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How communities can prep for ‘the big one’

A photo of a seismograph

In the wake of recent research that emphasizes the potential for a major earthquake hitting the Pacific Northwest, there are elements communities need to consider when preparing for such a catastrophic event according to professor Stephen Flynn, an expert in community and infrastructure resilience.

When it comes to nat­ural dis­as­ters, no place in the United States is com­pletely safe, according to North­eastern Uni­ver­sity pro­fessor and com­mu­nity resilience expert Stephen Flynn. Whether it’s an earth­quake or a storm, cat­a­strophe is inevitable.

One region where earth­quake pre­pared­ness has recently come into par­tic­u­larly sharp relief is the Pacific North­west. A story pub­lished this week in The New Yorker, detailed the poten­tial for that region to be dev­as­tated by a major earth­quake and sub­se­quent tsunami in the coming decades.

Whether or not a spe­cific com­mu­nity suc­cumbs to such a nat­ural dis­aster, Flynn said, will depend on how its resiliency and pre­pared­ness are woven into the fabric of everyday life.

There really has never been a risk-​​free place to live on the planet,” said Flynn, who is a pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and the founding director of Northeastern’s Center for Resilience Studies. “Where people will increas­ingly choose to live are the places that can cope with these sce­narios really well.”

Regard­less of the city or the nat­ural dis­aster facing its res­i­dents, Flynn said there are four core ele­ments that com­mu­ni­ties need to con­sider when preparing for such a cat­a­strophic event.

Improve nat­ural dis­aster education

Flynn noted that sci­en­tific advances have enabled experts to better under­stand nat­ural dis­as­ters and their risks. Now, he explained, experts need to better educate—and prepare—communities for poten­tial dis­as­ters by sharing their geospa­tial analyses and fore­cast models with them.

‘Bake’ resiliency into urban landscape

According to Flynn, coastal cities such as Boston and Seattle need to incor­po­rate pos­sible risks into their urban land­scape plans in addi­tion to their built infra­struc­ture. Cities, he added, also need to con­sider how the nat­ural envi­ron­ment can be used as an ally in safe­guarding cities.

We have to think beyond con­structing flood­walls and stronger struc­tures and look for ways that our com­mu­ni­ties can be better inte­grated into the ecosystem of which they are a part,” Flynn said.

Design incen­tives

It’s impor­tant to incen­tivize prop­erty devel­opers if you want them to invest in resilient infra­struc­ture, Flynn said. Sweet­ening the pot, he explained, will compel builders to design struc­tures with the poten­tial for nat­ural dis­as­ters in mind.

Coor­di­nate recovery

Pre­ven­tion is impor­tant, but so too is recovery. Flynn explained that when a nat­ural dis­aster hits, gov­ern­ment agen­cies and industry sectors—from water and trans­porta­tion to fuel and communication—must band together and coor­di­nate their efforts.

Flynn said one of the most inno­v­a­tive approaches to dealing with a tsunami is taking place in the Nether­lands, where some 55 per­cent of housing is located in areas prone to flooding. The country’s “Room for the River” pro­gram, Flynn noted, is focusing less on building bar­riers to stop rushing water and more on cre­ating ways to direct the water to areas where it would cause the least amount of damage.

The Dutch are trying to figure out how to live with the risk and direct the water in a way that causes the least amount of harm, while also allowing com­mu­ni­ties to quickly get back on their feet after the water recedes,” he said.

-By Joe O’Connell

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