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Volcano Watch — Risk management

The main function of the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory is to reduce the risk from volcanic activity.

The main function of the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory is to reduce the risk from volcanic activity.

People commonly think in terms of hazards reduction when they actually mean risk reduction. Hazards are the natural events that can occur in a given area and the likelihood that they will occur in a given time period. Risk is a measure of the financial and human costs associated with the occurrence of such events. Nothing that we, as a society, can presently do will reduce hazards, but we can reduce risk by proper risk management.

Risk management is something we each do all the time on a personal level. For example, insurance of various types are ways we reduce our risk of financial setbacks. When it comes to large-scale natural disasters such as earthquakes, lava flow inundation, hurricanes, floods, or tsunami, however, we as individuals and as a society we do a poor job of risk management despite our strong inclination to protect our families from losses. We are caught short when these events occur, in part becuase they occur so infrequently that we simply fail to maintain our vigilance; thus, when they do occur, such events can be devastating. How much risk is society willing to accept? How much is it willing to pay to reduce the risks from natural hazards? These questions have not been carefully addressed at the different levels of government.

The biggest problem for risk management at any government level is that risk management addresses a long-term problem, and government is not particularly good at long-range planning, nor at spending the money to reduce long-term risks. Government at all levels tends to be reactive rather than proactive. Each disaster, natural or otherwise, galvanizes government and the public to support efforts to reduce the risk of similar future events. Each major disaster also spawns a temporary flood of money to reduce future risk.

Government agencies respond to these influxes of funding by hiring new personnel to address the particular hazard responsible for the most recent disaster. However, once the disaster is off the front page, public and political support for these programs rapidly dwindles, usually returning within a few years to the same level it was before the disaster.

The U.S. Geological Survey has experienced these funding fluctuations following the eruptions of Mount St. Helens in 1980, Mauna Loa in 1984, and after each large and damaging earthquake. However, such large fluctuations frustrate the development and implementation of well-thought-out programs to address risk reduction.

There are many ways in which we can reduce risk from natural disasters. The single most important, and the one least used, is land-use planning. After identifying high-hazard areas, we can dramatically reduce risk by not building or living in these areas or, more reasonably, by limiting the density and type of development that can occur in these high-hazard areas.

Land-use planning is particularly effective for floods and tsunami, which affect only limited areas along rivers and coastlines. Here on Hawaii, land-use planning should also be utilized to limit development and growth in the two highest lava-flow hazard zones.

In proper land-use planning, hazards are identified and quantified, and the political will to use the information is set in motion. There are costs associated with either underestimating or overestimating the hazards in an area. If the hazard is underestimated, human and property losses will be higher than society is willing to accept when the earthquake or hurricane occurs. If the hazard is overestimated, development is unneccessarily curtailed.

The next step to reducing risk from natural hazards is to build structures that will withstand the expected hazard. In Hawaii, this means building structures that will withstand the forces of hurricane winds and earthquake shaking. The primary tool at the disposal of society is the adoption and enforcement of appropriate building codes for the expected hazards. The key to appropriate building codes is, as in land-use planning, identifying the hazards and quantifying their severity, adopting appropriate codes, and enforcing those codes.

Identifying and quantifying geologic hazards are specific goals of the U.S. Geological Survey's volcano, landslide, and earthquake hazards programs. As with land-use planning, there are costs associated with either over- or underestimating the hazards. If we underestimate the hazard, do not adopt appropriate codes, or fail to enforce those codes, many structures will be damaged and society will suffer larger losses than they were prepared to shoulder. If we overestimate the hazards, we build structures that are stronger and more expensive than necessary.

Many individuals feel that they alone adopt these risks and that society (government) should not regulate their activities. Since everyone relies on tax-supported infrastructure such as medical facilities, roads, and utilities, such a hands-off approach is inappropriate, unrealistic, and unwise. When disasters strike, these individuals will require their share of available medical treatment, food, drinking water, and emergency shelter. No one assumes the risks alone.

Insurance costs will be higher for property in these high-risk areas in order to accommodate the greater losses that insurers will sustain. Additional insurance may be required for coverage of specific hazards, such as earthquakes or hurricanes. High insurance costs, or the lack of availability of insurance in high-hazard areas, limits development in these areas.

A critical step in a comprehensive risk management system in reducing damage and loss of life is to develop and maintain early warning systems to collect information about impending disastrous events. People can then prepare in advance or evacuate from hazardous areas. This is a key role that is fulfilled by the U.S. Geological Survey for geologic hazards, by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center for tsunami, and by the National Weather Service for hurricanes and flooding.

The step in a risk reduction program that we, as a society, do best is to have response teams that are trained and ready to act in emergencies. Correct information must be available for the emergency response teams as to where the damage is the most severe, so they can go to those areas quickly. This is also a role played by the U.S. Geological Survey, which provides information about the locations of earthquakes and of lava flows.

Here on Hawaii, such response activities are coordinated by Civil Defense but includes other groups such as fire, police, the Red Cross, hospitals, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). These agencies can be overwhelmed if the hazard is not properly identified or quantified or if events occur infrequently. Preparation for disasters usually cannot address the 1,000-year hurricane or earthquake if it is to be cost-effective.

The final step in a risk reduction program is public education and information so that the public and the officials, who represent and serve them, are informed about the hazards that may cause future disasters. This column is one means of providing up-to-date information on geological hazards and events in Hawaii. The staff of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory also participates in numerous educational seminars for public officials and give many talks to student and citizen groups.

Much of our work at the Observatory is aimed at better understanding of volcanic and seismic processes —the only way to improve our ability to define the hazards, quantify the likelihood of geologic events, provide accurate warnings to Civil Defense, and to increase our ability to locate events once they have occurred.

Our future here on Hawaii, as it is elsewhere in the world, will include numerous hazardous events. These events will become disasters only if we, as an island community, fail to utilize the steps outlined above to reduce the risk to ourselves and to others.