January 03, 2005

Disaster Prevention

The New York Times gets this exactly right:
The difference between the rich and poor countries, Dr. Sieh said, was that the rich ones had improved their building techniques and their political systems to deal with inevitable disasters.

In the Pacific Northwest, where offshore faults could generate a tsunami as large as last week's ocean-spanning waves, officials have created "inundation maps" to know more precisely what would happen in a flood and prepare accordingly. And in response to the threat of earthquakes, buildings on the West Coast now are designed to sway over shifting foundations, and new highway overpasses are no longer stacked like the jaws of a huge horizontal vise.

Istanbul, Tehran, New Delhi and other increasingly dense and shabbily constructed cities, on the other hand, are rubble in waiting. When an earthquake leveled the ancient Iranian city of Bam in 2003, for instance, more than 26,000 people were essentially crushed by their own homes. Several earthquake experts refer to the "seismic gap" as a way of describing this difference between the ability of rich cities and poor ones to withstand earthquake damage.
One of the many horrifying aspects of working in a flood observatory during college was keeping track of floods in Bangladesh, where heavy rain would literally wash away hundreds of thousands of shoddily-built homes each year, leaving untold number of families homeless and often unable to get to higher ground. Meanwhile, collapsing rubble would kill hundreds, and disease would spread very quickly. Ditto for flooding along the Yangtze in China, or the myriad rivers in India. It's the sort of thing that never happens in the Western world. A little urban development and planning would go a long way here -- farther, perhaps, than sophisticated multi-billion dollar tsunami warning systems. For more context, read this Mike Davis essay in New Left Review, via Critical Montages.
-- Brad Plumer 2:30 PM || ||