After Disaster: Agenda Setting, Public Policy, and Focusing Events

By Thomas A. Birkland | Go to book overview

3
Natural Disasters as
Focusing Events

Natural disasters are among humanity's most expensive, deadliest, and feared events. Nature poses substantial dangers to human populations from earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, flash floods, droughts, heat waves, ice storms, wildfires, and other natural phenomena. The economic toll of these disasters is quite large, and although modern technology can mitigate property damage and loss of life, no amount of human effort can eliminate natural disasters. The number of deaths from individual disasters in the United States is declining, and while private charities and the government provide disaster relief, the economic toll from natural disasters is large and growing. Annually, natural disasters cause about $20 billion in direct damage and $30 to $35 billion in indirect damage. Just two disasters, Hurricane Hugo and the Loma Prieta earthquake, did over$15 billion in direct damage. Improvements in building, planning, and hazard-reduction programs are largely offset each year by the increasing number of people and value of property in high-risk areas (Burby and Dalton 1993, 229; National Research Council 1991). While aggregate statistics reflect substantial damage from these events, they cannot measure the individual suffering that results from the loss of or injury to one's family, friends, or home in natural disasters.

Earthquakes and hurricanes are particularly damaging disasters. In the period of this study there were relatively few earthquake fatalities, but property damage from earthquakes in the data set is substantial, ranging from just over$1 million to approximately $6 billion in 1990 dollars. The damage done to infrastructure is highly disruptive to a community, taking months to repair and leaving water shortages, sanitation problems, power outages, broken gas lines, and traffic congestion in its wake.

Strong hurricanes also do substantial damage to property and infrastructure, and when preparations are insufficient or when the storm is particularly severe, they can lead to loss of life. Hurricane winds do considerable damage, but damage is also done along the shoreline by

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