Recipe For Disaster

If it seems to you that nature's fury, like the tornadoes in Oklahoma, is hitting us harder and costing us more, you're right. A new study by the National Science Foundation finds that in recent years, natural disasters have become full-blown financial disasters, costing $500 billion over 20 years, reports
CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker.

Dennis Mileti of the University of Colorado says, "There have been larger periods of time when our losses approached $1 billion a week."

Florida's Hurricane Andrew cost $25-billion. The Northridge, Calif. earthquake cost even more. Why? For one thing, more of us live in disaster-prone areas like Florida and California.

Another reason, some preventative measures actually make things worse. The dams and levees along the Mississippi River channeled it into a racing flume during the monstrous 1993 floods. "We can use science, we can use technology to interact with our natural world, but we will never be totally safe," Mileti says.

We can expect the cost of disasters to keep rising. A freeway near Northridge cost almost $30 million to rebuild after the earthquake, but scientists say it could have been worse. Both the Northridge quake and Hurricane Andrew hit outlying suburbs, not dense city centers.

"Northridge and Andrew were about half to a third of what a disaster closer to the center of Los Angeles, closer to the center of the San Francisco Bay area or the center of Miami would be," says Mary Comerio, of the University of California at Berkeley.

The good news is we can change our habits, move back from rivers and coastlines, and strengthen existing structures. If we don't, we can expect more, much more, of the same.