--an invited comment
--an invited comment
On December 15, 1999, several days of torrential rain in Venezuela triggered avalanches of mud, boulders, water, and trees that killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people, according to estimates from the Pan American Health Organization. The death toll has been difficult to determine because most victims were buried under mud or washed out to sea. The floods and landslides also destroyed around 26,000 homes and damaged another 100,000, causing the country's worst natural disaster in the 20th century.
Venezuela has no early warning system for extraordinary hydrometeorological events. Although many victims reported "rock noises" prior to the debris flows, few understood the threat because of their general lack of knowledge about the danger. Unlike other countries, Venezuela has no education programs provided by schools and civic associations that teach people about such things as flood, fire, and earthquakes. Thus, victims did not understand the threat, and there was no effective way to warn them. To make matters worse, most of the destructive flow occurred in the middle of the night.
During the 14 days prior to the disaster, rainfall measured eight times the normal amount for December. During the 48-hour period prior to the disaster, the region that was inundated received double the average yearly rainfall for all of Venezuela.
This unusual, intense rainfall saturated the soil and filled cracks and other voids faster than they could drain, causing increased pore pressure and hydrostatic pressure, which in turn opened and propagated cracks in the ground. Large debris dams were formed by floating buildings, cars, trees and boulders that became entangled. After pressure continued to build on these dams, they failed, releasing large volumes of water and debris after people thought the worst had passed. Venezuelan television broadcast images of people cleaning mud from their homes minutes before they were inundated due to the collapse of an upstream debris dam that was hit by a wave front.
These colluvial mass movements had a very high potential for destruction. The soil contained boulders weighing up to 20 metric tons that hung from very steep (1:1) slopes in soft soils hundreds of meters above the present riverbed. Many of the victims were living in shantytowns that had sprung up in mountain ravines and beside rivers in the capital city of Caracas and in towns along the coast, 20 miles to the north. These areas were jammed by squatter shanties of poor quality construction. Trees several feet in diameter made this environment even more perilous by either interlocking with boulders to create one- to three-meter-high dikes (surprisingly similar to beaver dams) or falling into the groove of a previous colluvial slide the way a bobsled runs its course. In some cases, these "bobsleds" reached a critical speed, went out of track, and became flying missiles, destroying structures much like a torpedo launched against a wall.
Venezuela is a tropical country where weather phenomena can weaken the soil through several processes, making it softer near the surface. Entire neighborhoods in Caracas were ravaged by landslides on slopes that were stable when they were excavated 30 to 40 years ago, but were subsequently weathered to a point of low shear strength. The rains further weakened these slopes and induced sliding.
Venezuela has a long history of such floods (1740, 1780, 1797, 1938, 1944, 1951, 1972). In order to avoid another catastrophe, Venezuela must:
Part of the responsibility for failure in dealing with disasters, in Venezuela and throughout the world, belongs to political decision makers for ignoring constant warnings about risk. At the same time, the scientific community bears responsibility for not conveying vulnerability in a way that captures the interest and commitment of these decision makers. The two groups should work together to enact legislation that emphasizes vulnerability reduction. In order for decision makers to work from a firm theoretical base, sound scientific studies must be conducted to define the risk. Efforts must include creating a cartographic base, characterizing river basins, and conducting research on the social aspects of the region and the use of natural resources.
In Venezuela, a panel of experts has been appointed under the National Council of Housing to consolidate such information, conduct a meeting of high level government officials, and generate proposals for action. They have been advising the highest levels of Venezuelan government on its many activities related to the flood.
The Venezuelan government has already conducted an air photo survey, but the need still exists for hydrological, hydraulic, geological, and geotechnical studies of the most populated areas. From these studies, products such as contour maps must be created to aid research.
These actions will support further research into the economic impacts of various options regarding occupancy and land use in hazardous areas; the development of scenarios to aid decision making; consideration of the institutional aspects of such decisions, including legal, legislative, administrative, financial, and community impacts; and identification of possible policies and actions, such as planning for the sustainable development of our country, constructing stabilization and containment structures, and undertaking other mitigation activities.
Prevention of disasters must become a policy concern among the highest levels of Venezuelan government. Such efforts will require funding to sustain them, including assistance from the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and others. Otherwise, these events will continue to disrupt the social and economic fabric of Venezuela, and impede, if not reverse, national development.
