Wednesday, September 20

A hurricane, an earthquake, a flooded supercity: When infrastructure is everything

As Puerto Rico is pounded by the worst hurricane to hit the island in more than 80 years, Mexicans frantically continue to dig through a collapsed school in a desperate attempt to find survivors of a powerful earthquake that struck yesterday. Meanwhile in India severe flooding from heavy rains brought the megacity of Mumbai, the country's financial hub, to a standstill yesterday for the second time in a month. 

Tracking back a few weeks America's fourth largest city, Houston, was brought to a standstill by catastrophic flooding from an extraordinarily destructive hurricane, and last week almost the entire American state of Florida was brought to a standstill by another extraordinary hurricane, which also wreaked destruction on island nations in the Caribbean.

The great good fortune is that the faultline slippage in Mexico's Puebla Earthquake, as it's been named, was 32 miles deep; if it had been shallow then today we'd be looking at a death toll in the many thousands instead of hundreds (about 230 at latest estimate).

In fact the most extraordinary aspect of the extraordinary natural events over the past few weeks has been the low death tolls. Some of this is simply good fortune, as with the Puebla Earthquake and Hurricane Irma's erratic course across the Caribbean and in Florida. Some of it is due to improved infrastructure and disaster preparedness in the wake of earlier severe natural events. 

And no small part of the low death toll in Houston was due to a rescue effort quickly mustered by a large volunteer force of civilians with boats -- an impromptu effort buttressed by the U.S. Coast Guard's numerous rescue operations by helicopter.

But the truth is that disaster from a powerful hurricane will strike Houston again and again in future. The only way to avoid this is not to have situated what became a large city smack dab in a floodplain in Hurricane Alley. Just as the only way for Mexico City to avoid disaster from future earthquakes is to relocate the capital to a far less seismically active region of the world.

Yet it's to Mumbai we must turn for the other side of being philosophical about humans building in the face of Nature's wrath. It's idiocy for urban sprawl to occur in low lying flood-prone regions that depend on 19th century drainage systems. 

And with earthquakes, no amount of disaster drills and rescue efforts can offset the fragility of structures built to 19th century codes. 

Granted, Mexico has made great improvements in its building modernization since the 1985 earthquake, which killed something like 10,000 people in Mexico City alone. But the number 1 point for earthquake preparedness in this era of urban megapopulations is "Modernize faster and better, you fools."

Same point applies to infrastructures built to offset the worst flooding from storms in today's large cities.


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