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Experts wonder why disaster warnings don't work
Scripps Howard News Service


December 21 2005

WASHINGTON - New Orleans received more warnings about the threat posed from a major hurricane than any other location in the country over at least the past decade.

Study after study by meteorologists, coastal engineers, sociologists and emergency managers, among others, spelled out doomsday scenarios for the only major metropolitan area in the United States lying below sea level.

While the predictions initially may have been published in specialized scientific journals or presented to colleagues at scientific meetings, they were amply repeated hundreds of times in the popular media.

Yet ever since Hurricane Katrina came ashore Aug. 29, those scientists and policymakers at all levels of government have been wondering why the dire forecasts didn't make more difference on the ground.


After Katrina, they're wondering what else the disaster-research community needs to do to limit the scope and impact of future calamities elsewhere around the country.

The American Meteorological Society, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several other organizations brought nearly 100 leading academic, government and business disaster experts together here for three days this week to discuss how the country can become more resilient to hazards - and how to get the right people to listen to what the maps and models predict about the threats.

"There's a certain amount of scientific guilt among some of my colleagues, a feeling that they didn't do enough to get their message heard," said Shirley Laska, a sociologist who studies evacuation behavior and director of the Center for Hazards Assessment, Response and Technology at the University of New Orleans.

She's drawn particular attention for a paper she published in November 2004, plotting out what would have happened if Category 4 Hurricane Ivan had stayed on track to hit New Orleans rather than hooking north to strike Mobile Bay, Ala., as it did. She specifically mentioned a 17-foot storm surge, overtopping of levees, flooding that would have damaged 80 percent of the structures in the city and a half-million people not heeding evacuation warnings.

"Survivors would have to endure conditions never before experienced in a North American disaster, " Laska wrote.

As it happened with Katrina, an estimated 80 percent of the 1.2 million people in the metro New Orleans area did leave before the storm hit, despite a mandatory evacuation order not being issued until 24 hours out. Most experts believe the toll of more than 1,300 killed by the hurricane would have been much higher if so many hadn't left, a positive note overtaken by the suffering of the tens of thousands who stayed behind.

Even so, "the result of those warnings not being heeded was the end of my community," Laska said. "How could it be that society at all levels was not organized or prepared to hear?"

Despite years of federal programs to build "disaster-resistant" communities and a renewed emphasis on preparedness for manmade calamities since 9/11, experts say the traditional pattern of the public and politicians not paying attention until the wind blows and the water rises still holds true in much of the country.

"Natural hazards and other extreme events have always received little attention until after there's been a catastrophic event," said Howard Kunreuther, a professor of risk management and decision processes at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

"There are tremendous gaps between assessments by experts and the perceptions that real people have about the risks they face. Unless they or a loved one is in the path of danger, they don't pay much attention," he said.

At the same time, Laska and others observe that in an era of constant news coverage, terror alerts and health bulletins, there's a danger of over-warning the public, making people too jaded to pay attention to real threats and producing skepticism that some researchers conjure up hazards just so they can keep getting grants to study them.

"In Britain, Sir Martin Rees' latest book on how a combination of human and natural forces could wipe out civilization within a few generations is titled 'Our Final Century,' but the U.S. publishers decided that wasn't urgent enough in our country, so here it's called 'Our Final Hour,' " recounted Scott Barrett, a professor of international policy at Johns Hopkins University who works on disaster and climate-change issues.

Repeatedly during the meeting, speakers mentioned the need to put timely information about specific threats before the public and in the hands of public officials at all levels of government.

"It's hard for people to visualize what can happen to them in a disaster. We have to spell it out for them," said Gerald Galloway, a professor of engineering and public policy at the University of Maryland who has worked on flooding issues for decades. "People assume they're safe when they live behind a levee. They need to understand the circumstances when they're not."

Yet the federal government doesn't even have a complete inventory of all the levees and dams around the country, or how many people behind them could be at risk if they fail, Galloway added.

Participants said solutions might be as high-tech as elaborate software programs and satellite maps that allow officials to see what's swamped or about to be, or as simple as grade-school lessons on understanding tsunamis and storm surge. Such knowledge is reported to have led at least two youngsters to urge adults around them to flee beaches on the Indian Ocean during last year's tsunami.

There are renewed efforts to educate and better prepare and protect people from hurricanes and other hazards after the last several devastating seasons of storms.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and several federal scientific agencies are working to update flood-hazard maps for the coastline and eventually along inland streams to encourage smarter, safer rebuilding.

"The new flood elevations seem like a fine idea, but then we read the story about the woman in Mississippi, her home reduced to a slab but planning to rebuild from Katrina," Galloway said. "She was asked if she was going to raise her house that additional 4 feet, and she said no, she didn't want to have to climb those extra four steps every day on the chance there will be another flood that high again someday."


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Ketchikan, Alaska