Our Beautiful World

The Hawai'ian Volcano Observatory


An excerpt from the HVO's 'Volcano Watch' newspaper column;

The main function of the HVO is to reduce the risk from volcanic activity. People commonly think in terms of hazards reduction when they actually mean risk reduction. Hazards are the natural events that can occur in a given area and the likelihood that they will occur in a given time period. Risk is a measure of the financial and human costs associated with the occurrence of such events. Nothing that we, as a society, can presently do will reduce hazards, but we can reduce risk by a proper risk management.

The biggest problem for risk management at any government level is that risk management addresses a long-term problem, and government is not particularly good at long-range planning, nor at spending the money to reduce long-term risks. Government at all levels tends to be reactive rather than proactive. Each disaster, natural or otherwise, galvanizes government and the public to support efforts to reduce the risk of similar future events. Each major disaster also spawns a temporary flood of money to reduce future risk. Government agencies respond to these influxes of funding by hiring new personnel to address the particular hazard responsible for the most recent disaster. However, once the disaster is off the front page, public and political support for these programs rapidly dwindles, usually returning within a few years to the same level as it was before the disaster. The USGS has experienced these funding fluctuations following the eruptions of Mount St. Helens in 1980, Mauna Loa in 1984, and after each large and damaging earthquake. However, such large fluctuations frustate the development and implementation of well-thought-out programs to address risk reduction.

At Hawai'i, the most important method of hazard mitigation is land-use planning. After identifying high-hazard areas, it is possible to dramatically reduce risk by not building or living in these areas or, more reasonably, by limiting the density and type of development that can occur in these high-hazard areas. Land-use planning is particularly effective for floods and tsunami, but also in the two highest lava-flow hazard zones. In proper land-use planning, hazards are identified and quantified, and the political will to use the information is set in motion. There are costs associated with either underestimating or overestimating the hazards in the area. If the hazard is underestimated, human and property losses will be higher than the society is willing to accept. If the hazard is overestimated, development is unnecessarily curtailed.

The next step to reducing risk from natural hazards is to build structures that will withstand the expected hazard. In Hawai'i, this means building structures that will withstand the forces of hurricane winds and earthquake shaking. The primary tool at the disposal of society is the adoption and enforcement of appropriate building codes for the expected hazards. The key to appropriate building codes is, as in land-use planning, identifying the hazards and quantifying their severity, adopting appropriate codes, and enforcing those codes. Identifying and quantifying geologic hazards are specific goals of the HVO. As with land-use planning, there are costs associated with either over- or underestimating the hazards. If the hazard is underestimated, many structures will be damaged and society will suffer larger losses than we were prepared to shoulder. Overestimating results in structures stronger - and more expensive - than necessary.

There are two other necessary factors. The third is the development and maintanence of early warning systems to collect information about impending disastrous events. In Hawai'i, this is enforced by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, the USGS' HVO, and by the National Weather Service for hurricanes and flooding.

The step in risk reduction that we, as a society, do best is to have response teams that are trained and ready to act in emergencies. Correct information must be available for the emergency service response teams as to where the damage is most severe, so they can go to those areas quickly. Here on Hawai'i, such response activities are coordinated by Civil Defense but includes other groups such as fire, police, the Red Cross, hospitals, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). These agencies can be overwhelmed if the hazard is not properly identified or quantified.

The final step in a risk reduction program is public education and information so that the public and officials, who represent and serve them, are informed about the hazards that may cause future disasters. One way in which the HVO achieves this is through a weekly 'Volcano Watch' column that is issued to all local Hawaiian papers and is also available on the Internet.

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