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The Cure for Catastrophe: How We Can Stop Manufacturing Natural Disasters

By: Jeff Masters 5:40 PM GMT on February 07, 2017

In his excellent new book, The Cure for Catastrophe: How We Can Stop Manufacturing Natural Disasters, Robert Muir-Wood presents a fascinating expert guided tour of the history of catastrophes and how humans have responded to them. Robert Muir-Wood is the chief research officer of the catastrophe risk modeling company Risk Management Solutions, and a visiting professor at University College London’s Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction. He recounts disasters of the past two thousand years, touching on such stories as the destruction of Pompeii by Vesuvius in 79 A.D., the great earthquake in Lisbon in 1755, the Mississippi River flood of 1927, the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His treatment of the birth of the insurance industry in the 1800s in response to fires in London is particularly interesting.

Muir-Wood emphasizes that we need to develop better disaster policy and disaster culture, and make awareness of disaster risks more a part of our culture through story telling, like the analogy of The Three Little Pigs. He advocates that societies undergo regular “risk audits”, where the 1-in-10 year and 1-in-100 year odds of loss of life, livelihoods, and money are evaluated, and where “reliance brokers” identify the most cost-effective ways to reduce those risks. He also stresses the need to fund disaster reduction and preparedness, which can reduce disaster costs by a factor of fifteen compared to the money spent.

A few interesting highlights from the book:

- “The irony of a catastrophe is the funds to prevent it only become available after it has happened.” The U.S. government funded a $14.5 billion upgrade to New Orleans’ flood protection system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the city is now protected against a 1-in-100 year Category 3 storm (one that has a 1% chance of occurring in a given year.) But New Orleans needs protection against a Category 5 storm, currently deemed to be a 1-in-500 year event (a 0.2% chance of occurring in any given year.) The Army Corps claimed this would cost at least $70 billion, and it was not funded. With climate change expected to make the strongest storms stronger and cause sea level rise to accelerate, the odds of a Category 5 storm surge 6 - 10 feet higher than Katrina’s may increase to a 1-in-130 year event by the year 2100.

- “Mobile homes have proved to be ‘houses of straw’ in tornadoes.” From 1985 - 1995, more than 60% of all tornado deaths in U.S. homes were people living in mobile homes, where only 6% of the U.S. population lived.

- “It’s not the earthquake that kills you, it’s the builders…It all comes down to bad design, bad execution, bad reinforcing, and bad concrete.” Muir-Wood lauds the construction in earthquake-prone Chile, where earthquake preparedness is a national passion and building codes against earthquakes are some of the world’s best. Developers hold a ten year liability for building damage, with the threat of a jail term. The 2010 magnitude 8.8 earthquake in Chile was 1,000 times bigger than the smaller 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in Italy, but killed fewer people in building collapses. He advocates that every public school in an earthquake zone should post the annual number of expected deaths in that building due to the details of school construction, time children spend in school, and earthquake frequency. That would motivate retrofitting of construction in earthquake zones!

- “The irony of a flood wall is that it can make us less resilient…The flood wall lures new buildings to shelter behind it.” The higher the wall, the deeper flood. A flood on Japan’s Shonai River after 24” of rainfall in September 2000 inundated 70,000 buildings and 100,000 cars after a single section of the river’s 16’ flood wall collapsed.

- The U.S. passed legislation in 2012 (the Biggert-Waters Act) to reform the National Flood Insurance Program and make people living near the coast pay more of the true costs of flood damage. However, after insurance rates rose by a factor of four or more for some coastal residents, the outcry led Congress to repeal the act in 2014. “National funds would continue to be used to subsidize people who wanted to live in the beach.”

- “U.S. disaster relief per citizen was twenty times more than spending on disaster reduction. Each dollar of extra preparedness spending reduced disaster impacts by an average of $7 over a single four-year election cycle and disaster costs overall by an average of $15. With multiples of this magnitude, a politician should clearly invest in disaster reduction. The problem is that money spent on preparedness wins no votes.”

My only complaint about the book is that Muir-Wood does not present an organized set of conclusions identifying the problems and potential solutions. One has to hunt around to piece together what he is advocating. The Cure for Catastrophe (published in September 2016) is $23.14 from Amazon.com. I give the book four stars our of five.

Jeff Masters

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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.