Masters of Disaster

I just got back from the one conference I go to every year. About 400 disaster experts get together near Boulder, Colo., and consider the country’s hazardscape.

Each time, there is a lot of lamentation about all the deaths and losses that could have been avoided from the year gone by. (“Natural disaster” is not a phrase you hear in that crowd, since they know most disasters could be turned into mere emergencies with foresight and money.) It’s a thoughtful, passionate group of academics and government types who are well-accustomed to suppressing their rage.

Here are some of the more surprising revelations I picked up while I was there:

* Climate Change & Disasters: Disasters have become more frequent and more costly, as I’ve mentioned before. But very little of that increase is due to climate change, according to an analysis by political scientist Roger Pielke, Jr. It’s almost entirely due to development near water. In other words, we’ve built bigger cities near water and stripped away the natural protection that used to be there. So if you took the hurricane that hit Miami in 1926 and replayed it today in Miami, the same hurricane would create 1.5 to 2 times the losses—of Hurricane Katrina (the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history). So the weather is less important than the way we have changed the planet on the ground.

* Politics & Disasters: There are 50% more flood declarations in a presidential election year, according to Pielke.

* The Candidates & Disasters: At a panel on which presidential candidate would do a better job on emergency management, the one certainty was that we still know very little. What would Barack Obama or John McCain do to fix FEMA or the Department of Homeland Security or to prepare the country for the next Katrina? Each candidate has potential strengths, but since this is not a major issue for voters, we really don’t know much yet.

I asked the panel members what they would like to ask the candidates at a debate. The best response I got was from Beverly Cigler at Penn State, who suggested asking Obama and McCain: “What is homeland security?”

* Hurricane Katrina: As you might expect, there was much despair over the pace of recovery of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Katrina. “Delays of every organization have had such a dampening effect on the recovery of social services, neighborhoods, congregations,” said Shirley Laska of the University of New Orleans. “I’ve come to think that the bureaucracies have become numb to what delay means.”

* The Next Disaster: As for the future, there were dire predictions about the fate of Sacramento, which has one of the highest risks of levee failure in the country. And the earthquake experts were mumbling that California residents should now expect to be on their own for 7 days after the Big One—not 3, as has been long publicized. Those are warnings worth listening to, depressing as they may be. The first year I went to the conference, there was much talk about how New Orleans was sure to be destroyed by a hurricane. Katrina happened the next month.

There was also a lovely BBQ on the last night in the mountains. So it wasn’t all bad.

GeneralAmanda Ripley