For earthquakes, he shows how our idea of an epicentre can give a false impression of where the most damage has happened: ‘the vibrations in an earthquake occur all along a fault rupture’, he writes, ‘not just the point from where the rupture starts’. So when news graphics of the 2015 Kathmandu earthquake appeared, they focused on the epicentre 60 miles east of the city. The approach ignored the fault line running through the capital towards Everest, where the aftershocks occurred.
For tsunamis, he looks at how our misguided trust in buildings can have deadly consequences. A whole school in Kamaishi, Japan was saved from the 2011 tsunami thanks to the teachings of a ‘maverick’ professor who taught them to get to higher ground. The ‘miracle of Kamaishi’ makes a sobering comparison to the death toll along the coast. Meanwhile, for hurricanes, Muir-Wood examines how the flood walls around New Orleans had been built to match the height of preceding floods, not for a freak event of the future. The presumed safety of the walls had also attracted more property development in the area. He explores the question ‘does having a flood wall increase the numbers drowned?’ Time to forget everything you thought you knew about disaster prevention.
With a warmer climate predicted to increase the frequency and intensity of tropical storms, Muir-Wood’s critical thinking couldn’t have better timing. In its correction of common myths and challenge to the natural disaster status quo, this is a vital read.