USC Price School of Public Policy

Experts Rethink Disaster Risk Management

Knowledge in Action:

Experts Rethink Disaster Risk Management

By Matthew Kredell

Integrated Disaster Risk Management conference Conference chair Adam Rose, conference co-chair Genevieve Giuliano and George Apostolakis of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Photo by Tom Queally

From the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina to this year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the last decade has shown that disasters – whether natural or man-made – are inevitable and that the next one is coming soon.

USC recently hosted the second annual International Society for Integrated Disaster Risk Management conference in an effort to highlight the need to rethink the way disaster risks are managed and to move integrated and implementable approaches for disaster reduction into the mainstream.

The USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development and the USC Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) were two of the sponsors for the conference, which focused on the theme “Reframing Disasters and Reflecting on Risk Governance Deficits.”

“Given the history of earthquakes, fires and other disasters, it’s quite clear that Los Angeles is a logical location for holding this conference,” said Jack H. Knott, C. Erwin and Ione L. Piper Dean and professor. “It’s not a matter of whether L.A. will have a major earthquake; it’s just a matter of when. Being able to deal with that in a resilient way is essential.”

The three-day conference drew scientists and researchers from around the world to lead more than 20 sessions discussing varied topics such as post-disaster recovery, resilience as an approach to integrated risk management, risk and communicative surveys, economic analysis of disaster, climate change, and disaster communication and governance.

Japan’s earthquake and tsunami in March was a prominent topic at the conference due to its ongoing consequences and the society’s ties with Japan. The International Society for Integrated Disaster Risk Management was established by a group of researchers in Kyoto, Japan, in 2009 and currently is headed by president Norio Okada, a professor at Kyoto University.

Okada noted that the Japan earthquake and tsunami – and the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant crisis they triggered – have shown that, even in a country with some of the best earthquake and tsunami construction and disaster preparedness and mitigation systems in place, there are gaps in risk management. The disaster caused more than 15,000 deaths and between $200 and $300 billion in economic damage with both totals still rising.

George Apostolakis, a member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, called out a design flaw that played a large part in the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. The structure held up well to the forces from the 9.0 earthquake; however, 40 to 60 minutes later, the tsunami came and waves as high as 14 to 15 meters knocked out the reactor’s emergency diesel generators, disabling the reactor cooling systems and leading to nuclear radiation leaks. Apostolakis said the plant was designed to handle waves only 5.7 meters high.

Apostolakis spoke of the recent report released by a task force formed by his commission to identify lessons that the United States should learn from the Fukushima incident. The task force made 12 recommendations for the 65 nuclear power plants nationwide, including to reevaluate and upgrade, if necessary, their design-basis flooding and seismic protection plans at least once every 10 years and to draw up emergency plans to deal with extended blackouts. The task force will make a longer-term review over the next six months.

“They concluded that a similar sequence of events is highly unlikely in the United States,” Apostolakis said. “Obviously, we are not worried about tsunamis at most facilities. At the same time, there are other combinations of events, like an earthquake causing failure of a nearby dam and flooding the reactor. So we have to consider those combinations now. They don’t recommend that we interfere with the continued operation of the facilities. The longer-term task force will provide us with more reasoned recommendations. The whole idea here is to be methodical with our approach, not to take actions under conditions of panic.”

CREATE researchers focused much of the terrorism risk session on the consequences that a hypothetical large-scale Anthrax attack might have on an American city, following investigations done by Rose, USC psychology professor Richard John, consultant William Burns and CREATE researchers Heather Rosoff, Noah Dormady and Thomas Szelazek. They concluded that the attack likely would result in a dangerous chain reaction of mass exodus of people from the city, business interruption, loss of employment, and depreciation of real estate prices and sales.

Erwann Michel-Kerjan from the Wharton Risk Center at the University of Pennsylvania spoke on Hurricane Katrina’s effect on flood insurance.

Flood insurance purchases increased dramatically the year after the hurricane, yet the rise in interest for flood insurance lasted only a year or two. On average, people keep flood insurance for only two to four years. Michel-Kerjan suggested the National Flood Insurance Program begin offering multi-year flood insurance contracts of two, five or 10 years with lower total annual payments.

Other sessions addressed such topics as combined natural hazards and technological accidents, social vulnerability, critical infrastructure, catastrophe models, disaster recovery, risk communication, integrated risk governance, climate change and the recent Japanese disaster.

A session on mega-cities, organized by Hilda Blanco, interim director of the USC Center for Sustainable Cities, included papers by USC Viterbi School of Engineering professors J. P. Bardet and Petros Ioannou. Other USC faculty who took part in the conference included SPPD’s Genevieve Giuliano and Detlof von Winterfeldt; Naj Meshkati of USC Viterbi; and Andrew Curtis and Manuel Pastor of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Rose, the coordinator for economics at CREATE, as well as a research professor at SPPD, was instrumental in bringing the society’s conference to USC.

“USC really is an international university in many ways, in terms of our research orientation and in terms of the students we attract,” Rose said. “We also have a major emphasis on the Pacific Rim here at USC and within the School of Policy, Planning, and Development. The Japanese disaster last March is very much on people’s minds. We have a strong interest in that event in general and also what it means for us here in the U.S., and that is a major reason why I wanted the conference to take place at USC.”