On September 13, the Senate passed a $7 billion disaster aid package that will replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s depleted funds in order to aid several states still reeling in the wake of widespread flooding, wildfires, tornadoes and tropical storms. But cleanup and recovery is only one part of the disaster cycle. Fortunately, Congress is also focusing on preparedness—a good idea, since on average, every dollar spent by FEMA on actions to improve disaster preparedness prevents up to $5 in future losses, according to some reports.
Last week, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) invited more than 30 teams of researchers from the physical and social sciences to Washington to present their research findings on hazard preparedness and mitigation. The research teams, which receive some of their funding from the National Science Foundation, study disasters as varied as tornadoes, hurricanes, oil spills, earthquakes and landslides. They showcased projects on earthquake-preparedness drills, tsunami simulations, hurricane forecast models and search-and-rescue robots.
I (grad student Katherine Thompson) accompanied colleagues from the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED, at the Earth Institute, Columbia University) to present our work on hurricane preparedness. Our team—Ben Orlove at Columbia, professors Kenny Broad (University of Miami) and Bob Meyer (The Wharton School), and graduate student Julia Wester (University of Miami) —spoke with NSF and Senate representatives about a virtual hurricane simulation that allows us to study the ways people seek out and use information when preparing for a possible storm. We’ve found that prior false alarms do have an effect on concern and willingness to take action, especially among people who have experienced hurricanes but never suffered any damage. Social pressures from friends and neighbors also played a significant role in determining people’s worry about the storm. All of these results were supported by real-time surveys conducted during Hurricanes Earl and Irene. Like most of the other groups at the Capitol Hill exhibition, we’re coming across new questions as fast as we can answer the original ones. There’s a long way to go yet.
Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), in his keynote address, highlighted the crucial importance of providing funds to help physical scientists advance forecasts and mitigation procedures, and to allow social scientists to find ways to improve the presentation of that hazard information so that members of the public can prepare themselves for (or evacuate themselves from) potentially disastrous events. Although the event was planned long before the Virginia earthquake or the flood-and-mud aftermath of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, those events seemed to have convinced many in the crowd that we need plenty of smart people studying extreme events.
However, it can be easy to forget about disasters during the quiet periods between events. Our psychology makes it very difficult to consider spending money on prevention efforts, which, if they work like they should, necessarily mean that we’ll never see proof of how bad a disaster “could have been” if it weren’t for that initial investment. Yet, as months like this past one show us, the impacts of natural and man-made hazards can be colossal. Fortunately, the 30 teams at the NSF Expo—and hundreds more across the country and the world—are hard at work as you read this (at least, that’s a pretty safe bet, since grad students keep long and often odd hours), striving to improve prediction and mitigation, build up communities’ resilience, and hone techniques for communicating science more effectively. Wish us luck—and tell us what hazards-related questions you want answered!