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How to Break the Cycle of ‘Disaster, Rebuild, Repeat’

lawrence, gary, aecomThe tragic mudslide that occurred on March 22 in the small 180-person town of Oso, Washington, is the second weather-related disaster in the space of 16 months that has touched me personally. In the early part of my career, I was Deputy County Executive of Snohomish County in Washington state, a county government hitherto unknown to anyone outside the immediate area, the commercial aviation industry, loggers, and recreational Steelhead fishermen.  It is the home of Boeing’s manufacturing facilities for the 767, 777 and 787.  The Stillaguamish River, now damned up behind the slide, was one of the world’s most pristine fisheries.  Oso, like too many small communities around the world, has now achieved global renown as the site of tragedy. Today, it takes its place in a media arc that wraps around the globe and reaches back over the decades — small communities suffering as nature does its thing.

The latter part of my career has been spent in New York City where, in November 2012, I was one of those evacuated during Superstorm Sandy. I was one of the lucky ones, evacuated due to inconvenience rather than hardship. Many are still suffering 1-1/2 years later and 285 people lost their lives.

The real tragedy of both of these events, and too many others around the world, is that they were foreseen, foreseeable — and, at least to some degree, preventable. I have talked before in this column about our ostracization of nature, our tendency to view violent weather-related events as some malevolent, conscious force against which we must rise and do battle. I have also shared my views on our complicity in such weather-related disasters such as our insistence upon living in places that are vulnerable and our haughty destruction of any natural buffers that obstruct our sea views or beach access.  Add to this the perverse mindset that drives us to “show nature who’s boss” by rebuilding the exact same thing in the exact same place that was our downfall.

If we cannot relocate en masse to environments better suited for human habitation, then we must learn to live more sensibly in our chosen, less hospitable environments.  Climate change is exacerbating the variability and intensity of weather patterns and events.  There is no great appetite to mitigate the behaviors that compound climate change. We seem more inclined to resist and adapt to the resulting weather impacts. If this is the case, we are going to have to choose to live in places where there is less geological risk and where weather impacts can do less damage. And, in those places, we are going to have to create much better design.

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