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How communities can prep for ‘the big one’

When it comes to natural disasters, no place in the United States is completely safe, according to Northeastern University professor and community resilience expert Stephen Flynn. Whether it’s an earthquake or a storm, catastrophe is inevitable.

One region where earthquake preparedness has recently come into particularly sharp relief is the Pacific Northwest. A story published this week in The New Yorker, detailed the potential for that region to be devastated by a major earthquake and subsequent tsunami in the coming decades.

Whether or not a specific community succumbs to such a natural disaster, Flynn said, will depend on how its resiliency and preparedness are woven into the fabric of everyday life.

Stephen Flynn

Stephen Flynn, professor of political science and founding co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security. Photo by Brooks Canaday

“There really has never been a risk-free place to live on the planet,” said Flynn, who is a professor of political science and the founding director of Northeastern’s Center for Resilience Studies. “Where people will increasingly choose to live are the places that can cope with these scenarios really well.”

Regardless of the city or the natural disaster facing its residents, Flynn said there are four core elements that communities need to consider when preparing for such a catastrophic event.

Improve natural disaster education

Flynn noted that scientific advances have enabled experts to better understand natural disasters and their risks. Now, he explained, experts need to better educate—and prepare—communities for potential disasters by sharing their geospatial analyses and forecast models with them.

‘Bake’ resiliency into urban landscape

According to Flynn, coastal cities such as Boston and Seattle need to incorporate possible risks into their urban landscape plans in addition to their built infrastructure. Cities, he added, also need to consider how the natural environment can be used as an ally in safeguarding cities.

“We have to think beyond constructing floodwalls and stronger structures and look for ways that our communities can be better integrated into the ecosystem of which they are a part,” Flynn said.

Design incentives

It’s important to incentivize property developers if you want them to invest in resilient infrastructure, Flynn said. Sweetening the pot, he explained, will compel builders to design structures with the potential for natural disasters in mind.

Coordinate recovery

Prevention is important, but so too is recovery. Flynn explained that when a natural disaster hits, government agencies and industry sectors—from water and transportation to fuel and communication—must band together and coordinate their efforts.

Flynn said one of the most innovative approaches to dealing with a tsunami is taking place in the Netherlands, where some 55 percent of housing is located in areas prone to flooding. The country’s “Room for the River” program, Flynn noted, is focusing less on building barriers to stop rushing water and more on creating ways to direct the water to areas where it would cause the least amount of damage.

“The Dutch are trying to figure out how to live with the risk and direct the water in a way that causes the least amount of harm, while also allowing communities to quickly get back on their feet after the water recedes,” he said.

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