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Living with risk: Yes, but don't you love the view?

Guest Opinion: An emergency management expert on why Washingtonians choose to live in areas vulnerable to a tsunami. Or an earthquake. Or a volcanic flow.
A place in Puyallup: a Holdeman family refuge with a number of risks.

A place in Puyallup: a Holdeman family refuge with a number of risks. Eric Holdeman


The average person doesn’t necessarily think about risk on a daily basis, which makes most people novices when it comes to understanding and calculating risk. There are many factors that make people accept risks that should give them pause if they really understood the odds. Perhaps this positive mental attitude is why we go to Vegas thinking that we might actually win big money — if we only get lucky.

The people living in Oso impacted by the mudslide never imagined that a disaster of the magnitude that hit them would ever really happen. In my work in emergency management, including as emergency management director for King County I have personally found people very comfortable with living with risk. What drives us as people to ignore facts comes in what I call the four stages of denial. 

Stage 1: It won’t happen. That is to say that whatever the risks are of an earthquake; hurricane; tornado or an asteroid hitting the earth — these things won’t happen. 

Stage 2: If it does happen, it won’t impact me. Sure disasters happen, but I’ve never suffered personal loss, so why should I expect it to happen to me in the future. After almost every big disaster, especially floods, we read of some old-timer saying, “I’ve lived here all my life and never seen anything like this!” We are particularly bad at telling geological time. We should not be using 60-to-80 year increments of life to predict what will happen.

Stage 3: If it does happen, and it does impact me, it won’t be that bad. We minimize what the potential impact might be. We’ve lived through storms, earthquakes, wildland fires before and we’ve been just fine. We’ll muddle through, always have, always will.

Stage 4: If it does happen and it is that bad, there is nothing we can do — we’ll all be dead anyway. It is this fatalist attitude that clears the conscience of any personal responsibility. A religious person might call it an “act of God”; therefore, “What can you do?”

In the coming weeks and months there will be plenty of legal action in Snohomish County with people suing government for not telling them about a slide hazard in the area where they chose to live. It will take years of litigation before all the cases are resolved. 

I strongly believe that on a beautiful sunny day last summer, if someone had gone house to house with information and maps explaining what the slide history has been in the past for the area around Oso the people would have listened politely and not changed their behavior, put their home up for sale, or even purchased land movement insurance due to the additional cost in premiums. Why is that? Because they liked living there in that spot. They had a beautiful setting in which to live. They were near nature and wildlife, enjoyed the peace and quiet, walking along the river, walking the trails up into the nearby woods. If they had a cabin, it might have have been a place where generations of a family had enjoyed their summers.

I am confident of my above conclusions because the same setting and other natural hazards abound in Washington and people do not change their behaviors. They deliberately ignore potential natural hazards in favor of the other benefits that come with living in a location that puts their property and personal lives in danger. 

The cities of Orting, Sumner, downtown Puyallup, Fife and other environs will someday be obliterated by a lahar coming off Mount Rainer when it eventually erupts again and sends its concrete-like slurry racing down the mountain side. Yet living in the valley is preferred by many.

The beaches of Ocean Shores and Long Beach will be swept clean like we’ve seen done in recent history in both Thailand and Japan from the tsunami that will follow a Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake. The cities of Westport and Aberdeen will look like the Japanese fishing villages with boats carried inland and a match-stick like pile of rubble left behind. And, yet we build new homes on the beach and “love being near the water” and watching those winter storms come in. It is just so relaxing to take a weekend and “get near the water.” 


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Mar 31, 5:25 a.m. Inappropriate

So what's the point, then, of this entire article? Are we all to cower in the fetal position in some quake-proof bunker?

ivan

Posted Mon, Mar 31, 7:38 a.m. Inappropriate

Yes, cower in a fetal position, that is it.

Look, there is nowhere "safe". Safe is what your tolerance is. The government may well tell you "here is our take", but they do not have perfect knowledge.

You drive/ride in a car? If so, you are at tremendous risk. You take that, we all take that. No telling what/when will happen to you.

Short of cowering, make informed, researched decisions, and go on with your life.

All sorts of punditry going on around this subject. Ambulance chasing, lack of personal responsibility (the county let me do whatever), all crapola. You are a competent adult, make your choices, and quit finger pointing like a bunch of playground children.

Since the glaciers receeded, land has reorganized, live with it, and enjoy.

Geezer

Posted Mon, Mar 31, 12:16 p.m. Inappropriate

I tend to agree. It's reasonable to assume that the properties in question were available at a price that, however subliminal, acknowledged and reflected the hazard (the flood hazard is obvious, mudslide less so). Trying to find a culprit, the logger, DNR, Snohomish County, is unseemly. Like geezer says "ambulance chasing". Sometimes bad things happen but there's no one to blame.

kieth

Posted Sun, Apr 6, 1:14 p.m. Inappropriate

" It's reasonable to assume that the properties in question were available at a price that, however subliminal, acknowledged and reflected the hazard "

Why? Its pretty good bet that the sellers didn't tell the purchasers anything about potential hazard. I've never heard of a County Assessor taking landslide vulnerability into account when determining comparable properties to base assessment on. And was the area even designated as a Geologically Hazardous Critical Area? I doubt it, considering that new building permits were issued even after multiple reports strongly discussed the hazard.

