When Prevention is Better than Relief

People donate hundreds of millions of dollars to help people after a disaster – even after a disaster in a wealthy country like Japan – but are unwilling to invest the same amount to save lives before a predictable disaster strikes. But we should be guided by the best estimates of the chance that prevention will save lives, and by the cost of saving those lives.

PRINCETON – When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March, Brian Tucker was in Padang, Indonesia. Tucker was working with a colleague to design a refuge that could save thousands of lives if – or rather, when – a tsunami like the one in 1797 that came out of the Indian Ocean, some 600 miles southeast of where the 2004 Asian tsunami originated, strikes again. Tucker is the founder and president of GeoHazards International, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to reduce death and suffering due to earthquakes in the world’s most vulnerable communities.

Padang is one of those communities. Just to its northwest, in Banda Aceh, 160,000 lives were lost in the 2004 tsunami. Now, geologists say, the fault that triggered that tsunami is most likely to rupture farther south, putting low-lying coastal towns like Padang, with a population of 900,000, at high risk of a major earthquake and tsunami within the next 30 years.

In Banda Aceh, the tsunami killed more than half the city’s population. In Padang, according to an estimate by the director of the city’s disaster management office, a similar tsunami could kill more than 400,000 people.

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