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Pollution & HealthWhy It’s So Hard to Be Prepared for Disasters

Why It’s So Hard to Be Prepared for Disasters

Why It’s So Hard to Be Prepared for Disasters

Daniella Zandi
|March 15, 2023

Jeffrey Schlegelmilch is director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness on the Columbia Climate School.

Jeffrey Schlegelmilch is the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Climate School. There, he works to grasp and improve the nation’s capability to organize for, reply to, and recuperate from disasters.

Although the events themselves are extraordinarily traumatic and disruptive, Schlegelmilch finds the sphere of inquiry around disasters fascinating. Reasonably than viewing disaster preparedness as a single discipline, he likens this intersection of social sciences, engineering, and the built environment to a musical symphony (although not all the time harmonious).

While functioning as an educational institution, the middle’s original research, trainings, and education of scholars ultimately are applied in a consultative-type arrangement to tell real-world decisions, comparable to meeting the needs of kids during disasters, helping utilities support community advantages in an equitable way, and informing policy and laws.

The best way we react to disasters says quite a bit about who we’re and what our society values. I sat with Schlegelmilch to learn what we will understand about risk mitigation and disaster preparedness from these consultants to civil society.

The next interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A magnitude 7.8 earthquake in early February killed greater than 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria, and the casualty count appears to be compounding every day. What went unsuitable? Out of your skilled opinion, were they prepared? Can anyone be?

That is one of the common questions I get after a disaster, and probably the most difficult to reply. Preparedness isn’t a static point in space and time or an end goal achieved; it’s a process that needs to be engaged. With an earthquake of this magnitude, you’ll all the time have damage and fatalities and you may’t fully avoid it, as the associated fee of doing so is unattainable.

Seeing as that is an historically seismically lively area, damage on the order of magnitude we’re seeing raises these questions: why is it so extensive, and did they do all the things they may have? Nevertheless, ongoing challenges in these countries, and in others experiencing geo-political conflicts and hyper-inflation, can affect the power to make the long-term investments needed for preparedness.

One other challenge is that the selections we make are sometimes guided by shorter-term goals [for example, being able to show earnings in a shareholder report], and longer-term investments don’t all the time make it to the forefront, particularly on this region.

schlegelmilch speaking into a microphone

Schlegelmilch speaking at a gathering of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, a non-partisan private think-tank.

What global resources do all countries, especially those coping with other growing pains, have available to make sure the protection of their residents?

Grants and financing programs are in place at a world level, but they’re not enough.

It’s difficult for countries to make the essential investments to satisfy increased exposure to hazards when there are other geopolitical forces at play [such as war or political polarization]. Recently, nevertheless, there was increasing attention from global finance organizations to supply resources for these countries to boost disaster resilience while meeting other economic needs.

But we shouldn’t expect to see immediate major results. Existing infrastructure, like old buildings and roadways, usually are not necessarily designed to be resilient, and it might probably take generations for those investments to be realized at scale to supply a meaningful level of risk reduction.

If political and financial incentives for preparedness are sometimes for short-term gain, what levers are encouraging preparedness for the longer term? Are disasters factored into the associated fee of doing business?

There tends to be more of a deal with response and fewer on disaster risk reduction, though that cash goes further. It costs more cash to construct an earthquake-resistant constructing, however the payoff when that earthquake happens is far greater. And if the financer doesn’t realize the savings from this payoff in a direct way — say, if society reaps the advantages — this value doesn’t get meaningfully factored back into the investment decision.

So the mathematics we’re doing to value investments is unsuitable. There’s more risk that’s not being captured, making some resilience investments more helpful than they seem.

Do governments ever weigh inaction as less expensive than preparing for a threat because they’ll get bailed out by the federal government?

Chronically. States don’t spend enough on disaster preparedness, largely due to disaster relief fund, where the federal government will pick up the tab for 75% afterwards for many major disasters.

There have been proposals for mechanisms comparable to a disaster deductible, in addition to large funding resources from FEMA and other agencies for pre-disaster risk reduction. Disaster costs are overwhelming, and behind the measurable dollar amounts are lives and livelihoods which can be lost or disrupted for generations consequently of being under prepared.

