Bouncing Back From a Natural Disaster

After the storm. Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the importance of bolstering a national culture of resiliency.

U.S. Navy

A new report from the U.S. National Academies proposes several steps that the country should take to better prepare for, and recover from, natural disasters. The report, "Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative," calls for an upgrade to hazard monitoring networks, more research on building materials, and the adoption of a “culture of resiliency” at the community level.

One key suggestion of the report, written by a committee of the National Research Council, is to make existing monitoring data on earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters publicly accessible. Those data, when combined with information on community assets, could allow officials to better assess risk to people and property. "This shared database would be of great use to researchers," says committee member Mary Lou Zoback, a seismologist and consulting professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Armed with knowledge about assets such as the location, roof type, number of floors, and usage of a building, she says, engineers could do a better job of forecasting how much damage is likely from a particular level of flooding, wind speed, or ground shaking.

In addition to developing more resilient construction materials, Zoback says it's important to find ways to protect what has already been built. "One of the things that science and engineering can contribute is finding some low-cost solutions for retrofitting existing structures. We can talk all we want about new buildings, but we have a lot of old ones that need to be fixed."

The report also proposes a national scorecard of resiliency. It would assess not only how much damage a community might suffer in a disaster but also its ability to marshal the resources needed to recover from any such catastrophe. "We need some way of measuring our progress toward achieving these resilience goals as a nation," says Susan Cutter, chair of the committee and director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. "The way in which we thought to do this was by letting communities know where they stand in relation to other communities." The U.S. Department of Homeland Security would be the logical agency to lead the effort, says Cutter, but other federal agencies and private industries must also join in.

The committee will host a meeting this fall in Washington, D.C., to discuss its findings, followed by regional events in 2013 to foster collaborations among government agencies, nonprofit organizations, the private sector, researchers, and the general public.