Is Data the Best Preparation Against Natural Disasters?


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Big Data and Open data and analytics have become fundamental tools in disaster preparedness, experts say. But public officials aren’t using them enough.

Lucy Jones, a seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), is collaborating with Los Angeles city officials to draft a seismic-resilience plan. She said the city is a prime example of what happens when there’s an abundance of data and absence of investment in disaster preparation. About 85% of the city’s water supply is delivered by aqueducts across the southern San Andreas Fault, a fault line the USGS estimates will generate a major earthquake sometime in the next decade or so, according to its data.

The danger centers on indications city aqueducts will break, leaving only a six-month supply of water reserves for residents, she said. These reserves are dismally inadequate when considering the aqueducts would require 18 months to repair. This would mean an entire year without water for Los Angeles.

“When the San Andreas earthquake happens in Southern California – the most likely big earthquake in the U.S. – we know that all of the transportation lines, the electric systems, the water systems, the gas lines that cross the San Andreas Fault, will break, exactly where and what will happen when they do. Yet, this fact hasn’t gotten anybody to do anything about them,” Jones said.

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Hopefully, the seismic-resilience plan will help city officials find data-driven remedies and propose new ordinances. For example, the city could expand its capacity for water reserves.

For the state’s homeowners, procrastination to retrofit for earthquakes mirrors the inaction from officials. Jones questioned if such costly construction — that can cost thousands of dollars per housing unit — should be left to residents or if government should be an enabler. Looking at GDP figures, a financial investment in retrofits and other infrastructure are likely to pay off when earthquakes — or other natural disasters hit.

In an analysis of data from New Orleans, post Hurricane Katrina, direct losses from the devastation totaled an estimated $80 billion, according to Jones. However, the lion’s share of the loss is ongoing. In the seven years since the hurricane hit New Orleans, the city has lost $105 billion in GDP and continues to lose GDP at a rate of $15 billion per year, Jones added. “The consequences and benefits of retrofitting really go to a lot of other people and to the whole community,” she said.

A primary reason to defer investment in emergency management tools and infrastructure stems from two mistaken beliefs: Such expenditures are unjustifiable because they don’t serve immediate needs. Also: and large emergencies are infrequent.