Sometimes, a “natural” disaster is just that, a natural event, but what makes it a disaster is the response of infrastructure not suited to the environmental conditions. In a growing global population with sprawl being ubiquitous, what levers exist to curb growth from areas susceptible to these natural disasters?

There’s a little bit of a debate in disaster academia on whether the term “natural disaster” needs to be gotten rid of altogether. What it comes all the way down to is an idea everyone agrees with: whether of natural origin or not, a disaster requires some type of human element to be a disaster.

An earthquake of roughly similar magnitude can render dramatically different amounts of injury, lives lost, and economic disruption attributable to variability within the built environment. A 7.0 magnitude earthquake felt standing in the midst of a field isn’t really a disaster. But when it’s in the midst of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, in substandard concrete construction, it’s one in every of the worst disasters we’ve seen in modern history. There’s thus a vulnerability, in addition to a possible, in engineering.

Can we engineer our way out of all of it?

We will’t engineer our way out of all the things, as there are all the time things we cannot predict, and we draw a line at the purpose at which the expense isn’t value it.

The social and political environment is an element as well. The informal settlements up hillsides, seen often in South American urban areas, are frequently the primary ones to be washed away in heavy rains, only to be step by step rebuilt between disasters. Interestingly, I grew up within the Bay Area in California, and people homes up on the hill were the costliest ones! They were built to high earthquake codes and all the things, so were less vulnerable than informal settlements elsewhere.

We’re increasingly reliant on infrastructure, particularly on electricity. The Texas outage in 2021, I’d argue, was really only a serious disaster due to failure of the grid. Deaths were largely directly or not directly attributable to power being out from this infrastructure failure. Within the face of climate change and our increasing need for electricity, water, and ever-scarcer resources, increased dependence on infrastructure creates a vulnerability that should be shored up.

Seeing as we’re depending on man-made systems to deliver water and energy, if these lifelines are down, how can we be independent and in charge of our own safety?

Taking good care of yourself makes you more available to be there for other people. Basic skills, having backup plans, and knowing easy methods to get to safety is healthy for everybody. A colleague of mine, Daniel Aldrich at Northeastern University, has convinced me that investments in social capital (neighbors helping neighbors) is just as necessary as investments within the built environment.

Research suggests that throwing a block party, and such activities that engender social cohesion, might be as helpful as having supplies like waterproof matches in your emergency preparedness kit. These social bonds and connections may very well be the thing that reminds your neighbor or community member to look out for you and get you out of disaster together. Constructing social capital is a resilience investment and something that may also be fostered on the municipal level.

Are there tradeoffs between physical resilience and economic and social resilience? Are they ever at odds?

Yes, ceaselessly. Within the constructing of seawalls in Japan, cutting off connectedness to the ocean eroded social and economic resilience in some places by disrupting access to fisheries, tourism, and each other.

For access to recovery resources, vertical connections — how connected your community is politically — can have a big effect on how money flows. In observing which states get more cash or more attention after a disaster, the communities which can be disproportionately disadvantaged are historically under-served communities who by definition lack loads of that vertical social capital.

All this speak about disasters: what makes you optimistic?

The people I work with. The more you peel back disasters and understand the built environment, the hazards, the social environment and racial inequities that’re contributing to disaster vulnerability, you go down this pit of despair. But, you furthermore may get this inflection point where the curtain is lifted, you see how society works, and that opens the door towards a more just future. That’s not something that comes from me but from the people who find themselves focused on doing higher by learning more and listening to communities, with ingenuity, passion, and energy.

Only recently, we had one other project to tackle related to the war in Ukraine, developing trainings to assist teachers for trauma-informed classrooms, and although I’m very keen to the heavy workload already allocated to the team, they are only enthusiastic about a possibility to do something to assist. It’s very inspiring to see this desire and humility to assist others.

Jeffrey Schlegelmilch currently teaches master’s students in Columbia’s Climate School and is the writer of the book “Rethinking Readiness: A Temporary Guide to twenty first Century Megadisasters” from Columbia University Press. He can also be co-author of a latest a book called “Catastrophic Incentives: Why Our Approaches to Disasters Keep Falling Short,” which is currently in production with Columbia University Press.  

Daniella Zandi is an energy and sustainability consultant and masters candidate in Columbia University’s School of Skilled Studies.


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