Live In A Disaster-prone Area?
I don't really feel bad for people who lose their home or possessions after voluntarily choosing to live in a disaster-prone area? Wildfires in parts of western states that are seeminglly not meant for human habitation, the annual hurricane assault on Florida, etc. I can understand the beauty of some of these areas, but why should others have to risk their lives to save the possessions of those who value aesthetics over safety?
Whether caused by acts of nature, human error or even malevolence, disasters are an increasingly costly threat. Although most people assume they will not become victims, individual risk grows as homes and businesses encroach deeper into disaster-prone regions. That risk can be personal or structural – or both.
Research gives us hope. Early-warning systems developed over the past several decades have prevented countless deaths and injuries. Structural impact is another matter. Despite improved building codes and practices, more people are building in risky locations. The rate of property destruction and rebuilding is increasing, and costs are rising. Hurricane Katrina proved yet again just how much destruction disasters can cause.
Regardless of origin—from hurricanes to earthquakes, blackouts to terrorist attacks—disasters can seem overwhelming. Yet their impact need not be crippling. Without a comprehensive understanding of disasters, it is impossible to prepare for them. Knowledge is critical, whether for determining how weather systems develop, estimating the path of volcanic debris, recognizing triggers before a ground-shaking seismic event, or even gauging how an individual’s decisions—from a utility employee to a public official—can put entire communities at risk.
With the right information, researchers, communities and planners can work together to craft an effective response for almost any conceivable crisis and learn how to confront them more effectively in the future. Hurricanes, tornadoes, torrential rains and other severe weather drive many of the most devastating natural disasters. University researchers have spent the past several decades studying the most fundamental properties of weather, including observations of enormous thunderstorm complexes through the BAMEX project and the search for tornado origins in the VORTEX project.
In the field, storm chasers learn much about local and regional weather at the scene of the devastation. Across the country, armadas of instrument-packed vans, trucks and airplanes race to rendezvous with storm systems. In the past 10 years, experts have taken advantage of a new tool: radar-equipped trucks, some carrying a dish antenna 8 feet across.
During storm chases, Doppler On Wheels (DOW) systems train their electromagnetic beams on twisters and violent storms to gather data on the inner workings of tumultuous weather phenomena – the newest Rapid-Scan model uses six simultaneous beams to collect 3-D data in about 10 seconds. The truck can get within half a mile of a tornado and record detailed images, including spiraling bands of clouds and concentric rings of debris.
Those mobile Doppler radars—similar to the larger systems used for local or airport weather—are critical for what they reveal about the structures of tornadoes, hurricanes and other violent storms. Joshua Wurman and Jerry Straka developed DOW over a decade ago while conducting research at the University of Oklahoma. Wurman, now an adjunct professor at Penn State, continues to use the technology in his work at the Center for Severe Weather Research (CSWR) in Boulder, Colo.
Operated by CSWR, in close collaboration with NCAR, DOW has aided research on tornados and hurricanes, European mountain and valley winds, air turbulence – even the study of fires. Data collected by these systems contribute to advanced computer simulations, which have in turn led to new discoveries about dangerous weather.
DOW has mapped the 3-D structure of tornadoes and documented their lifecycles, and uncovered a major, yet previously unknown, hurricane phenomenon – intense, organized wind streaks in the boundary air-mass between the land surface and the storm that can influence damage when a hurricane makes landfall.
With such highly detailed knowledge of storm structures, scientists are now gaining a better understanding of how, and when, tornadoes will form. For those already living in high-risk areas, researchers are trying to learn more about the root causes behind disasters and why some structures survive them while others do not.
Beverley Adams of ImageCat, Inc., Kishor Mehta of Texas Tech University and their colleagues, focused on damage caused by Hurricane Charley, the most devastating U.S. storm of 2004. By analyzing high-resolution pictures captured from space, the researchers found they could rapidly assess damage to a vast number of buildings, a technique that may one day prove invaluable to first responders and public officials trying to allocate resources after a crisis.
Evidence of storm damage is short-lived – due to natural causes such as erosion, and to the cleanup and restoration that follow the crisis. Rapid-response researchers like Adams must arrive on the scene before critical knowledge is lost to those efforts. By adding satellite imagery to their ground-based surveys, the team was able to record the condition of up to 2,500 buildings each day. Earlier methods were lucky to catch 100 buildings in the same day’s work.
In addition to natural calamities, our nation is also threatened by disasters caused by people. Whether unintentional, such as blackouts or chemical spills, or devised by foreign or domestic terrorists, these crises have proved to be as devastating as natural disasters, if not more so.
On Aug. 14, 2003, a catastrophic blackout cut off power for 50 million people across the Northeast and Midwest United States and in Ontario, Canada. While not intentional, human error played a major role. Many power system researchers believe that the enormous Northeast blackout was a combination of hazards, such as un-trimmed tree limbs, and weaknesses in the overall United States power grid system. In addition to the dangerous conditions resulting from the regional loss of power, businesses took an enormous economic hit from lost inventory and sales – a cost estimated to be as much as $8 billion in the United States alone.
On a smaller scale, blackouts are a familiar occurrence, often started by something as simple as power lines touching the branches of tall trees and compounded by weaknesses in the command and control systems for the power grid and an overall lack of excess capacity across the nation. For example, if something causes a power plant to go offline—such as a generator failure or lightning striking a transmission line—other plants will try to compensate for the loss by increasing their output.
However, as the plants attempt to meet the demands of the air conditioners, televisions and washing machines that were being handled by the now-failed power station, the added load may trigger some of the remaining plants to shut down to avoid damage. Compounding the problem, other stations may become isolated due to the multiple failures – these plants also go out of service since they no longer have a path along which to send their power.
Limitations in the computer networks, and even procedures, linking power plants in the grid can drive this cascading process. At this point, the blackout is well underway. Researchers have been tackling the problem of blackouts and developing tools to both understand these events and make the power system more reliable. The researchers are currently testing several new software tools that will quickly alert power-system operators when a catastrophe is imminent. They hope to provide enough warning to allow operators to make rapid decisions that could prevent the spread of power disruptions from one region to the next.
Sometimes, disaster damage is made worse by people’s choices to live in high-risk areas. Understanding how to help people avoid risky homesite choices is a start. Homes built along floodplains or in drought-prone regions are particularly vulnerable – in 2003 alone, Southern California wildfires destroyed 750,043 acres and 3,710 homes, and took 24 lives in just 15 days.
Research into how human emotion drives decisions can also help us understand how personal choices make a crisis worse. Howard Kunreuther of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and his colleagues found that most people living in areas prone to floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and other devastating natural disasters take no steps to protect themselves or their property.
These residents ignore precautions proven to be life-saving and cost-effective, such as strapping down water heaters or bolting houses to foundations, and neglect to buy hazard insurance – even when the federal government provides substantial subsidies. While financial concerns play a role, Kunreuther found that the main problem is people believe disasters may affect others, but not themselves.
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