Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tornadoes in Oklahoma

Once again, central Oklahoma is the bull’s-eye for an outbreak of killer tornadoes. I have more than a professional interest any time a tornado passes through Oklahoma having spent 4 years living and working there. Additionally, our son still lives in Oklahoma City, so any time we hear of severe weather in that region, it catches our attention. Preliminary reports are that 5 people lost their lives and another 10 are in area hospitals with severe injuries. The death toll may rise of course, but it could have been a lot worse. Tornadoes are common there and most people have had experience with them and know what to do. One anecdote from this event reported on CNN.com illustrates that. The tornado struck a large truck stop on Interstate 40 east of OKC. Workers rushed everyone in the building into the safest room they had, the cooler. Travelers also sought shelter at the truck stop in one of the coolers or the restrooms. The tornado struck the truck stop ripping off the roof and overturning tractor trailers but no one was killed at this location.

My research with Dan Sutter on tornadoes reveals that had this event happened overnight, the death toll would have been much higher. Even a well warned tornado, can be overlooked by residents simply because they were not awake to hear the warning. Additionally, after the sun goes down, tornadoes are difficult to see and even when a warning has been given, some residents want to visually confirm the warning for themselves before they heed the warning. Just to give a sense of the value of tornado warnings, Harold Brooks and Chuck Doswell of the National Severe Storms Laboratory estimate that prior to the National Weather Service issuing tornado warnings the fatality rate from these storms was 1.8 per million. Today it is .11. This suggests that fatalities, without our current warning system could be more than 16 times higher than they were today. So instead of 5 fatalities we could be looking at the potential of having almost 100 from this event. Tornadoes are scary partly because of the power they posses but also because of their unpredictable nature. But, we are fortunate to have a dedicated, professional staff of forecasters who provide valuable warnings and do indeed save lives.

Monday, April 19, 2010

You Can't Fight Mother Nature

It is perhaps ironic, but a researcher in natural hazards, finds himself at the mercy of a natural hazard.  I am talking about the Iceland Volcano, which has not had any fatalities, but may prove fatal to some businesses in Europe, most notably, airlines and the travel industy.  Today is the fifth day of closed airspace over Europe.  I was supposed to be presenting research in Munich on Friday, travel to Bratislava for a Fulbright Lecture, then take the night train from Vienna to Zurich for another conference.  Well, let's just say that plans have changed, at least somewhat.  Munich and Bratislava were cancelled but I do plan to make it to Zurich, but by train, from Oslo.

This event is certainly a lesson for modern society.  The disruption in air travel has created absolute chaos in a number of areas.  Passenger travel is the obvious one, but for many there are alternatives, like my changing to a train, which is easy to do in Europe.  But there are other areas that will be hurt as well.  Delivery of goods, particularly perishable goods are in real trouble.  It has been very easy for urban areas to have fresh fruits and vegetables available year round.  We simply had them flown from warmer regions with lower labor costs.  But, without air service, that produce will rot in warehouses.  An event like this reminds us of how vulnerable that delivery system is.  The airline industry in Europe was in a precarious state to begin with.  For some airlines, the loss of business could be the last straw.  My cancelled flight was on SAS.  SAS announced that if the disruption continued into this week, which it has, they would begin laying off 2500 workers.  BBC is reporting that as an industry, airlines are losing $200 million a day.  This is day five, so that would make the costs to the airlines at $1 billion.  But, it occurs to me that a bigger concern to the airlines could be the realization on the part of travelers of the inherent uncertainty of flying.  The last time this volcano erupted was in 1821 and it erupted on and off for almost 2 years.  As travelers take this into consideration when making their plans, will it cause them to consider alternatives, like ferries and the train?  Will it cause travelers from other continents, like North America to stay home rather than taking the risk of being stuck across an ocean from home?  The last thing the European economy needs now is a reduction in tourism.  Greece is perilously close to defaulting on their sovereign debt, while Portugal and Spain are not far behind.  Our world is inter-connected in ways that are not obvious until something like this happens.

