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Reducing the impact of natural hazards

Experiences both in and out of Latin American and the Caribbean show that the record of hazard mitigation is improving. The installation of warning systems in several Caribbean countries has reduced the loss of human life due to hurricanes. Prohibition of permanent settlement in floodplains, enforced by selective insurance coverage, has significantly reduced flood damage in many vulnerable areas.

In the field of landslide mitigation, a study in the State of New York (U.S.A.) showed that improved procedures from 1969 to 1975 reduced the cost of repairing landslide damage to highways by over 90 percent.2/ Experience of the city of Los Angeles, California, indicates that adequate grading and soil analysis ordinances can reduce landslide losses by 97 percent.3/

2/ Hays, W.W. (ed.) Facing Geologic and Hydrologic Hazards. Earth-Science Considerations. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1240-B (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1981).

3/ Petak, W.J. and A.A. Atkisson. Natural Hazard Risk Assessment and Public Policy: Anticipating the Unexpected (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1982).

A study in the San Fernando Valley, California, after the 1971 earthquake showed that of 568 older school buildings that did not satisfy the requirements of the Field Act (a law stipulating design standards), 50 were so badly damaged that they had to be demolished. But all of the 500 school buildings that met seismic-resistance standards suffered no structural damage.4/ The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, but provisions in local zoning and building codes kept it from being even worse. In the San Francisco Bay area post-1960 structures swayed but stayed intact, while older buildings did not fare nearly as well. Unreinforced masonry structures suffered the worst damage. Buildings on solid ground were less likely to sustain damage than those constructed on landfill or soft mountain slopes.5/

4/ Bolt, Bruce A. Earthquakes (New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1988).

5/ King, John. "In the Wake of the Quake" in Planning, December, 1989 (Chicago, Illinois: APA, 1989).

Mitigation techniques can also lengthen the warning period before a volcanic eruption, making possible the safe evacuation of the population at risk. Sensitive monitoring devices can now detect increasing volcanic activity months in advance of an eruption. Still more sophisticated assessment, monitoring, and alert systems are becoming available for volcanic eruption, hurricane, tsunami, and earthquake hazards.

Sectoral hazard assessments conducted by the OAS of, among others, energy in Costa Rica and agriculture in Ecuador, have demonstrated the savings in capital and continued production that can be realized with very modest investments in the mitigation of natural hazard threats through vulnerability reduction and better sectoral planning.

However, much remains be done. The overall record of hazard management in Latin America and the Caribbean is unimpressive for a number of reasons among them lack of awareness of the issue, lack of political incentive, and a sense of fatalism about "natural" disasters. But techniques are becoming available, experiences are being analyzed and transmitted, the developing countries have demonstrated their interest, and the lending agencies are discussing their support. If these favorable tendencies can be encouraged, significant reduction of the devastating effects of hazards on development in Latin America and the Caribbean is within reach.

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