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Natural disasters on the rise: What do we do?

by Ivan Seeking
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Ivan Seeking
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Nov27-07, 12:57 AM
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The world suffered about 120 natural disasters per year in the early 1980s, which compared with the current figure of about 500 per year, according to the report.

"This year we have seen floods in South Asia, across the breadth of Africa and Mexico that have affected more than 250 million people," noted Oxfam director Barbara Stocking.

"This is no freak year. It follows a pattern of more frequent, more erratic, more unpredictable and more extreme weather events that are affecting more people."

She added: "Action is needed now to prepare for more disasters otherwise humanitarian assistance will be overwhelmed and recent advances in human development will go into reverse." [continued]
http://www.physorg.com/news115220493.html

In this context, I think it is important to avoid debate about causes [AGW], and focus on the best means to avoid disasters and respond to the emergencies. San Diego did a fabulous job of managing the fires this year, but many homes were lost. Much of this can be attributed to land use laws. There were also some success stories where new fire protection technologies saved the day. In the case of Katrina, we surely could have done much better. Evacuation plans and mass transit, and again, zoning laws all play a significant role here.

Many areas are now realizing that local threats exist. For example, I know that cities in the Sacramento area are looking at compromised dikes and levies that threaten thousands or tens of thousands of homes. As a result of drought and an exploding population, Atlanta is quickly learning about the reality of insufficient water supplies, and the battle for water resources has begun in Georgia. California is looking at water shortages and political battles, ad infinitum.

What are the best mechanisms and strategies that will allow us to meet these weather and population related challenges at the international, national, state, and local level? What can the individual do to help this effort?
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Office_Shredder
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Nov27-07, 01:15 AM
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I guess my first question is whether there were 120 natural disasters in 1980, or only 120 we (being 1st world western civilization) knew about. Maybe a mudslide in rural columbia wouldn't get the attention then as it would now to get included in this. Not that it's definitely true, but there are cases of events seeming to happen more frequently, only for the reality to be it's simply being reported more often
russ_watters
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Nov27-07, 05:43 AM
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A report by a non-scientific organization is automatically suspect. And at the very least, their two primary conclusions don't fit with each other. The fact that 70% more people were affected by natural disasters fits quite closely with a conclusion that natural disasters are not more prevalent today than they were 20 years ago - the world is just more populated.

Andre
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Nov27-07, 05:52 AM
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Natural disasters on the rise: What do we do?

Talking about forest fires, it's part of nature. The paleo forest fires around the last glacial termination have been well studied. Bottom line, it appears that the climate is optimum for boreal forests to grow (moist), then tinder accumulates and sooner or later lightning strikes may cause the forest to bursts into flames likely after an arid period. That's nature. But when you start building houses in and around those forests you induce a build in disaster. If you want to limit the consequences of forest fires then it would be better to cultivate and maintain forests reducing the fire danger or don't go and live there.
Astronuc
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Nov27-07, 07:43 AM
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Unfortunately, people want to build homes and businesses in areas that put them at risk. A beach house on the Atlantic or Gulf Coast will sooner or later face a hurricane with the high winds and high water (flooding) that is a natural consequence of a hurricane. Houses should be build in-land, away from the coast, but then one doesn't get that nice view from the living room or deck.

People in the middle part of the US (aka tornado alley) will face the risk of violent thunderstorms or tornadic systems. The structures must be built to withstand 200+ mph winds.

People building in areas of the SW US, e.g. San Diego, need to build structures that are fire resistant. After the fires in SD of 4 years ago, it was found that many/most of the houses the burned in certain areas had wood shingles rather than fiberglass or ceramic (terra cotta) shingles/tiles. Fire resistant structure would prevent the loss of some of those structures. Also, the landscaping should include fire resistant shrubbery.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cedar_Fire

Building structures to resistant natural forces can be expensive, but by not doing so, one accepts the risk that the structure will inevitably be destroyed or severely damaged.


It's a bit like the story of the 3 pigs. One built a house of straw, one build a house of sticks and the third built a house of bricks. The one who built the house of bricks survived, because the house was built to withstand the threat/risk.
J77
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Nov27-07, 08:01 AM
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Yeah -- in the UK people buy houses on "flood plains" because they're cheap compared with usual city prices...

