Hurricanes, wildfires, floods, tornadoes, and droughts are not only becoming more intense and frequent, but they are also affecting the same location more than once. However, catastrophe research has mostly focused on single incidents, failing to account for the legacy consequences that leave individuals vulnerable in the aftermath of repeated calamities.
An interdisciplinary team of academics has devised a novel paradigm for advancing scientific understanding of ‘recurrent acute disasters’ (RADs) in order to better plan for future disasters. Their findings were published in Science Advances today.
Study co-lead Steward Pickett, an urban ecologist at Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, says, “Recurrent acute disasters impact a specific place over time. Each event can create legacy conditions that shape the effects of subsequent disasters. As RADs become more frequent and intense, examining disasters as linked, rather than isolated, events will be critical to improving disaster science, preparedness measures, and outcomes for affected communities.”
RADs are posing an increasing threat to environmental quality, economic activity, and public health and safety, owing in part to climate change, population increase in at-risk areas, and inadequate disaster planning. Wildfires in the American West, unprecedented floods in Europe, and big hurricanes in the Caribbean are just a few examples of phenomena that are starting to combine in a predictable pattern.
The consequences of catastrophic catastrophes disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, such as the poor and people of color, who have historically been underrepresented in disaster administration, policy, and recovery planning.
Understanding legacy conditions, or the long-term repercussions of one disaster on subsequent disasters, can aid emergency managers in identifying concealed hazards and response requirements.
Numerous sources of data and new analytical methods could be leveraged to monitor and identify legacy conditions soon after a disaster. These include things like data collected by satellite and social media, new computer modeling approaches, and mobility tracking. Our framework could help organize these information streams to better understand what happens during and in the aftermath of disaster events.Steward Pickett
The authors of the paper propose a framework to guide future research on recurring acute disasters that takes into account: spatial relationships between recurring disasters; a holistic view of the ‘human ecosystem,’ including the state of critical resources, demographics, and social institutions at any given time; and trends in legacy conditions, including whether effects intensify or diminish (or both) between disasters. The island of Puerto Rico is presented as an example of how a RAD strategy to disaster recovery might enhance outcomes and increase resilience.
Between 2017 and 2020, Puerto Rico was affected by a succession of RADs, including hurricanes Irma and Maria, a subsequent drought, and the earthquakes in January 2020. Each incident left behind a trail of consequences that worsened social, environmental, and infrastructure vulnerabilities. These elements must be considered when planning for future events.
“The situation in Puerto Rico since 2017 has led to what we define as negative legacy conditions, including a deteriorating energy infrastructure, public loss of trust in government institutions, and a health care system under immense strain,” said coauthor Miguel Román, former Program Director at the Universities Space Research Association.
“Because legacy conditions have differential impacts upon vulnerable communities, issues of equity and environmental justice (EEJ) can also be better addressed by RAD-sensitive disaster and recovery policies,” said Román.
Pickett contends that the disaster research and response community is well positioned to adopt a RAD-based approach with the help of emerging data sources and online tools: “Numerous sources of data and new analytical methods could be leveraged to monitor and identify legacy conditions soon after a disaster. These include things like data collected by satellite and social media, new computer modeling approaches, and mobility tracking. Our framework could help organize these information streams to better understand what happens during and in the aftermath of disaster events.”
Building rules, public health regulations, private insurance rates, emergency communications, and community preparedness training could all benefit from a better knowledge of repeating acute disasters.
Preparedness programs should update incident response plans to incorporate explicit consideration of how previous disasters have impacted the response environment and available resources, according to the authors, in order to lessen risk from future disasters.
“This research is an important new step toward understanding how legacy conditions created by one disaster influence the effects of subsequent disasters,” notes Professor Gary Machlis of Clemson University, who was the lead author and co-led the study.
“In particular, adopting RAD-sensitive disaster and recovery policies should help improve outcomes for vulnerable communities. Increasing our understanding of recurrent disasters has the potential to advance disaster science, improve issues of equity and environmental justice, build resilience, and ultimately save lives.”
Pickett concludes, “The recent IPCC report from the UN confirms that the extreme events that generate many disasters will increase over time. For the disaster management community, including partner scientists, it will be necessary to convert the RAD-based predictions of legacy conditions into specific preparedness actions that reduce vulnerability to later disasters.”