NEWS RELEASE, 11/18/98

New housing recovery policies needed after major urban disasters, says UC Berkeley professor in new book

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs

BERKELEY -- Unless new policies are adopted, natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes will continue to leave economic and housing recovery disasters in their wake, according to a new book by Mary Comerio, a University of California, Berkeley, architecture professor.

In "Disaster Hits Home: New Policy for Urban Housing Recovery " (University of California Press, 1998), Comerio writes that neither society nor individual homeowners are prepared to recover the costs of natural disasters likely to strike disaster-prone and densely populated areas of the United States.

An internationally recognized authority on post-disaster reconstruction issues, Comerio has spent much of the last 20 years on reconnaissance missions to the scenes of such tragedies. For "Disaster Hits Home," she tracked down elusive data on losses and recovery at six recent urban disasters - Hurricane Hugo, Hurricane Andrew, and the Loma Prieta, Northridge, Kobe and Mexico City earthquakes.

Comerio suggests policy initiatives to better equip urban areas for housing recovery. Her recommendations include tax credits for mitigation - the modifying of buildings and infrastructure to improve resistance to hazards; a reconception of the government's role in disaster recovery; and government intervention to reenergize the private disaster insurance market.

At present, she said, "you can't get disaster insurance except in places where disasters don't happen. Yet there is nothing that will raise capital for repairs as quickly and efficiently as insurance."

Though the losses she documents in this book are, in many cases, astronomical, Comerio said much of the damage incurred was preventable.

"Every technical report on damage to housing in earthquakes and hurricanes makes it clear that much of the damage could have been avoided through mitigation and preparation," she writes in her book.

"A good disaster recovery program," she continues, "starts with a serious commitment to reducing future damage.... Lowering the cost of recovery by lessening the potential for damage is the single most effective disaster recovery policy."

Comerio said mitigation "has been given lip service as the national strategy for reduction of disaster losses. But no substantial policies have yet been put forward to tie mitigation to the cost and availability of insurance or the availability of public assistance for disaster recovery."

Mitigation measures such as bolting a house to its foundation or adding hurricane clips to a roof may seem like a "no-brainer," she said. "Yet despite efforts at public education, people are not voluntarily improving their homes and commercial buildings."

The disincentive for mitigation, she said, "is that people believe FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) will take care of them."

Changing that perception "will probably take a major disaster in which people can't get the assistance they expect," Comerio said.

The biggest lesson she gleaned from her research was that, in an urban setting, disaster recovery issues become economic, as well as life safety, crises.

"In Kobe, the estimated losses were $90 billion," she said, "and the real losses were closer to $150 billion. That is similar in scale to the savings and loan crash."

Sophisticated advances in surveying technology and geographic information science made Northridge the first earthquake in which minor damages were systematically tracked, Comerio said.

What the data revealed was that "minor" damages in a structural sense - to chimneys, porches, carports, plaster and the like - can add up to major economic losses for individuals and a region. Comerio found that the average insurance claim per household in the Northridge earthquake was $40,000 - and some 200,000 home owners made claims.

She discovered that, after Northridge, home owners and local governments received $20 billion to $30 billion from the federal government and insurance companies. Payments for Hurricane Andrew were comparable.

But the present system of disaster recovery never was designed for major urban disasters involving insurance payments and/or government loans on such a scale, Comerio said.

In future urban disasters, made likely by dense populations in disaster-prone Florida, the Eastern seaboard, and California, "the chance is virtually nil that such large payments will ever again be made to a single metropolitan area to finance disaster repairs," she said.

To support her case, "Disaster Hits Home" includes a rare assemblage of rigorously checked data on damages and reconstruction efforts for each of the six disasters studied.

Available disaster data have typically been highly suspect, Comerio said. In a disaster emergency, "people use numbers to make a point," she said. "If a local government wants to assuage fears, it divides the real loss numbers by two. If the state wants money from the feds, it multiplies the losses by two. To decipher reality from the unchecked statistics in newspapers and government reports is a Herculean effort."

Problems caused recently in Central America by Hurricane Mitch "are not different than the patterns I have described in this book," said Comerio.

She called the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch "a mirror for what could happen here in the U.S. in future disasters. Everywhere in the world, recovery requires capital and the willingness to reinvest."

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