Disaster Lessons Unlearned

COSTAS SYNOLAKIS, professor of civil and environmental engineering, USC Viterbi.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 12.

The human tragedy of Super Typhoon Haiyan is unprecedented for the Philippines and possibly for the region. Thousands are dead and tens of thousands displaced. As the relief effort builds, the question to ask is whether the human impact was predictable and preventable.

The disaster bears striking similarities to the Indonesian tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami two years ago. In each case, local scientists did not expect the depth of the floods or the strength of the water currents.

As a result, entire coastal communities were wiped out, with only well-engineered structures, mostly made from reinforced concrete, left standing. Roads and airports were flooded and covered with debris, making search and rescue on the ground difficult. Water supplies and sewage systems were severely compromised. In Japan, evacuation shelters were not well-planned and people died in places where they had been told they would be safe.

While no country can prevent all human suffering from large-scale natural disasters, their consequences can be anticipated and planned for. It is incomprehensible to read in the news that many officials in the Philippines did not expect the wind-generated waves riding on the 3-5 meter deep floods, and people were unprepared for them.

These waves are exactly why hundreds of thousands perished in Hurricane Nargis in Myanmar in 2008. Hurricanes produce a fairly rapid change in water level, which by itself may be survivable. But waves triggered by the associated winds can soar up to four meters above the already flooded areas. Like a lawn mower, the breaking waves can destroy structures in a phenomenon that is now well understood.

Once the size of the super typhoon was known, days in advance, the sequence of events was predictable. As opposed to tsunamis which travel in deep water at airplane speeds, tropical storms move at a bicycle’s pace. There is ample time to evacuate and prepare emergency relief, supplies, and search and rescue logistics.

As with practically all natural disasters in the past few decades, the key to saving lives is education and pre-disaster planning. A good example is Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when the upcoming U.S. presidential election helped make the eastern seaboard the best prepared in the history of the country. The loss of life in the U.S. was small.

Unfortunately, even countries with fairly sophisticated weather prediction services spend disproportionately more on questionable mathematical studies to assign probabilities for future extreme events. The point is supposedly to prioritize civil-defense investments. Yet far less is spent on low-tech, common-sense measures.

For instance, a full-scale field evacuation exercise can reveal many shortcoming in preparedness efforts and thus improve response and recovery. This costs a tiny fraction of what research funding agencies allocate to come up with risk estimates whose veracity can’t be proven.

When a disaster does approach, warnings need to be timely and clear. In Sumatra there were no official warnings, and in the other two events warning messages were apparently not clear enough, with the result that many people waited too long to evacuate. Messages need to state the obvious—”evacuate now or you will die”—and not use the obscure language of scientists.

Lastly, when it comes to planning for large-scale events, experience shows that it is more economical to rely on the collective experience of the global scientific community than on the newly minted experts who spring up after every disaster. Local officials are focused on designing for what just happened and not preparing for the future. Here operators of nuclear power plants and other critical facilities take note, introversion kills.

When human lives are at stake, disaster management and international agencies need to assume that the worst will happen, just as the colloquial Murphy’s law asserts. Building coastal resilience by addressing the capacities of communities to survive and recover from a wide array of disasters is the only known practice that saves lives.

Sadly, this super typhoon shows that the lessons from past disasters have yet to be fully digested. Science and engineering didn’t fail, policy makers failed to ask the right questions of the right people and act on that information.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *