In Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, residents and authorities had several days to brace for a looming disaster in the form of this year’s horrendous hurricanes. In hindsight, they didn’t do enough. There are things we can learn from their experiences.
Thanks to modern atmospheric science, the Caribbean islands, Texas and Florida all were warned about giant storms while they were still far off in the Atlantic. In each case, the hurricanes’ exact tracks gradually came into focus in forecasting models, with the odds of harm spiking from very little to very likely. It was like watching from a distance as a drunken driver swerved back and forth across the highway before finally crashing into a gas pump.
Until advances in geology and our understanding of Earth’s plate tectonics initiated in the 1990s by professor Brian Atwater, our coast was completely ignorant about subduction-zone earthquakes and tsunamis. It is as if we were Caribbean villagers who not only didn’t know about the hurricane barreling toward us from just over the horizon, but didn’t even suspect such disasters were capable of happening. Atwater and his colleagues opened our eyes.
After 20 years of research, scientists believe that in the next 30 years, the Pacific Northwest has about a 10 percent chance of a magnitude 8 to 9 megathrust earthquake on the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Ten percent isn’t very frightening and 30 years is more than a third of an average American lifetime. Odds are pretty good that we living here today will be long gone before this epic cataclysm occurs. On the other hand, when it was still forming in the Atlantic, the odds were remote of Hurricane Maria hammering Puerto Rico. Yet it happened.
Average people — including our elected leaders — are bad at assessing risk and understanding probabilities. On top of that weakness, there are inherent limits to how much to prepare for threats that are legitimate but which have uncertain or distant timelines. We all know we’re going to need to retire someday, but how many make enough effort to save for that eventuality? It’s even easier to procrastinate about disaster preparedness.
The mess in Puerto Rico informs us that even with the vast assets of federal government, getting help to where it’s needed can take weeks after a worst-case disaster. It’s possible the Trump administration or territorial government could be doing better, but even the most competent agencies are going to be hard pressed to deliver medical triage, potable water, rations and fuel to remote areas where highways and bridges have been destroyed.
In the calm before the storm, it’s important to remember that money spent on science can save lives. The behavior of subduction zones still isn’t well understood. Perhaps research can provide reliable clues about when the Cascadia zone is about to break loose.
Also highlighted is that even in the worst circumstances, individual actions do make a difference. The enormity of threats can’t be allowed to paralyze us into inaction. It’s up to each of us to help our neighbors whenever need arises, and to take common sense precautions on our own behalf — everything from keeping bottled water on hand to signing up for first aid and Community Emergency Response Team classes.