Reducing Disaster Tolls

SOMETHING encouraging has happened to natural disaster statistics over the past few decades. In some places death tolls have dropped substantially, even while populations boomed. The need now is to spread the benefits of early warning and disaster preparedness around the world.

That's why the United Nations designated the 1990s as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. In Yokohama, Japan, 1,000 delegates will meet May 23-27 to assess progress and develop an action plan.

While roughly 90 percent of the natural disasters occur outside industrialized countries, disaster mitigation is not just a third-world problem. Mitigation know-how does no good unless it is put to use. Even the technologically advanced United States has a poor record in this regard. Earth scientists continually warn of unwise development in flood- and earthquake-prone areas.

The experience of Bangladesh shows the value of informed preparedness. A tropical cyclone there killed more than 300,000 people in 1970.

When a comparable storm hit in 1985, the death toll was only 3 percent of the 1970 figure. Warnings were spread more effectively; people were better prepared.

Technology also plays a role. Improved storm-warning systems would be impossible without weather radar and satellites, radio communications, and computer technology. The US Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are developing a system to speed digitized aerial images of disaster areas to recovery officials. The new system, which produces images that can speed along the information highway, will get pictures to on-site officials in a matter of hours instead of days or weeks.

The main challenge in disaster reduction is to change the ancient mind-set that mislabels disasters as ``acts of God'' about which little can be done. That is an easy excuse for reaping profits from unwise development or cutting costs by not including quake-resistant construction in new buildings.

Legislation now is making its way through both houses of the US Congress that would encourage states to shift their emphasis from disaster recovery to prevention and preparedness through better land-use planning and construction standards. The legislation deserves careful but speedy processing.

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