Rodolfo T. Sancio, Secretary General, and Rosalba Barrios, President, Venezuelan Geotechnical Society, Caracas, Venezuela
The authors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Sergio Mora in the preparation of this article. For more information, contact Rodolfo Sancio, Apartado 75987, Caracas 1070, Venezuela; tel: +(582) 986 1213; fax: +(582) 985 4481; e-mail: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Salcedo, Daniel and Rodolfo Sancio. 1989. Guia simplificada para identificacion y prevencion de problemas geotecnicos en desarrollos urbanos. (Simplified Guide for Identification and Prevention of Geotechnical Problems in Urban Developments.) Caracas, Venezuela: Publicaciones LAGOVEN.
To view photos of this disaster, click here.
For a report about the disaster in Spanish, see http://ops-oms.org.ve/desastres.
In recent decades, devastation due to natural and technological disasters has increased enormously. The losses can be difficult for any economy to absorb, but the impacts on developing countries, which are disproportionately affected by disasters, are often crippling.
To confront this problem, the World Bank recently launched the ProVention Consortium, a global partnership of government agencies, international organizations, academic institutions, private businesses, private citizens, and other concerned groups, aimed at reducing disaster risk in developing countries by making disaster prevention and mitigation an integral part of development initiatives.
Developing countries bear, by far, the greatest losses due to natural disasters, while having minimal resources to respond effectively. The economic cost of natural disasters can be 20 times higher, as a proportion of gross domestic product, for developing countries than for industrialized nations, and that economic impact pales compared to the destruction of lives and institutions. Currently, 96% of deaths caused by natural disasters occur in developing countries. Moreover, between disasters, developing nations often lack state-of-the-art technical and scientific expertise to prevent or reduce future devastation.
The people and nations of the world have traditionally responded generously and aided poorer nations struck by disaster, but the World Bank has recognized that this same passion and unity must be harnessed to reduce these devastating losses before they occur. Thus, the ProVention Consortium's objectives are:
The World Bank has recognized that disaster risk management is integral to social and economic development. Through the ProVention Consortium, it will help developing countries approach these problems with a new focus and new support.
More information about the ProVention Consortium is available from the World Bank Web site: http://www.worldbank.org/html/fpd/urban/provention/index.html. Interested p ersons can also contact Alcira Kreimer or Margaret Arnold, Disaster Management Facility, World Bank, 1818 H Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20433; (202) 473-1378; fax: (202) 522-3224 or (202) 522-2125; e-mail: DMF@worldbank.org; WWW: http://www.worldbank.org/html/fpd/urban/dis_man/dis_man.htm.
Following the rollover of the great millennial clock, the world seems to have breathed a collective sigh of relief and asked, first, "Wasn't that some shindig in Sydney?" and then (if it asked anything else at all), "How did we survive Y2K?"
Was the pervasive concern about computer glitches and consequent local, national, and world-wide system failure uncalled-for? Did our remediation efforts actually help us avoid disaster? Do future calamities still lurk?
Some pundits have suggested that we will never know the answers to these questions, and, indeed, we can never say exactly how the world would have turned out had we acted otherwise. However, by examining the consequences in some of the geographical and functional areas that did and did not undertake Y2K remediation, one can obtain some insight into what might have happened.
At midnight on December 31, in the U.S. and other countries that invested big bucks on Y2K, by and large the toilets flushed, the televisions stayed on, ATMs coughed up cash, furnaces and automobiles continued to belch CO2, and life went on as usual. Even those countries that began their remedies a bit late reported limited problems (Italy, Russia and some of the other former Soviet Republics, some African and Middle Eastern countries, for example).
Because the problems that did occur on or shortly after midnight were not world-wide and/or did not involve widespread loss of basic infrastructure (e.g., electricity, phone, water), many people felt that Y2K problems had been avoided--if they ever existed in the first place.
In fact, however, quite a few problems seem to have occurred, but because of their limited scope, they received limited news coverage and were usually presented as happy anecdotes to remind us that Y2K had not been a catastrophe. Here are a few random samples from around the world:
When the German Opera issued its payroll for the first time this year, the program set the date to 1900 and wiped out government subsidies for the families of opera employees by wrongly computing children's ages. A person born in 1990 was calculated to be 90 years old, and the child allowance was automatically stopped.
Hundreds of other stories have proliferated across the Internet, and, although anecdotal, these reports suggest that had we not spent the billions of dollars to fix the Y2K problem, some major shoe polish could have hit the fan--and even some lives might have been lost. Those amusing anecdotes would have become one worldwide disaster.
On the other hand, did the risk warrant the years of anxiety it provoked? The steps needed to alleviate the risk seem to have been easily undertaken even late in the game; but then, were the efforts of Italy, Russia, etc. made easier because other countries paved the way?
