On the Horizon?

So what new disasters can we look forward to that we've been ignoring so far? What Hurricane Katrina wrought was foretold by many folks, including -- I've just found out about it -- the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Last year, the Center's bi-monthly magazine, the Natural Hazards Observer, ran a six-part "Disasters Waiting to Happen" series, capped in November by the scenario we've seen played out for the past week.

The five other disasters? All written in an "as if" mode (writing in an assumed "future" of "past" events), the scenarios are more site-specific than the disasters need be. The first examines how Southern California copes with a magnitude 7.1 earthquake along the Puente Hills Fault, destroying 21,000 buildings and at least partly damaging nearly a half million more. Some 115,000 people are immediately left homeless, more in the aftershocks.

The second installment is a flash flood, in this instance in Boulder itself. Flash floods are also a known hazard in Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and I certainly recognize the scenario: "The time required to warn the public of a flash flood in Boulder is longer than the time it takes a flood to form and reach the city, and the decision to announce an imminent flood and sound a warning must be made before enough rain has fallen to be certain that a flood will occur." And about a third of the deaths are of people who tried to drive through flooded intersections, "not realizing that 18 inches of moving water can carry a car away."

Part three is a bioterrorist attack, specifically on Pasadena, but the scenario could fit a natural epidemic, say of "bird flu," H5N1. Recognizing the rapid spread of the disease is slow, health facilities are quickly overwhelmed -- actually, the hypothetical bioterrorist attack is less scary than a hypothetical pandemic, because the attacked area could be somewhat quarantined and the epidemic contained. Of course, police are needed to stop the attempted exodus out of town and the riots that break out at antibiotic-distribution centers.

The fourth scenario is closer to home: a ten-year drought in Colorado that costs farmers $2 billion and ranchers $1 billion, and wipes out a lot of the tourism industry to boot. Municipal water-rationing gets so tight that athletic fields are shut down. But the real hazard is that wildfires are more likely, more frequent and more deadly. (Need I point out that lots of states are and/or can be hit by drought?)

And coming in fifth is the eruption of Mount Rainier in western Washington. While the beginning of the volcano destroys forests and farms, most of the destruction comes in the days afterward: floods, a series of earthquakes and more eruptions, not to mention the huge column of volcanic ash that can damage aircraft.

Center director Kathleen Tierney, also author of Facing the Unexpected: Disaster Preparedness and Response in the United States, isn't gloating about the accuracy of the Center's predictions, but she's not happy with the current state of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "The responsibility for preparing for disasters has been removed from FEMA and placed with law and order experts at the [Department of Homeland Security]" she tells the Financial Times. Devoting resources to terrorism at the expense of mitigating natural disasters is not the path to domestic security.

"The laws of nature were not repealed on September 11."