Meade on Disasters and Research

September 28th, 2005

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Charles Meade, from the Rand Corporation, had a thoughtful op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this week. Here is the full text, reprinted here with permission:

Get proactive with disasters

Charles Meade

Imagine if the Army’s main strategy for protecting soldiers was to provide more ambulances, hospital beds, and doctors to treat the wounded – instead of relying on defensive measures such as fortifications, tanks, body armor and helmets to protect soldiers from being wounded in the first place.

The strategy of responding only after attacks instead of adequately preparing to defend against them sounds absurd. But it is exactly what the federal government, states and localities have done when it comes to protecting people from disasters such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornados and volcanoes.

Even if the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina had been far faster, bigger and better organized, the storm would inevitably have caused some death and severe property damage. But if more had been done earlier, New Orleans and other communities would have fared far better and many deaths would have been prevented.

In his Sept. 15 address from New Orleans, President Bush said: “This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina.” Emergency response was clearly improved during Hurricane Rita. But a strategy based primarily on responding to a disaster after it hits is a losing strategy. We are far better off taking action to reduce and prevent disaster damage before it occurs.

While we don’t know exactly when and where these calamities will strike, we do know that hurricanes often hit communities along the Gulf of Mexico, tornados are common on the Great Plains, and earthquakes often take place in parts of California. This knowledge can enable us to take action.

Even before the 2004 hurricane season, natural disasters were costing the United States an average of about $300 million per week, as documented in a 2003 RAND Corporation report I prepared for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The number of natural disasters has clearly continued to rise in the last two years, but there has been only limited federal action to prevent these types of losses.

We should be able to use research to develop better policies that determine where homes, businesses and other structures can be constructed – and where new construction is a bad idea. We should also use research to decide what building standards new homes and businesses must meet to withstand the forces of nature. These steps can greatly reduce the need for massive evacuation, and emergency response and recovery operations like those seen in the cases of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

A new national strategy to learn the lessons of Katrina and Rita about disaster preparation should do the following:

Focus scientific and technical efforts on reducing our vulnerability to disasters, changing the current emphasis on improving short-term weather forecasting. For example, as Katrina and Rita roared across the Gulf, they were extensively studied to predict landfall locations. But once the storms hit communities, there were virtually no measurements of wind force and direction near the ground. Such information could have been collected if instruments had been deployed ahead of time in areas likely to be hit by the storms. The information could be used to help develop better engineering and design standards.

Encourage tougher building codes requiring that new buildings be better able to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tornados or other natural disasters. Such codes typically increase the initial costs of new construction, but they dramatically reduce future losses if disaster strikes.

Provide federal financial incentives that would prompt state and local governments and property owners to reduce disaster losses. Owners of homes and business could get federal tax breaks if they strengthened existing structures or paid higher construction costs to build safer homes and businesses.

We haven’t seen measures like these because past policies and budgets have been reactive rather than proactive.

In the case of Katrina, this strategic failure proved extremely costly. Estimates are that the federal government could ultimately spend about $200 billion on recovery and rebuilding efforts. It would have been far cheaper to shore up levees in New Orleans, toughen building codes, change zoning laws, and take other actions that would have dramatically lowered the death and destruction.

In 1736, Benjamin Franklin famously stated that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” If Franklin were alive today, he might say that “an ounce of preparedness is worth a pound of response.” This is the most important lesson we can learn from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Charles Meade is a senior scientist with the Rand Corporation.

4 Responses to “Meade on Disasters and Research”

  1. Joel Gratz Says:

    Charles – great suggestions for new initiatives, although one of your ideas is already in motion.

    You talk of the wealth of data collected during the Hurricane’s travel over water, but the relative lack of wind data collected in communities.

    The Florida Coastal Monitoring Project ( erects wind monitoring towers and outfits homes with monitoring equipment, and they do this just before the hurricane makes landfall to get the highest possible wind speeds.

    This work is sponsored by the State of Florida, Clemson, and the Univ. of Florida This group does work outside of Florida as well (MS, LA, TX most recently).

    This is not on the level of a large, national program and I agree there are issues concerning the relative imbalance of storm observations before landfall and observations of structural performance during landfall.

    Two quick questions:
    (1) If reinforced concrete structures do not survive a hurricane, how do we design instrumnets to withstand the hurricane and the debris in the air and in the storm surge?

    (2) How much more information do we need to suggest reliable building codes to withstand different categories of storms? More data is a plus, but since uncertainties will always exist, do we need more data or just more action and more (economic) incentives for action?

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  3. Mark Bahner Says:

    “Estimates are that the federal government could ultimately spend about $200 billion on recovery and rebuilding efforts. It would have been far cheaper to shore up levees in New Orleans, toughen building codes, change zoning laws, and take other actions that would have dramatically lowered the death and destruction.”

    Not to mention conducting research and development of systems to reduce the strength of hurricanes in general. Such research and development would serve not only New Orleans, but the entire southern and eastern coast of the United States, from Brownsville, TX to Boston, MA.

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  5. Charles Meade Says:


    Thanks for your comments the information about the Florida Coastal Monitoring Project. While I’m sure that it provides useful data regarding gross wind velocities, I was thinking of something larger and planned from a scientific/engineering perpective. My point of reference on this issue is the large effort that has taken place in the earthquake community to measure strong ground motions close to the fault during an earthquake. To be sure, there would be a need for careful design and planning for deployments so they don’t blow down. There is also a need to carefully document the site conditions (presence of buildings, vegetation, topography, distance from shore etc.), because these will influence the local wind fields. If such data were collected over many hurricanes, my sense is that we would learn a lot about how the hurricane wind fields are modified close to the ground as the cyclone move across land. The fact is that the boundary layer wind velocities are extremely complex, yet we have very little data on how the wind fields evolve with time/space in this region. With this sort of information, we could learn a lot about the ideal siting of builings to minimize the threat from hurricane winds. In my view, this is an important research goal, but we are still a long ways off on this issue.

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  7. Cliff, web designer Says:

    “Even before the 2004 hurricane season, natural disasters were costing the United States an average of about $300 million per week” I think they should thinks of more investments in solutions that could help to resist. We can think of new kinds of buildings or protective moles, etc. I know it’s easy to say but really hard to make somthing like that, however, I think this is what we have to think about.