What’s a Natural Disaster?

An event that encompasses serious weather conditions with the ability to harshly damage human health or safety, vital infrastructures, or national security. Natural disasters include:

  • Drought
  • Earthquakes
  • Extreme heat
  • Extreme snow and ice
  • Floods
  • Hurricanes
  • Tornadoes
  • Tsunamis
  • Volcanoes
  • Wildfires

These events can happen based on seasons and/ or geographical location and usually occur unexpectedly. There are researchers and scientists, however, who work tirelessly to better forecast such occurrences and the damage they may cause.

Can You Predict a Natural Disaster?

The total forecast of such an event is mostly impossible, but scientists have been utilizing fractals and developing technology to better anticipate certain disastrous events before they occur. Fractals are mathematical formulas of a pattern that repeat over a large range of size and time scales. Think about trees for instance. Each part of the tree from the top branch to the lowest trunk is a copy of the one that came before. By observing how this tree grows and other important factors, researchers can predict how future trees of the same type will behave. This type of formula can be used to forecast hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, wildfires, and landslides to a point. “By understanding the fractal order and scale embedded in patterns of chaos, researchers found a deeper level of understanding that can be used to predict natural hazards,” says a research geologist at the US Geological Survey.

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Scientists collect the data by measuring a past event, like the size and frequency of a hurricane’s wind speed, and utilize fractal formulas to predict future events in the same area. They do this by comparing the current data with historic records about past occurrences in specific geographical locations. Government organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are also using these fractal discoveries to respond to natural disasters accordingly.

Natural Disasters and Hazardous Air Pollutants

Much debris and smog are created and expelled during natural disasters, expelling several hazardous air pollutants into the surrounding environment. Depending on the disaster, different types of debris are created, for instance, debris generated from floods and hurricanes differs from tornados, fires, and ice storms. Types of debris found in these events include:

Construction and demolition –

Metals, asphalt, drywall, brick, concrete, roofing, wood

Electronics –

Computers, TVs, stereos, telephones

Household toxic waste –

Pesticides, paints, cleaning materials

Municipal solid waste (MSW) –

Personal items and generic trash

Putrescibles –

Animal remains, rotted fruit, vegetables, seafood, meat, or poultry

Vegetative –

Branches, trees, shrubs, rocks, logs

Vehicles –

Boats, cars, trucks, batteries, fuel, motor oil, tires

One major air pollutant that can be found in most of these is asbestos. It’s a mineral that can be found and extracted in underground rock and soil deposits. For decades, asbestos was heavily used in many construction and building materials because of its resistance to heat, electricity, and chemical corrosion. This was until researchers discovered latent harmful effects on humans who were exposed for longer periods. Prolonged asbestos exposure can cause debilitating diseases like cancer to develop over time.

Specific Disasters

Each event is characterized by specific occurrences that can happen anywhere in the world. Here, natural disasters and their instances in the US are considered.

Drought

North America experiences an instance of drought in at least one region every year. Droughts are difficult to predict, as no one really knows they’re happening until there’s been a significant absence of rain. No one can know how drastic the event will be either until technically the rains return. Droughts can be easy to prepare for however, one just needs to stockpile water in a safe spot. Other ways to prepare for a drought include utilizing efficient irrigation systems, watering lawns at night or early morning to reduce waste, and owning native plants that use less water to survive.

Earthquakes

An event that strikes suddenly and is characterized by the shaking that occurs when rock on the earth’s surface shifts or ruptures, otherwise known as a fault. After the fault and subsequent quake occur, brace yourself for aftershocks (smaller earthquakes that may happen after). If you live in an area with a high chance of earthquakes, you can prepare in advance by removing dangerous items out of common areas where they can topple over or be ruined and stocking up extra food, water, and lighting items like candles or generators.

Extreme heat

Some regions reach extremely hot temperatures at certain points of the year that are much higher than average. When this occurs, seniors and young children are at higher risk for heatstroke and burns. Ways to prepare for this type of event include testing the cooling systems to make sure they are working in advance, cleaning indoor and outdoor HVAC units and fans, promoting vegetated roofs, and planting more vegetation to help reduce the sun’s effects. Other ways to avoid heat problems include drinking plenty of water, taking cold showers, and staying inside where it’s cool.

Extreme snow and ice

Like extreme heat, extreme snow and ice can occur when temperatures drop lower than average, winds pick up, and precipitation falls at a much higher rate than normal. This encompasses freezing rain, blizzards, hail, and high winds. People can prepare for this event by maintaining a hot fire, backup generators, and/ or space heaters. Place generators in well-ventilated areas to avoid excess CO2 buildup. Additionally, avoid using “combustion appliances” like gas stoves, ovens, and grills to heat your home, as these can easily catch fire.

Flooding

When water overflows onto dry land, it’s considered a flood. This is one of the most common natural disasters in the US. Avoid any contact with flood water when able, as there are high levels of raw sewage and other toxins present. Other ways to protect yourself during a flood are to wash hands frequently, don’t allow children or pets near floodwater, keep vaccinations current, and to monitor and clean open wounds during and after. Have plenty of backup water, food, and light, and try to keep high-value items in raised areas.

