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Life on an ever more perilous planet

Charles J. Hanley Associated Press

The dead and desperate of New Orleans now join the farmers of Aceh and fishermen of Trincomalee, villagers in Iran and the slum dwellers of Haiti in a world being dealt ever more punishing blows by natural disasters.

It’s a world in which Americans can learn from even the poorest nations, experts say, and where not to build future cities.

The levees in New Orleans inspired a false sense of security, says Dennis S. Miletti of the University of Colorado, a leading scholar on disaster prevention. “We rely on technology and we end up thinking as human beings that we’re totally safe, and we’re not. The bottom line is we have a very unsafe planet.”

By one critical measure, the impact on populations, statistics show Earth to be increasingly unsafe. More 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.

Those numbers don’t include millions displaced by last December’s tsunami, which killed an estimated 180,000 people.

By another measure – property damage – 2004 was the costliest year on record for global insurers, who paid out more than $40 billion on natural disasters, reports German insurance giant Munich Re. Florida’s quartet of 2004 hurricanes was the big factor.

But generally it’s not that more “events” are happening, rather that more people are in the way, said Thomas Loster of Munich Re. “More and more people are being hit.”

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.

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.

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.

“Complex systems invite compounding of complexity in consequences, too,” said the Geneva-based Jeggle.

And the experts fear more is to come.

The scientific consensus expects global warming to intensify storms, floods, heat waves and drought. The prospect of more vulnerable populations on a more turbulent Earth has U.N. officials and other advocates pressuring governments to plan and prepare. They cite examples of poorer nations that in ways do a better job than the rich:

•No one was reported killed when Ivan struck Cuba in 2004, its worst hurricane in 50 years and a storm that, after weakening, killed 25 people in the United States. Cuba’s warning-evacuation system is planned down to neighborhood workers keeping updated charts on which residents need help.

•Along Bangladesh’s cyclone coast, 33,000 organized volunteers stand ready to shepherd neighbors to raised concrete shelters.

• In 2002, Jamaica conducted a full-scale evacuation rehearsal in a low-lying suburb of Kingston, and fine-tuned plans. When Ivan’s 20-foot surge destroyed hundreds of homes two years later, eight people died.

Like many around the world, Barbara Carby, Jamaica’s disaster coordinator, watched in disbelief as catastrophe unfolded on the U.S. Gulf Coast. “We always have resource constraints,” she said. “That’s not a problem the U.S. has. But because they have the resources, they may not pay enough attention to preparedness and awareness, and to educating the public how to help themselves.”

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