Disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, floods, tornadoes, and droughts are not only increasing in intensity and frequency, they are also striking the same place multiple times. Yet, to date, disaster research largely focuses on individual events, and fails to account for legacy effects that leave people vulnerable in the wake of repeated disasters.
To improve predictive capacity to better prepare for future disasters, an interdisciplinary team of researchers has developed a novel framework for improving scientific understanding of ‘recurrent acute disasters’ (RADs). Their work was published today in Science Advances.
Study co-lead Steward Pickett, an urban ecologist at Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, says, “Recurrent acute disasters impact a specific place over time. Each event can create legacy conditions that shape the effects of subsequent disasters. As RADs become more frequent and intense, examining disasters as linked, rather than isolated, events will be critical to improving disaster science, preparedness measures, and outcomes for affected communities.”
Driven in part by climate change, population growth in at-risk locations, and inadequate disaster preparedness, RADs pose an increasing threat to environmental quality, economic activity, and public health and safety. Examples of events that are beginning to interact in sequence include wildfires in the American West, extraordinary floods in Europe, and massive hurricanes in the Caribbean. Impacts of these sequences of events disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, including those of low income and persons of color, who are traditionally underrepresented in disaster governance, policy, and recovery planning.
The paper’s authors propose a framework to guide future research on recurring acute disasters that accounts for: spatial relationships among recurring disasters; a holistic view of the ‘human ecosystem’ including the state of critical resources, demographics, and social institutions at a given point in time; and trends in legacy conditions – whether effects intensify or diminish (or both) between disasters. Puerto Rico is used as a case study for how a RAD approach to disaster recovery could improve outcomes and build resilience.
Coauthor Miguel Román, former Program Director at the Universities Space Research Association, explains, “Understanding legacy conditions – the lasting behaviors and consequences created by one disaster that influence effects of subsequent disasters – can help emergency managers identify hidden threats and response needs. Ignoring legacy effects can cause gaps in preparedness plans.”
Román continues, “Consider Puerto Rico, which was hit by a series of RADs between 2017-2020, including hurricanes Irma and Maria, a subsequent drought, and the January 2020 earthquakes. These events have led to what we call ‘negative legacy conditions’ including deteriorating energy infrastructure, loss of trust in government institutions, and a health care system under immense strain. Because these legacy conditions exacerbate social, environmental, and infrastructure vulnerabilities, efforts to prepare for future events must take these factors into account.”
Pickett contends that the disaster research and response community is well positioned to adopt a RAD-based approach with the help of emerging data sources and online tools: “Numerous sources of data and new analytical methods could be leveraged to monitor and identify legacy conditions soon after a disaster. These include things like data collected by satellite and social media, new computer modeling approaches, and mobility tracking. Our framework could help organize these information streams to better understand what happens during and in the aftermath of disaster events.”
Establishing a more thorough understanding of recurring acute disasters could inform building codes, public health regulations, private insurance premiums, emergency communications, and community preparedness training. The authors note that to reduce risk from future disasters, preparedness programs should update incident response plans to include specific consideration of how previous disasters have altered the response landscape and available resources.
“This research is an important new step toward understanding how legacy conditions created by one disaster influence the effects of subsequent disasters,” notes Professor Gary Machlis of Clemson University, who was the lead author and co-led the study. “In particular, adopting RAD-sensitive disaster and recovery policies should help improve outcomes for vulnerable communities. Increasing our understanding of recurrent disasters has the potential to advance disaster science, improve issues of equity and environmental justice, build resilience, and ultimately save lives.”
Pickett concludes, “The recent IPCC report from the UN confirms that the extreme events that generate many disasters will increase over time. For the disaster management community, including partner scientists, it will be necessary to convert the RAD-based predictions of legacy conditions into specific preparedness actions that reduce vulnerability to later disasters.”
Machlis, G.E., M.O. Román, and S.T.A. Pickett. 2022. A framework for research on recurrent acute disasters. Science Advances. 8, eabk2458. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abk2458
Gary E. Machlis, Clemson University
Miguel O. Román, Universities Space Research Association
Steward T. A. Pickett, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies
Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies is an independent nonprofit center for environmental research. Since 1983, our scientists have been investigating the complex interactions that govern the natural world and the impacts of climate change on these systems. Our findings lead to more effective management and policy actions and increased environmental literacy. Staff are global experts in the ecology of: cities, disease, forests, and freshwater.
Universities Space Research Association (USRA) Founded in 1969, under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences at the request of the U.S. Government, the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), is a nonprofit corporation chartered to advance space-related science, technology and engineering. USRA operates scientific institutes and facilities, and conducts other major research and educational programs. USRA engages the university community and employs in-house scientific leadership, innovative research and development, and project management expertise.
Clemson University One of the most productive public research universities in the nation, Clemson University attracts and powerfully unites students and faculty whose greatest desire is to make a difference in the lives of others. Ranked among the best national public universities by U.S. News & World Report, Clemson is dedicated to teaching, research and service. Its main campus, located in Upstate South Carolina, sits on 1,400 acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains along the shores of Lake Hartwell. Clemson University has a presence in every South Carolina county through research facilities, economic development hubs, and innovation campuses. Through the research, outreach and entrepreneurial projects led by its faculty and students, Clemson University is driving economic development and improving quality of life in South Carolina and beyond.