In response to many natural disasters that have plagued the globe in recent years, Cal Poly’s city and regional planning department organized an international symposium to discuss ways to build disaster-resistant communities and to educate people on how to provide assistance for victims of these disasters.

Professors, planners and engineers from Japan to Venezuela gathered on campus Nov. 3 to 5 to raise awareness and to brainstorm ways to rebuild societies after disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Gulf Coast, the tsunami in Southeast Asia and the earthquake in Pakistan.

“The number of disasters all around the world is increasing,” said William Siembieda, department head of city and regional planning. “It’s an urban myth that disasters are going to go away, that it’s not going to happen to you. And we want to make sure people have a much better notion of how to build disaster-resistant communities. Disasters are something people should be worried about and we should address how to do something about them.”

In what Siembieda called the “most important and largest symposium on this topic in the country,” Cal Poly students and professors, as well as local and international architects, engineers and planners discussed what was learned from recent disasters and how to reduce the risks posed by catastrophic events in the future.

“This conference is about taking natural disasters into consideration when planning for development or construction that students don’t get from a normal curriculum,” city and regional planning senior Mike Marcus said. “Especially given the number of hurricanes, floods, landslides and global warming, you have to take the natural habitat into account so we don’t perpetuate the problem.”

More than 80,000 people died in the earthquake in Pakistan last month, over 120,000 people died in the tsunami in Southeast Asia last December, about 1,000 people died from Hurricane Katrina in September, which also caused over $30 billion in property damages to the Gulf Coast.

Coordinators began organizing the symposium last June, following the success of a previous symposium two years ago. After Hurricane Katrina, the focus of the symposium changed from just international to domestic.

“Around the world, there is a much higher death rate than in the United States, but here we lose more property,” Siembieda said. “We need to apply what we learn from people around the world to help rebuild the Gulf Coast and the symposium (was) a great opportunity for Cal Poly students to get involved.”

In addition to planning for catastrophic events, speakers and guest lecturers discussed threats and vulnerabilities at risk, new design ideas for growing communities, strategies for land use control of urbanization and how to identify other potential hazards.

“This is an effort to increase education for undergraduates, graduates and people in the community to deal with public safety in reducing natural hazards as communities grow,” symposium coordinator Ken Topping said. “We need to build in safety before disasters occur, and this is easier to do when the community (like San Luis Obispo) is growing so you can catch the problems and rebuild.”

Sponsored by the College of Architecture and Environmental Design, the goal of the symposium was to “create an international foundation of knowledge” to enhance sustainability and to facilitate recovery for countries all over the world coping with natural disasters.

“It’s interesting to learn about what’s going on, especially in San Luis Obispo because California is susceptible to earthquakes and floods and these are things we are going to deal with in the near future,” city and regional planning junior Eric Ward said. “California has a history of earthquakes, and we need to prepare people for the worst.”

Claire Clark, seismic coordinator for the city of San Luis Obispo, cited the 2003 San Simeon earthquake that killed two people in Paso Robles as motivation to retrofit and reinforce buildings along the Central Coast. Another earthquake of 8.0 magnitude or higher is anticipated to hit along the San Andreas Fault in the near future.

“Very simple retrofitting can prevent a building from falling down and people from getting killed,” said Rakesh Goel, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. “We are Cal Poly – we teach the planners and engineers, so we need to deliver a curriculum on disaster risk reduction.”

In addition to natural disasters, countries are also preparing for other catastrophes, like the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Siembieda said communities should have a disaster plan in place to offset disaster and be prepared to protect property.

“It’s going to have to come from more than just the planners,” said Frank Wein of URS Corporation.

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