Preparing for the inevitable: What we still don't understand about natural disasters

As the anniversary of Superstorm Sandy approaches, geologist Susan Kieffer talks life on a calamitous planet

Published October 27, 2013 4:00PM (EDT)

Susan W. Keiffer     (Paul Knauth)
Susan W. Keiffer (Paul Knauth)

Some natural disasters — the earth-shattering, world-ending kind — we can't prepare for. But smaller disasters, cataclysmic on a local scale, strike all the time. And yet each time they do, they never fail to take us by surprise.

The problem isn't so much that we can't anticipate disasters, says geologist Susan W. Kieffer, but that the public, and policy makers, don't understand the way they work as well as they should. In "The Dynamics of Disaster," Kieffer, a professor emerita of geology at the University of Illinois and a MacArthur "Genius Grant" recipient, explores what we know — and what continues to perplex and fascinate us — about the earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, hurricanes, cyclones and tornadoes that come along with living on Earth. While the risk will always be there, she writes, by better understanding what are, at the core, natural processes, we can be better equipped when the inevitable happens.

Kieffer spoke with Salon about Mother Nature, human nature and the ways in which both sometimes act against our interests. The interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

You approach the study of natural disasters with a background in math and physics. Yet it seems — and you write about this a bit — that there is a kind of cultural attitude that disasters come out of nowhere and there’s no real way of anticipating them. Would you say that’s a faulty belief?

To some extent I think it is a little faulty. We understand a lot, geologically, about the processes that go on in the earth that impact us humans as disasters. There are natural processes of the earth, and because we have populated the planet so heavily a lot of people live in proximity to these outbursts of Mother Nature that then impact us negatively.

We have to remember that some of these processes are also very beneficial. Floods on the Nile, before it was heavily dammed, brought fresh soil and nutrients into the flood plains and the deltas of the Nile River. Volcanic eruptions put out materials that increase the fertility of soil. But when these processes harm humans, we call them disasters.

Some people live in places that are particularly disaster-prone. Should we be making more of an effort to live in safer places, or is that just a “blame the victim” mentality, where after the fact you can say, “Well, they shouldn’t have been living there if they knew this was likely to happen”?

You know, I’m not optimistic about people living only in safe places. We just don’t have that choice, with as many people as we’ve got on the planet. And unfortunately, some of the places that are very prone to disasters are actually very attractive places to live. People like living on the flanks of volcanoes. They are very fertile for farming, and they’re very beautiful. People like to live in river valleys, again, because of the fertility of the soil and the ease of travel.

Unfortunately, in some places — like Bangladesh, as a prime example — it’s the more impoverished, less advantaged people that are in the most danger of harm.

Would you say it's human nature to not recognize the risk of disasters, whether you’re living somewhere that’s more prone to them or not? In other words, what is it that makes it hard for people to prepare for these things?

Well, I laugh at myself about this. I just recently moved to the Pacific Northwest, and I live right in proximity to the big Cascadia Fault system up here. So I’m pointing the finger at myself in this.

We as humans seem to find it very difficult to think beyond the next generation of our children or at very best our grandchildren. I think our political systems play into that, in that we have very short lifetimes: four, eight, ten years in our political system, so that you very much act on short-term interest rather than long-term planning. And that’s really a problem for planning for the medium-sized or the big events, which are fairly rare on those time scales. You know, the earthquake that only happens every few hundred years is the one that’s going to really cause a lot of damage, and because we can’t predict exactly when it’s going to happen, we can only deal with probabilities. We have trouble planning for these very, very big but rare events.

I guess that’s the same mentality behind why people aren’t doing more about climate change — these bigger systems that aren’t affecting them immediately.

I think it is the same effect. If something doesn’t immediately affect us, it’s very easy to put it out of our mind. It’s the same whether it’s something like climate change, which is really global in scale, or at best maybe regional in scale, but it’s not happening on our block in a way that we can see it. I think Hurricane Sandy brought a lot of attention to the East Coast. Hopefully people will remember that and think about it, in terms of climate change and planning for their cities.

Just from observing the way the media has addressed these big disasters, do you see people turning towards planning? Or are they just not doing enough to prepare for the next once-in-100-years event?   

It’s hard to say, but I guess I think we’re not doing enough — because we can do better. I do think we are improving, and I think the media is playing a valuable role in that. There are pluses and minuses, but I think bringing things to people’s attention and presenting the facts in a careful way is helpful. I think people generally would like to do the right thing, but business interests and political interests sometimes get in the way.

What about that other way they’re depicted in the media: disaster movies? Are those in any way harmful for people trying to study disasters in real life?

[Laughs] I’m not a movie-goer, so I haven’t seen that many disaster movies, and being a nerdy scientist I always like to sit there and nitpick on the things that they didn’t get quite right. In some ways it’s a little bit like the Hollywood adage that any exposure is good exposure. It is important to get things scientifically correct, though, and I think there are movies that do that very well, but I’m going to be hard put to think of them off the top of my head.

What are the areas in which knowing more about the way disasters work can most help us, in terms of preparing for them?

The biggest advance that scientists would love to make is finding cause and effect, so that we had precursors. I’ll give you an example where we do, sometimes: when Mount St. Helens erupted, in 1980, there were about 3 months of little eruptions that had alerted us that this volcano came alive for the first time in a century. And so there was some time to mobilize resources, and to warn people. For example, the logging activities of Weyerhaeuser Paper Company were banned in a zone around the volcano. We were lucky that the volcano erupted on a Sunday, or there actually would have been more casualties. But basically the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Forest Service were able to do the right things because there was some notice that an eruption was going to occur.

