Disasters have caused tremendous loss of life and property around the world especially in the United States. This trend has seemingly increased in the 1990s. The conflict between natural disaster occurrences and choices of places where people want to live has often proven to be the cause of these losses. The government, at the federal level and state& local level has consequently increased their role in disaster recovery. Although traditional responses to disaster have entailed reactive measures like preparedness, response and recovery, more attention is being paid in recent times to proactive responses of hazard mitigation. Simply defined, hazard mitigation is advance action taken to reduce or eliminate the long term risk to human life.
The governmental intervention especially by the federal government has involved drafting and implementing legislation starting from the first disaster relief act in 1950 to the more recent Stafford Act in 1988. Since then, other piecemeal plans and proactive measures like NAPA’s report, Coping with Catastrophe (1993), NFIR Act (1994), and Office of Technological Assessment’s report recommending an action-oriented approach instead of an information provision approach has signaled changing trends in disaster management. Agenda 21, an action agenda adopted at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Summit focused on reducing natural hazards and encouraged proactive measures for disaster management. Uses of new concepts like ecological footprints as a way to understand the implications of consumption and development patterns helped to identify the regional trends in population toward disaster vulnerability.
Federal acts like the Stafford Act which is increasingly used to combat disaster recovery outlined the “provision of orderly and continuing federal assistance to state and local government to alleviate suffering and damage caused by disasters.” But recent trends have moved away from federal responsibility to holding individuals and local governments responsible for increasing susceptibility toward natural disaster. State and local governments are now required to evaluate the nature and extent of vulnerability to effects of natural hazards and accordingly develop systematic hazard mitigation plans. There also has been a significant shift in implementing ‘softer’ approaches such as watershed management, land use planning, using flood insurance and storm insurance as disincentives, and increasing awareness regarding relocating from vulnerable areas as opposed to traditional ‘hard’ structural solutions like levee construction.
The government has realized the importance of moving people out of harm’s way rather than continually fund reconstruction and recovery post-disaster. The federal government also makes federal assistance subject to condition before disaster strikes and adjusts share of federal assistance in order to get state and local governments more involved in disaster mitigation. This is supported by upping the level of public education and awareness of locating in high-risk velocity zones and inventorying and disclosing all properties within the flood hazard zones.
Another school of thought talks on the use of sustainable communities to fight a more sustained battle against disaster recovery. Emphasis on high density development and efficient use of space and land outside the high-risk areas that are susceptible to disasters like flooding, earthquake, and hurricanes is the hallmark of sustainable-oriented mitigation. Sustainable communities effectively balance risk against other preferable social and economical goals. It promotes a closer connection and understanding of the natural environment instead of the traditional school of thought of dominating nature.
Sustainable communities better understand the interconnectedness of social, economic, and environmental goals. Of course, this requires a new ethical posturing that errs on the side of caution and helps us refrain from actions that may have serious or long-lasting effects on our survival. Understanding that sustainable community planning is largely participatory and community based helps delegate more responsibility to the individual to prevent loss from disaster. However, it may also entail clarifying and reestablishing the ethical content of private property ownership and use to see and purse a larger public good.