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When Disaster Hits Home
Architecture Professor Calls for Policy Initiatives to Speed Recovery from Natural Disasters

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs
Posted January 20, 1999

Photo: Collapsed Building

The "soft" first story of this San Francisco apartment building collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

This week's shared anniversary of two major earthquakes -- Northridge on Jan. 17 five years ago and Kobe exactly one year later -- is a wake-up call for the kind of policy initiatives proposed by architecture professor Mary Comerio.

An internationally recognized authority on post-disaster reconstruction issues, Comerio has spent the better part of 20 years visiting the aftermaths of hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

What she's learned from her reconnaisance missions, and by tracking down elusive data on losses and recovery, is that neither society nor individual homeowners are prepared to recover the costs of natural disasters likely to strike disaster-prone and densely populated areas of the United States.

Unless new policies are adopted, she said, such events will continue to leave economic and housing recovery disasters in their wake.

Comerio's policy proposals include a reconception of the government's role in disaster recovery; government intervention to reenergize the private disaster insurance market; and tax credits for mitigation -- the modifying of buildings and infrastructure to improve resistance to hazards.

"Every technical report on damage to housing in earthquakes and hurricanes," she said, "makes it clear that much of the damage could have been avoided through mitigation and preparation. Lowering the cost of recovery by lessening the potential for damage is the single most effective disaster recovery policy."

According to Comerio, mitigation "has been given lip service as the national strategy for reduction of disaster losses. But no substantial policies have yet been put forward to tie mitigation to the cost and availability of insurance or the availability of public assistance for disaster recovery."

Mitigation measures such as bolting a house to its foundation or adding hurricane clips to a roof may seem like a "no-brainer," she said. "Yet despite efforts at public education, people are not voluntarily improving their homes and commercial buildings."

The disincentive for mitigation, she said, "is that people believe FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) will take care of them."

Changing that perception "will probably take a major disaster in which people can't get the assistance they expect," Comerio said.

What her data reveals is that "minor" structural damages -- to chimneys, porches, carports, plaster and the like -- can add up to major economic losses for individuals and a region. Comerio found that the average insurance claim per household in the Northridge earthquake was $40,000 -- and some 200,000 home owners made claims.

After Northridge, she says, home owners and local governments received $20 billion to $30 billion from the federal government and insurance companies. Payments for Hurricane Andrew were comparable.

But the present system of disaster recovery, Comerio notes, was never designed for major urban disasters involving insurance payments and/or government loans on such a scale.

In future urban disasters -- made likely by dense populations in disaster-prone Florida, the Eastern seaboard, and California -- "the chance is virtually nil that such large payments will ever again be made to a single metropolitan area to finance disaster repairs," she said.

In "Disaster Hits Home: New Policy for Urban Housing Recovery," Comerio's new book from University of California Press, she supports her case with a rare assemblage of rigorously checked data on damages and reconstruction efforts for each of six disasters studied -- hurricanes Hugo and Andrew and the Loma Prieta, Northridge, Kobe and Mexico City quakes.

Problems caused recently in Central America by Hurricane Mitch "are not different than the patterns I have described in this book," said Comerio.

She calls the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch "a mirror for what could happen here in the U.S. in future disasters. Everywhere in the world, recovery requires capital and the willingness to reinvest."


January 20 - 26, 1999 (Volume 27, Number 19)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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