eye hurricane

Just how prepared is California for ‘the big one?’ Inevitably, the recent quake rocking California’s wine country has inspired a renewed wave of concern about the state’s emergency preparedness, often centering on this very question. If Napa’s 6.0 shakeup serves as any indicator, California, despite suffering manageable losses, may be moving in the right direction. Though an undeniably serious occurrence, injuring 200, costing a potential $1 billion dollars in damages and resulting in a State of Emergency declaration, not a single death was reported, and already those affected are looking towards the future, beginning rebuilding efforts almost immediately.

So has California just been lucky, or actually, truly prepared? An important question, since simply being part of the world’s richest country will do little in deflecting the merciless devastation brought on by an earthquake or, one the other side of the country, another ‘super storm.’ No region in the world of course, no matter how rich, is immune to all natural threats. But while this may be the case, there remains a clear separation between certain countries and their adeptness at minimizing destructive outcomes. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy for example, two of the United States’ costliest disasters this century, grabbed the entire nation’s attention but hardly crippled the country. Even Japan’s devastating 9.0 earthquake in 2011, called “the toughest and the most difficult crisis for Japan” since the end of World War II, has actually turned some displaced residents into millionaires and led many economists to believe that rebuilding efforts created by the disaster will ultimately strengthen the country’s economy. To say these are economic luxuries not afforded to developing nations would be putting it mildly.

According to the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, money spent on natural disasters has quadrupled since the 1980s, exceeding $200 billion in three of the past four years. Much of this overall spending has been the result of such aforementioned disasters in wealthier countries, such as the U.S. and Japan, but the bulk of disaster relief is still supplied to developing and poverty-stricken nations, who have little choice but to accept their fate when Mother Nature zeroes in – a fate which often extends far past any immediate aftermath. An entire generation of Haitians for example, will likely be working to move their country past the effects of the 7.0 earthquake in 2010 (just .1M higher on the Richter scale than the 1989 Loma Prieta quake), which killed a possible 316,000 people. The difference in the amount of destruction and long-term effects can largely, of course, be attributed to widespread poverty – grievous conditions that are only perpetuated by natural disasters.

The Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD), in a 2006 study, has stated that “natural disasters are decidedly a development issue,” and “strike developing countries, as the lion’s share of volcanic activity and El Niño-related events occur in developing countries, and the death toll is concentrated in developing countries to an even greater degree[…]natural disasters can dampen growth, by destroying capital and diverting resources towards relief and reconstruction.” In addition to the collapse in infrastructure, other economic dependencies, such as trade, suffer substantially as well, with exports of developing countries estimated to decline 22% for at least three years following major disasters.

All of this however, pales in comparison to the usually staggering loss of life. According to the OECD study, “while only 11 percent of people exposed to natural hazards live in countries classified as ‘low-human-development countries, these same countries account for more than 53 percent of disaster-related deaths.” With limited financial capabilities, the lack of disaster preparedness and awareness in these areas manifests itself in heightened vulnerability for the population. This is especially true for women, children, the elderly, and disabled – groups who collectively make up eighty percent of disaster-related deaths, attributable to decreased mobility and a conservative emphasis on gender roles (typically placing women as caregivers). This general vulnerability is due to what 21st Century Challenges refers to as “rapid urbanization,” which often forces poorer citizens to move to more marginalized and dangerous areas close to banks, slopes, and flood plains, often in housing not designed to withstand fierce natural forces.

But urbanization is just one way in which the constantly progressing state of the world continues to outpace the poorer, more vulnerable classes of people. Much more pressing is the growing concern over climate change and the minimal global effort to combat it. As the OECD states, climate change “might be increasing the frequency of El Niño events, which lead with regularity to drought, fires, flooding and famine. The warming of the surface of the Atlantic Ocean might be increasing the frequency and severity of hurricanes. Settlement of previously unpopulated forest environments may lie behind the proliferation of hitherto unknown diseases.” All of these threats only seem to emphasize the ever-increasing need for disaster prevention and preparedness. Yet amazingly, despite both the OECD study and the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid agreeing that for every one dollar spent on these needs, four dollars can be saved in post-disaster reconstruction and relief, only four percent of all disaster-related costs are spent on preventative measures.

Still, it is important to note that some efforts are being made to learn from previous mistakes. President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines is one leader who’s acknowledged the gravity of climate change, and has consequently employed new warning systems and means of communicating weather concerns to at-risk citizens. However, this is just one country in a world constantly threatened by a diverse array of hazards. Doom is not necessarily on the horizon, but for everyone on this planet, the significance of a global effort is simply the sensible, and compassionate, route we must all be moving towards.