Planning for Natural Disasters

Is it really possible to plan for a natural disaster?  After the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, it is virtually impossible not to ponder this question.

There is abundant information in circulation on preparing for natural disaster.  Around the world, economists have studied the long-term economic repercussions; governments and NGOs alike have contemplated mitigation practices; scientists have evaluated our ability to improve warning systems; and engineers and planners have attempted to overcome our building, and infrastructure weaknesses.  But mitigation of natural disasters is complex.  Communication, safety, and land use planning are all crucial.

Japan is considered to be on the forefront of disaster planning, and is often touted for its strict building codes.  Most buildings in Japan were built with springs to flex against the shock of an earthquake, and roads were elevated away from the water. However, the glaring reality is that even if a building can withstand an earthquake, there’s no guarantee it can withstand a tsunami.  Is there any way to completely plan for every potential natural disaster?  Even with some of the best planning in the world, it will take years, if not decades for Japan to recover from this disaster.  Other than building a massive unsightly wall for a 50-year or 100-year flood, most experts say a good warning system is the best bet.

How does the United States compare to Japan? Have we learned from Hurricane Katrina, or now, Japan?  Are we prepared?  Nearly 900,000 people are within “inundation of a 50-foot tsunami in Pacific states” in the U.S.

Most experts on disaster planning seem to agree that the most important steps in mitigating harm are a widespread communication system and proactive land use planning strategies.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was created in 2003 to deal with natural disasters, has addressed the communication issue with the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). IPAWS links information between several federal agencies to alert and warn communities more effectively in the face of imminent natural disasters.  IPAWS integrates communication between the FCC, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service, and the DHS Science and Technology Directorate.  IPAWS is the first ever nationwide emergency alert system, and is currently being tested and implemented incrementally.  The system anticipates participation with mobile carriers by early 2012, increasing its capability to reach over 90% of the U.S. population and further integration with internet providers.

Several of the same organizations mentioned above have also addressed implemented land use policies with the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program (NTHMP). The NTHMP was designed to reduce the impact of tsunamis on U.S. coastal communities, emphasizes its focus on preparedness of at-risk areas through methods like land use planning.  The plan suggests that this can be best achieved by preventing and/or minimizing development in high risk areas.  It acknowledges the economic and social tradeoffs that often counter these safety goals.  The NTHMP suggests that consideration of the overall impact of the hazard is best evaluated during comprehensive plan revisions, and requires consistency between the plan and zoning and subdivision ordinances.  The program suggests strategies like designating hazard areas for open space uses, restricting further development through land use regulation, and utilizing the comprehensive plan as a tool for identifying potential risk areas to guide future development.

Despite these programs, it is hard not to remain skeptical at best.  Overall, these systems seem like positive steps towards mitigating disaster in the future.  But, what about existing development?  IPAWS will alert people more efficiently, but their homes and communities will be lost.  And, strategies like those suggested by NTHMP will be useful in the aftermath, to zone and plan new development – but doesn’t that feel like too little too late?

Hillary Ellis is a second year law student interested in environmental, water and land use planning law.

Welcome to the University of Denver Sturm College of Law/Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute Blog, a special section of! Here, University of Denver Sturm College of Law students will report on emerging, novel and contested land use and development issues from a sustainability perspective. We believe the development of the American West, and indeed the entire planet, necessitates a closer and more responsible look at not only how we use natural resources but how we build our communities and economies.We invite you to comment and engage with us over issues of interest to you. And we invite you to suggest topics for us to research and report on from our unique perspective as law students. But most of all, we invite you to take these ideas and share them with your friends and colleagues so we can all be involved in a more informed and forward-thinking discussion about our future.