Rothkopf: Preparing for Megadisasters

The most shocking thing about the disaster in Haiti was not that it was so sudden, violent, and horrific in its human toll. It's that the damage was so predictable. Seismologists warned that the country was at risk as recently as two years ago. Haiti is also the latest in a string of nearly annual megadisasters extending back through the past decade, calamities claiming tens of thousands of lives more because poverty and the forces of nature met with foreseeably tragic consequences.

During the Clinton administration, I helped lead an interagency effort to assist the country after our intervention there in 1994. Our reasons for wanting to help were not, of course, entirely or even primarily charitable. While we acted out of a sincere commitment on the part of a president who is now the U.N. special envoy to that battered country, we naturally also worried that further social disintegration would result in waves of unwanted immigrants arriving on our shores. Viewing tiny Haiti primarily as a source of problems for America has been—after neglect—the single most important driver of U.S. policies toward that country since its independence.

Traveling regularly to Port-au-Prince, I could not help but be struck by Haiti's vibrancy or its largely untapped promise. Nor, sadly, could I ignore the deprivation or the petty infighting among the island's elites that blocked Haitians from the few opportunities at progress that ever wafted across their shores. We tried to help, to organize business missions, to mobilize funding of local projects, to apply comparatively low-voltage policy paddles to the heart of a nearly lifeless economic victim. But given the island's manifold, often heartbreaking, problems—weak governance, feeble infrastructure, illiteracy—it was clear that our efforts would likely be only palliative.

And it was also clear that America's interest would wane and Haiti would remain on life support. Year to year, such countries receive just enough aid for them to fade from our consciousness and consciences. Development dollars seem to have two purposes: buying friends we may need to advance specific national interests and renting a little peace of mind by postponing calamity. But inevitably the money is too little, and countries like Haiti come crashing into our lives with the next crisis—almost invariably a crisis that is more costly in human and financial terms than the steps we might have taken to prevent or mitigate it in the first place.

Weep as one might at the pictures now streaming out of Port-au-Prince, what is sadder still is that it is just the latest example of a blight to which the international community has devoted too little attention and too few resources. Take every terror attack in the past 20 years. Add every airline crash. Add SARS or H1N1. Add many of the diseases whose causes are championed by high-profile telethons and gala fundraisers. The total death toll pales when compared with what might be called the world's megadisasters. Before Haiti, an estimated 70,000 people perished in 2008's earthquake in Sichuan, China. Before that almost 150,000 died when the cyclone Nargis struck Burma. In 2005, the death toll from an earthquake in the mountains of Kashmir approached 90,000. The year before, in the greatest such recent disaster, the Indian Ocean tsunami killed perhaps 230,000.

While the events seem disparate, in each case telltale traits recur. Fragile communities of the world's most vulnerable people were forced by circumstance to root themselves in treacherous soil—near shorelines but below or too near sea level, on mountainsides, and in cities along fault lines. As in the case of Haiti, scientists warned that the situations were precarious. As in the case of Haiti, local governments failed—often due to lack of resources—to establish or enforce minimum building codes or to put in place the infrastructure that could make warning, escape, or rescue likely.

These stunning calamities are almost inevitably reported as "out of the blue" events, "acts of God," proof of fate's fickleness. But in fact they are a class of global threat as real and as manageable as pandemics or many of the other problems with which the international community grapples. We could take several more meaningful steps to prevent natural disasters from becoming megadisasters: establishing and effectively promoting best practices for building, safety inspection, and remedial construction that can work in impoverished settings; sharing technical know-how; providing early-warning technologies; better training societies and preparing the international community to respond; providing essential infrastructure; and where necessary relocating communities or providing needed sea walls, retaining walls, structural supports, survivable power, water systems, and first-response capacity.

Organizations like the United Nations have made earnest and periodic efforts to address these concerns. But the results have clearly fallen far short of what is required. Would it be expensive to promote these changes more fully? By what measure? Tens of billions? Yes. Hundreds of billions? Perhaps. But compared to the cost of the war in Iraq or the Wall Street bailout? Just a fraction. To the human cost of the disasters themselves? Incalculably less.

Current trends—from rising seas and the changing severe weather patterns associated with global warming to the rapid, often poorly planned urbanization of the developing world—mean megadisasters will only become more likely. Wouldn't it be fitting—and a sign that we appreciated the true costs of what has happened in tragic Haiti—if the rebuilding there became a case study in how the international community can work together to develop new standards, new designs, and a genuine commitment to reducing the risk of such calamities in the future? A reborn Port-au-Prince could be a showcase for ideas about affordable, durable housing, for enhanced regional cooperation—and for how we can apply lessons that have been learned at an unfathomably great cost.