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Fall 2005 Vol. 5 No. 3

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©Bryan Leister Rounding Up Disaster Experts

Before an audience of emergency management officials, meteorologists, and disaster researchers that was gathered at the National Academies this past March, Shirley Laska, director of the Center for Hazards Assessment, Response, and Technology at the University of New Orleans, warned of the risks a category 4 or 5 hurricane posed to her city -- including an inability to evacuate carless residents and the possibility that levees could give way to an overwhelming storm surge. No one in the room knew how horrifyingly prophetic her remarks would become in six months' time.

Laska was speaking to the National Research Council's Disasters Roundtable, which meets at least three times a year to bring together experts in hazard reduction and disaster response for a dialogue on what lessons can be learned from past disasters and how to better prepare for future ones. Besides hurricanes, recent roundtables have focused on last year's devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean; how sprawl is putting more homes in the path of forest fires; and what the "emergency manager of the future" will look like. Roundtable steering committee member Dennis Wenger, a program officer at the National Science Foundation, which funds many of the roundtable's activities, said the workshops help to drive research agendas and to put important disaster issues on the radar screens of policy-makers. Wenger says its meetings attract some of the nation's foremost experts. "The roundtable provides a forum for free and open exchange," he said, adding that they also afford a rare opportunity for "good interaction" among officials from different agencies.

Previously called the Natural Disasters Roundtable, the group dropped the "Natural" in its name to reflect the inclusion of terrorism in its discussions. In fact, Wenger notes that a meeting held in the aftermath of Sept. 11 helped dispel the notion that the country was treading in completely uncharted waters when it came to confronting terrorism in the homeland. "We helped officials realize that there's 50 years of disaster research to draw on."

The government's disjointed response to Hurricane Katrina and why warnings about New Orleans' vulnerability to a storm of such magnitude seemed to have gone unheeded will undoubtedly be the topic of an upcoming roundtable meeting. Meanwhile, this fall the Research Council is expecting to release a study -- in progress well before Katrina -- reviewing plans by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remediate erosion and wetland losses along Louisiana's coastline, which, as Laska pointed out in her March presentation, are adding to the region's susceptibility to flooding.   -- Bill Kearney

Disasters Roundtable. The Disasters Roundtable is part of the Division on Earth and Life Studies. The steering committee is chaired by William H. Hooke, senior policy fellow and director of the policy program, American Meteorological Society, Washington, D.C. The roundtable is funded by the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geological Survey, NASA, PB Alltech Inc., Pacific Gas and Electric Corp., and the Public Entity Risk Institute. Summaries of meetings are available online.

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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences