After the storm: dealing with natural disasters

Flooding2 November 2012

As the United States has begun to pick up the pieces after hurricane Sandy moved on from the east coast into Canada, estimates so far suggest a death toll of 98 people, over £12 billion in damages and a cost to business of over £18 billion.

Communities hit by natural disasters are faced with a major challenge when it comes to recovering, but experiences from previous events can help us find the most effective response. An ESRC-funded study led by Professor Lena Dominelli explored community responses after the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China – including survival stories from children and teenagers. The research has resulted in a unique bank of research data providing insights into effective community responses.

"These stories show that there is no one-size-fits-all response, but that success in promoting resilience and wellbeing involves constructive, helping relationships that are both specific to the location and are culturally relevant," comments Professor Dominelli in a recent ESRC press release.

Preparing plans in the case of natural disasters are crucial for protecting lives and property. An ESRC-funded Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with KTP Associate Cátia Guimarães and Oxford Brookes University developed and tested business continuity/disaster recovery plans for the large InterContinental Hotels Group. Disaster recovery plans direct hotels' response in times of crisis to protect guests and staff from risk of injury or death. The KTP team's work led to a successful evacuation of affected hotel sites during earthquake and tsunami events, and prevented any casualties at corporate sites in Japan during the tsunami.

Threats to infrastructures, a strand of the RCUK Global Uncertainties programme, focuses on how events such as natural disasters can impact on society. The Increasing Resilience to Natural Hazards programme aims to build resilience in regions exposed to risk from earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The research explores how to improve forecasting and response to scientific advice, and increase the understanding of vulnerability and risk.

The RCUK Living with Environmental Change programme also looks at natural hazards as one of the research areas. Probability, Uncertainty and Risk in the Environment is aiming to improve the assessment of uncertainty and risk in natural hazards, looking at extreme weather events, flooding, earthquakes and 'flow hazards' such as landslides and avalanches.