A fascinating examination of the “forensics of disasters.”
Common sense teaches that advancing technology will reduce harm from hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, and fires, but the opposite is happening, writes Muir-Wood (Earthquakes and Volcanoes, 1987, etc.), founding editor of Terra Nova and chief research officer of Risk Management Solutions, in this sensible polemic that warns that matters will continue to deteriorate unless big changes happen. “Disasters are determined by what we build, where we choose to live, how we prepare, and how we communicate warnings,” writes the author, who ably explores the history of disasters and their many commonalities. For centuries, the oldest natural disaster, fire, dwarfed all others, especially in cities. Brick and stone don’t burn, but wood is much cheaper, so vast city fires occurred regularly. Then, after 1900, they vanished with the development of low-cost concrete poured around a metal skeleton. Adding sophisticated engineering protects against earthquakes. However, there is always a trade-off. People often build to resist common catastrophes and pray the others stay away. Cheap concrete structures in Haiti resisted hurricanes but not the rare earthquake. Governments pass building codes—only helpful if strictly enforced, which is not always the case—and offer heavily subsidized insurance, a dreadful policy that encourages people to live in hazardous areas. A simple disaster preventive is to make property owners pay the true cost of insurance. In a rare bipartisan action, the 2012 Congress did just that. Premiums skyrocketed, voters in flood plains and exposed beaches expressed outrage, and Congress quickly reversed itself.
Readers will find it hard to stop reading this excellent book and will share the author’s perhaps futile yearning that elected officials have the courage to pass inconvenient laws and spend the electorate’s money to prevent disasters.