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Experts discuss coastal risks

More awareness is needed about protecting lives and property along U.S. coastal areas, according to experts at the 19th Disasters Roundtable in Washington, D.C.


"A community cannot survive a disaster unless its businesses survive the disaster."

—Harvey Ryland, Institute for Building and Home Safety

Disaster mitigation experts and responders may not be able to change the public's desire to live along the U.S. coast, but they can help publicize and plan for the risks, according to attendees at the 19th Disasters Roundtable workshop.

Everyone should also be working together toward that goal, they said.

"Those looking at (coastal) planning and development aren't the same as those looking at hazard risks - and those should be brought together," said Debra Hernandez, who runs a company that advises on coastal and environmental issues.

The workshop, "Protecting Lives and Property at our Coastlines," touched on issues including responsible development, building codes and how disasters impact small businesses. The roundtable is held three times a year by The National Academies in Washington, D.C.

Representatives of government, private companies and non-profits attended Wednesday's session.

The importance and impact that the coastal areas have on the entire U.S. economy was stressed by a majority of the speakers.

"Our coasts drive the nation," said Judith Kildow of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Kildow said the 30 coastal states make up 83 percent of the nation's economy, are home to 82 percent of the U.S. population and account for 81 percent of the American job market.

Speakers said they believed that climate change will cause more extreme weather events including hurricanes and rising oceans, and warned that the "economic impact will be deep."

Kildow noted the vulnerability of states where the economy is overwhelmingly dependent on the coastlines.

"Florida is already at risk," she said. "Sixty-eight percent of the state's economy is in its coastal counties. When so much of a state's economy is sitting in vulnerable territory, the rest of the state may not be economically strong enough to help (in a crisis)."

With so much at risk, small businesses need a disaster plan to survive, said Harvey Ryland of the Institute for Building and Home Safety.

"A community cannot survive a disaster unless its businesses survive the disaster," he said.

Small businesses account for 98 percent of U.S. firms, he said, and they have the least amount of resources to protect themselves, making them the most vulnerable.

"We need to make protection of businesses a public value just like we've made auto safety a public value," Ryland said. "We must stop building businesses that do not incorporate disaster-resistant features. We must also start retrofitting existing businesses."

He also recommended continued enforcement of building codes, illustrating his point with photos of buildings side-by-side after recent hurricanes. Those with up-to-date building codes showed few scratches while those built under older codes had hardly a wall left standing.

"We know strong building codes work," he said.

Other speakers backed Hernandez's points on responsible building and brought up others on what redevelopment looks like post-disaster.

Gavin Smith of the Mississippi Alternative Housing Program discussed the state's devastated Gulf Coast. Many families there are left with just an empty lot and the possibility of top-dollar buy-outs from major development companies, he said.

He questioned what the coast would look like if all the lots were purchased by major firms and the historic homes and ethnic communities moved inland.

"We're ending up with a population moving out and large-scale development moving in," he said.

Speakers emphasized the importance of proper planning and communication with both those developing coastal areas and with the general public, noting that the awareness of risk is necessary for positive results.

"Society is unlikely to act unless it feels vulnerable," said D. James Baker, former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "We need to find a way to communicate risk to the public and to Congress so we can get action."

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Disasters Roundtable of the National Academies

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