Natural Disasters: Why Haven’t We Learned from Them Yet?

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Whitney Gregory Dr. Alexander Third Year Writing 7 May 2010 Natural Disasters: Why Haven’t We Learned From Them Yet? George Santayan, a famous Spanish-American philosopher, once said, “Everything is life is lyrical in its ideal essence, tragic in its fate and comic in its existence,” (“Quotable Quote” 1). This too can be said about natural disasters in today’s time. A natural disaster is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as, “any form of nature that has catastrophic consequence, such as an avalanche, earthquake, flood, forest fire, hurricane, lighting, tornado, tsunami or volcanic eruption. Many times the people affected by such an event take a backseat to the actually disaster itself. Why is that? Why is it that certain parts of the world, when hit by a natural disaster, seem to be more devastated by it than the same event somewhere else? And, why have those areas at the highest risk of being affected by a natural disaster made little to no effort of better preparing themselves for such an event?

The disaster part of a natural disaster can be prevented when the appropriate steps to better prepare a vulnerable area are taken. By taking the mistakes of the past and learning from them, one has the capability of lowering the statistics of those whom are devastated by a natural disaster each year. The first step to understanding natural disasters is to know what they are capable of doing. The Federal Management Emergency Agent is the U. S. s disaster relief branch of Homeland Security. The mission statement of FEMA, as stated on their website, is “to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards” (“What We Do” 1). In an effort to do this, FEMA has provided information on planning and preparing, recovering and rebuilding, and on natural disasters in general.

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FEMA has provided information on every type of natural disaster possible, but in the past decade the ones that have caused some of the most damage and fatalities have been earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tsunamis. Earthquakes can strike suddenly and without warning at anytime day or not. Many earthquakes occur along a fault line, the meeting of two more tectonic plates below the earth’s surface. The breaking and shifting of these plates causes the shaking of the crust above.

About 70 to 75 damaging earthquakes occur around the world each year, and the magnitude of theses earthquakes are measured on a Richter ranging from one to ten, ten being the most severe (“Fast Fact About Earthquakes” 1; 5). Floods and hurricanes can sometimes come as a package deal, case-in-point New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. Floods can either develop slowly or in a matter of minutes (“Flood” 2). Hurricanes can be detected while in the middle of the ocean, although the path and wind speed of them is ever changing.

They are measured in categories according to wind speed ranging from one to five, five being the highest. In other parts of the world this storm is referred to as a typhoon or cyclone (“What is a Hurricane? ” 1). Tsunamis, sometimes mistaken for tidal waves can move hundreds of M. P. H. in the open ocean, reaching heights of up to 100 feet before crashing in to land. Underwater earthquakes most often create tsunamis. The areas with the greatest risk of being hit by one are those that are less than 25 feet above sea level and within a mile of the shoreline (“Tsunami” 1; 4).

Now that a general understanding for five major natural disasters has been developed, it is time to take that and apply it to the, possible, five worst natural disasters of the last decade. In May of 2008 in Sinchuan, China, a 7. 9- magnitude earthquake struck this area of western China, where a total of 15 million people lived. The earthquake killed an estimated 70 thousand people and displaced over 18 thousand. Since 1976, when an earthquake killing over 240 thousand people struck the area, China has required that new structures withstand major quakes.

When the new building codes were put to the test in the 2008 earthquake, many buildings, including schools and hospitals, collapsed; raising the question as to how rigorously the building codes were enforced (“Sinchuan Earthquake” 1). Thousands of the deaths were reported to be children, prompting protest by parents. Although the Chinese government refused to release the number of students who died from the collapse of buildings, official reports surfaced not long after the quake putting the student death toll at 10,000.

The Chinese government, unwilling to deal with the protest of the outraged parents, chose to offer them $8,800 in exchange for their silence. For the most part, the government as refused to address the problem of poorly built schools in the region leaving the possibility of another disaster, like the one caused by the 2008 earthquake, highly likely (“Sinchuan Earthquake” 7; 9). Another disaster that struck in 2008 was Cyclone Nargis. The cyclone struck the country of Myanmar, where it reached winds up 121 M. P. H before hitting land on the evening of May 2.