Bottom line, you can't fight Mother Nature.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010



The project I am developing while in Norway deals with the socio-economic consequences of landslides.  Most of my work, up until now, has focused on wind hazards, tornadoes and hurricanes.  Before my arrival in Norway, Uganda suffered serious damage and fatalities from a landslide and just yesterday 95 souls were lost in the mudslides that occurred in Brazil.

In the US, the US Geological Survey estimates that in an average year 1 to 2 billion dollars worth of damage are attributed to landslides and over 25 lives are lost.  This is damage and casualty totals similar to tornadoes, yet landslides do not receive the same amount of attention in the media.  My project will merge data on landslides and some of the precipitating events such as thunderstorms and wildfires with demographic data to attempt to create a damage profile of this hazard.  The data on landslides has been obtained from a hazard database maintained by the University of South Carolina called SHELDUS1.  My thanks to Susan Cutter and her colleagues in compiling this data for researchers to use.

Before I left for Norway, I was interviewed for a short syndicated television segment on tornado warnings.  The first station to pick it up is WCPO in Kentucky.  Here is the link:

This week I will be presenting my research to the Economics Department at the University of Gothenburg, in Gothenburg, Sweden.

1Hazards & Vulnerability Research Institute (2009). The Spatial Hazard Events and Losses Database for the United States, Version 7.0 [Online Database]. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina. Available from http://www.sheldus.org "

Landslide Photographs are provided by the International Centre for Geohazards, a research centre of the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Hazard Mitigation

Becoming an academic is a second career for me after spending 17 years in the corporate world.  I knew little about what kind of research I would pursue.  My only inclination was that it would likely be somehow related to my corporate experience which was working in various capacities for an electric utility.  Providence was kind, however, and I was at the right place and the right time to begin a research agenda in a very new, and sparcely populated arena.  While still in grad school, I was asked if an economist can contribute anything to the issues of wind related hazards.  This invitation came from engineers, who knew little about market effects or how people may respond to risk, but not knowing any better, I jumped at the chance.  My first project is still one of favorite topics and that is the valuation of hazard mitigation.  First, what do we mean by mitigation?  Think of the story you learned as a child about the three little pigs.  One built his house out of straw, the second built his house out of sticks and the third took the time, energy and no doubt money, to build his house out of bricks.  Not surprisingly, the day comes that the big bad wolf is looking for dinner and has no trouble destroying the homes of the first two pigs.  The home of the third pig is a different story.  It was built to withstand the possibility of enduring an attack by the wolf. 

The metaphor can be applied to so many things in life but to me, it has a direct lesson for hazard mitigation.  Mitigation simply put is what you do before the hazard arrives to protect or mitigate the damage.  If you ask an engineer if he can build a home that can take anything the wolf has to dish out, most of them will answer in the affirmative.  But the economist asks if the mitigation is something that people (the market) actually want.  For many years, the assumption among professionals in natural hazards has been no.  The prevailing wisdom was that people simply ignore the potential of disaster and behave as the first 2 pigs in our story.  How can we test that hypothesis?  Simply asking people is one way but it has the disadvantage of receiving answers that may not hold up if the same people are required to purchase the mitigation.  I have been involved in several studies that look at the question a different way.  Do residential homes which contain features that mitigate against the hazards in this region, sell for a different price than homes which do not?  In other words, is there a market premium for homes which would be more like the brick home of our story?  As it turns out, the answer is yes!  We have conducted studies in markets which would be exposed to hurricanes and markets that would be exposed to tornadoes and in both cases, there is a positive and significant increase in the sales price of a home which contain features that would mitigate the damage from an eventual disaster.  This is not to say that everyone who moves into that community feels compelled to purchase mitigation.  But, enough do that it is reflected in the sales prices of real estate in those communities.

