The Big Problem With Disaster Planning

We can try to prepare for the worst, but natural disasters cause chain reactions that we can't always anticipate

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Lucas Jackson / Reuters

A pickup truck wrapped around a tree trunk after a tornado hit Moore, Okla., on May 25, 2013.

We know that a tornado will bring howling winds and drenching rain, that a volcanic eruption will blanket the countryside with ash or lava, and that an earthquake will violently shake the ground. These are some ways in which Mother Nature unleashes the energy stored in the earth, and we can try to anticipate and prepare for the results. We can build basements and shelters to protect us from those tornadic winds, flee from the countryside when the volcano erupts, and reinforce our infrastructure from the quaking ground. But we have not always anticipated the chain reactions that these natural disasters often trigger.

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The tornadic winds in Moore, Okla., last week and in Joplin, Mo., only two years ago killed many victims by blunt force trauma, but people also died from less direct causes. In Moore, it appears that at least six children, who should have been safe in a basement, died from asphyxiation when water, possibly from broken pipes, flooded to the low point where they were sheltered. Several people in Joplin died from a rare and difficult-to-treat fungal infection called zygomycosis. It turns out that people who have sustained massive traumatic injuries become so stressed that their immune systems find it difficult to fight off infections, paving the way for pathogens to enter the body and thrive. It took teams of experts from the local, state and federal level to figure out that the people who were displaying these symptoms had been impaled during the tornado by projectiles containing soil, and that the infections arose from a fungus in the soil.

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In the harbor of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, much of the damage from the 2010 earthquake was not from direct shaking, but from the fact that the solid ground supporting the wharfs turned to mush during the quake, a process known as liquefaction. This, in turn, closed the harbor to rescue efforts to bring aid into the area. The same process caused multistory buildings in San Francisco to sink up to their second or third floors in the Loma Prieta earthquake.

And in the classic historic example of the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Laki, in 1783, the tens of thousands of people who died as a result were mainly the victims of famine. Although the eruption was relatively small (a 6 on a volcanic scale of 8), the volcano spewed out around 8 million tons of hydrogen fluoride and 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide over an eight-month period. Half the cattle, 80% of the sheep and 20% of the people of Iceland died in the event now known as the “Mist Hardships.” The sulfurous clouds spread across Europe and around the world, weather patterns changed, crops failed and the deadly famines developed.

(PHOTOS: Tornado Flattens Suburb Outside Oklahoma City, Kills Dozens)

If we want to improve our odds of surviving disaster, we need to do two things. First, we need to be prepared for the rarest, biggest events. Currently we invest in infrastructure to protect us from the smaller events — be they tornados, eruptions, earthquakes or even small tsunamis that can be shut out by common storm wave barriers on exposed coastlines. But, we rarely have made the costly investments necessary to protect us from the rare, but truly devastating, big events.

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Second, we need to learn much more about the secondary reactions and raise more awareness that it’s not just the primary disaster we have to anticipate. In order to enhance public safety, civic leaders and emergency responders as well as members of the general public must understand the links in the chain. By improving our emergency-response system and educating the public so that people are willing to support such efforts, we can greatly improve our readiness for the next inevitable outburst of Mother Nature.

Kieffer is a professor emerita of geology and physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. She is the author of the forthcoming book Dynamics of Disaster and writes regularly on her blog Geology in Motion.