Understanding Disaster

Geophysicist Kevin Furlong has spent the past 20 years studying plate tectonics and lithospheric geodynamics—the processes that drive earthquakes and related natural disasters. He has developed a series of courses that focus on the causes and consequences of these hazards, aimed at both general-education and upper-level students. He also directs the Natural Hazards Center at Penn State.

In answer to a recent Research Penn State Probing Question, raised soon after the catastrophic Sumatra earthquake and tsunami of 2005, Furlong commented on the possibility of a giant tsunami striking the United States.

At the same time, he spoke with editor David Pacchioli about a communication disconnect between scientists and society that often exacerbates hazards, and stressed the need for improved education of both the public and disaster professionals in order to create a "thinking response" to natural disasters. Following is a transcript of their talk.

head shot of Kevin Furlong
James Collins

Kevin Furlong

Q:How do we set priorities in preparing for natural disasters?

A:There's always a trade-off. We know now, for instance, that every few hundred years there's going to be a large-scale tsunami in the Pacific Northwest. And a lot of people live there. So it makes sense to spend the money to prepare for such an event and mitigate damage as much as possible.

Then there are events that will have smaller impact, but happen much more frequently. It makes sense to prepare for them, too.

If it's a really major event that's going to happen every thousand years, though, it becomes harder to justify the cost-benefit. Of course if such an event does occur there will be an outcry—For years the government has known about this hazard and done nothing about it. But where is the cut-off? What are we willing to pay for?

The other problem for dealing effectively with events that tend to happen on longer timescales is a lack of stamina. Since the tsunami just happened in Sumatra, it's easy to say we need to install better warning systems. But 10 years from now, when the equipment needs to be upgraded and maintained—it's sitting out in the Indian Ocean, there's going to be breakdowns, it's going to be very expensive—when the disaster fades from memory, does the society have the stamina to keep its guard up?

And then of course you could argue that hurricanes are a much bigger hazard than tsunamis. Devastating hurricanes hit the U.S. every 10-20 years.

Q: What makes predicting an event's impact so difficult?

A:Part of the problem is that these are very complex events, involving lots of factors working in combination. There's not enough appreciation of the complexity.

I was recently in New Zealand, and they were talking about the tsunami hazard there. They should have had a big tsunami from the great Chilean earthquake of 1960, the largest earthquake ever recorded. And in fact they did have a decent-sized tsunami, but it hit during low tide, so it did much less damage than it might have. The tidal range was several feet, and most of the tsunami's energy went into creating a high tide at the wrong time.

That's a kind of subtlety that the general public doesn't really appreciate. They assume, 'Oh, tsunamis aren't too bad. The same is true of a hurricane. A storm is a complex engine. The storm surge can be bad or not so bad, depending on whether it hits during high tide or low tide, and whether it's a time of the cycle when the tides are bigger. These are second-order effects that can totally control how much devastation there is. You try to explain that to the general public and it gets really complicated. Even the 1960 earthquake only did a little bit of damage.'

Did these secondary factors play a role in the response to Hurricane Katrina?

Q:Did these secondary factors play a role in the response to Hurricane Katrina?

A:Katrina was a classic case. The main thing that happened there is that people misunderstood the concept of storm categories.

Those categories are based on wind speed. The storm surge—the height of the water—is driven by a combination of wind and air pressure. When you lower the air pressure, sea level rises.

A storm is a complex machine. &mdash:Kevin Furlong

The ocean is a barometer, in other words: You reduce the weight pushing down on it in one spot and it pushes up somewhere else. So you get this doming of water due to the low pressure. And the winds, if they're pushing in the same direction, they just pile up the water in front of them.

In this case, two things happened that weren't average. First, Katrina had a really low pressure, the 2nd lowest ever recorded. It also was traveling in the same direction for several days, and that's the perfect way to build up a storm surge—the winds just keep adding to it.

Well, then the wind speed decayed a little, and the storm was downgraded from category five to category four. A lot of people—including the TV weather people—were saying, 'Oh, it's a category four now. We had one of those last year, we can handle that.'

