these losses are preventable," said

Witt, who now runs his own consulting firm. "Early warnings, disaster

preparedness and prevention are the key to savings lives and reducing

damages."

Witt cited figures showing that disaster losses worldwide over the

past decade were $608 billion, which he said was as much as the

losses from the previous four decades combined. He warned that

disasters in the future would be even more devastating unless

something was done to mitigate the losses.

"From what scientists have told me, we will be facing storms that are

going to be much more intense, much more devastating," he said. "We

will be seeing nations crossing into other nations because of drought

and famine if we don't start today really truly putting measures in

place to make a difference as the population growth continues and as

we continue to develop our communities and our countries around the

world."

He urged that the time to act was now.

"We do not need to miss this opportunity in this century to plant the

seeds to make a difference," he said. "We just cannot miss this

opportunity."

Ronald T. Eguchi, president and chief executive officer of ImageCat

Inc., questioned the actual amount of losses from a disaster, saying

that they were most likely underestimated.

"I think we don't really know the true costs of disasters," Eguchi

said, noting that the indirect costs were "very difficult to

quantify."

One problem in assessing total damage figures is that no one

government agency has the responsibility for looking at the total

picture, he said.

Like other speakers, Eguchi warned it was "only a matter of time"

before a major disaster strikes the region.

Compounding the problem is the fact of population growth and the

movement of people to danger-prone areas.

Witt and others said that an effective preparedness and mitigation

program would require participation from all sectors of society, not

just government. Getting information to the highest levels of

government to allow officials to make sound decisions still presents

a major challenge, he said.

Zenaida Delica, director of training and education for the Asia

Disaster Preparedness Center in Thailand, agreed that people needed

to work together.

"With us together, we can do something to improve our world and have

more safer communities against disasters," said Delica, who is also

president of the Global Forum of NGOs for Disaster Reduction.

Among those speaking on behalf of the business community was Brent

Woodworth, manager of the IBM Crisis Response Team, and James G.

Losi, president of the Charles Schwab Corporation Foundation.

Woodworth said IBM has found that it is more cost-effective to divert

funds from insurance to mitigation efforts. He said insurance

companies were also recognizing this fact and in some cases were

helping to fund mitigation.

"This is a major breakthrough in business to see the insurance

companies actually realize that it is to their benefit to pay for

mitigation in advance," he said.

Woodworth noted that the IBM Crisis Team, formed in 1993, has

responded to more than 70 major disasters worldwide. In addition to

responding to employee and customer needs in stricken regions, it has

also taken on a humanitarian relief role in those affected countries

when invited in by the country. IBM spends an average of $1 million a

year in direct humanitarian relief, he estimated.

Woodworth said efforts were underway to work with other Fortune 100

companies in disaster relief situations in order to share resources

with the public sector and relief agencies.

Losi said donating to a non-profit organization was similar to buying

stock in a corporation.

"When you put money in a non-profit for a particular cause, you want

to understand where it is going, how it is spent, who the customers

are being served, who is accountable, who the leadership is . . . it

sure sounds like investing in the market," he said.

He noted that more and more corporations were giving employees a

choice of which non-profits they wanted their donations to go to,

rather than directing them to an agency favored by the head of the

firm. Companies were also finding that having employees participate

in community involvement programs helped retain those workers, he

said, noting it cost Schwab $164,000 for every employee that leaves

the firm.

He told delegates that both individuals and companies needed to be

asked to get involved.

"The single greatest reason why either individuals or corporations

don't get involved in their communities is because nobody ever asks

them," Losi said.


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