More people in Mother Nature’s way

Wired News carries an article on rising casualty counts and insurance costs from natural disasters, saying “statistics show the planet to be increasingly unsafe.” The population is growing, so it is less surprising that “[m]ore than 2.5 billion people were affected by floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters between 1994 and 2003, a 60 percent increase over the previous two 10-year periods, U.N. officials reported at a conference on disaster prevention in January.”

In the 1970s, only 11 percent of earthquakes affected human settlements, researchers at Belgium’s University of Louvain report. That soared to 31 percent in 1993 to 2003, including a quake in 2003 that killed 26,000 people in Iran, whose population has doubled since the ’70s.

The expanding U.S. population “has migrated to hazard-prone areas — to Florida, the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, particularly barrier islands, to California,” noted retired U.S. government seismologist Robert M. Hamilton, a disaster-prevention specialist. “Several decades ago we didn’t have wall-to-wall houses down the coast as we do now.”

The way America builds too often invites disasters, experts say — by draining Florida swampland and bulldozing California hillsides, for example, disrupting natural runoff and magnifying flood hazards.

“We’re building our communities in ways that aren’t compatible with the natural perils we have,” [Dennis S. Miletti, a leading scholar on disaster prevention] said.

The more advanced the nations, the bigger the blow may be. Terry Jeggle, a U.N. disaster-reduction planner, cites the New Orleans levee system — dependent on pumps that run on electricity produced by fuel that must be transported in. One failure will lead to another along that chain.

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