Michele Gershberg

Editor, Health & Pharma News

No outlier excuse for disasters

September 6, 2011

When it comes to disaster planning, it pays to be a pessimist. This may be one of the biggest legacies from the last decade’s catastrophic events, from the September 11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Japan’s earthquake-driven nuclear disaster. While a healthy, rational temperament may eschew worst-case scenarios, public officials will need to take an increasingly vigilant stance to save lives when the next major catastrophe strikes.

That view is shared by people like Dr. Jennifer Leaning, an expert in early response efforts to war and disaster at the Harvard School of Public Health. Most major disasters, she argues, have a significant element of the predictable to them and there can be little excuse for those who fail to think them through. Hurricanes and other storms will only do more damage to cities and towns that are more densely populated than ever. Earthquakes can shake the very core of nuclear reactors. And when struck hard enough, by men instead of the elements, the Twin Towers did fall.

“Natural disasters are getting worse in terms of intensity and frequency,” Leaning says. “And every time you have a bad disaster, there are more people now than there were five years ago that are affected.”

Leaning will discuss the new meaning of disaster preparedness today at The Forum at Harvard School of Public Health. The consequences for decision-makers was clearly on display just last month, as 50 million people on the U.S. East Coast braced for Hurricane Irene.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gained little glory by ordering the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of residents in low-lying city neighborhoods. The decision was not without its own risk, as experts estimate that for every million evacuees, one or two people may die from the effort itself. While the storm weakened considerably by the time it hit the city, and actually was far more destructive in other regions, Bloomberg contributed important information to the future of disaster preparedness, Leaning says.

We learned in this one how to evacuate out of one of the most populous cities in the world. We learned how to do that in the space of 24 hours. Nobody got hurt, let alone got killed. …  It’s not that we dodged a tough one, but wow, we were great in the process of dodging a tough one. That evacuation is going to be studied now by disaster experts over and over again.

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    "I oversee stories about health news in the United States, from the companies making the drugs to the scientists discovering new ways to treat patients. I've been with Reuters for over 10 years, first covering the Mideast conflict from Jerusalem and later writing about media and advertising in New York."
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