...then they moan when they get flooded!

Natural disasters are terrible because they seem to affect the poor of the world much frequently and harder than the richer countries.

However, everytime I see, eg., a hurricane I can't help but be impressed -- natures way of telling who was, is, and will be in charge when our civilisations cease to exist.
Jimmy Snyder
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Nov27-07, 08:51 AM
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After AGW comes AVE, Anthropogenic Volcanoes and Earthquakes. Be afraid, be very afraid.
Ivan Seeking
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Nov27-07, 09:33 AM
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Quote Quote by jimmysnyder View Post
After AGW comes AVE, Anthropogenic Volcanoes and Earthquakes. Be afraid, be very afraid.
Perhaps you can pass that along to the family of the ninety-year old woman who died in her attic in New Orleans.
Ivan Seeking
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Nov27-07, 09:48 AM
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Quote Quote by russ_watters View Post
A report by a non-scientific organization is automatically suspect. And at the very least, their two primary conclusions don't fit with each other. The fact that 70% more people were affected by natural disasters fits quite closely with a conclusion that natural disasters are not more prevalent today than they were 20 years ago - the world is just more populated.
The population has increased from about 4.5 to 6 billion over that period. That is about a 30% increase in population. Do you just make this stuff up?

The Oxfam study was compiled using data from the Red Cross, the United Nations and specialist researchers at Louvain University in Belgium.
Evo
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Nov27-07, 09:49 AM
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New Orleans is a unique problem all by itself, it shouldn't exist, it wouldn't naturally. It was and is again, a disaster waiting to happen. If Katrina had hit anywhere else, it would have been just another soon forgotten hurricane.
Ivan Seeking
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Nov27-07, 09:53 AM
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Quote Quote by Evo View Post
New Orleans is a unique problem all by itself, it shouldn't exist, it wouldn't naturally. It was and is again, a disaster waiting to happen. If Katrina had hit anywhere else, it would have been just another soon forgotten hurricane.
These are exactly the sort of issues that need to be addressed.
Evo
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Nov27-07, 09:55 AM
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I think that a lot of the suggestions to your questions, Ivan, are good ones. We need to stop people from living in dangerous places. Stop building in areas of dense woods that draw arsonists. Stop building homes on unstable hillsides so your house doesn't slide off. Don't build at the edge of the ocean. Build homes appropriate for your climate and natural threats. Better planning, less population growth. One of the top 10 ways to "go green" was suggested reduce offspring to 1 child per couple.
Jimmy Snyder
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Nov27-07, 10:16 AM
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Quote Quote by Ivan Seeking View Post
Perhaps you can pass that along to the family of the ninety-year old woman who died in her attic in New Orleans.
Good idea. I'm busy right now consoling survivors of the earthquakes in Chile, Indonesia, Peru, Tajikstan, etc., can you take care of this for me. Thanks in advance.
Gokul43201
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Nov27-07, 10:29 AM
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Quote Quote by Russ
A report by a non-scientific organization is automatically suspect. And at the very least, their two primary conclusions don't fit with each other. The fact that 70% more people were affected by natural disasters fits quite closely with a conclusion that natural disasters are not more prevalent today than they were 20 years ago - the world is just more populated.
This would be true if:

1. The global population increased by about 70% over this period, and
2. Relief, medical care and disaster warning/mitigation technology remained stagnant over this period.

I doubt either of these is true.

The above correlation can also be generated if global populations are migrating towards (either through relative increases in population growth rates, or through actual movement) disaster prone regions. If such an effect is observed, I doubt it would be anywhere near large enough to account for these numbers.

In any case, the report also makes the independent point that the frequency of events is also increasing.

Nevertheless, it pays to be a little wary of reports like this.

