News Release

Preparations for terrorist attacks and natural disasters linked, says University of Colorado prof

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Colorado at Boulder

When asked how the Sept. 11 attacks affected the people charged with responding to disasters, University of Colorado at Boulder sociology Professor Dennis Mileti went to a shelf in his office and brought back a serious cartoon.

The three characters in the cartoon are labeled "bioterrorism," "dirty bomb" and "natural hazards." The natural hazards character – representing events such as hurricanes, earthquakes and floods – is saying to the other two: "Welcome to the club."

And that's exactly what's happened since the attacks on the United States, Mileti said. The professionals charged with responding to terrorist attacks today are the same people who have been charged with responding to disasters of any sort for decades: firefighters, police officers, emergency managers, planners, engineers, insurers and government officials.

Sept. 11 altered the focus and scope of the CU-Boulder Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, of which Mileti is director. The keynote speaker at the center's 27th annual international workshop on disasters last July was the senior director for response and recovery of the U.S. Office of Homeland Security, who also oversaw federal recovery efforts in New York City after the attack on the World Trade Center.

The bottom line in limiting future deaths, injuries and damages is that "it's not about terrorism and it's not about earthquakes," Mileti said. "It's about disaster-resilient communities.

"What use is a terrorist-safe Los Angeles if everyone is killed in an earthquake?" he asks. "It's got to be a comprehensive approach."

Communities everywhere should consider all risks they potentially face and prepare a disaster plan that could be used to address any type of disaster, he said. In terms of physical impacts, terrorist attacks are indistinguishable from natural events such as great earthquakes and hurricanes.

Mileti headed a landmark study on natural hazards risks for the National Science Foundation in 1999 titled "Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States." He is the author of more than 100 publications, most of which focus on societal aspects of emergency preparedness and natural and technological hazard mitigation.

"We do not live on a safe planet," Mileti said. "It's never been safe and never will be. People just think they're safe, temporarily, until things happen. Every community, town, city and state really needs to find out what risks they are exposed to rather than pretending they are safe."

Earthquakes, wildfires, floods and hurricanes will continue to strike the United States and there also will be more terrorist attacks, he said. The level of readiness for such events varies, depending on the type of threat and its location.

In general, "the larger the community, the better the planning," he said. "We (the United States) have the best disaster plans on the planet. It's as good as it gets here. We invented it."

The response to Sept. 11 was better because of preparations made following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, he said. Disaster responders learn from previous incidents. The nation also is well-prepared to deal with nuclear-plant accidents following the accident at Three Mile Island.

Mileti said the nation is least prepared for threats that haven't yet happened: a nuclear bomb, a huge earthquake in southern California, a category 5 hurricane directly striking Miami.

"There are events that are large enough that you can't prepare for them," he said. "California has known for decades that when the next great earthquake hits southern California some areas will be without water for six months."

The Natural Hazards Center, part of CU's Institute of Behavioral Science, is funded by several agencies including NSF and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The center is an information clearinghouse for disaster professionals and publishes several periodicals including a newsletter sent to more than 15,000 recipients around the world.

The center funded 17 researchers from around the nation who studied social and behavioral aspects of the Sept. 11 attacks as part of its Quick Response Research Program. The program allows researchers to conduct field research during the immediate aftermath of disastrous events.

Results of the Quick Response studies are posted on the center's Web site at

Dennis Mileti, (303) 492-6818
Peter Caughey, (303) 492-4007

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