The trouble is the storm surge doesn't react instantly. It had built up over 12 hours. It would take 12 or 15 hours for it to decay back down. There wasn't enough time. So the storm surge that came in was still a category five.

It's the difference between just looking at a chart versus really understanding physical processes.

Q:What's the lesson here?

A:It's pointed out a real disconnect between scientists and society. The scientists don't always know what information a person who's designing an evacuation plan really needs. And the people planning the evacuation frequently don't understand enough of the science to even know the right questions to ask.

The same thing happened with the flooding of the Red River [during April 1997], when the city of Grand Forks, North Dakota was flooded out.

Someone had calculated the flood stage. There are computer programs that do this. But they include uncertainties. They say: "Based on this set of factors we think the flood will reach 28 feet, plus or minus 3 feet."

The trouble was, that information, by the time it got down to the people building the levees, went from '28 feet, plus or minus 3 feet' to just '28 feet.' So they built the levee to be 28.5 feet tall. Well, the flood surge was 30 feet. Technically, it was within the original calculation's uncertainties. But there's no half right when it comes to the height of a dike.

Q:Are you saying that current warning systems are inadequate?

A:Emergency systems are based on creating a conditioned response. And that's very important, but we also need better education to allow people to make connections. If people understand why they're doing what they're doing they can adapt to situations.

One of the concerns I have is that we're all trained what to do in the case of a fire in grade school. But if you ask those same kids what to do if an alarm goes off and they happen to be at Wal-Mart, would they know what to do?

The way to ensure they do is through better education, of both the public and disaster professionals.

Q:Is anybody addressing this need for improved education?

A:There are some good disaster-management programs in the U.S.—typically at the master's level. There's one at Delaware, one at Denver, one at the University of Colorado. But they're all in sociology departments. They do a great job evaluating societal consequences, and worrying about stress and logistics, but they have no links to science programs. The students aren't taking meteorology courses. They aren't taking geology.

So they're building a group of people who understand one side of disasters, and we in the sciences are building a group of people who understand the other—and there's a stone wall between the two. And that's really unfortunate.

Q:Is there anybody trying to break through that wall?

A:The group at Colorado is starting to talk to the earthquake-hazard scientists out at U.S.G.S. And there's our own new master's program here, in Homeland Security. It's actually driven out of the College of Medicine, so it has a trauma spin to it. But one of the things they've done is included our natural hazards course as part of the core curriculum. I think it's the only program in the country that does that.

Q:Recent events have spurred a lot of talk about improved disaster preparedness, but as you say, is there stamina for the long-term effort?

A:At some level the federal government has to keep disaster preparedness in the public eye. They have to raise it to a high enough level of awareness.

Q:What do you mean?

At some level the federal government has to keep disaster preparedness in the public eye. &mdash:Kevin Furlong

A:Many people feel that after 9/11 the government may have overcompensated in the focus on terrorism. They wrapped FEMA into Homeland Security, but the reality was that 99 percent of the focus was on terrorism. What we've learned in the last few months is that natural disasters can be equally catastrophic, but that sort of got lost in the shuffle. I'm not pointing fingers, but if it's not a high priority for the federal government, it's not going to be a high priority for the public.

Q:It has to be a national effort.

A:Right. If you live in Oregon and Washington, a tsunami is a high-visibility thing. If you live in Miami, hurricanes are a high-visibility thing. The trouble is we need people in Pennsylvania to realize that hurricanes are important. I was telling my students that one of the things they don't realize is that their car insurance will go up next year because of Katrina. People in Australia—their car insurance is going to go up.

It affects everyone, everywhere. If this big earthquake happens near Seattle and suddenly Microsoft is off-line for six months or a year, that's going to affect the cost of computing. All these things are related.

It broadly comes down to education in the pure sense of the word, not just formal education in the classroom, but at all levels. How to develop a population that has the tools, the understanding to make difficult decisions.

Kevin Furlong, Ph.D., is professor of geosciences in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. He can be reached at kpf1@psu.edu.

Last Updated February 06, 2006