Challenges to building a disaster-resilient nation

The deadly typhoon that struck Burma in early May and the devastating earthquake that struck China a week later carried with them echoes of the devastation wrought by the Sumatra earthquake and tsunami on the Indian Ocean region in 2004. In the United States, the vulnerability of Burma’s coastal populations to severe winds and storm-surge inundation also served to remind us of Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing recovery in New Orleans and other GulfCoast communities. Although U.S. cities have not experienced a catastrophic earthquake since the one in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1964, we know that events as large as the Chinese earthquake will strike in the future.

DAVID APPLEGATE “Science and technology can play a critical role in the quest for disaster resilience.”

Extreme events are facts of life on an active planet like ours. How those events affect us reflects not only the power of nature but the decisions we make in how we build our societies. Achieving security at home and abroad must reflect an overall resilience to all hazards that confront our communities. Achieving that resilience is a grand challenge, and it will take the collective action of government at all levels, nonprofit organizations, the private sector and above all individuals trying to do what is best for themselves, their families and their communities.

Science and technology can play a critical role in the quest for disaster resilience. To better define this role, the National Science and Technology Council’s Subcommittee on Disaster Reduction, representing 22 federal departments and agencies, identified six grand challenges for disaster reduction.

The first of these challenges is to provide hazard and disaster information where and when it is needed. Meeting this challenge requires robust monitoring systems with the capability to reach those in harm’s way and provide emergency responders with the information they need. Such systems are only as good as their weakest link, which in many cases is the link to the people at risk. Improving communications to the most vulnerable populations, so that they can protect themselves, requires education.

The second challenge is to understand the natural processes that produce hazards. Targeted research can harness advances in computing power and draw upon data generated by global observational systems to improve predictive modeling. For coastal hazards, this understanding must include assessment of the impacts of climate change on coastal inundation.

The third challenge is to develop strategies and technologies to reduce the impact of extreme events on the built environment and vulnerable ecosystems. Meeting this challenge will require understanding social, cultural and economic factors that promote or inhibit promising mitigation technologies.

The fourth grand challenge is to reduce the vulnerability of infrastructure. One major obstacle to recovery in any disaster is the delayed restoration of critical infrastructure such as drinking water, electricity and gas distribution systems. A key step is establishing the technical basis for revised codes and standards for critical infrastructure. Paradoxically, advances in technology can increase society’s vulnerability because of reliance on distant resources and just-in-time inventory delivery, with the result that the economic impact of a natural hazard event can be broader than its storm track or rupture zone.

The fifth challenge is to develop standardized methods for communities to measure and assess disaster resilience across multiple hazards. A key step is developing and distributing assessment tools that can be used to set priorities.

The final challenge is to promote risk-wise behavior. The costs of natural disasters are rising as people increasingly move into harm’s way in low-lying coastal areas, the wildland-urban interface and geologically active regions. In order to achieve “hazards literacy” and sustained risk reduction, hazards must be real to people. Scenarios are a tool that can spell out the impacts of likely events on high-risk areas, combining scientific and engineering knowledge with local planning and emergency management expertise to deliver a comprehensive picture of potential losses.

The subcommittee has released plans identifying the priority science and technology actions needed to meet these challenges for all major hazards. These plans will help to shape sustained federal science and technology investments in disaster reduction and can also serve as a blueprint for international cooperation.

All the plans identify the same desired outcomes: A nation where relevant hazards are recognized and understood, communities at risk know when a hazard event is imminent, individuals can live safely in the context of our planet’s extreme events and communities experience minimum disruption to life and economy after a hazard event.

David Applegate is chair of the National Science and Technology Council’s Subcommittee on Disaster Reduction and senior science adviser for earthquake and geologic hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey. The Grand Challenges for Disaster Reduction and accompanying implementation plans are available at Applegate can be reached at