Steve E.

Posted Mon, Mar 31, 9:01 a.m. Inappropriate

There is no place on Planet Earth that is safe from disaster, and if you think there is, you're lying to yourself, just as much if not more so, than you claim everyone else is who lives in the "danger zones" you speak of. Earthquakes can and do happen anywhere. I moved to WA State 3-1/2 yrs ago from FL where I'd lived for 55 yrs, for many reasons, but the BP Oil spill was the last straw. It was heartbreaking and devastating, and oil spills will continue to happen as long as oil companies refuse to switch from oil to cleaner forms of energy. There are so many ways and times I could have been killed...driving four days cross-country in 2010, driving on snow and ice and over mountain passes, but in 2012 I was almost killed when rear-ended by a very large truck in Woodinville. It's virtually impossible to live in a bubble--and certainly not a climate bubble--so as human beings, all we can do is put one foot in front of the other and try to enjoy what is before us before it is destroyed. Like so many others, I love the mountains and the water, and like everyone else who lives in Ocean Shores, where I moved last December, we know the tsunami risks. I disagree about the lies you ASSume people are telling themselves, and by saying so, you insult the intelligence of people who live in these areas. We know--at least I do--that we might not be among the survivors, but the fact remains that we're not willing to deprive ourselves of what beauty there is left in the world, which is rapidly declining every second. I'm no "spring chicken" anymore, and have a plethora of health problems, so I intend to do and see as many things on my "bucket list" as I'm able, which reminds me, I need to buy flood insurance...

ctuck622

Posted Mon, Mar 31, 10:44 a.m. Inappropriate

And if you become concerned and decide to sell your property to the next unsuspecting person what is your moral responsibility if they are harmed or even killed in the next "event"? And what should be done with the hundreds of thousands of properties in high risk areas? People can't just walk away from their property. King county will buy some high risk flood properties but they can't do that for everyone. So what's the answer? Fetal position, hope for the best, pass the risk along to someone else, walk away from your life savings? Clearly no simple answers here.

nwsrdr

Posted Mon, Mar 31, 12:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Without going overboard there are a number of ways you can reduce your risks from natural hazards. The first thing I would do before purchasing a piece of property is to review the floodplain/channel migration maps, geologic hazard maps, and tsunami hazard maps. Add to this the potential for inundation from sea level rise.

Having worked in the field for 30 years the most common refrain I hear after a flood is something like "I've lived here for 40 years and it never flooded". Guess what? In geologic time that is a snap of the fingers.

Folks will take the time to see if there is a lien on a property, why not check out avoidable hazards. Earthquakes? It's worth thinking about regarding soil types and such - and definitely you should earthquate retrofit your house if it's not up to standards. Urban-wildland fire hazard - avoidable and possible to mitigate for up to a point.

Floodplains, lahar zones, - no friggin' way I'd live there.

Treker

Posted Tue, Apr 1, 9:31 a.m. Inappropriate

Just what part of this country is totally safe from Mother Nature? I can't think of any.

Posted Tue, Apr 1, 12:40 p.m. Inappropriate

These are the exact same 4 points that I have heard from some smart, wonderful, and sometimes irresponsibly underprepared people in my 20+ years of disaster education, planning, preparedness, and response.

It may be helpful to distinguish between hazard and risk. Hazard is the possible event itself and what it does. Risk is the element of danger due to human choices in the face of the hazard(s). Risk perception and tolerance is the main topic as I get it.

The main point as I take it is exactly as he and commenters point out: as communities and individuals, we do varyingly thoughtful and effective jobs at educating ourselves about local hazards, risks, and response capacities, and making decisions accordingly, according to personal tolerance for how much to take of what kinds of risks. We all vary in those preferences. That's America. Go team!

The second main point I get is that it is not necessarily to be an idiot to live with calculated risks; we all do it all the time, and it's just part of being human.

Thirdly, though, and sadly enough, is that we do not seem to do enough to educate ourselves enough, as communities, to make better and more clearly identified and transparent decisions about hazards and risks. Truly some of that is opinion, but facts are available for the inquiring and thoughtful person as well. One fact is that it's (enormously) cheaper to mitigate disaster damages than repair them, and casualties can be avoided or diminished. Conservatives should take note. Second fact: disasters tend to do the most harm to the least resourced amongst us, and often racially disparately; liberals should take note. Third fact: most people harmed by disasters are part of families, and most families can do more and better be prepared without a major layout of cash or time if they plan and pay attention. Flood and earthquake insurance are vital where those events happen, but personally I've seen more people lose everything because of not having renters' insurance. On various issues where you stand maybe depends on where you sit, but there really is something in disaster preparedness for everybody.

Standard family readiness that was normal everyday life two generations ago is not anything the present generation can't learn to appreciate and perform, and we'll all be better off for it. Maybe the only positive element of the Cold War was the appreciation for the need for plans and abilities for congregate care, sheltering, and feeding. We have variously performed since then across time and geography. Overall, I believe our capacities in those departments have degraded. Examples are everywhere.

I appreciate the article very much because I believe that it is important and valuable to live consciously, and to lead communities as citizens and families as well as "leaders." "If the people lead, the leaders will follow." Pass the word.

Dennis D. Tate, MPA
Chattanooga, Tennessee

TNMPA

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