Congressman Scott Peters

Representing the 52nd District of California

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The State - Preparing for the worst should be a nonpartisan issue

Aug 21, 2013
In The News

Susan Cutter (Guest Columnist) -

— As the peak of hurricane season is rapidly approaching and one of the rainiest Julys is in the record books for South Carolina, it is time to reflect on a simple truism: No one and no place is immune from disasters.

Disasters pose significant risk-management challenges. Losses are escalating (reaching billions of dollars), and government costs of disaster response and recovery are rapidly increasing as well. We need to reverse this loss trend by reducing the impacts of disasters before they occur, not afterward.

We must become more proactive in our approach to disaster losses by increasing our resilience. For example, individuals and communities must realize they are their own first lines of defense against disasters, and the decisions they make about where to build, how much to invest in hazard mitigation and what land use, zoning laws and building codes to use will influence their ability to respond to and recover from disasters. Present disaster policies lack mechanisms for fostering disaster resilience, instead privileging short-term gains and interests over long-term commitment and investments for the future. As a nation and a state, we lack a sustained commitment to reducing disaster risks.

What does it take to increase our state’s and the nation’s resilience to hazards and disasters? First, we need to break the cycle of dependency where actions at the local level often increase the disaster risk but the locals assume none of the responsibility for ill-advised development, instead expecting that federal or state resources will be forthcoming after an event. Second, we need to build and foster a culture of resilience for communities. Third, we need to coordinate disaster-resilience activities that are fragmented and duplicative across all levels of government. And finally, we need better ways to measure progress toward achieving resilience.

A recent report by the National Research Council provides a path for enhancing disaster resilience. A bill based on the report’s recommendations was introduced this summer in the U.S. Senate by Sens. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss. (S.904), and in the U.S. House by U.S. Reps. Scott Peters, D-Calif., and Peter King, R-N.Y (HR.2322). Co-sponsors of the bills are lining up, but at the moment the S.C. congressional delegation is noticeably absent in its support.

Our state and its flagship institution are doing their part, however, through our leadership in hazards and disaster science. The new International Center of Excellence in Hazard Vulnerability and Resilience Metrics in the University of South Carolina’s Geography Department will help develop innovative ways to measure and monitor disaster resilience.

Disaster resilience is not a partisan issue; it is a national imperative. If there were a vision and culture of resilience, our communities, our state and the nation would become safer, stronger and better able to withstand the impacts of disasters and recover quickly.

If we could divert some of the billions of dollars now used for disaster response or recovery and instead invest these resources today to build resilient communities for tomorrow, we would save not only lives but money as well. Building resilience to disasters is everyone’s responsibility, not just a responsibility of governments, political parties or the private sector.

We need to move beyond responding to the crisis of the moment and work collaboratively to manage our risks and enhance resilience for all sectors and all communities. Disaster resilience is not something we think about in our two-, four- or six-year election cycle window. It needs to become the basic fabric of our communities and our everyday lives, as we never know when or where the next disaster will occur.

Dr. Cutter, a USC distinguished professor of geography, chairs the National Academies committee that wrote the report “Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative.” Contact her at

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