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What challenges should the United States be prepared for in the event of a natural disaster in one of its large cities?

Discussion Leader: 
Posted Date: 01/11/2016

The recently published HDIAC Journal article "A First Look: Disaster Management Challenges in Lagos, Nigeria" looked at concerns of disasters impacting megacities. 

New York. (Image Courtesy: NASA)


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Good Monday Morning, I am Doug Batson, a geographer with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) serving as discussion leader. I am anxious to hear about the factors surrounding the triggers or thresholds that elevate disaster response from one locality to several localities and/or to the state level.

I believe most of the United States' large cities have significant public transportation. In the event of an emergency or disaster, the cities need to be prepared to keep public transportation running, at least to some extent, to help with evacuations or clearing an area. It seems as though the transportation infrastructure would be affected in some way during many emergencies, so this would require signigicant planning and workarounds to ensure citizen safety and mobility.

Most large U.S. cities lack public transportation other than buses. If some buses are commandeered for evacuation (to include drills) how are reduced service and new bus routes to "safe zones" best communicated? What if the electricity is out? Evacuation drills can do much to inform disaster management but few are of a duration to truly tax and thus assess impacts on public transportation. Getting buy-in from all stakeholders for more realistic drills is difficult when bus routes traverse multiple jurisdictions, i.e. city and multiple counties.

Natural Disasters are difficult to deal with and luckily with advancements in storm tracking and meteorology, it has become easier to predict impending natural disasters. The United States and major metropolitan cities need to be prepared when an evacuation is necessary. One of the challenges that should be accounted for are the large number of people that will be evacuating at one time. There should be designated evacuation routes for different areas set up so major arteries are not blocked in the city, and people are employing all routes to evacuate. This will prevent major delays and traffic jams. Another consideration to keep in mind is to help individuals who are unable to move and do not have the means such as people in hospitals or other care facilities. A plan to help those individuals before natural disasters strike will reduce the need for emergency rescue teams in dangerous conditions. Nothing can prevent a natural disaster, but we as a nation can be prepared to minimize the damage and disruption to our daily lives.

As said above, it is easier to monitor and predict weather and other precursors to natural disasters than in the past. Awareness of other data, such as the mapping of flood and earthquake prone areas, are also beneficial in protecting critical supplies such as food and other emergency provisions as well as when planning construction. Preventing critical roadways, or even houses from being placed in flood prone areas prevent future complications during a disaster. When construction in these areas cannot be avoided entirely, steps to reduce the impact of a natural disaster are necessary. Areas prone to earthquakes can be built with earthquake-resistance materials, whereas in areas where flooding commonly occurs infrastructure can be elevated to reduce the chance of being affected by floodwaters.

There are many different types of natural disaster emergencies, including geological hazards (e.g. earthquakes, landslides), weather/storms (e.g. floods, drought, hurricanes), wildfires, etc. Natural disasters can have an effects on health, social, and economic environments and can trigger other types of disasters, including infectious diseases (e.g. crowding associated diseases, vectorborne diseases) and radiation emergencies (e.g. nuclear power plants, radioactive waste sites). Natural disasters are uncontrollable and unpreventable; however, for effect disaster management, it is important to plan in order to prepare, respond, and recover from a natural disaster, but also keep in mind the larger picture of other chain reaction disasters when planning.

Key areas to consider for disaster management are reviewing historical disasters that have affected the area, collaboration and training with all levels of responders (federal, state, and local), public awareness of how to prepare or respond to an disaster, researching vulnerabilities in the event of a disaster, and development of emergency response tools, for example WISER (Wireless Information System for Emergency Responders), that contain hazardous material information.