Why We Don't Prepare for Disaster

Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, wildfires: a year after Katrina, a tour of the American hazardscape shows that we haven't learned much

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Every July the country's leading disaster scientists and emergency planners gather in Boulder, Colo., for an invitation-only workshop. Picture 440 people obsessed with the tragic and the safe, people who get excited about earthquake "shake maps" and righteous about flood insurance. It's a spirited but wonky crowd that is growing more melancholy every year.

After 9/11, the people at the Boulder conference decried the nation's myopic focus on terrorism. They lamented the decline of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). And they warned to the point of cliché that a major hurricane would destroy New Orleans. It was a convention of prophets without any disciples.

This year, perhaps to make the farce explicit, the event organizers, from the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, introduced a parlor game. They placed a ballot box next to the water pitchers and asked everyone to vote: What will be the next mega-disaster? A tsunami, an earthquake, a pandemic flu? And where will it strike? It was an amusing diversion, although not a hard question for this lot.

Because the real challenge in the U.S. today is not predicting catastrophes. That we can do. The challenge that apparently lies beyond our grasp is to prepare for them. Dennis Mileti ran the Natural Hazards Center for 10 years, and is the country's leading expert on how to warn people so that they will pay attention. Today he is semiretired, but he comes back to the workshop each year to preach his gospel. This July, standing before the crowd in a Hawaiian shirt, Mileti was direct: "How many citizens must die? How many people do you need to see pounding through their roofs?" Like most people there, Mileti was heartbroken by Katrina, and he knows he'll be heartbroken again. "We know exactly--exactly--where the major disasters will occur," he told me later. "But individuals underperceive risk."

Historically, humans get serious about avoiding disasters only after one has just smacked them across the face. Well, then, by that logic, 2006 should have been a breakthrough year for rational behavior. With the memory of 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, still fresh in their minds, Americans watched Katrina, the most expensive disaster in U.S. history, on live TV. Anyone who didn't know it before should have learned that bad things can happen. And they are made much worse by our own lack of ambition--our willful blindness to risk as much as our reluctance to work together before everything goes to hell.

Granted, some amount of delusion is probably part of the human condition. In A.D. 63, Pompeii was seriously damaged by an earthquake, and the locals immediately went to work rebuilding, in the same spot--until they were buried altogether by a volcano 16 years later. But a review of the past year in disaster history suggests that modern Americans are particularly, mysteriously bad at protecting themselves from guaranteed threats. We know more than we ever did about the dangers we face. But it turns out that in times of crisis, our greatest enemy is rarely the storm, the quake or the surge itself. More often, it is ourselves.

•A Tour of the American Hazardscape

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