Hurricanes

Hurricanes are classified when a tropical thunderstorm reaches speeds of over 74 mph. There’s a wind scale that’s based on a 1 to 5 rating, with the 5 categories being the highest potential for damage to nearby infrastructures. Prepare for a hurricane by making an emergency kit of supplies for the event, including 3-day water and food supplies for people and pets. You can also board up your windows, doors, and other openings in preparation for the extreme rain and wind.

Tornadoes

When a tornado occurs, a thunderstorm closer to the ground produces severely violent funnels of wind above it. Tornadoes have different levels and can have wind speeds of several hundred miles per hour. Those preparing for a tornado can establish a shelter location underground and purchase backup light materials, food, and water.

Tsunamis

When this disaster occurs, it’s violent and sudden. Tsunamis are a series of large waves caused by earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that happen underwater. Try to avoid spills and damaged areas after the event. Prepare for this disaster by keeping hazardous substances stored in a safe place that’s water-resistant and away from items that can fall on them, and stocking up on water, food, and lights.

Volcanoes

Much like a mountain, only volcanoes have a crater deep inside that erupts lava, gases, and rock chunks out into the environment. The lava is so hot it can melt most things and destroys everything in its path. The volcanic gases that spew from the crater pose the largest threats to human life. These gases include sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen fluoride. The sulfur produces acid rain and air pollution downwind that can be very poisonous, harmful to skin, and even deadly. Gases also seep from lava flows as well. There are ways to predict when a volcano may erupt, as scientists use tools like seismographs that can detect movement deep within the earth. This works because the magma inside a volcano moves around and can cause small earthquakes before the main eruption. When this happens, the seismograph can measure the length and strength of each quake. The only real way to prepare for a volcano that is close to erupting is to leave the area.

Wildfires

This disaster can be natural or caused by humans. Wildfires not only burn and potentially destroy the nearby natural, commercial, and residential areas, but they also make the land they touch more susceptible to mudslides and flooding. To prepare for wildfires you can purchase respirator masks. There are also steps you can take to reinforce your home and better shelter yourself from outside smoke. Boarding up windows, doors, cracks, and any openings is a good start. If the fire gets too bad and spreads too quickly, residents may have to evacuate their homes.

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Who Is at the Highest Risk?

Certain jobs are more at risk for exposure to harmful air pollutants during a natural disaster than others. Those who are at highest risk based on the nature of their job description include:

The reason first responders, cleanup, and nearby residents are at the highest risk for exposure to pollutants during or after a natural disaster is because they’re the first ones on the scene. Residents live in the affected areas, while first responders and cleanup crews are sent out to help the community and respond to events before, during, or after they occur.

Tips on Preparing for Any Natural Disaster

Despite the trouble with anticipating a natural disaster, there are proactive ways to prepare for them. Here are some tips on how to prepare for any natural disaster:

1) Understand the Risks of Your Area – Depending on your geographical location in the world, you’ll have a higher or lower risk for specific natural disasters. In the US for instance, those in eastern and southern states with mostly surrounding oceans have to worry about flooding, hurricanes, and the occasional tsunami. This is due to their proximity to the ocean, weather patterns, and natural topography that comes with most island-like locations. Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi also have issues with flooding because of weather and proximity to the Mississippi River. Those who live in rural areas of the midwest have a high risk for tornados, with western states hosting dryer climates and being more prone to wildfires and droughts. Northern states also have to be prepared for extreme ice and snow conditions, unlike the extremely heated southern states that barely see it.

Know the risks in your regional area and prepare accordingly. Envista Forensics has a very helpful interactive map in which you can select from the different natural disasters and the map will update accordingly, showing which states are at the highest risk for said event.

2) Create a Plan for Emergencies – Develop a plan with your family members or roommates on what to do if a natural disaster occurs. Plan for events like losing power, water, and not having access to food or healthcare. Put together an emergency kit consisting of face masks, soap, sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, bandaids, hydrogen peroxide, and other items your unit deems essential for survival, as this differs with each household. Some families may include specific medications or treatments for their unique condition or disability. Also, try to set up and maintain an emergency budget and back up shelter in case you need it, you can never be too prepared.

3) Sign up for Weather and Emergency Alerts – Multiple government organizations have put together alert systems for concerned citizens to enroll in. These can be push notifications via text, phone call, email, computer software, app., desktop browser, or radio. This can be extremely convenient for attaining emergency information as it’s happening no matter where you are. Some alerts you can sign up for include:

While it can be very helpful to receive these notifications and alerts on your chosen platform, you can also choose to opt-out of notifications whenever you want.

Next Steps

Experienced a natural disaster and think you may have been exposed to harmful air pollutants like asbestos in the process? You’re not alone. Talk to a doctor about your exposure and they’ll be able to give you more information, run some early screening tests, and assess your risk for developing illness or diseases like mesothelioma or lung cancer from prolonged exposure to toxins.

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