The subject was the potential threats of global climate change.
But for the Pacific Disaster Center, it's important to distinguish the difference in its work from the emotionally and politically charged debate over causes of global climate change.
"PDC is not entering into that controversial discussion at all," said Executive Director Ray Shirkhodai, in comments prepared before he left for an exercise in Thailand.
Ray Shirkhodai (left), executive director of the Pacific Disaster Center, consults with Nguyen Huu Ninh, chairman of the Center for Environment Research, Education and Development in Vietnam, during the working group meeting on “Climate Change and Variability: Shifting Risks.” Ninh is a recipient of a Nobel Prize for his work on climate change. “What we are dealing with is the current real-life situation of natural meteorological hazards becoming more frequent and more severe. Storms are becoming larger and stronger, and they are lasting longer, for instance. That is a fact. Whether it is due to natural variability in global climate or to some human-induced change in global conditions is not under consideration,” Shirkhodai said of the conference.
Pacific Disaster Center photo
Pacific Disaster Center Chief Scientist
"What we are dealing with is the current real-life situation of natural meteorological hazards becoming more frequent and more severe.
"Storms are becoming larger and stronger, and they are lasting longer, for instance. That is a fact. Whether it is due to natural variability in global climate or to some human-induced change in global conditions is not under consideration."
What is under consideration are the lessons learned, and PDC specialists now are reviewing the responses to Hurricane Gustav in the Gulf Coast that may have benefited from assessments of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Shirkhodai and Pacific Disaster Center Chief Scientist Stan Goosby emphasize that their programs and efforts are dealing with how to improve the response of governments and agencies to the threats of natural disasters - whatever the causes may be.
That was the purpose of a two-day workshop "Climate Change and Variability: Shifting Risks" co-sponsored by and held at the East-West Center on Oahu. It brought together experts from around the world on meteorology, climate patterns, risk assessment, social vulnerability and disaster management.
Goosby said it was a start to an effort to develop protocols and policy recommendations for areas likely to feel the effects of more severe storms and climate change.
"What we've done is bring information together and begin breaking it down to maybe two or three types of groupings. We wanted to see where we had gaps in our knowledge, in technology and in the ability to act," he said.
"Once we identify what the gaps are, we can put together strategies for filling in the blanks."
The working group of 29 researchers, professors and specialists included two Nobel laureates, Nguyen Huu Ninh, chairman of the Center for Environment Research, Education and Development with the Vietnam Union of Science & Technology, and Patricia Romero Lanko, with the Institute for Study of Society and Environment at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
As a result of their discussions, Goosby said the working group identified several areas in need of further research and development. One involved taking the masses of data on potential threats to a region and refining the issues to the level of individual villages.
"One of the big gaps was an inability to downscale the data. In other words, we are able to gather information at a global level, but we need to bring it down to the village level to be useful to the different consumers of information," he said.
"If we have information at one level, what we would like to do is take that information and break it down so it has meaning for the person at the village level, say a village mayor, or one level up to the governor of a province, and put it in terms that they can use.
"They will have different decision criteria that they are using and different issues that they are looking at, so they need the information presented in different ways."
Shirkhodai said the Pacific Disaster Center, based at the Maui Research & Technology Park, will follow up on the recommendations of the working group.
"There was a broad consensus that Pacific Disaster Center has a role to play in bridging the gaps between decision makers, scientists and disaster managers, and in turning the ideas and studies of the scientists into practical, actionable programs and technology products," he said.
"Nothing can be done to stop a storm from landfall, but that is not our purpose," he said. "We want to save lives and help communities improve their preparedness, response and recovery from damaging events, and enhance their abilities to better adapt to and plan for future events for all hazards."
In the aftermath of the December 2006 earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean and Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, specialists from the PDC went to the regions to analyze the damages and prepare recommendations on changes the responding government agencies should consider.
With Gustav, Goosby said it is too early to assess what contributions PDC made to the response.
"What PDC did in the wake of Katrina was related to satellite communication for emergency operations centers, plus documenting storm surge damage and extent in photographs and GPS," he said. "It is hard to know whether the specific post-Katrina work and recommendations by PDC had a direct influence on the better coordination and communication we saw as Gustav approached and came ashore in the Gulf Coast."
But there will be a post-Gustav assessment as well, according to PDC Chief Information Officer Chris Chiesa.
"With Gustav, we saw more coordination, less confusion and less devastation, but by the time the this hurricane arrived, it was also a substantially less dangerous storm," he said. "What we are doing right now, as the reaction to Gustav continues is interesting. We are conducting a study on the effectiveness of mitigation and preparations steps undertaken after Hurricane Katrina in the greater New Orleans area."
Chiesa said the analysis will document preparations before Gustav hit and the reaction after.
"The documented inventory of actions surrounding Hurricane Gustav, and of the storm's consequences will directly compare what is seen in the White House report, 'The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned.'
"In other words, we will discover whether the lessons were in fact learned and, in the course of the study, almost certainly also learn new lessons that will benefit any community preparing for or dealing with a similar natural hazard."
Referring to the overall efforts of the Pacific Disaster Center, Goosby noted there are two primary teams that deal with natural phenomena, a disaster support system group and a risk and vulnerability assessment group.
"With the risk and vulnerability assessment, we begin to identify areas at risk and point out potential consequences and impacts of various hazards that allow the decision makers to determine what type of risk reduction strategies they might apply," he said.
There also are communications and technology assessments conducted in different regions to determine how a country or organization would be able to disseminate emergency information and conduct damage assessments, he said.
Two issues studied in depth were in water security, in terms of availability and usage in an urban environment, and environment and health considerations when a disaster strikes. There also were discussions of disaster impacts on large urban environments, and social risks in different regions.
"One of the things we realized was a need to bring together the climate-related information relative to an event. For instance, we needed to know the amounts of rainfall in a region and the impacts of rain on different kinds of disasters.
"If there is this much rain in one region and that much rain in another, what are the losses and what are the impacts," he said.
The PDC was created to coordinate the work of scientists and emergency response organizations to develop "science products" that can help governments and communities in dealing with the changing world, Shirkhodai said.
"What matters is to ensure that the level of preparedness is keeping pace with these changes and to see that mitigation efforts are adequate, as much as possible, to meet the effects of these heightened hazards to human populations and communities," he said.
The effort requires a constant re-evaluation of the situations, whether it's the degree to which severe weather occurs to assessing changes in coastal ocean levels, he said. The goal is to prepare communities for effects of changing global climate patterns.
"It is about saving lives and stabilizing societies," he said.
* Edwin Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.