After Hurricane Ike: How do we Reduce the Impact of Natural Disasters?

At the end of June, when parts of Iowa were underwater, I wrote that the United States needed to develop

At the end of June, when parts of Iowa were underwater, I wrote that the United States needed to develop a rainy day fund and do more to routinize emergency response and reconstruction. In that piece I mentioned that, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration: "The U.S. has sustained 78 weather-related disasters over the past 28 years in which overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. The total normalized losses for the 78 events exceed $600 billion."              

Now, we are all horrified by the impact of Hurricane Ike on the Gulf Coast and on Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city. The financial impact of this latest disaster is still being calculated, and even though the impact was not as great as it could have been or as devastating as some predicted, the financial cost will be huge. The loss in human lives and in quality of life will also be substantial. Once again, I advocate developing a more realistic and routine process for dealing with these events and their aftermath. It’s nice that our president and presidential candidates offer the Gulf Coast victims their prayers and good wishes. It would be nicer if they could offer them some cash and a federal system of response and reconstruction that is reliable and predictable.

In addition to reconstruction, it may be time to take another look at our 20th century industrial age infrastructure. This certainly includes electricity but it might also be a good idea to take another look at the way we assure water supply, waste water treatment, solid waste disposal and transportation here in the United States. We have created large, centralized and quite vulnerable systems to provide us with these essentials. We build systems this way because 20th century technologies benefited from economies of scale.

In New York City we once proposed building five waste-to-energy incinerators, one for each borough. In the end, none were built. No one wanted to have the entire borough’s garbage next door.  Perhaps instead of building large centralized waste facilities we should build a larger number of smaller facilities. With modern communications and the ever lower cost of computer controls and information, we might be able to build one plant in every community board district, and control all 59 facilities from 4 or 5 small (and redundant)  control rooms.

Perhaps some part of each household’s electric supply could be provided off of the power grid with renewable energy sources.  Today, solar cells are huge roof top operations that are heavy, expensive to install and not too efficient. The batteries that store this energy are also pretty primitive. But what if some day a solar cell was the size of a cell phone and you could glue it on your window? What if the batteries could hold electricity long enough to last through the evening and a few gray days? I know… it’s hard to imagine.

Still, I remember in 1970 when I packed up my stereo to go to college, most of the car’s trunk was taken up by the speakers and three heavy boxes of records. Last month when my eldest daughter packed the car’s trunk for college her iPod and laptop took up almost no space, and easily replaced the stereo, records, typewriter and TV that I took to school back in the prehistoric era. You get the picture: technology could have an unimaginable impact on how we live.

 As the planet has gotten more crowded, more of us have settled in places that are vulnerable to natural disasters. I don’t think this trend is going to be reversed. Moreover, our lifestyles depend on electricity, transport, food, waste disposal and water that is sold to us by large centralized public and private organizations. The proportion of people who grow their own food, use well water, septic systems and compost their own garbage is lower every year. This means that we are increasingly vulnerable to disasters like Katrina or Ike.

It’s time to start working on ways to reduce our vulnerability. Some of the answer is better emergency response and more reliable reconstruction. But an important part of the answer is to develop and implement technologies that allow our urban population to use less centralized infrastructure.  There are, of course, powerful economic interests that will oppose this idea. That’s because they own and operate the centralized and vulnerable infrastructure that we rely on. My hope is that the companies that develop these less centralized technologies will succeed in selling them to the public. Just as laptops replaced mainframe computers, and Apple iPods replaced the SONY Walkman, someday, small household renewable electricity generators might replace the power grid.  

But of course, only a fool predicts the future. After Hurricane Ike: How do we Reduce the Impact of Natural Disasters?