Vulnerable U.S. cities still beg for action

“Hurricane Katrina was terrible.” The words of Gene C. Ulmer, a professor of geology at Temple, are nothing new since late August. As the death toll in the Gulf Coast region reaches 1,000, it is

“Hurricane Katrina was terrible.” The words of Gene C. Ulmer, a professor of geology at Temple, are nothing new since late August. As the death toll in the Gulf Coast region reaches 1,000, it is important to become aware of other communities in the U.S. that are particularly vulnerable to natural disaster and to learn how to save lives from other potential disasters.

The San Andreas Fault, which hugs much of the coastal boundary of California, is home to our country’s most persistent rock cracking and plate creeping, namely earthquakes. It also splits a number of towns, like Parkfield, Calif., where the U.S. Geological Survey has centered much of its earthquake research since 1985. East of the Rocky Mountains in the Midwest, 800 tornadoes take the lives of about 80 Americans annually. The eastern coast of the United States has rebuilt too many beachfront properties to recall because of storm damage, often without improvement or lessons learned.

To many, these threats are vague and of little personal importance. The Louisiana and Mississippi regions were once just the same. In 2002 scientists suggested that there was a one in six chance of a catastrophic hurricane hitting New Orleans in the next 50 years, causing innumerable deaths if changes weren’t made. Three years later, it is painfully sad that those warnings were as ignored as the 70 percent chance scientists say that a major earthquake will hit San Francisco in the next 30 years, potentially causing thousands of deaths.

It is hard to not draw comparisons between the catastrophic hurricane that finally hit New Orleans and the earthquakes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters that are, in geological time, inevitable. It is impossible to avoid nature, its best and worst exists everywhere, but habit seems to trap too many in particularly risky situations.

In 1857, a 26-year period of frequent eruptions for Mount St. Helens in Washington ended. In the ensuing years, the peak, which rose nearly two miles in the sky, became a picturesque backyard, prompting hundreds of towns to accumulate around its base and in its view. No longer was it the “smoking mountain” that the surrounding Native Americans once called it. On May 18, 1980, an eruption led to the deaths of 57 people. That number was drastically reduced because of an extended evacuation, something that was highly criticized before the volcano’s final blast.

Once people establish their homes, history has shown most are not willing to give them up, especially for the possibility of persistent rains, intense winds or volcanic discharge. Ulmer said “politicians and scientists not talking” is a root cause of many catastrophes, with Katrina being a brilliant example. No leader wants to bear news of death and destruction. Such is the motivation for Ulmer’s devotion to educating.

Through Temple, Ulmer and other professors create catastrophic geology lesson plans for students in grades K-12. Ulmer said people won’t understand the dangers of where they live until they can comprehend the scientific implications of natural disasters.

Ulmer used Naples, Italy, as an example of how education can improve awareness. In the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, perhaps the world’s most famous volcano, Ulmer said the city has pre-determined drills so its citizens can become familiar with the results of an eruption.

Teaching individuals of the potential devastation from natural disasters leads to an enlightened populous who may choose to make their homes farther from regions particularly susceptible to catastrophes.

“In this sense, education can save lives,” Ulmer said in passing, though his words were of immense value. If he has his way, Americans will be better prepared to keep the next natural disaster from being as terrible as Katrina.

Christopher George Wink can be reached at

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