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Defusing Natural Disasters: IntroductionGilbert F. WhitePublished online: 26 Nov 2007.
To cite this article: Gilbert F. White (1986) Defusing Natural Disasters: Introduction, Journal of the American PlanningAssociation, 52:4, 429-430
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01944368608977116
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Defusing Natural Disasters Introduction
Gilbert F. White
For the planner trying to guide constructive change in a community, disaster from an extreme natural event may be either a nightmare or an opportunity. Few urban areas are entirely free of hazards from such events- avalanches, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, landslides, tsunamis, tornadoes. Some towns are wholly within the reach of one of these threats to life, property, or social process, as when a small town fully occupies a flood- plain. Some metropolitan areas are vulnerable to several kinds of threats at once, as in Los Angeles, where earth- quakes, floods, and landslides are hazards.
All those areas face complete certainty that a highly infrequent event will occur one day. They face complete or substantial uncertainly as to precisely when it will strike. Faced with that uncertainty, a community is in- clined to concentrate on other issues of welfare and growth that demand immediate attention.
Whenever the unwelcome does occur, the agony and confusion of emergency relief measures, however much anticipated, inevitably are accompanied by questioning as to how to combine recovery with long-term planning. Can crisis be turned into action that will make the next event less disruptive?
The possibility that the next event may not take place for decades raises a different question. Awaiting a dis- aster, can a community combine measures to alleviate the prospective distress with efforts to reach community goals for economic and environmental well-being? The community has the choice of doing nothing, seeking to mitigate the threats to life and property, or readying itself to act when, soon or later, disaster strikes.
The specific steps that may be promoted are well known: mapping vulnerable areas, setting up warning and notification systems, guiding new development through building codes and land use regulations, con- structing preventative works, retrofitting old structures, acquiring land, and buying insurance, among others. As it decides which mix of activities, if any, it will pursue in haste or at leisure, the community encounters several persistent problems. In addressing each, a planning agency has the task of sifting the available experience and evidence that are appropriate for its particular physical, economic, social, and political setting.
The articles in this issue of JAPA provide helpful in- formation and insights for dealing with three of those problems. These articles deserve attention not only be-
cause of new information they report but also because they sum up much of what has been learned about the issues. Readers interested in fitting them into the per- spective of experience in other cities around the world will want to consult the two recent numbers (308 and 309) of Ekisfics that deal with natural hazards and hu- man settlements disasters.
One problem present in greater or lesser degree wherever there is a hazard of extreme events is that of estimating the vulnerability of particular properties to events of various magnitudes. It would all be much eas- ier if scientists and engineers could assert with complete confidence that an earthquake of a stated size would occur at a particular place or that a flood flow of given size had an undisputed frequency of a stated percentage. Unfortunately they cannot, and the planner is obliged to use probabilities and error bands and ranges as a basis for interpreting vulnerability findings to property owners and public officials, That is especially trouble- some when different methods for estimating the mag- nitude and frequency of an event differ markedly, as when two federal agencies compute hurricane runup differently. Gordon and Klousner give a thoughtful ex- ample of the complications in appraising three methods of landslide hazard assessment. The landslide appraisal is specific and new; the problems are general.
A second and far more complicated problem relates to methods of comparing one mitigation measure with other measures that might be pursued by individuals or governments. It is desirable to know what benefits might be expected, and it is important to recognize the conditions in which action will be taken. May and Bolton show how considerations of implementation affect the practicality of earthquake hazard mitigation measures. Laska shows how homeowners' response to flood haz-
White is an editor of Environment. He has taught geography at the University of Chicago and is Gustavson Distinguished Pro- fessor Emeritus of geography at the University of Colorado's ln - stitute of Behavioral Sciences. He has worked on problems of nat- ural hazards for more than 50 years, serving as chairman of the Environmental Studies Board and the Commission on Natural Resources of the National Research Council and as president of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment of the International Council of Scientific Unions.
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Defusing Natural Disasters
ard mitigation is influenced by the operating policies of public assistance and insurance programs. As more at- tention is given to nonstructural activities (such as floodproofing) in contrast to structures (such as dams or levees), the appraisal of alternative measures becomes more complicated, but the need becomes more acute to understand precisely why floodplain management, for example, succeeds or fails in various communities. JAPA co-editor Raymond Burby already has deepened that understanding. Alongside research on implementation there also is demand for better data on the benefits as well as the costs of occupying hazardous areas. Without that information the public choices are bound to be crude.
The third problem has to do with how responsibilities for promoting mitigation activity are allocated among individual property owners and local, state, and federal
agencies. Clearly they overlap, and the policies of one agency may strongly influence what individuals and other agencies may do. Innovations are taking place in modes of cooperation. One of the promising develop- ments has been in regional districts that link local gov- ernments with state and federal agencies at an inter- mediate level. Platt assesses the performance of three regional groups in responding to flood threats and sug- gests their possible suitability for other areas.
Some local planning programs may be able to func- tion for a long time without being obliged by tragedy to face the full implications of natural hazards in their territories. Most will not. And those that go long without struggling with the mapping of vulnerable areas, the appraisal of possible mitigation measures, and the al- location of responsibility for taking action are laying the groundwork for future disasters of unnecessary severity.
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