You think Japan and Haiti were bad? Just wait.

FIU professor Richard Olson says if governments around the world don’t get serious about reducing disaster vulnerabilities, hundreds of thousands of people will die, and millions more will suffer. The chair of the Department of Politics and International Relations in the School of International and Public Affairs is an internationally recognized disaster expert. After the Haiti and Chile disasters of 2010, The National Academies of Science asked him to keynote their March 2011 “Disasters Roundtable,” where he assessed the Haiti, Chile and New Zealand disasters. The United Nations invited him to their Global Assessment on Risk gathering in June.

Olson leads a $4.5 million USAID project called Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas that’s working in Chile, Peru, Colombia, Central America and the Caribbean on preventive measures to save hundreds of thousands of lives. Housed in FIU’s Latin American and Caribbean Center, the project involves more than a dozen FIU researchers and facilities.

What’s your assessment of the Japan disaster?

This was a monster earthquake. A 9.0 event is pretty much beyond what most scientists and engineers would say you have to plan against, even in Japan. It was a compound or cascading disaster, with an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear/radiologic event. Still, 98 percent of the population in the principal impact areas survived. Given the vulnerability and the 9-point earthquake that initiated all this, it could have been so much worse. And worse is coming. We have to start, and start now, being more honest about what we’re facing.

We had a global population of about 2 billion in 1900, and they were mostly rural. We’ve now put 7 billion people on the planet, the majority now in cities, some of them very exposed. And the 21st century is when we are going to pay the bills for the 20th century’s population explosion, stupid land use, shoddy construction, and generally unsafe urban growth. My own personal nightmare scenario is for a highly vulnerable city with more than 10 million people where we could end up having a million killed and seriously injured.

Look at Haiti; that was 8 to 10 percent of Port-au-Prince’s population killed. That’s obscene, but if you think that was bad, just wait. I worry every day about Lima-Callao with its 10 million-plus people and Istanbul with 12 million-plus.

Can cities with millions of people ever prepare for these disasters?

Yes, but we have to get real about the vulnerabilities and have the political and economic courage to reduce them. It may sound cold, but I would work on building standards for new construction, strengthening existing structures and revisiting land use so that no more than 1 percent of a city’s population is killed in a disaster. Of course, that would still be 100,000 killed in a city of 10 million, but it sure beats a million killed and seriously injured, don’t you think?

What is your project doing to help minimize the vulnerabilities in Latin America and the Caribbean?

It all starts with risk awareness, followed by more rigorous and risk-sensitive land use and building standards…along with improved alert and evacuation systems. We will never get to true safety for everyone, but in the real world, the best we can aim for is limited loss.

What kind of response do you get in South and Central America when you make these suggestions?

The experts, our colleagues, know. The problem is with political and economic elites who by and large can’t see beyond a few years, a decade or two at most, which is nothing in nature’s clock. There are exceptions, but they are too few, too few.

Other than California’s earthquakes and South Florida’s hurricanes, isn’t the United States pretty safe from disaster?

Not so much. Look at the recent floods and the worst tornadoes in half a century across the heartland. And we are at the 200th anniversary of the greatest earthquake in North American history – with the epicenter in Missouri of all places. The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 there rang church bells in Philadelphia and were felt in New Orleans. It caused the Mississippi River to run upstream.

Oh yes, and let’s not forget the Pacific Northwest, which has a major earthquake fault offshore Seattle-Tacoma much like the one off Sendai, Japan. And you know that beautiful mountain to the east that frames the skyline of Seattle so nicely? It’s a volcano.

I’m afraid to ask you about Miami’s vulnerabilities.

Hurricanes are obviously our biggest hazard, with wind, storm surge, rain and flooding. But look at what we have put in the path of a potential Category 5 hurricane: billions of dollars of real estate on barrier islands. Think about that the next time you’re in South Beach. How dumb is that? And don’t forget terrorist attacks in South Florida. Many of the terrorists for 9-11 had Florida drivers’ licenses.

Are you being a bit alarmist?

I am way past alarm. I really don’t like the idea of my grandchildren going through some mega-disasters and then saying, “Gee, we thought Grandpa and his generation were supposed to be smart. What were they thinking back then?” If we don’t make a major concerted effort to reduce vulnerabilities, we’re going to get shellacked.

A longer version of this article appeared originally in the Fall 2011 issue of FIU Magazine.

-- Deborah O’Neil