The reports also underscore something we already knew--that complex integrated systems (those spy satellites, for example) are delicate things, and that when we fiddle with them, we must be very careful. Paradoxically, the reports may have also shown that, given the lack of world-wide problems, we may not be as globally interconnected as we thought--or, more likely, that we paid sufficient attention to global, "mission critical" systems to avoid such problems, while not paying sufficient attention to local and individual systems, where most problems occurred. Documenting the scope and cost of such problems is difficult. Indeed, since New Year's Day, Y2K has taken on the look of a "creeping" hazard--a measles outbreak rather than an magnitude 8 earthquake. Y2K is manifesting itself not as the apocalypse that many people feared, but rather as individual glitches, annoyances, failures, and other pains-in-the-CPU that pop up and will continue to pop up for months to come.
Unfortunately, all of the questions raised above remain unanswered, and conclusions about the Y2K problem and its remedies remain only conjecture. What's missing are detailed studies and comprehensive documentation of what was done and not done, what happened and what didn't, and some hard numbers comparing costs and benefits. In these pages a year and a half ago (see the Observer, Vol. XIII, No. 2, p. 1), Richard Huggins correctly pointed out that the Y2K hazard promised "to be a research bonanza for the hazards community" and specifically identified strategic planning, community-based preparedness, business case studies, and Y2K predictions as areas that should be examined. Alas, we are aware of only one ongoing study by social scientists examining this unique and truly historical event from the perspective of hazards management.
If, at midnight on December 31, the world had descended into global malfunction, like some 1972 Chevy Vega whose engine had finally seized, no doubt academic researchers from virtually all disciplines would have scrambled to determine causes, effects, responses, and miscues. Unfortunately, nonevents tend to be nonstudied--even when the lessons available--what we did right, what we could do better--may be more important than those originating from an actual cataclysm.
One of the benefits of disaster predictions (particularly those that include a specific time of occurrence, like the Y2K hazard and the Iben Browning earthquake "prediction" in 1990) is that they prompt the endangered population to prepare. As one of our friends stated, "A colleague who was a life-long California resident told me that she now has an earthquake preparedness kit for the first time--her recycled Y2K kit." Even if they later dumped their stored water and feasted on their stockpiled canned goods, families (and especially observant children) who took some advanced precautions learned something from the process. Indeed, smart public officials used the Y2K opportunity to educate the public about preparing for all types of disasters, but how long this level of preparedness will continue is unclear.
The preparedness dividend extends beyond the individual level. In preparing for Y2K, government at all levels, nonprofit organizations such as the American Red Cross, and businesses all had to examine both their intra- and interorganizational plans and systems for dealing with all sorts of problems. Groups who had never worked together before cooperated and planned together, and all organizations had to inventory and prioritize the systems at risk.
These clear benefits notwithstanding, additional significant research questions remain:
For hazards managers and policy makers alike, the events of the last few years pose yet another question: We fixed the Y2K computer bug (or at least we exterminated a good portion of it); why not fix the Y2K flood or Y2K earthquake? The difference, of course, is that these latter risks carry with them enough temporal and spatial uncertainty that we go on with our lives while denying the threat. ("Sure it will happen," we say, "and I really ought to do something to get ready, but, well, I need to mow the lawn first . . .") One clear goal for researchers is to determine more effective ways to overcome such denial when predisaster mitigation is obviously warranted. In the absence of a relatively specific projection for time of onset (as is the case with earthquakes, versus Y2K or most hurricanes), how can people and institutions be motivated to prepare for disasters?
If nothing else, the Y2K experience has underscored the need for all of us to assume wider perspectives--both geographical and temporal--in our work. As much as any other recent occurrence, the Y2K problem required those responding to consider global consequences because of the interconnectedness of the world's computer networks. At the same time, it pointed out how a lack of farsightedness on the part of computer programmers led to great worry and expense decades after those programmers programmed. In that regard, to ensure the health and safety of future generations, we must consider and take responsibility for the consequences of our present actions--be they programming a computer or developing a floodplain--in the decades, centuries, and even millennia to come.
1. One list of Y2K computer glitches around the world is available from Federal Computer Week--available on-line at http://www.fcw.com/microsites/y2k.asp.
Following a flood, homeowners filing a flood insurance claim are often surprised to learn that they will only be provided funds to replace or repair their home, not to elevate, relocate, or implement other floodproofing measures. In 1997, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA's) National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) initiated a new policy called Increased Cost of Compliance (ICC), through which, for an additional premium of up to $75, property owners who purchase or renew their flood insurance policies after June 1, 1997, will receive $15,000 additional coverage for the "consequential loss brought on by a floodplain management ordinance or law affecting repair and reconstruction involving elevation, floodproofing, relocation, or demolition (or any combination thereof) of a structure, after a direct loss" caused by a flood. No separate deductible applies. The NFIP announced in the December 16 Federal Register (Vol. 64, No. 241; pp. 70191-70193) that it is increasing the amount of coverage to $20,000, citing new information that indicates a decrease in annual claims, thus allowing an increase in coverage with no change in premium.
