You Think Haiti and Japan Were Bad? Just Wait.

By Deborah O’Neil MA ’09

Rich Olson believes the United States needs to look very carefully at long-term threats and think in terms of hundreds of years with major U.S. cities including Memphis, Boston and New York, not just the usual Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Most people don’t like what professor Richard Olson has to say. Spend a little time talking to him about disasters and you’ll leave with a real sense of foreboding. However, when you contemplate the wreckage that remains from the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the political, economic and public health fallout of Japan’s 2011 triple disaster, it’s easy to conclude that he’s right. Governments around the world need to get serious about reducing vulnerability to disasters, or we all will suffer.

Olson is chair of the Department of Politics & International Relations in the School of International and Public Affairs and an internationally recognized disaster expert who has witnessed the aftermath of more than a dozen major disasters. Lately, world events have been keeping him really busy. After the Haiti and Chile disasters of 2010, the National Academy of Sciences in Washington asked him to keynote their March 2011 “Disasters Roundtable” on the lessons from those two events – to which he added the still ongoing earthquake disaster in Christchurch, New Zealand. This estimable invitation was followed by a United Nations invitation to attend their Global Assessment on Risk in June.

At FIU, Olson leads a $4.5 million USAID project called Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas that’s working with communities, groups, universities and governments in Chile, Peru, Colombia, Central America and the Caribbean. The project, which is housed in FIU’s Latin American and Caribbean Center, involves more than a dozen FIU researchers and facilities. The aim is to get ahead of what Olson fears is coming – disasters of an impact not seen in modern times – through smarter land use planning, building standards and alert-warning systems.

Recent events would suggest that disaster risk reduction can’t happen fast enough, particularly in vulnerable cities around the world. FIU Magazine sat down with Olson recently to talk disaster and learn about his work in Latin America.

What’s your assessment of the Japan disaster?

This was a monster earthquake. A 9.0 event is pretty much beyond what most scientists and engineers would say you have to plan against, even in Japan. It was a compound or cascading disaster, with an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear/radiologic event. Still, 98 percent of the population in the principal impact areas survived. Given the vulnerability and the 9-point earthquake that initiated all this, it could have been so much worse. And worse is coming. We have to start, and start now, being more honest about what we’re facing.

What do you mean worse is coming?

Well, we had a global population of about 2 billion in 1900, and they were mostly rural. We’ve now put 7 billion people on the planet, the majority now in cities, some of them very exposed. And the 21st century is when we are going to pay the bills for the 20th century’s population explosion, stupid land use, shoddy construction, and generally unsafe urban growth. My own personal nightmare scenario is for a highly vulnerable city with more than 10 million people where we could end up having a million killed and seriously injured.

More than one million people were displaced following Haiti's 2010 magnitude 7 earthquake. Photo: Reuters.

Come on, one million casualties?

Look at Haiti, that was 8 to 10 percent of Port-au-Prince’s population killed. That’s obscene, but if you think that was bad, just wait. I worry every day about Lima-Callao with its 10-plus million people and Istanbul with 12-plus million.

This sounds like a lost cause. Can cities with millions of people ever prepare for these disasters?

Yes, but we have to get real about the vulnerabilities and have the political and economic courage to reduce them. It may sound cold, but I would work on building standards for new construction, strengthening existing structures and revisiting land use so that no more than 1 percent of a city’s population is killed in a disaster. Of course, that would still be 100,000 killed in a city of 10 million, but it sure beats a million killed and seriously injured, don’t you think?

What is your project doing to help minimize the vulnerabilities in Latin America and the Caribbean?

It all starts with risk awareness, followed by more rigorous and risk-sensitive land use and building standards. We are working with our partners in Latin America and the Caribbean on those very issues, along with improved alert and evacuation systems. Again it may sound cold, but the whole idea is to take potential losses down from the catastrophic to more manageable, emergency-type levels. We will never get to true safety for everyone, but in the real world the best we can aim for is limited loss.

What kind of response do you get from people in South and Central America when you make these suggestions?

The experts, our colleagues, know.  The problem is with political and economic elites who by and large can’t see beyond a few years, a decade or two at most, which is nothing in nature’s clock. There are exceptions, but they are too few, too few.

Other than California’s earthquakes and South Florida’s hurricanes, isn’t the United States pretty safe from disaster?

Not so much. Look at the recent floods and the worst tornadoes in half a century across the heartland, and we are at the 200th anniversary of the greatest earthquake in North American history – with the epicenter in Missouri of all places. The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 there rang church bells in Philadelphia and were felt in New Orleans. It caused the Mississippi River to run upstream. Oh yes, and let’s not forget the Pacific Northwest, which has a major earthquake fault offshore in Seattle-Tacoma much like the one in Sendai, Japan. And you know that beautiful mountain to the east that frames the skyline of Seattle so nicely? It’s a volcano.

I’m afraid to ask you about Miami’s vulnerabilities.

Hurricanes are obviously our biggest hazard, with wind, storm surge, rain, and flooding. But look at what we have put in the path of a potential Category 5 hurricane: billions of dollars of real estate on barrier islands. Think about that the next time you’re in South Beach. How dumb is that? And don’t forget terrorist attacks in South Florida. Many of the terrorists for 9-11 had Florida drivers’ licenses. What if they had chosen a more local set of targets?

Are you being a bit alarmist?

I am way past alarm. I really don’t like the idea of my grandchildren going through some mega-disasters and then saying, ‘Gee, we thought grandpa and his generation were supposed to be smart, what were they thinking back then?’ If we don’t make a major concerted effort to reduce vulnerabilities, we’re going to get shellacked. That’s what we have not gotten through our heads.

A woman and her daughter search through the devastation for their belongings following the March 11, 2011, tsunami in Japan. Photo: Associated Press.

Now I’ve got that R.E.M. song “It’s the End of the World” playing in my head. But I don’t feel fine.

I was once a normal political scientist, but that ended with the 1972 Managua earthquake, the 1976 great earthquake in Guatemala, and the volcanic eruption that wiped out Armero, Colombia, in 1985. You never see things the same after those kinds of field experiences.

What should the United States be learning from these disasters?

We have to see our vulnerabilities. We need to look very carefully at long-term threats and think in terms of 200 to 500 years with major U.S. cities including Memphis, St. Louis, Boston and New York, not just the usual Los Angeles and San Francisco. My fear is that we are not going to wake up. We are going to keep thinking of them as one-off events, but in the larger picture they are not. Some time in the next 300 years could be this afternoon, in a lot of places.

Is there any good news here?

Some, not a lot. We do build better, and we have much better warning systems for tropical storms, floods and even famine. Globally, lives lost to disaster have gone down, but property damage has gone up. My worry is that without systematic vulnerability reduction, the lives lost globally will start ticking upwards again. More broadly, disaster reconstruction is often an economic opportunity for some, and nature seems intent on giving us a chance to redo a lot of our cities. Sorry, that’s cynical and dark, isn’t it?

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