What the past can teach us about future disasters

It was once said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This quote from the Spanish philosopher George Santayana intended to underline the importance of being aware of previous social and political events, but it can also be applied to a completely different matter: fighting against disasters as a consequence of natural hazards.

It is widely known that there are certain territories that are more disaster prone than others. Villages near to a river basin that have been flooded almost every year, small cities that had to be rescued from the fire flares more than once. And, in these places, every disaster comes with a lesson to learn. Gunter Zeug, our partner at TERRANEA knows this reality from experience. “My hometown lays on a river. Every few years the town was flooded. Even if all people knew it was coming and even if flood gates were closed and sandbags prepared, there were still entry points for the water and the damages were always high. After many years of planning, the government decided to build a wall along the river to protect the city. Also historic data was used to model today’s possible flood extents, and based on these results the wall was built.”

Unfortunately, sometimes this information only remains in the collective unconscious of locals. But if post-disaster knowledge was stored in a way that allows remote and quick access, it could be of enormous value. One way to do this is to save disaster related information in a central database.

In our project, we strongly believe in the importance of classifying this historical information to help improve risk mitigation in future events. Thus, TERRANEA, in collaboration with other partners, is building a historical disaster database that will represent an important source of information for the I-REACT system.

Building this kind of database at EU level presents several challenges posed by the important differences in the data collection systems and in the openness of the databases. “Ideally, events are recorded in a standardised manner and the data becomes open afterwards. However, the challenge we encounter is that the quality of the different data sources that we identified so far is varying and often there is no spatial information available but only information about affected towns or villages with no related coordinates”, says Zeug. In fact, some institutions have already studied the problem of building historical databases. “The EC/JRC conducted a study about the state of the art in the European Union. Their comparative analysis showed that methodologies for disaster related data collection and recording in Europe are heterogeneous and that the available national databases vary in their level of completeness and detail. IT systems vary in purpose, complexity and openness.” Being aware of these challenges, we can only roll up our sleeves and start to work.

As part of the I-REACT project we will start studying the countries that are represented in the consortium (Spain, UK, Italy, Finland) at a country-wide level. For those we will try collecting flood and forest fire data from different open sources for the past ten years since more recent events are usually better documented.

This database will help to identify hotspots for natural hazards, enhance forecast and nowcast models and improve the risk management of disasters. From the communication point of view, the web interface for exploring and accessing the catalogue of historical events will be a perfect tool to our partners in Scienseed that are already working in the identification of key stakeholders in sensitive communities.

Soon we will have our first results, and with the history in our hands, we will surely be more prepared for the future. Join us in this quest through time to fight disasters!

 

Image copyright W. Lang, Floods in Germany (Neuwied) 1920

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