Buildings eligible for this coverage are structures that have suffered repetitive loss, that is, those that have incurred flood damage at least twice over 10 years and for which the cost of repair exceeded 25% of the market value of the structure at the time of the flood. Also, any structure that experiences flood damage for which repairs are equal to or exceed 50% of market value are eligible. In both cases, the state or local government must have a cumulative, substantial damage provision or repetitive loss provision in its floodplain management law or ordinance.
The Increased Cost of Compliance (ICC) was mandated by the National Flood Insurance Reform Act of 1994. Insurance awards must be used within two years of damage to a structure. The payments program covers the activities mentioned above, as well as the cost of bringing a structure into compliance with state and local floodplain management laws, even if the structure has received a variance from floodplain management restrictions prior to the flood loss.
For more information on this coverage, contact Charles M. Plaxico, Jr., FEMA, FIA, 500 C Street, S.W., Washington, DC; (202) 646-3422; fax: (202) 646-4327; e-mail: email@example.com.
On January 14, 2000, Secretary Andrew Cuomo announced that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will provide mortgage insurance to homebuyers who borrow up to $5,000 to create windstorm shelters in their homes. These structures, also called safe rooms, can provide protection against winds of up to 250 miles per hour and against projectiles traveling up to 100 miles per hour. Designs for the shelters must follow guidelines developed by FEMA in cooperation with the Wind Research Center of Texas Tech University. They must also be consistent with HUD's National Performance Criteria for Tornado Shelters.
The mortgage insurance will be provided by HUD's Federal Housing Administration (FHA), the agency that insures loans made by private lenders to homebuyers. FHA insurance guarantees that a timely payment of principal and interest will be made to a lender in the event of a default by a homebuyer. This initiative is part of a joint federal and private-sector effort called the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing, which is working with FEMA to develop and implement advanced home technology, such as the safe room design. The safe room project is also a FEMA Project Impact initiative.
For more information on the availability of mortgage insurance for safe rooms, contact your local HUD office or view HUD's Disaster Recovery Web page: http://www.hud.gov/disarelf.html. The free plans for building a safe room can be ordered by calling (800) 480-2520. Ask for document FEMA 320a. The book Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building aSafe Room Inside Your House (which includes the plans) is free and can be ordered by calling (888) 565-3896; it can also be viewed on-line at http://www.fema.gov/mit/shplans.
Thanks to a recent appropriation from Congress, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is once again able to provide money to states to "address disaster-related needs not met by Federal disaster relief programs (see the Observer, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, p. 11). This recent allocation (following one in August) of nearly $40 million is for 15 states that have suffered presidentially declared disasters in federal fiscal year 1999. The funds are to be distributed by states to communities affected by those disasters, and the grants require at least a 25% contribution from recipients. States receiving funding include Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming.
Under the terms of the appropriating legislation, communities must use the money for activities for which there are no available funds from FEMA, the Small Business Administration, or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The funds can only be used for mitigation, buyout assistance, disaster relief, and long-term recovery. In addition, states must ensure that mitigation and buy-out activities are cost effective and that uses of acquired property will be restricted.
Further information about this distribution of funds can be obtained from Robert F. Shea, Jr., Program Support Division, Mitigation Directorate, FEMA, 500 C Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20472; (202) 646-4621; fax: (202) 646-3104; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joining FEMA in its generosity, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) made $20 million available to states for unmet needs due to disasters through its Disaster Recovery Initiative, funded through the 1999 Supplemental Appropriations Act.
The legislation requires that each state administer the Disaster Recovery Initiative funds "in conjunction with its Federal Emergency Management Agency program or its community development block grants program." It requires matching funds equal to 25% of total expenses. Like the FEMA disbursement, recipients may not use these funds for activities that are already funded by FEMA, the Small Business Administration, or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
A detailed description of the HUD Disaster Recovery Initiative and funding requirements can be found in the Federal Register, Vol. 64, No. 248, pp. 72852-72866. A notice of waivers, modifications, and requirements for Community Development Block Grant funds can be found in the same issue on pages 72872-72874. For further information about the Disaster Recovery Initiative, contact Jan C. Opper, Office of Block Grant Assistance, HUD, Room 7286, 451 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20410; (202) 708-3587; fax: (202) 401-2044.
