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PACEspectives: Natural Disasters and Aid

News Story

This month, PACEspectives takes a look at the recent uptick in major natural disasters, and examines the policies and attitudes that may help us moving forward.

The year 2017 will be remembered for many things—among the various markers of turmoil will likely be the uncharacteristically large amount of devastating hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and natural disasters that may very well be occurring with increasing frequency. For this month’s PACEspectives, we enlisted a few experts to help us understand how to think about natural disasters, aid, and their affect on the economy and environment in the 21st century.

John Nolon, JD
Distinguished Professor, Elisabeth Haub School of Law

The relationship between climate change and natural disasters is clear. What is not so clear is what local officials in Miami-Dade County or Houston could have done to lessen the impact of the devastation. By adopting land use policies that led to the paving over of flood-plains, wetlands, bayous, and swamps, the trap was set. Nature provides sponges and channels for storm water and prevents flooding, soil erosion, and surface water pollution. In these places, among many, many others in our country, elected officials and voters do not yet understand how much the natural landscape matters and that, as our settlements expand, those landscapes must be incorporated in—not paved over. In built-up areas, restoration is possible. Green infrastructure can be promoted that increases tree canopies, vegetative ground cover, green roofs, absorptive street medians, and recreational areas, to name a few.

Our students know all of this, and they are rightfully concerned—if not thoroughly frightened. They will live in the future that our current land use policies have created. They recognize, regardless of their ideology, the problems on the ground. They will be educated here and propelled to promote positive change. We have the tools; we have the hands to employ them. We need to hasten our Pace, as Irma and Harvey have so clearly demonstrated.

E. Melanie Dupuis, PhD
Professor, Environmental Studies and Science
Dyson College of Arts and Sciences

There is no such thing as a “natural” disaster. Disasters happen when the decisions people make to build in a particular place or a particular way make the people who live there more or less vulnerable. In other words, every disaster history has a pre-history.

A number of scholars are uncovering those disaster pre-histories, and the lessons they can tell us. Based on their work, we know that many of the areas so devastated by Hurricane Katrina were those that had been hit hardest by the previous major hurricane, Betsy: right after the storm, redevelopers were presenting plans to rebuild neighborhoods that were still under four feet of water. The question becomes: how do we build with nature in a way that lowers the chance that the next storm will be disastrous? When do we need to decide not to build at all, to leave the vulnerable shoreline alone and to live elsewhere?

Staten Island has become the prime example of a place where people are making hard decisions about where to harden against storms, when to build higher, and when to not rebuild. Nature will always give us storms, and with climate change, we can expect nature to give us more. But whether storms become inevitable disasters will depend as much on our human decisions as on the speed of winds.

In light of the recent devastation in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, we encourage you to learn more about donation relief and what New Yorkers can do to help by visiting the website. Additionally, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Black Student Union, and Dean for Students Office invite you to donate diapers, baby food, feminine hygiene products, batteries, and first aid supplies. Donations will be accepted through October 13 from 10:00 a.m.4:00 p.m. at 41 Park Row, Room 913.