WASHINGTON — Disasters have cost the United States more than $500 billion in the past 20 years, and the annual toll is continuing to rise due to an increasingly complex society and more people moving to disaster-prone areas.
The inability to contain those rising costs is the result of a "shortsighted and narrow" view of our relationship with the environment, contends a new study financed by the National Science Foundation.
"Human beings - not nature - are the cause of disaster losses, which stem from choices about where and how human development will proceed," the report states.
The US has managed to reduce deaths and injuries from hurricanes over the past two decades. "But casualties from floods - the nation's most frequent and injurious natural hazard - have failed to decline substantially. And deaths from lightning and tornadoes have remained constant."
Whether it's fog, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, wildfires, or droughts, the report notes, disasters are often predictable.
"Research has shown that people are typically unaware of all the risks and choices they face. They plan only for the immediate future, overestimate their ability to cope when disaster strikes, and rely heavily on emergency relief," says the report, written by Dennis Mileti of the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Dealing with potential disasters calls for a policy of "sustainable hazard mitigation," the report says, linking management of natural resources with local economic and social policy. That means such things as preparing for possible disasters, making long-term plans, including limiting where development can occur, and involving the whole community in preparations.
One reason disaster costs keep rising is that there is just more stuff to destroy - more homes, offices, bridges, utilities, transportation facilities, communications networks - and their interconnections grow ever more complicated and costly.
At the same time the population is growing, and increasing numbers of people are living in disaster-prone areas such as earthquake zones and coastal areas that can be plagued by hurricanes.