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'Fundamental flaw' seen in disaster mitigation

BY SUSAN KIM | Washington | May 19, 1999

A National Science Foundation study released today found some disaster mitigation does more harm than good, especially in extreme disasters. The

report suggests revising both national and local approaches to disaster could save lives and reduce costs associated with large disasters like the recent

Oklahoma tornadoes.

"The U.S. doesn't seem to be able to reduce the human consequences or loss of dollars resulting from natural disasters," said Professor Dennis Mileti, who

headed the 132-person study team. "This led us to our conclusion that there is a fundamental flaw in our accepted methods for coping with disaster."

Between 1975 and 1994, natural hazards and disasters killed 24,000 people in the U.S. and injured 100,000. Since 1989, the average cost of natural disasters

to the country is $1 billion per week, and current mitigation techniques haven't done much to stem this rising tide, the study found.

Hurricanes are the only type of disaster in which deaths and costs have decreased from 1975 to 1994, while deaths and costs remained level for floods and

tornadoes but rose for wildfires, dust storms, extreme cold, and fog.

Mileta said that "piecemeal" mitigation does more harm than good when short-term disaster response doesn't take into account what he terms "the

lollapalooza" -- the extreme disaster such as a 500-year flood or shattering earthquake.

"For example, for years, dams and levies in the Mississippi River were constructed one at a time. It was one Congressperson at a time getting a dam or

levy for their district. Then, in 1993, the 500-year flood happened, and some of those dams and levies actually increased losses because they weren't

planned as part of a whole river system."

He also cited the 1994 Northridge earthquake in California, the most costly disaster in U.S.history at more than $25 billion. "We thought we had designed

structures to reduce losses in an earthquake. But when the huge Northridge earthquake hit, and those major steel-framed buildings shook, their

supporting joints cracked. "If that earthquake had lasted another 30 seconds, we would have seen major collapse of high-rises."

More awareness and responsibility at a local level, combined with broad coordination of mitigation efforts could save lives and reduce costs associated

with disasters, said Mileti.

"We are responsible for much of the damage inflicted by disasters," he said. "It's not God and it's not nature, because we decide what to put in harm's


More community responsibility and resiliency would result if citizens -- including real estate developers, other private sector leaders, government

officials, schools, churches and the like -- form local networks that take steps toward effective, not shortsighted, solutions.

Those solutions -- what Mileti calls 'sustainable hazards mitigation' -- should encompass scientific findings, construction techniques, the current state of

infrastructure, and social and cultural attitudes, he said.

"Engineers believe that engineering approaches can solve the problem. Seismologists believe that more accurate predictions can solve the problem. But in

fact, the natural disaster environment never went to college to get a narrow degree," he said.

At a local level, many faith-based response organizations have a mission of advocating for those most vulnerable to disasters. The poor are still

consistently at a greater risk, the study found.

"Our major recommendation is really a philosophical one in who we are in our natural environment, and who we put in harm's way," he said. "Changes

in who we are as a people -- our increasing disparity in income, for example -- may be leading us down a road toward worse disaster-related damages."

It is the government's responsibility to ensure local communities have access to disaster-related research and information, Mileti maintained. "When

people choose to locate in an area that's high-risk, they need to know enough about their possible losses to be able to own those losses. We're not

condoning that people be moved out of disaster-prone areas -- most of us live on coastlines -- but that they take ownership for their own education and


The American Red Cross and many faith-based organizations currently offer disaster preparedness and response guidelines for individuals, but still most

people have been conditioned to leave damage-control decisions up to the government.

"Imagine what would happen if citizens demanded safer communities from elected officials," Mileti said.

Jane Bullock, chief of staff for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, responded that FEMA is already working to empower local communities

with programs such as Project Impact, an initiative that helps communities become 'disaster-resistant' now in place in 118 communities nationwide.

Sometimes interfaith disaster response teams can access Project Impact funding. For example, in Cumberland, Md., chronic flooding and a rare bout with

tornadoes last summer have left a trail of damage. Last year, an interfaith recovery organization called NAILS received Project Impact funds to elevate

furnaces and appliances, install tile instead of carpet, and reinforcing walls and foundations in flood-vulnerable homes.

NAILS Program Director Sharon Kazary said that this interfaith organization was able to access FEMA funds because only the churches could get the job

done in this case. This is a tight-knit community, and churches are where things happen."

Bullock added that FEMA's buyout programs have also helped decrease loss of lives and costs of damages. "In 1993, in Arnold, Mo., flooding caused more

than $2 million in damage -- and that's just in FEMA money -- but after a buyout program, the same size flood in 1995 caused only $40,000 in damage."

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