On December 13, during the Second Annual Project Impact Summit in Washington, D.C., FEMA's Project Impact and the Joint Center for Sustainable Communities (JCSC--an alliance between the National Association of Counties and the U.S. Conference of Mayors) signed a national partnership agreement. The alliance provides yet another means for local governments to implement Project Impact in their communities. Project Impact is FEMA's nationwide initiative to promote local, sustainable mitigation as a way to lessen the toll of disasters.
Under the partnership, the JCSC will create opportunities for Project Impact officials to participate in national and regional events and interact with mayors and county officials. The agreement will allow the JCSC to use Project Impact tools and products and share them with local government officials nationwide. JCSC will encourage county officials and mayors to participate in Project Impact's training courses to learn methods to prevent or lessen the devastation brought on by disasters.
The JCSC works to promote sustainable communities that incorporate economic development, environmental stewardship, and social well-being through county/city collaborations and by helping counties find local solutions to local problems. In addition, JCSC also provides technical assistance, sponsors workshops at regional and national conferences, and maintains an information clearinghouse of strategies that promote sustainable communities.
FEMA and the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) also announced a new partnership at the Project Impact Summit. The interagency agreement is designed to promote the use of environmentally friendly information, expertise, and practices among Project Impact communities as part of their fight against disasters.
Through the agreement, EERE will work with FEMA to spread the idea of sustainable redevelopment, which helps disaster-prone areas not only become safer and disaster resistant, but also stronger and healthier from an environmental and economic standpoint. EERE representatives will participate in Project Impact meetings, seminars, workshops, and conferences and collaborate with FEMA to incorporate sustainable redevelopment programs into Project Impact communities.
FEMA and EERE will work together on, among other activities: the Million Solar Roofs program, which will help communities incorporate prevention into daily planning decisions; the Weatherization Assistance program, which will improve the energy efficiency of homes occupied by low-income residents; and the Rebuild America program, which helps to build partnerships and develop action plans for smart choices in commercial development and multifamily and public housing.
For more information on these two new partnerships, see the FEMA Project Impact Web site: http://www.fema.gov/impact.
FEMA has increased the amount of money available for Individual and Family Grants, grants to state and local governments, and grants to private nonprofit facilities for disasters declared on or after October 1, 1999, by 2.3% over the prior year. As of that date, the maximum amount of any grant made to an individual or family for disaster-related needs and expenses is increased to $13,900. States, local governments, and owners of private nonprofit facilities are eligible to receive up to $48,900. For more information, contact Madge Dale, FEMA, Response and Recovery Directorate, 500 C Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20472; (202) 646-3772.
On November 13, 1999, President Clinton signed Public Law 106-103, which authorizes the United States National Civil Defense Monument Commission to construct a monument "to honor those who have served the Nation's civil defense and emergency management programs."
The monument is to be constructed on Federal Emergency Management Agency land in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and is subject to the approval of the agency director. The monument is to be paid for through contributions to the commission, which is nonprofit.
Copies of Public Law 106-103 can be found at any federal repository library or on-line at http://thomas.loc.gov.
The Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB) of the National Research Council (the operating arm of the National Academies of Science and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine) has recently released a report, Information Technology Research for Crisis Management (1999, 104 pp.), sponsored by the National Science Foundation and NASA. The report is one element of a CSTB study of how research and development could improve the use of information technology in government.
CSTB convened a series of workshops that brought together stakeholders from several government domains, including crisis management, and researchers in computing and communications systems. The first of these workshops, "Research in Information Technology to Support Crisis Management," was held December 1-2, 1998, in Washington, D.C., and is summarized in the recently released report. Interested persons can view or order copies of the report by following links from http://www.cstb.org.
Building on CSTB's earlier study, Computing and Communications in the Extreme (National Academy Press, 1996), the workshop focused specifically on how to move forward from current technology and examined possible research to address the information needs of crisis managers. It also provided an opportunity for various potential contributors to learn how they might collaborate in improving systems to support crisis management in the long term.
In their upcoming final report, the study committee will synthesize the workshop experience into a more general, broad set of findings and recommendations for information technology research to support government. This second phase of the project will draw on the workshops organized by the committee, as well as additional briefings and other work, to develop a final report that will present findings and provide recommendations for refining NSF's "Digital Government" program. Comments and suggestions based on the workshop report will help the committee develop the final report. Observations can be addressed to the study director, Jon Eisenberg, CSTB, 2101 Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20418; e-mail: email@example.com.
Information Technology Research for Crisis Management can be ordered for $25.25 ($20.20, on-line) from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20055; (800) 624-6242 or (202) 334-3313; fax: (202) 334-2451; WWW: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/9734.html. International prices, as well as an on-line version of the book, are also available from that Web address.
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