Planet terror: we all have a role to play in disaster response

19 March 2014

In 2010, a tsunami generated by an earthquake in Chile led to much of Australia's east coast being put on a tsunami alert.

"The detection and warning systems all operated perfectly but what didn't function was people's response - with hundreds, possibly thousands, of people flocking to beaches to witness the arriving tsunami," said Professor Dale Dominey-Howes, from the University of Sydney's School of Geosciences.

The incident perfectly illustrates some of the complexities of responding to natural hazards and their associated disasters, including how our perception of the risk influences our response.

On 19 March Professor Dominey-Howes will present Planet Terror: Is Earth Becoming More Dangerous? at a Sydney Science Forum and will discuss what we can we do about preparing for, and responding to, natural disasters.

Professor Dominey-Howes leads the University's Hazards Research Group in examining some of the major types of natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, tropical cyclones, epidemics and even asteroid impacts with the Earth.

"Understanding where, when, how and why natural hazards and disasters occur is an essential building block for supporting the 'tool box of safety risk management' used by our emergency services and governments," said Professor Dominey-Howes.

"But how individuals, families, communities, governments and businesses all collaborate in the preparation and response parts of the disaster cycle is as important to successful disaster management as informing and educating people about a threat."

For us to improve our disaster resilience we need to recognise that emergency and government services cannot work in isolation, Professor Dominey-Howes explains.

From individuals to local government to the life support utilities that support our modern society - disaster awareness and the ability to work in partnership are crucial.

"Individuals and families need to take personal responsibility - 'safety starts with self' as I put it. To help people do that, outreach and education of the public has to be appropriate, especially for those who are most vulnerable," said Professor Dominey-Howes.

Physically and economically we are all at potential risk from natural hazards but some individuals, communities and societies are more at risk than others and sustain greater losses following natural hazard events and their associated disasters.

"That vulnerability might be because of location or because they are socially isolated, physically challenged or less able to access education materials. Taking that into account is part of successful disaster management," said Professor Dominey-Howes.

Contact: Verity Leatherdale

Phone: 02 9351 4312

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