U.S. Natural Disaster Planning Bit Of Disaster Itself, Study Finds

February 05, 1999

CHAPEL HILL -- When University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor David Godschalk and colleagues agreed to conduct the first complete study of how the nation's 11-year-old basic natural disaster law was being implemented, they expected to discover both poor and good planning.

What they found revealed that natural disaster preparation across the United States is something of a disaster itself.

"We weren't prepared for the extent of problems we found," said Godschalk, Stephen Baxter professor of city and regional planning. "We thought there would be weak plans in some states, but that most would have solid plans. Once we began opening them up and reading them, we learned that this simply isn't the case. If I had to grade them, they would average a C minus."

Findings from the two-and-a-half year National Science Foundation-funded study, as well as proposals for improving hazard reduction planning, are outlined in "Natural Hazard Mitigation: Recasting Disaster Policy & Planning" (Island Press, 1999), a new book by Godschalk, Philip Berke, David Brower and Ed Kaiser of UNC-CH and Timothy Beatley of the University of Virginia.

The research represents the first comprehensive examination of the Stafford Act, which Congress passed in 1988 to improve planning for and reduce damage associated with hurricanes, floods and earthquakes.

"We wanted to look at the outcomes of the act to see how natural hazard mitigation has worked over time and how it might work better in the future," Godschalk said.

The study was more of a challenge than he expected. Mitigation plans, required before states can get funds for disaster relief approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), had never been collected. So researchers gathered and analyzed them systematically.

"Some didn't even include things that are required by law," said Godschalk. "Others were poorly put together and clearly not effective."

If the poorly prepared plans were surprising, use of FEMA grants to improve hazard mitigation was shocking, he said. It's not that states improperly spent the funds. Often, they hadn't spent them at all.

"Hazard mitigation grants from FEMA were generally awarded to states after each major disaster and made available based on a formula that considered overall damage," he said. "The purpose of the grants is to strengthen the state's system, laws or programs so the next natural hazard there might not be catastrophic."

Researchers found that between 1988 and 1996, only 20 percent of available funds committed to state mitigation projects were spent. "The fact that states spent only a fifth of the money was in part because there's so much red tape and bureaucratic delay in getting plans approved," Godschalk said.

"Also, these plans are complicated and work on them goes slowly. The average time from disaster to a project's start was three-and-a-half years."

In response to the issues, researchers analyzed three mitigation approaches: strengthening buildings, roads, sewers and infrastructure through engineering and construction; directing new growth and development away from dangerous locations through land use and relocation plans; and protecting natural environments, such as sand dunes, which take the force of waves, and wetlands, which act like giant sponges and help prevent flooding.

Researchers also recommended national efforts they hope will filter down to the states.

"Some of these were aimed at what we saw as critical variables - the capacity and commitment of states and local governments to do hazard mitigation -- and included increasing resources, staff and technical capacity through education and training," Godschalk said.

"Building commitment to tackle these issues before the next major disaster strikes is critical. Commitment has varied. Some states demonstrate a high level, but many, when a disaster hits and they recover from it, don't think about how to reduce damage from the next disaster."

Americans need to develop greater awareness of ever-increasing disaster costs, Godschalk added. Costs are growing rapidly because every year, people continue to build and develop within hazard areas. Coastal development is booming, and people still build near earthquake faults and major rivers, like the Mississippi, which flood.

"We need to rethink how we're building and rebuilding, whether people should be rebuilding after their houses have been destroyed in hazard areas, when we know these hazards will reoccur. It's no surprise where most occur. We know where flooding and earthquakes will occur and with what intensity and where hurricanes will strike. Yet we continue to develop."

"It would be a place that could absorb great stresses from natural hazards, that could bend without breaking," he said. "Instead of building higher seawalls, it would think about moving land use to the right places and protecting its natural features," he said.

Despite the low overall average rating of states' hazard mitigation plans, some plans included excellent elements, said Godschalk, who did not want to single states out for criticism by citing the worst examples.

"The Kentucky plan had a very good hazard assessment, covering vulnerability to floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and droughts," he said. "The Connecticut plan contained a solid analysis of hazard mitigation capability, including details of flood heights at which water will enter individual houses." Other states with at least partially good plans were Oregon, which outlined goals and objectives; Massachusetts, which established timetables for action; California, which created a strong response to earthquakes; and Iowa, which fostered local government participation.
Note: Godschalk can be reached at 919-962-5012 (w) or 929-5013 (h).
Contact: David Williamson, 919-962-8596

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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