- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2005

Special correspondent John Zarocostas in Geneva interviewed Salvano Briceno, director of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), Friday on the lessons to be learned from the devastation wrought a week ago on New Orleans and the U.S. Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina.

Question: What lessons can the United States and the world learn from this devastating storm?

Answer: Clearly, there are several. These big disasters, which are terrible tragedies, are usually the result of several weaknesses.

In the first place, it is important to say there is not enough awareness and education on these issues for people to know their vulnerabilities and how they must be prepared for these disasters to overcome them. So I trust investment in education and awareness will be reconsidered because this is the thing that has been requested for many years and only a few countries are really doing it systematically.

What happens usually is that people become aware when disasters hit, but soon after, they’re forgotten and nothing is changed … to maintain concern in these issues, the same as with AIDS and traffic accidents. …

In the case of natural hazards, we’re still far behind in awareness and education.

A second important issue is that in land-use planning, until now there has been little consideration of the risks of natural hazards … For many years, the Mississippi River basin has been used for many purposes that divert water and reduce the flow to the delta where the city of New Orleans [is located], weakening the city’s base. This is an issue we press very strongly — that land planning must continuously consider as a main item the potential natural hazards.

Third, environmental management. It’s clear the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico — like many others in tropical areas — has been damaged by urban development, tourism development and other economic projects that don’t maintain the natural ecosystems like coral reefs and mangrove swamps that are essential to reduce the impact of these natural hazards. As you know, the mangroves and coral reefs in particular perform a very important buffer function in the face of natural hazards.

Fourth is the issue of disaster preparedness. Clearly, the people in the Gulf region were not sufficiently prepared, as was the case in the Pacific tsunami, the forest fires in Portugal or the floods in central Europe. Clearly there is a lot of work to be done on disaster preparedness.

Q: Katrina’s force was so strong that there is a debate among scientists about whether global warming has added to the intensity of hurricanes. What’s your view?

A: The issue of climate change is clearly very important to consider, of course, and the threat for the long term is very big. But we must distinguish between global warming and climate change.

Climate change is the concept that the global warming that is happening is perhaps due to human interference. In other words, to greenhouse-gas emissions. That is what is under debate.

What is not under debate is that global warming is happening, and be it from natural forces or human intervention, the world is getting warmer — and, therefore, there is a trend toward increasing frequency and intensity of some of the hazards. So I think we must react to it, regardless of the political debate on climate change.

Q: The fact that the waters are warmer in the Gulf of Mexico — is that adding to the intensity of the hurricanes?

A: The debate is open, and scientists are divided. There is a strong belief that is the case, and also with the more intense drought and more intense precipitation in Europe that happened recently and both at the same time.

We were seeing intense precipitation in Central Europe while there was intense drought in Portugal and Spain. Those sorts of extreme events are happening more frequently, and there is a belief they may be due to this global-warming process. It is still not clearly and finally demonstrated.

Q: The system of levees built near New Orleans and in other countries — can they be a sufficient barrier to protect populations? Can they be reinforced to a level where people can feel relatively safe?

A: Well, clearly they are very old. [New Orleans has] many already, and they were built when the city was much smaller. They are not enough today, that’s clear. They were not enough to hold the water that was coming from the hurricane, and there must be something done about it.

I don’t think the only solution is to enhance the levees or to make them higher. There must also be consideration of moving parts of the city, or allowing for the flow of the Mississippi river to develop more naturally.

As you know, there are some water diversions north of the basin for agricultural purposes that have reduced the flow of water and also reduced the flow of sediments. And that weakens the banks on which the city is built.

Q: Many wooden houses were totally destroyed, while many of those built of brick and mortar seem to have held better. Is there a need to review construction guidelines?

A: Absolutely, absolutely. That was the case in the state of Florida, because of hurricanes, and in California, because of the seismic risks. So, clearly, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were not equally prepared, and building codes must be revisited, no doubt.

Q: Should people in these areas stop building wooden houses?

A: I don’t think it’s only the materials, but the way they’re built.

Clearly, in Japan, where there’s a strong risk of earthquakes and also typhoons, many houses are built of wood, and they do withstand these hazards.

Q: So it’s more the techniques of construction?

A: Absolutely. The techniques are very important.

Q: What can be done at the grass-roots level to avoid the chaos we saw last week?

A: Clearly, communities need to understand better not only what the hazards are, but what their vulnerabilities are. What makes them vulnerable? Understanding the hazards and vulnerabilities needs to be increased and enhanced. That is done in some regions of Central America. We have seen how governments and regional organizations and community organizations have developed a lot of awareness programs after Hurricane Mitch [in 1998], which was equally destructive.

In Japan and elsewhere in Asia, there are a lot of programs being developed to keep communities involved and aware.

Q: Any final advice?

A: It is urgent that countries and governments at the United Nations provide a high priority to this issue. It’s going to be debated in two weeks at the Millennium Summit in New York. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for strengthening early-warning systems and of the international strategy for disaster reduction in his report “In Larger Freedom.”

We do hope governments will support it strongly.

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