What are the best approaches to dealing with natural disasters?

Despite our diverse efforts to minimize the destruction of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes, the damages are still extremely expensive. Hurricane Katrina and the recent tsunami in Japan each caused more than $100 billion in damages, and scientists predict that Hurricane Sandy will cost about $20 billion. Due to the large figures involved, it is important to have accurate information about how effective each of our disaster-related systems are. Jerome Stein, an economist from Brown, and his son Seth, a geologist from Northwestern, jointly published research recently in the October issue of the Geological Society of America’s journal GSA Today examining this issue.

Mr. Stein and Mr. Stein posed several questions relating to the worth of seawalls. Some argue that rebuilding seawalls after a disaster is a hubristic, wasteful public works projects that provides a false sense of security in the face of powerful storms; they money could be better used elsewhere.  Others, however, believe that we should be spending even more money on the construction of seawalls, creating barriers that can theoretically withstand storms of even greater power than the one that destroyed the original wall. What ends up happening in most of these situations is the politicians decide what course to take, but the Steins argue that the decision can be handled in a more quantitative way through a scientific model.

Through a mathematical technique called optimization, communities can make more informed choices through examining a large range of options. This model allows groups to compare the different pros and cons of each of these options: “’We start from the losses that would occur if nothing was done to protect against future disasters and then calculate how much less they would be for increasing amounts of protection,’ said Jerome Stein, a professor emeritus of economics.” (1)

Here is one of the equations used in the model, where:

C(n)= cost of mitigation

n=height of a seawall

h=height of the tsunami

(L), L(h-n)=predicted economic loss, predicted economic loss depending on how much higher the tsunami is than the seawall

p(h-n)=probability of an overtop of height

E=expected loss

Q(n) = E{L(n)} = Sh p(h − n)L(h − n)

According to the authors of the study, this model can also be applies to other situations, such as global warming. But whenever making important cost/benefit decisions that can affect numerous lives, it seems important to properly analyze the situation first instead of leaving it up to politicians who may be prone to spin the situation to their own advantage. A clear, less biased approach would be a helpful tool in such a controversial situation (2).

(1) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121102151952.htm

(2) http://www.geosociety.org/gsatoday/archive/22/10/article/i1052-5173-22-10-42.htm

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2 Responses to What are the best approaches to dealing with natural disasters?

  1. kristenmayer says:

    I agree that in situations like these it is important to thoroughly analyze the situation to determine what the best course of action is, rather than allowing politicians to make the choice.

    I wonder if this model of optimization can be applied to all circumstances, or if at times it will make the incorrect choice.

  2. cbaughma says:

    I also agree that looking solely at the numbers is important when determining big economical decisions; however, I think the difficulty remains in the modeling procedures. I believe that many types of models can be classified as the “right” model for a given situation, but how should one go about determining exactly which one is the best? Perhaps, with the help of big data, we can create model simulations to help economists pick the best solutions for problems we are dealing with today and ones we will likely face in the future.

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