Natural disasters are taking an increasingly alarming toll on humanity. Do we need to rethink public policy for dealing with them?
Our system for financing recovery from natural disasters is in shambles. New policies that promote shared risk and responsibility are needed. The devastation caused by recent large-magnitude earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan provides a chilling preview of what could happen in a major urban disaster in the United States. The damage to modern buildings and infrastructure cannot be simply written off as bad construction practices. For the first time in human history, we are approaching a moment when more people worldwide live in cities than in rural areas, and many of those cities are located in areas prone to earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters.
Computers and communications are boosting performance, but interconnection increases the risk of a technological domino effect. The infrastructure of the United States-the foundations on which the nation is built-is a complex system of interrelated elements. Those elements-transportation, electric power, financial institutions, communications systems, and oil and gas supply-reach into every aspect of society. Some are so critical that if they were incapacitated or destroyed, an entire region, if not the nation itself, could be debilitated. Continued operation of these systems is vital to the security and well-being of the country.
Today’s system puts the lives of first responders and the public at risk. What’s needed is a nationwide broadband network, and policymakers now have a perfect opportunity to act. At 9:59 a.m. on September 11, 2001, the first of many evacuation orders was transmitted to police and firefighters in the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Police heard the order, and most left safely. But firefighters could not receive the order on their communications equipment—even as people watching television at home knew of the tragedy unfolding. When the tower fell 29 minutes after the first evacuation order, 121 firefighters were still inside. None survived.
To deal with terrorist threats, the government must engage in more deeply rooted collaboration with the private sector. In protecting critical infrastructure, the responsibility for setting goals rests primarily with the government, but the implementation of steps to reduce the vulnerability of privately owned and corporate assets depends primarily on private-sector knowledge and action. Although private firms uniquely understand their operations and the hazards they entail, it is clear that they currently do not have adequate commercial incentive to fund vulnerability reduction. For many, the cost of reducing vulnerabilities outweighs the benefit of reduced risk from terrorist attacks as well as from natural and other disasters.