Sunday, January 5, 2020

Book Review: 'Disaster by Choice: How Our Actions Turn Natural Hazards Into Catastrophes' by Ilan Kelman

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Disaster By Choice is an odd sort of book. Its very reasonable premise is that people choose to undergo disaster and they don’t have to. But the book is mainly a recounting of numerous disasters – fires, floods, volcanos, tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes, in small detail, following people who struggled, or survived, or died.

Ilan Kelman also tells the stories of various cities that figured out they should work with nature and not against it. They raise streets above flood level, make use of floodplains for flooding instead of roads, rails and housing, require tall buildings to be earthquake-proof and so on. Zoning can prevent building on the sides of volcanoes. Power should be well above flood level. Common sense stuff that few implement.

All this is well known, ever changing, and never totally learned. As Kelman points out, nothing stays the same for long. Cities spread, change shape and density and grow too big to shift around. Weather patterns change. Century storms occur with increasing frequency. No one can predict what’s next, but mostly, individuals don’t prepare for anything. It’s a zero priority in a tight budget. They expect to not have to deal with it in their lifetimes, or perhaps expect the authorities to take care of them. And it costs property owners money – maybe for nothing. None of these strategies work. Disasters produce damage and new costs. You never get the Milton Berle situation where a tornado sweeps through New Jersey, causing ten billion dollars in improvements.

Kelman describes rebuilding in the same places, somehow expecting a different outcome next time. He doesn’t mention that France buys up property at risk after a major disaster, preventing rebuilding and emptying whole towns, cutting its losses going forward. It should be his poster child. He found no experts to add light to the dark, didn’t interview anyone about rebuilding on the same spot, and found no trends gaining momentum or worth watching.

At about 140 pages, the book is a fast read, mostly because there’s little new to digest. Disasters are exacerbated by Man’s activities, and Man does almost nothing to mitigate the risk, preferring to learn the hard way every time. There are no broad solutions beyond the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared. But there are so many potential disasters to prepare for, I don’t know how to choose. Neither does Kelman.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.