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Why do we tempt fate by building in disaster-prone areas?

The Cure for Catastrophe

Robert Muir-Wood
Oneworld Publications
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In the opening pages of The Cure for Catastrophe, the author describes a harrowing scene from the aftermath of a devastating earthquake: “Ruins spilled into the street. Second-floor rooms missing a wall, wallpaper torn, a child’s artwork flapping, a bed covered with debris. Clothes, a saucepan, school bags, family photographs strewn in the dirt.…” Mother Nature provides a rich source of material for novelists. But this is no work of fiction.

The book, by Robert Muir-Wood, is a welcome and long-overdue addition to the disaster literature that recognizes and confronts the paradox of societies’ mostly sluggish approach to dealing with vulnerabilities to natural hazards. This is in stark contrast, for example, to our rapid response to aviation safety or terrorist threats. “Repetitive loss” is common for floods, for example.

In eloquent prose, Muir-Wood recounts disasters of the past millennium from a variety of perspectives: historical accounts; natural process science; structural engineering; building codes; land-use regulation; risk estimation; risk management; insurance and reinsurance; and, perhaps above all, political processes and priorities. His message for the future is hopeful but demands changes in both policy and culture.

Is it realistic to believe there is a “cure for catastrophe?” Muir-Wood acknowledges that it won’t happen soon. Changing a culture takes time and political will. Even where resources are abundant, there are plenty of incentives to maintain the status quo. For example, the wealthiest individuals and communities often choose to live in harm’s way so as to enjoy the benefits it confers. As Kaye Shedlock noted, “active tectonics makes for beautiful landscapes,” and, despite the risks, oceanfront property is undeniably desirable.

The Cure for Catastrophe is beautifully written, thoughtful, and rigorous. Although the book includes 63 pages of notes, which will serve future scholars, the main text is accessible to a general audience. I found it a pleasure to read.

About the author

The reviewer is in the Office of Surface Water at the United States Geological Survey, Reston, VA 20192, USA.