When I started working in disaster risk reduction (does what it says on the tin), one of the first things I learned was to distinguish between hazards and disasters. Hazards are dangerous events, like earthquakes, hurricanes, and extreme cold. We can’t do anything to stop hazards from occurring, although we do seem to be able to make them worse, whether by causing earthquakes through fracking or environmental depredations that make storms more intense.
But hazards do not automatically cause disasters. An earthquake in the middle of an uninhabited desert does no harm; a tsunami may affect plants and animals, but if there are no people or buildings on the coast that it hits, we wouldn’t call it a disaster. It’s the interaction between hazard and human settlement or activity that creates a catastrophe.
Unlike hazards, human and societal decisions are something we can change. If those examples seemed extreme, consider the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a 30-meter wave caused by a 9.0 earthquake that left nearly a quarter of a million people dead, and the 2011 Japan tsunami, a 30-meter wave caused by a 9.0 earthquake that killed fewer than 20,000. Or the magnitude 7.0 Haiti earthquake in 2010 that killed more than 100,000, and the magnitude 8.8 earthquake just off the coast of Chile in 2010 that killed fewer than 600. No two hazards are exactly the same, but looking at the relative similarities of the events with the massive discrepancy in impacts makes it clear: Hazards are only a part of what causes disasters. The rest is up to us.
Early warning systems, evacuation routes and drills, education, and awareness are all critical elements, especially in rapid-onset disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. But while such preparedness efforts are valuable, the real power of understanding that disasters are not natural cuts deeper. Practitioners often summarize it with the formula R = H x V: Disaster risks are a product of hazards and vulnerabilities. Poor construction is a vulnerability that turns earthquakes into deadly disasters. Lack of access to clean water can turn an outbreak of cholera into an epidemic.
You’ll notice that these vulnerabilities, fatal when they intersect with a hazard, are not good at other times either. A poorly built house may collapse without an earthquake, or cause stresses and costs and health problems in a multitude of long-running ways. The lack of clean drinking water can be deadly even without a disease outbreak, but when it happens individual by individual and without a frightening word attached, we pay less attention.
This means that we can work backward from crisis to see the underlying weaknesses in a place. Disasters, with their compressed time frames and intense media attention, reveal the long-running problems that residents might tend to accept as “normal” or inevitable and the inequities that people in power prefer to ignore.
The Hurricane Katrina evacuation plan was very successful, but only for people with cars, showing how city and regional public transportation failed citizens on a regular basis. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, horrifically, how unequal access to medical care, often racially correlated, has led to chronic, preventable health issues across broad swaths of the U.S. population. The extreme cold in Texas this week has underlined a utility sector designed for short-term profits rather than robust provision of essential services.
As our societies become more industrialized, even natural hazards start to mingle with human-made impact multipliers. Floodwaters after Katrina and in Houston in 2017 were contaminated with industrial byproducts and chemical overflow. The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant meltdown was only the most noticeable of the natural-industrial interactions after the 2011 Japan tsunami; offshore oil tanks thrown into cities by the waves triggered devastating oil fires.
There’s a reason governments like to talk about disasters as natural, or as acts of God, or as unprecedented and unimaginable: It absolves them of responsibility, not only for the specific preparations that should have mitigated the disaster, but also for the underlying conditions that hurt their populations every day and are exacerbated into visibility when a hazard hits.
If we think too much about it, we might start to demand better. If we think too much about it, we might start to question why a hurricane that kills 1,000 people is labeled a disaster but gun violence that leads to 30,000 deaths per year isn’t, and unsafe water in Flint, Michigan, and other places in the U.S. isn’t, and poverty isn’t, and lack of health care isn’t. If we think too much about it, we might want a change.
There is some good news. This close linkage between everyday inequalities and societal weaknesses and disaster impacts means that we can prepare for disasters by making our normal lives better. Improving public services like transportation, communications, electricity, and water infrastructure will make our cities and rural areas more resilient to disaster. Ensuring people don’t have to go to work when it’s unsafe for them to do so—whether because of a communicable disease or a looming hurricane—will lower disaster casualties. Affordable, accessible health care for all will mean that individuals and their communities are better able to survive difficult times, whether that means a week of cold temperatures or a dangerous flu season.
Nothing is going to eliminate hazards—or even disasters—completely. But as the tragedy unfolding in Texas this week reminds us, we can do much more to save lives and live better.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.