Published on Sustainable Cities

Risk models and storytelling – learning from past disasters for a more resilient future

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In the early afternoon of September 3, 1930, the San Zenon Hurricane struck Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. With winds of up to 250 kilometers per hour, one of the deadliest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic pummeled the coastal city, destroying entire neighborhoods and claiming the lives of as many as 8,000 people.
What would happen if a hurricane of a similar magnitude hit Santo Domingo today? Nearly 90 years on, only the oldest Dominicans have any direct recollection of the devastation. For most residents of present-day Santo Domingo, the consequences of another cataclysmic hurricane making landfall near their city are hard to imagine.
Be it hurricanes like San Zenon or volcanic eruptions such as that of Mount Vesuvius, analyzing natural events that led to the major disasters of yesteryear can help us get a fuller grasp of how similar events might impact today’s more populous, urbanized, and connected world. 

Regrettably, however, in preparing for the next disaster, we sometimes overlook what has happened in the past – often because it is just too difficult to comprehend. History is thus treated as an afterthought, rather than an important prologue into understanding what the future might bring.
Aftershocks: Remodeling the Past for a Resilient Future, a report and accompanying story map from the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), aims to help change this by using a combination of risk modeling and immersive storytelling to allow readers to better grasp the likely impacts of the iconic disasters of the past if they happened today.

Created through a mix of science, technology, engineering and statistical data, risk models simulate the potential impacts of natural and man-made hazards, yielding invaluable insights into how we should prepare for and respond to disasters of all kinds.  For instance, in the case of the 1930 San Zenon hurricane, models project that losses from a similar event in Santo Domingo today would be around US$15 billion, well below the damage from the 1930 storm, estimated at US$18 million (in 1935 dollars). This is because in the 1930s, the value of total residential and nonresidential building stock was US$110 million, while today it is over U$150 billion.
However, when looking at relative losses, there was a decline in relative damages from almost 16 percent of the value of residential exposure damaged in 1930 to 10 percent today. This decline may be a result of the change in building construction practices; a new building code was introduced in 1980 to help prevent damage from earthquakes. Buildings which are structurally sound are more likely to withstand high winds as well as strong ground motion.
Valuable insights are revealed through risk modelling methodologies. The case studies in Aftershocks not only show how events from the past will impact today’s more populous and built world, but also demonstrate the benefits of building regulations, effective risk identification and early warning systems. Illustrating the value of risk modelling as a discipline, Aftershocks was produced by GFDRR’s Innovation Lab in partnership with the World Bank’s Disaster-Resilience Analytics and Solutions (D-RAS) team. The teams collaborated to deliver a report that brings about a better understanding of disaster risk to a wider audience. The accompanying story map is an attempt to make the results of the modelling more accessible through immersive storytelling.
Against the backdrop of rapid population growth and a changing climate, communities are increasingly vulnerable and exposed to hazards, and when disaster strikes, it is the poor who are often the most vulnerable and hardest hit. By better understanding the potential impacts of disasters before they happen, we are all much more well-positioned to plan and prepare ahead – thus saving lives and minimizing losses.  To build a more resilient future for all, it’s vital to take stock of the past – that’s the message of Aftershocks. Check it out and experience it for yourself!
Erika Vargas, Kerri Cox, and Lorenzo Piccio contributed to this blog post. 



Emma Phillips

Disaster Risk Management Specialist at the GFDRR Innovation Lab

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