This has quite a bit to say about public policy in dealing with natural hazards.  If you really believe that people are not going to do what is best to protect them from the hazard, the only option to protect the public is to undertake policies which require or force them to do so.  But, if there is a market for mitigation, the options for policy makers are increased rather dramatically.  Now, we can entertain the idea of providing market incentives which would be voluntary.  In other words, we can nudge the market rather than replacing it. 

My time in Norway has so far been a wonderful experience.  Last week I presented some of my research on tornadoes to the Norwegian School for Life Sciences.  This week I travel to Brussels to meet with the staff at the Centre for Research in the Epidemiology of Disasters.  They maintain a large database, EM-DAT, on disasters which is used by researchers all over the world.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Norwegian Geotechnical Institute

My sabbatical is being spent with the International Centre for Geohazards which is a unit of the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute in Oslo. ICG has been selected as a Centre of Excellence by the Research Council of Norway.  This is a unique organization, which participates in pan-European projects related to natural hazards.  There are only 2 full time employees of the Centre.  Most of the projects they conduct are done by visiting scholars, such as myself, and a small army of graduate students from all over the world.  NGI maintains several apartments in Oslo which are used by the visiting scholars and graduate students.  It surely made my transition easier since I did not have to find a place to live while I am here.

One of my first impressions is that it has the feel and energy of the graduate students who are here.  These young people, most of who are working on their dissertations, keep a certain level of excitement about their work that is infectious.  It reminds me of my grad school days and how everyone would anxiously talk about their projects to each other.  I do have to keep reminding myself that I am the “old guy” in the room. 

My project will be used to set some benchmarks for a pan-European project on landslides called Safeland.  It is funded by the European Commission and is a collaborative effort among many universities and institutes in Europe.  I am using data on US landslides from the database compiled by the University of South Carolina (SHELDUS) and am merging that data with demographic data in the hope that we can produce a “profile” of landslide damages.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Fulbright Program

It is quite an honor to be selected as a Fulbright Scholar and I am mindful of the role this program plays in international scholarly exchange.  Meeting some of the other “Fulbrighters” in Oslo is humbling.  These are amazing scholars who represent the US and their home institutions well.  I am fortunate to be a part of the current group of scholars. 

Last week was my first week in Oslo and most of it was spent in perfunctory chores; getting a bank account, resident permit, etc.  The bright spot was meeting the Fulbright staff here in Oslo.  Their energy and enthusiasm is infectious.  Prior to my arrival, I knew this was going to be a wonderful opportunity but the Fulbright staff has really made that expectation real.  Anyone considering application to the Fulbright program would do well to look at the opportunities in Norway.  Their web address is:

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Economics of Natural Hazards

Natural hazards have fascinated and frightened us since earliest times.  From Noah’s flood to Pompeii’s volcano, natural disasters form a terrifying theme in ancient literature.  In modern times, scientists have dramatically increased their understanding of these events, while engineers have designed buildings and infrastructure that minimize the destructive effects of natural hazards.  It is only recently, however, that social scientists have begun to examine the impact these events have on society at large, as well as policies intended to lessen those effects.  Perhaps the most obvious “societal impact” is the economic costs of hazard events on individuals and institutions.  In the aggregate, these costs can be huge.  Hurricane Andrew caused 16 billion in insured losses and perhaps twice that amount in uninsured losses.  Thirteen years later, Hurricane Katrina, cost an estimated 34 billion in insured losses and over 200 billion in federal outlays not to mention the horrific number of casualties.  Economists are interested in finding ways to reduce the impacts of disasters, but also the effects these events have on labor, financial and other markets affected by community disruption.

My hope for this blog is that it fulfills two purposes.  First, I will serve as a Fulbright Scholar in Norway with the International Centre for Geohazards during Spring 2010 and the blog will give me a venue to chronicle this experience.  Secondly, I plan to continue the blog as my research on this topic evolves.