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Message From a Quake

THE earthquake that struck the Indian state of Maharashtra last week is the latest tragic reminder - as if the world needed another - that the human and economic toll from natural disasters remains needlessly high.

Six years ago the United States National Academy of Sciences issued a report declaring that ``hazard-reduction successes clearly show that heavy losses at the hands of nature are not inevitable.'' At the time, the academy noted that natural disasters during the preceding 20 years had killed 2.8 million people, left 280 million injured or homeless, and caused up to $100 billion in damage.

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Based in part on the call from that study, the United Nations declared the 1990s as the International Decade of Natural Hazard Reduction. Much work has been done in the US and abroad to act on the UN's resolution. Efforts have focused on improving coordination between disaster-relief agencies, educating the public, and improving scientific tools - such as seismic monitoring networks - that help improve humanity's understanding of the earth's natural processes. Multinational organizations and agencies such as the Organization of American States and the UN's World Health Organization are actively involved in these efforts.

Yet as the disaster in India indicates, much remains to be done. The quake registered 6.4 on the Richter scale. The latest reports have put the death toll at up to 20,000; at least 10,000 have been injured. An earthquake near Santa Cruz, Calif., which affected much of the San Francisco Bay area in October 1989, was stronger, measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale. But the death toll was only 59. One factor that may help explain the difference is something people cannot control: the underlying geology of the areas hit, the quake's depth, and its impact on ground movement. Yet people can control how they respond to such physical differences once those differences are identified and understood, especially in the building of homes and other structures.

One critical element is information about the nature of the hazard. In California, for example, the US Geological Survey has generated maps that not only indicate known faults, but show in some detail how strong shaking would be in various parts of cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco for an earthquake of a given magnitude. Such information not only helps inform building codes, but it also suggests where emergency services might be most immediately needed.

But two other vital elements are the political will and the economic wherewithal to act on the information. As the world heads into the fifth year of the Decade of Natural Hazard Reduction, these aspects of dealing with the problem will need more attention.

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