Planning for Natural Disasters

The rough and tumble of deciding the outcome of the Australian election seemed to be the most important story out of the Antipodes until Christchurch, New Zealand was rocked by a large earthquake.  Nature asserted itself over the interests of human beings once again, reminding us of how small our affairs can be.  On September 4 the people of Christchurch were rudely awakened by an earthquake, measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale.  Fortunately, no fatalities were recorded.  Equally fortunately New Zealand emergency services responded immediately and professionally to the disaster.

All of this serves as a reminder of the importance of planning in the face of natural disasters.  Nature does not publish its plans, therefore we humans have to plan for the unscheduled and unannounced.  The South Pacific has its share of natural disasters including typhoons, earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunami.  It is a heady mix.  While New Zealand and Australia have the geography and economic means to somewhat mitigate the fallout from these events, the smaller, low-lying islands states of the South Pacific are another matter.

Tonga, Samoa, and American Samoa, for example, all were struck by earthquakes followed by a tsunami in September, 2009.  The damage wrought by these events was significant.  With better planning and mitigation plans the level of damage can be reduced.  The challenge, of course, is to deploy the appropriate personnel to devise plans and then fund the mitigation plans.  While development agencies look towards providing funding to these island nations, they must ensure that they pay attention to the range of natural disasters known to affect the South Pacific.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.  Development agencies get a raft of advice and dictates they must follow.  For example, while giving out aid dollars aid agencies must ensure that those funds do not contribute to internal conflict, create sustainable economic development, do not contribute to environmental degradation, support gender equality, and contain the spread of HIV.  All laudable goals, but often difficult to implement.  Add to that the necessity of planning for inevitable natural disasters.  So, the seemingly simple matter of building a school becomes a far more complex and challenging problem.  Not an insurmountable problem, but certainly something more than assembling bricks and mortar.

On September 23 CANZPS will host the Peter Tali Coleman Lecture on Pacific Public Policy.  Giving this year's address is Emeritus Professor Walter Dudley from the University of Hawaii, and former Professor of Oceanography and Director of the Kalakaua Marine Education Center at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. He co-founded the Pacific Tsunami Museum and Chaired its Scientific Advisory Council. He authored four books about tsunamis and has been featured in over 40 television documentaries about tsunamis and other natural hazards.

Professor Dudley currently the lead scientist for a number of tsunami mitigation and education projects including: the Indigenous Hawaiian Knowledge of Natural Hazards, a “Tsunami-Safe School Activity Booklet” for Hawaii schools, an “All Hazard Card” to educate visitors and residents about natural hazards in Hawaii and customized for each separate island in the chain, the “Pacific Outreach Project” which involves collecting and editing the stories of tsunami survivors from Hawaii, Alaska, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Maldives, Samoa and American Samoa, and the creation and installation of “Tsunami Hazard Exhibits” for community museums in Seward, Valdez, Homer, and Kodiak, Alaska. This fall he will be traveling to Australia as a Fulbright Awardee to work with Australia Emergency Management and at the Australia Tsunami Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

With Dudley's considerable CV he may be able to shed further light on the nature of the natural hazards faced in the South Pacific.  He may also help give some insight into how development agencies can better incorporate natural hazard management plans into their work.

Elections and governments are terribly important and we rely upon them to have the foresight and imagination to plan for natural disasters.  New Zealand seems to have done a good job in managing the fallout from the earthquake in Christchurch.  Looking forward I hope we are able to draw some insight and lessons from what New Zealand has done, and along with the insights from Professor Dudley, to help better plan disaster management in the South Pacific.