Hurricane Sandy: Is There A Point to Disaster Anniversaries?

A disaster expert weighs in on whether commemorations teach us anything

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As the first-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy approaches, it’s worth considering what we gain from commemorating anniversaries of natural disasters. Some might argue that such commemorations don’t serve much purpose other than bringing back painful memories ? Does reflection help us prepare for the future? But having worked as a geologist at several natural disasters, I believe that honoring anniversaries of these events are important on many levels and can help us prepare for the future.

On the scientific level, anniversaries serve to remind us how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go in our understanding of natural disasters. Scientists develop and test their theories against available events, which tend to be small or medium in size compared to the occasional big event, which can lead to quantum leaps in scientific understanding. The lateral blast at Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 that killed 57 people and caused $1.1 billion dollars in damages was the first of its kind ever to be well-documented. As a result of that documentation, we now understand what happens when gases trapped inside a volcano are unleashed by a landslide. In 1983, a 20-foot high wave, larger than any known in the history of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, killed one person and maimed several others at a big stretch of whitewater known as Crystal Rapids. Studies of this event gave rise to a new picture of how the Colorado River interacts with debris that is episodically brought in by storms that roar down its tributaries. And now, a year after Sandy, our understanding of the interaction of tropical and mid-latitude storm systems is rapidly evolving because of the data gathered during this event.

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Just as scientific theories evolve after a disaster, so do institutions involved with these events. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) all supported the recovery and research efforts at St. Helens in 1980. As an independent agency, FEMA was only a year old when St. Helens erupted, and was just starting to take over disaster functions that had previously been performed by the Department of Defense. Now FEMA is the lead agency for civilian disaster preparation and mitigation. After this eruption, the USGS significantly expanded its monitoring capabilities on dormant, but potentially active, volcanoes around the U.S., and the USFS gained valuable experience that would serve it well in dealing with the disastrous Yellowstone fire of 1988 and the Rim Fire of 2013 in Yosemite. The Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) and the National Park Service (NPS) supported the scientific efforts and rescue efforts in the Grand Canyon in 1983, and then worked together to find new ways to regulate the discharges by Glen Canyon Dam through that section of the Colorado River. And the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and FEMA will continue to evolve in response to Sandy. Anniversaries of disasters provide an opportunity for these and other agencies to be visible and offer support to the public, and for the public to be reminded to interact with the agencies.

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On a personal level, anniversaries grimly remind us to take care of ourselves, families, and neighbors. “Be prepared” can all too easily fade into the background of our daily lives. We should each occasionally take stock: are we prepared for another regional flood, Mount St. Helens, Katrina, or Sandy? All of the scientific understanding in the world and institutional advice are for naught if we don’t take individual responsibility to decrease our own vulnerability to these natural events. There is one thing disaster scientists know for sure: they will continue.

Susan W. Kieffer, Professor Emerita of Geology at the University of Illinois, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a MacArthur Fellow. She is the author of the new book The Dynamics of Disaster and hosts the blog Geology In Motion. The views expressed are solely her own. 
 
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