A pause in the disaster

Early on in the Covid-19 pandemic, it occurred to me that the nationwide disease outbreak was exactly like what most of us call “natural disasters” — floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, landslides, earthquakes of course, and the like. And in the literature, and on Twitter, I started to pay more attention to the specialists. Not so much the specialists in the phenomena, although those are crucial people, but the specialists who call themselves part of the disaster community: social scientists rather than natural scientists.

Those are the people who hate the term “natural disaster.” They’ll tell you “there are no natural disasters.” By that they mean an insight that galvanized me when I first read it a generation ago: “Human beings, not nature, are the cause of disaster losses. The choices that are made about where and how human development will proceed actually determine the losses that will be suffered in future disasters.”

It underlies what I do in this blog. It was in this book.

Disasters by Design came out in 1999, the outcome of a conference of disaster-related specialists sponsored by the National Science Foundation and several federal agencies. It laid out an ambitious vision of how society can deal with the disasters that happen when we get in nature’s way.

First, it pointed out that our current practices of mitigation aren’t enough. Our warning systems, building codes, and other measures succeed only in saving lives. Consider the case of hurricanes: they no longer kill many people, but they still cause record-breaking economic losses every year. Even the small ones cost more these days. Hurricanes haven’t changed much at all, but we have. The Northridge earthquake of January 1994, not such a big one, killed only a few dozen people, yet it caused more than $20 billion in insured damages alone.

And our mitigation measures have bad side effects. For example, the hurricane warning system makes people feel safer, but now it’s harder to keep them from building on the beach, from paving the dunes, from moving sand from one coast to another for short-lived patches on degrading shorelines. And in earthquake country, new structures preserve people’s lives, but the growing population is still vulnerable, living too far from jobs and served by elaborate electrical and water systems. People die less and less, but they keep paying more and more. Surely we can do better.

Disasters by Design explores how to go beyond mitigation toward a more resilient way of life, one that rolls with nature’s punches and returns to normalcy quickly. This desirable goal, “sustainable hazard mitigation,” means living politically the way we live personally, in ways our descendants won’t end up paying for. And if it’s done right, the community gains benefits beyond the insurance that the new policies provide — the people and their institutions are stronger, and wealthier too. That great work needs the help of social scientists, whose research on the people side complements the expertise on the engineering and prediction side.

The reason this book was a best-seller for its publisher, used as a textbook for a generation of practitioners and launching a movement in and beyond the disaster community, was its author. Social scientist Dennis Mileti was a gifted communicator who could hold an audience without a PowerPoint deck, a teacher who always had time for a student, and a leader who knew how to energize and drive diverse committees and teams. He went to the same conferences I do, and I sought out his talks.

Mileti died of Covid-19 on 30 January, two days before he was scheduled to get the vaccine. Last year he told a writer for the Washington Post that America’s approach to the pandemic scared him: “We have people saying, ‘It will be over soon!’ and other people saying, ‘It could be months.’ That gives the public the ability to pick the answer they like, which is the No. 1 no-no in public messaging.”

I opened my copy of his book last week — and it’s his despite having dozens of contributors — and it does not read like it’s 21 years old. The vision is still strong and the insights are still valid. You might say that means we haven’t achieved sustainable hazard mitigation, and in truth that’s a very difficult project. It takes everyone’s involvement, under skilled and patient guidance, to change a community.

But for some reason being reminded of the vision is still inspiring. And over the years I’ve seen the vision infiltrating my own piece of the disaster community, the Earth hazards sector. Tsunami specialist Lori Dengler wrote an appreciation of Mileti just last fall, which reminded me that he was involved with the ShakeOut earthquake-drill program, and before that was an advisor for this pamphlet many of you may remember from after the Loma Prieta earthquake. Dennis Mileti worked here too, for us.

And that’s just the earthquake crowd. He was involved with the full range of disasters, bringing insight into how to communicate alarms and alerts, what motivates genuine change, what steps to take beyond reciting facts at people. And yet it was a funny thing: while Mileti died of Covid-19, Disasters by Design doesn’t address disease epidemics. But over the last year I’ve read a lot of pandemic coverage, and awareness is seeping in that disease outbreaks are just part of this planet, and that if we are creating situations where animal viruses can leap to our species — imperiling ourselves by getting in nature’s way — then Covid-19 is just as much a “natural disaster” as a levee break during a flood.

It may be time for a new book that adds pandemics to the rogues gallery of disasters. It would be fitting if we could tie together the lessons learned from the pandemic and the quest to bring about sustainable hazard mitigation. Sustainability is about not just growing wisdom, but also passing wisdom forward, and Dennis Mileti did both. Let us not forget his name.

One Response to “A pause in the disaster”

  1. manuelgarciajr Says:

    Excellent posting, thank you for this.

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