Earthquake prediction is much more difficult, because sometimes you have precursors and sometimes you don’t. We have a very tragic situation now in a town called L’ Aquila, in Italy, where six seismologists and a government civil servant were convicted of manslaughter. The basic circumstances around that were that there was a swarm of small earthquakes — those earthquakes are not always precursors to a big event — and the scientists were convicted for failure to properly communicate that with the public. So it would be, I’m sure, a major breakthrough for earthquake scientists if they really had a way to say, yes or no, these are going to or they are not going to lead to a major earthquake. That just doesn’t exist right now.

Beyond that, one of the things I stress in my book is that communication between the scientists, the civil authorities and the general public generally needs to be improved. We do a good job of that in some areas in the U.S., particularly in California, for example, where the earthquake preparedness program is very sophisticated. It’s a world leader in that. There’s also a volcano observatory in California that focuses on the potentially active volcanoes there. Those are two places where I think we ‘re doing quite well that can serve as models for how we can do things better.

And that’s just because they’re able to communicate well what they’re observing, and translate that information?

Particularly in the earthquake program, they’ve figured out how to blend science with the public policy implications. We scientists aren’t always the best spokespersons. Some scientists are very good; many are not. And so figuring out how to communicate correctly to the public is more a social science problem than it is a geology problem.

That trial in Italy seems seems like it may be eroding faith in science, where the real problem maybe isn’t so much the science, but how we understand it.

Oh, it was definitely a communication problem. I know one of the scientists there from meetings and another one by reputation. Those two are leaders internationally on volcanology. They are respectable people. But something got broken in the system of how they were convened, what was said, who said what, and how the population interpreted it, and it was just tragic — both for the population that was affected and for the scientists.

It’s put a bit of a chill on the hazards community, because people are just justifiably wary. One of the Italian scientists came out in an interview saying he thinks it’s going to result in the Italian science community issuing a lot more alerts, which will be false alerts in many cases, and so the people will become jaded from having too many alerts. It’s a very delicate balance.

It’s like living in a building where the fire alarm keeps going off, so after a while, you just stop going outside.

That’s right, exactly. I think another community that actually has done very well, that I think I mention in my book, is the meteorological and weather forecasting community. Nobody sues them if they get the weather forecast wrong, that I know of.

I think there’s a lot of disappointment, though, if you hear a big storm is coming and board up your windows and then it ends up being a light rain shower…

Yeah, you know, it’s exactly the same problem. One of these scientists in Italy gave a talk, probably twenty years ago, about how he had been involved in one volcanic eruption episode where they issued an alert and they evacuated the whole population of this island in the Caribbean, which had a huge economic cost. Then he had been involved in another one, in the Ruiz community of Colombia, where scientists knew that there was danger and, for political reasons, the population wasn’t evacuated. Tens of thousands of people died from mudflows that came down to the village of Armero. He talked about his feelings and the decision-making that had gone on in those two cases. In both cases, there was a real cost to that evacuation or non-evacuation.

So, this could be a good point to talk about the dream agency you describe in the book — that sort of CDC-like body for natural disasters — and what that can help do in these situations.

Basically, when you look at the spectrum of natural disasters, you realize that they’re really global in their impacts. And so about ten years ago, when the SARS epidemics and the bird flu epidemics were going around, some colleagues and I started thinking about the analogies between these epidemics and our natural disasters. We were very impressed with how the actions of the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization prevented epidemics from starting. I was actually living in Canada at the time, and I saw the difference between the response in the city of Vancouver, where they caught the carriers very early, and the city of Toronto, where they had gone undetected for a few weeks and the epidemic got a little more of a head-start.

By comparing these epidemics with natural disasters, we realized that the reason that the CDC was so effective with diseases was that they had the evidence for what was going on and they took immediate action. We have evidence for what’s going on with disasters, and we understand the science really quite well — we can do better, but we actually understand an awful lot — and so we came up with the idea that we needed to have a perspective that was global, that was credible, that was scientifically based, and that was sensitive to political, economic, religious and cultural values. A Center for Disaster Control for Planet Earth.

Taking that global perspective, when you look at all of the disasters you write about in the book — there are earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes — is there one we should be more concerned about than the others?

That’s a great question. No, I don’t have any in mind, actually. To some extent it depends on where you live. When I was living in the Midwest, I was really more concerned about tornadoes than earthquakes, personally — and unless you’re living down near the New Madrid fault, I think Midwesterners will always be concerned about tornadoes.

I think one of the interesting things is that basically any one of these can have a major event that can be very disruptive: you can have a great, unusually big hurricane, or you can have your unusually big earthquake, or your unusually big volcanic eruption, and we can’t say which one’s going to hit next. A big volcanic eruption of the scale of the Toba eruption, seventy-some thousand years ago, is probably the one that could really wipe out our civilization and civilized society. So, I suppose that of all the ones I talk about, that’s the one that could really be an end to the world as we know it. But, again, the probability of that is very small.

So something on that scale we don’t need to be preparing for in the same way as we do smaller disasters?

We can’t prepare for that one, I don’t think. In my book, I really tried to focus generally on events that happen on the decade to century to millennial time scale, not the hundred-thousand-year time scale.

For example, there was this old landslide up in Wyoming and Montana that was just an enormous thing — it covered hundreds of square miles — and I mention it in my landslide chapter. But I really focus more on the landslides that are likely to affect humans and their buildings in the near future than in a catastrophic event. We’re all fascinated by those really rare events, and maybe someday I’ll write that book. It would be a lot of fun — those are the events that are the fodder for Hollywood movies.

By Lindsay Abrams

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