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January 5, 1996 E-mail:

Lessons Learned from Natural Hazards

ALEXANDRIA, VA -- Disaster: at the very least, the word suggests destruction -- a sure headline grabber. But precisely because they do capture the public's attention, geologic disasters provide valuable learning opportunities for both scientists and citizens. In the January 1996 issue of GEOTIMES, scientists and public officials share what they've learned from coping with geologic hazards, and offer suggestions for improved management and risk-reduction policies.
"Does government have the responsibility to protect people from investing in risky property any more than from investing in risky stocks?" asks Jeffrey R. Keaton, with AGRA Earth & Environmental, Inc., of Salt Lake City. Most communities are complacent about geologic hazards until they have weathered a few, he reports in the article, "Geologic Hazards and Risks: Who is Responsible and Why?" Communities respond to disaster by enacting zoning laws and revising building codes, while lending institutions insist on insurance policies. Yet some regulations are unduly cumbersome and restrictive. Keaton suggests a better policy would be to improve public education programs so that people don't make the mistake of investing in property which is geologically at risk.
A geographer and an earth scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver agree. Much of the recent development in many large metropolitan areas of the United States intrudes upon unstable terrain, write Lynn M. Highland and William M. Brown III in "Landslides: The Natural Hazard Sleepers." And despite the popular assumption that landslides are a western problem, cities such as Chicago and Cincinnati are also landslide prone. Furthermore, widespread development of smaller communities, especially in the intermountain West, creates abundant new exposure to landslide conditions.
Perhaps no state has more serious natural hazard conditions than Wyoming, writes James C. Case, a geologist with the Wyoming State Geological Survey in Laramie. Earthquakes, landslides, shrinking-swelling clays, active sand dunes, naturally occurring toxic elements (such as radon, selenium and arsenic) and mine subsidence are common in many areas of the state. Working closely with the USGS Landslide Hazard Reduction Program, Wyoming has begun a landslide mapping project. Information about areas at risk is provided to television and radio stations, newspapers, and magazines throughout the state -- sometimes by telephone. In fact, suggests Case, the best way to increase public awareness of hazards is to pick up the phone and start talking to members of the press. It works.
Coming up ... GEOTIMES publishes its annual Highlights Issue in February. Scientists representing more than 40 earth-science disciplines report on trends, controversies, and breakthroughs in their professions during 1995.

GEOTIMES is published by the American Geological Institute, a nonprofit federation of 29 member societies representing earth and environmental scientists. AGI also produces GeoRef, an online bibliographic database of more than 1.9 million geological references that serves a worldwide geoscience community.

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