The storm nearly killed 85,000 people, and displaced an additional 54,000. The Irrawaddy Delta and Yangon were devastated, so much so, that it could be argued that the generals in charge of running Myanmar were in complete shock. French and U. S. naval ships waited off shore with aid awaiting the approval to come ashore, but were later denied by the generals (“Cyclone Nargis” 1; 4). A U. N. program director made this statement about the whole crisis, “”The generals thought it was just another typical cyclone, where the army would hand out some rice and a few tarps and that would be it.

The regime made some shocking mistakes early on, really horrible, when they blocked the aid. With all the international furor, they finally realized, ‘This is way, way too big for us. ‘ And after that, they did a lot. A huge national response occurred” (“Cyclone Nargis” 5). Foreign aid was finally accepted, but only after weeks of suffering by the Myanmar people. Hurricane Katrina could easily be considered the worst natural disaster in U. S. history, however flooding, not hurricane winds, caused the most damage to New Orleans.

The flooding of the New Orleans area in 2005 was not the first time the city had experienced such a thing. In 1927, water was forced over the levees surrounding the sinking city due to heavy rainfall and flooding of the Mississippi River. To save New Orleans, the leaders proposed a radical plan. South of the city, the population was mostly rural and poor. Leaders appealed to the federal government to essentially sacrifice those parishes by blowing up a levee and diverting the water to the marshland, and promised restitution to people who would lose their homes.

The plan was passed and a levee 13 miles south of New Orleans in Caernarvon was blown (Brinkley 8-15). According to the 2000 Louisiana census, about 50 percent of the state’s population lived in coastal areas of New Orleans. The mandatory evacuation came at too short notice, leaving thousands of people stranded in flooded areas. (Brinkley). The levees constructed by the United State’s Army Corps of Engineers failed below design specifications resulting in the flooding of 80 percent of the city. Although the number of deaths, 1,800, is incomparable to the other disasters discussed, the damage eported, an estimate $16 billion, is arguably the most done by any natural disaster in history (Brinkley 12; Cooper 7). National Geographic News labeled the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami the possible deadliest tsunami in history. The tsunami, created by a 9. 0-magnitude earthquake in the middle of the Indian Ocean, released energy equivalent to an estimated 23 thousand Hiroshima- type atomic bombs (“The Deadliest Tsunami In History? ” 1). The wave reached heights as high as 30 feet in some places and killed an estimated 150 thousand people.

The Pacific Ocean has the most active tsunami zone according to the U. S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“Tsunamis: Facts About Killer Waves” 2). The waves caused deaths in a total of 11 countries surrounding the Indian Ocean, reaching as far as three thousand miles away from the epicenter, on December 26. Some people, when they saw the receding water, knew it was a warning sign of a tsunami. Some experts say that using the receding ocean as a warning can give people as much as five minutes to escape to safety.

Unfortunately there were a number of people who did not know this fact and instead of running away from the beach, they crowded the beach to see what was happening. By the time they realized what was going on it was too late and the waves were already crashing in (“The Deadliest Tsunami In History? ” 2). The most recent natural disaster happened on January 12, 2010. The country of Haiti was hit by a massive earthquake of a 7. 0-magnitude, which lasted for nearly 45 seconds. The epicenter of the earthquake was just 10 miles from the Haitian capital of Port-au Prince.

There were a total of 33 aftershocks that ranged in magnitudes of 4. 2 to 5. 9 and an estimated three million people were in need of emergency aid afterwards (“Fast Facts: Haiti Earthquake” 2; 7). While the estimate of the total damages is still uncertain, The Washington Post reported on February 17 that the quake could end up costing Haiti upwards of $14 billion (Sheridan 1) In February 2010, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive estimated that 250 thousand residences and 30 thousand commercial buildings were condemned. Also by this time, the death toll had reached 230 thousand.

There are no building codes in Haiti making construction standards extremely low. Just days after the quake the United States government announced that it would give $100 million to aid effort, however since the quake the U. S. has committed over $500 million. (Sheridan 3). Each of the previously mentioned five disasters all have something in common, they all lack education on disaster risk management. According to the DRM, World Institute for Disaster Risk Management, losses contributed to disaster have increased dramatically over the past two decades (“About DRM” 9).

