Humans and hazards

Galeras (Jan. 18, 2009)

Galeras (Jan. 18, 2009)

Erik Klemetti has a great post up today about the age-old problem of balancing hazards mitigation with people’s real-life needs and attachments.

This is a problem I’ve thought about a lot, though I did not end up going into a career in hazards work as originally planned. I, like Erik, have not had to choose between keeping my property and livelihood on the one hand and ensuring my survival on the other.

On its face, objectively, the choice should be a no-brainer, especially with some scientific understanding of both probability and the impacts natural hazards can have. If there is a significant chance of death if I stay, and if my property is almost certainly going to be wiped out anyway, I want to think I would choose to survive and leave my house behind without looking back. But I know reality is a lot messier than that. What if I had to abandon my pets to do that? What if I had built that house, or my parents or grandparents had built it? What if my entire livelihood was tied up in that property and those possessions, and I would be left broke and with no prospects if I left? What if I already had nothing left except the one piece of land I had slavishly worked for a decade just to scrape by? To make it even more complicated, what if I even had spiritual or religious convictions tied to that place, and felt I could not leave without losing part of myself or my roots or my place in the universe? Because that happens, too.

And what if, on top of it, I had left once before, and it was a false alarm, and I had returned only to find my house ransacked, heirlooms taken, things precious to me broken or stolen? Because anyone in hazards forecasting knows that forecasting is not a sure thing. Hell, people complain about weather forecasting almost every day, and that’s looking at a system we can largely observe and document with massive amounts of data collection. Those forecasts are developed using extremely sophisticated models on supercomputers. Volcano monitoring is hindered by a basic lack of access to the system. It’s almost all remote sensing of something we cannot see and can usually only poorly image (though our techniques improve all the time), in individual volcanic systems that are drastically different from one another so there are no hard and fast rules; behavior that is normal and day-to-day at one volcano can indicate an eruption is coming in 60 seconds or less at another. Obvious example: there has been a notable increase and change in the types of activity seen at Mt. Redoubt in the past couple months, but the news media is losing interest because the volcano seems stuck in a holding pattern of elevated seismic and fumarolic activity without actually erupting (yet). But it can still erupt any day now.

Anyone who works in disaster management knows that despite the huge uncertainties in forecasting, the price of being wrong is incredibly high. If you call for evacuations because of immediate risk, and that magma gets halfway up the conduit and then changes its mind and goes back to its happy magma chamber, those evacuated people will be angry. Usually there is looting and property loss in the wake of any evacuation (ahem, governments, please take note of that some more). People evacuated during a false alarm will be far, far less likely to take any future warnings seriously. On the other hand, if you don’t call it when you see it, and the thing erupts, those are dead people on your hands. The odds of being wrong one way or the other are pretty damn high.

This isn’t even considering the complications that come up when local government (and occasionally military) has its own agenda that is not necessarily the same as the scientists’ (which is usually to save people, get everyone out of harm’s way… and then maybe backtrack a little bit to watch the spectacular show when the thing really goes. They don’t call them volcano cowboys for nothing). Look at Pinatubo, the acclaimed “success story” of volcanic forecasting. Up until the end, the U.S. military resisted removing personnel from the military base, despite the scientists’ warnings, and meanwhile the local government was reluctant to evacuate people because of that risk that it might not be necessary. So the scientists, the government, and the military were operating at three different hazard alert levels, simultaneously. In the end evacuations were successful, and the eruption was enormous. But the lesson I take from Pinatubo is that hazards mitigation is messy, and the human element is unpredictable and complicated.

Chaiten with lightning

Chaiten with lightning

So what to do about Chaiten? I think, ultimately, the government is right. I really sympathize with the people from Chaiten in that they want to go back, and their voices deserve to be heard more than they have been, but in the end I want them to survive. I think I lean towards being conservative when it comes to saving human lives in the face of disasters, even as I feel a lot of compassion and sympathy for the losses they face by leaving their homes. In fact, I struggle with the reluctance to leave, maybe because I have a real appreciation for the danger. I mean, I have a hard time understanding why people are and should be moving back to the parts of New Orleans that are significantly below sea level.

I suppose this comes very much from a place of privilege, because my family and career roots are not and never have been located somewhere threatened by immediate natural disaster. So I welcome other viewpoints on this subject. I think it’s a very tough question that deserves discussion. Have you ever been evacuated for a natural disaster risk? Have you been in communities that experienced hazards, or false alarms? Would you have a hard time leaving your home in an evacuation?

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