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Originally published Sunday, April 6, 2014 at 5:11 PM

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We can do more to keep risk of natural disasters in check

Preparing for and acknowledging the danger of natural disasters is something our populace could improve upon.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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A new poll on environmental concerns got me thinking about worry, watchfulness and action.

We live in a dynamic region of a lively planet, circumstances that come with both blessings and risks. The dynamism that sustains life and creates beauty can also take life and scar the land, something we’ve dwelt on for days now in the aftermath of the catastrophic Oso mudslide.

That event is why the poll caught my eye. Last week Gallup asked a sample of Americans whether they were worried about any of several environmental problems, and if they were worried to what degree, a great deal, a fair amount or only a little.

The problem about which the lowest percentage of Americans reported being worried a great deal was climate change or global warming. The question used the terms separately. (Global warming is a key aspect of the climate change affecting the Earth now.)

Only 35 percent had great concern about climate change and 34 percent about global warming, even though, as Gallup noted, the United Nations had just released a report warning of potentially severe impacts.

Maybe the concept is too global to get a grip on, or maybe it’s too clouded by political dust-ups.

By comparison, 60 percent of Americans were greatly worried about the pollution of drinking water. Fifty-three percent were greatly worried about contamination of soil and water by toxic waste.

Gallup has been asking the same question since 1989, and the level of concern about global warming is about where it was then, but it hasn’t been at all steady. A chart that shows by year the percentage of people who say they are greatly worried looks like a series of mountains and valleys.

The peaks, Gallup, reported, follow major climate-change news events, but even at its peak, climate change/global warming is still the environmental issue that worries Americans least.

That lack of concern matters because any effort to reduce human contribution to climate change or to prepare for its effects requires public action and public spending, both of which are affected by the level of public support.

Sometimes government goes ahead and acts anyway. The Seattle Times coverage of the Oso slide noted that King County has bought property in flood-prone areas to prevent damage and subsequent loss of life, and that Snohomish County considered buying part of the area that was covered by the landslide.

Hindsight always has the correct answer, but I know Americans have political leanings that tip the scales of judgment against proactive government action in some circumstances.

Small-government philosophy plus people’s tendency not to worry about something that might happen down the road, have frequently been a deadly combination. But where there isn’t a will or way to take larger steps, intermediate interventions may be an answer.

A story Friday in The Times said that in Switzerland, a slide-prone slope such as the one above Oso would have had sensors to monitor the kinds of activity that generally precedes a major slide. It still costs some money but could save lives.

That story also left me thinking about an irony that responses to disasters so often cost more than it would cost to prevent them. There are sensors on that Snohomish County hillside now to protect the safety of recovery workers in case of another slide.

I choose to live in Seattle and very rarely think about the big earthquake that will eventually strike here, and when I do, I’m not very worried, though I do take the most-recommended precautions. I don’t worry about the volcanic eruption of Mount Rainier that will happen at some time no one can predict.

And maybe I’d feel the same lack of worry if I lived in tornado alley or if I lived on a flood plain, but I hope I’d be more concerned because catastrophic events would be so much more likely and more predictable.

The situation near Oso seems somewhere between the obvious dangers of a flood plain and the less predictable danger of a large earthquake. Slides are part of the area’s history, but this one went further than most people would expect. It’s a circumstance that cried out for more and better information and more active preventive measures from government, supported by people who understand the risks nature poses.

We can’t ever expect to be perfectly safe, but we can strive to be more prudent and more awake to life’s most likely dangers. How many tragedies does it take for that to become clear?

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com



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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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