In some cases people do not have the option to better themselves because of a lack of funding, but in many cases they do have that option but they choose to ignore it. Some of the cities with the highest vulnerability of being effected by a natural disaster are coastal cities. More than half of the world’s population lives in coastal areas which Cannon, Davis and Benjamin Wisner, authors of At Risk: Natural Hazard, People Vulnerability and Disasters, contribute to the idea of the “American Dream” here in the United States. People, especially the elderly, are sold this idea of retiring somewhere close to the water in high-risk areas.

In other parts of the world, large cities are placed near the water because of trade with no regard for how vulnerable that makes them (Cannon 25). Another area that falls under the lack of education on disaster risk management is the quality of structures, both residential and commercial, built in and around the cities at risk. In Mark Pelling’s book, The Vulnerability of Cities: Natural Disasters and Social Resilience, he shows that strengthening local capacity- through appropriate housing infrastructures and livelihoods- is crucial to improving resilience.

Effective community or municipal government is essential if cities are to cope with disasters successfully, studies show (Pelling 6). The damages and lose of human life caused by the Sinchuan earthquake, Hurricane Katrina and Haiti earthquake might have decreased tremendously had structures in these towns been held to a higher standard. A universal building code, like that of the United States, for every nation might prohibit such losses in future disasters. Another thing that would cut back on the number of deaths caused by natural disasters is developing a better way to predict them.

The unpredictability of natural disasters is one thing that makes them extremely dangerous. Scientists have yet to come up with the technology to predict when and where a disaster is going to strike. However, over the recent years survivors’ have had similar stories involving animals. Survivors of the Indian Ocean Tsunami recall many animals retreating away from the shores and to higher ground just moments before the giant wave crashed in to shore. Some scientists believe that animals, both world and domestic, have the ability to hear infrasound, which are sounds produced by a natural phenomenon inaudible to the human ear.

Another possible explanation is the animal’s sensitivity to a change in electrical current through electromagnetic fields (“Can Animals Predict Disaster? 2). While studies on the claim of animals predicting disasters are still taking place, if found to be true, this could make a huge difference in the number of disaster related deaths each year. In conclusion, there is a time and place for everything. But, with proper advancements in technology that time can be better predicted and that place can be better prepared through a greater desire for education on disaster risk management.

Going back to George Santayan’s quote while everything in nature is lyrical in its essence, it doesn’t have to be tragic in its fate. Many lives can be spared and many homes can stand strong if people would learn from the past and better themselves and their cities for the future. Works Cited “About DRM. ” World Institute of Disaster Risk Management. Web. 27 February 2010. Brinkley, Douglas. The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. New York: Morrow, 2006. Print. “Can Animals Predict Disaster?. Public Broadcast Station. Web. 27 February 2010. Cannon, Davis and Benjamin Wisner. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability, and Disasters 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print. Cooper, Patrick. “Latest Hurricane Katrina Developments”. USA Today. Gannet Co. Inc. , 2008. Web. 27 February 2010 “Cyclone Nargis”. The New York Times. Web. 27 February 2010. “The Deadliest Tsunami in History? “. National Geographic News. Web. 27 February 2010. “Sichuan Earthquake”. The New York Times. Web. 27 February 2010. “Fast Facts About Earthquakes. Federal Emergency Management Agency. U. S. Department of Homeland Security. Web. 27 February 2010. “Fast Facts: Haiti Earthquake. ” FOX News. FOX News Networks, LLC. , 2010. Web. 27 February 2010. “Flood. ” Federal Emergency Management Agency. U. S. Department of Homeland Security. Web. 27 February 2010. Pelling, Mark. Vulneraility of Cities: Natural Disasters and Social Resilience. Sterling: Earthscan Pulications, 2003. Print. “Quotable Quote. ” GoodReads. Web. 27 February 2010. Sheridan, Mary. “Haiti Earthquake Damage Estimated Up to $14 Billion. The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company, 2010. Web. 27 February 2010. “Tsunami. ” Federal Emergency Management Agency. U. S. Department of Homeland Security. Web. 27 February 2010. “Tsunamis: Facts About Killer Waves. ” National Geographic News. National Geographic Society. 1996. Web. 27 February 2010. “What is a Hurricane?. ” Federal Emergency Management Agency. U. S. Department of Homeland Security. Web. 27 February 2010. “What We Do. ” Federal Emergency Management Agency. U. S. Department of Homeland Security. Web. 27 February 2010.

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