Here's the original Oxfam report: http://www.oxfam.org/en/files/bp108_...1.pdf/download

And this is their summary: http://www.oxfam.org/en/policy/brief...nge_alarm_0711
BobG
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Nov27-07, 10:53 AM
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Quote Quote by russ_watters View Post
A report by a non-scientific organization is automatically suspect. And at the very least, their two primary conclusions don't fit with each other. The fact that 70% more people were affected by natural disasters fits quite closely with a conclusion that natural disasters are not more prevalent today than they were 20 years ago - the world is just more populated.
Quote Quote by Ivan Seeking View Post
The population has increased from about 4.5 to 6 billion over that period. That is about a 30% increase in population. Do you just make this stuff up?

The Oxfam study was compiled using data from the Red Cross, the United Nations and specialist researchers at Louvain University in Belgium.
Quote Quote by Evo View Post
New Orleans is a unique problem all by itself, it shouldn't exist, it wouldn't naturally. It was and is again, a disaster waiting to happen. If Katrina had hit anywhere else, it would have been just another soon forgotten hurricane.
Saying the increase is entirely due to population growth with no evidence is a little dubious, but it's at least partly true.

The percentage of the population exposed doesn't necessarily have to match the amount of population growth. New Orleans is a pretty good example. The town wasn't originally built in areas likely to flood and parts of New Orleans came through Katrina in decent shape in spite of geographical changes since its founding. New Orleans was built where there was absolutely no room for expansion without the growth being built on completely unsuitable land.

Humans aren't distributed around the world in a uniform distribution. The most desirable locations are near other people and growth inevitably grows into bad locations. At a minimum, population growth concentrates stress on resources to very limited areas.
WheelsRCool
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Nov27-07, 12:13 PM
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A few things that I think could help are one, for people to just start taking some more personal responsiblity and to not automatically think that the government will come save them. Not that everyone thinks like this, but a lot do. But be more responsible and research the dangers of the areas you buy/build a home in.

Another thing I think could help, which I am not too knowledgeable about, but have read some of, is regarding the government flood insurance. From my understanding, the government charges the same price for flood insurance regardless of the risk. Whether you live in a flood plain, or in the middle of the dessert, flood insurance costs the same.

The problem is this has caused the flood insurance in many flood-prone areas to be incredibly cheap for people. Thus people keep building homes in flood-prone areas, and when they get swept away, they just re-build, because the insurance is so cheap. If a private-insurance company did this, they'd quickly go out of business, thus if the insurance was provided by privately-owned insurance companies, it would cost a lot more, and thus discourage homebuilding in these flood-prone areas.

But since it's provided by government, it remains cheap, thus encouraging the problem to grow.

There are other government insurance programs as well that I believe are the same way and thus encourage their own problems.

Stopping this would be beneficial in thati t would stop people from moving into areas that are too damage-prone, and it also would ease up the burden on the taxpayer. The taxes could be lowered (probably wishful thinking though!), or the money spent in areas where it actually is needed.
russ_watters
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Nov27-07, 05:48 PM
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Quote Quote by Ivan Seeking View Post
Perhaps you can pass that along to the family of the ninety-year old woman who died in her attic in New Orleans.
What does AGW have to do with a poorly constructed levee system?
The population has increased from about 4.5 to 6 billion over that period. That is about a 30% increase in population. Do you just make this stuff up?
Where do those new people live? And would you like to compare that ratio to the stated change in natural disaster rate, or did you forget it already? 30% and 70% are a heckuva lot closer to each other than 70% and 416%
russ_watters
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Nov27-07, 05:54 PM
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Quote Quote by BobG View Post
Saying the increase is entirely due to population growth with no evidence is a little dubious, but it's at least partly true.
It was a gut instinct - I didn't expect it to be exactly on and perhaps "quite closely" was overly optomistic, but nevertheless, my gut instinct about the stats not matching was correct.
The percentage of the population exposed doesn't necessarily have to match the amount of population growth.
Yes. While the US and Europe are near stagnant growth, Bangladesh (a country regularly smaked by natural disasters) currently has greater than a 2% annual growth rate.

Gokul - thanks for finding the actual article, I'll read it. You did forget affect #3 though: does that improved technology also lead to greater reporting of natural disasters? I'd say that technology hasn't helped the people much when the worlds' poor are disproporionally affected by natural disasters, but it does help in our detection of natural disasters.


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