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University of Rhode Island — Marine Affairs
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MAF 475 - Human Responses to Coastal Hazards and Disasters
Course Information

Professor: Dr. Robert Thompson
Semester: Fall
Credits: 3
Prerequisites: N/A

Catalog Description: Lecture

Course Goals & Outcomes
  • Examine how geology, weather, and water combine to make the coast a dynamic place that is subject to both chronic hazards and acute disasters
  • Look at what happens when humans build in and try to stabilize and defend these dynamic places
  • See how the government has historically responded (or not responded) to the destruction and suffering that periodically results from placing a stationary built environment in the middle of a dynamic, high-energy event
  • Investigate the intended and unintended consequences of government programs and amendments to those programs
  • Learn about the current state of pre-disaster mitigation planning
Course Syllabus
  • Week 1: Living on the Edge
  • Week 2: Shake, Rattle, and Roll (Tsunamis, Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Cliff Erosion)
  • Week 3: Start with Land, Sea, and Air. Add Solar Energy and Mix (Hurricane Intensity, Nor'easters, Living with Storms)
  • Week 4: Vulnerability: Now Add Exposure
  • Week 5: Uncle Sam Gets into the Act
  • Week 6: Floods, the NFIP & Disaster Management
  • Week 7: Floods, Human Behavior & Disaster Management
  • Week 8: Fighting Natural Processes
  • Week 9: The Private Property Problem
  • Week 10: Can we learn from 1938?
  • Week 11: Trying to End the Cycle of Disaster, Loss and Bailout
  • Week 12: Who is Regulating Land Use, Building & Rebuilding to Reduce Risk?
  • Week 13: Are Regulations Working?
  • Week 14: Now What? Rethinking how Government and Markets Might Work Together to Reduce Risk
About The Professor

Dr. Thompson is Chair of the Department of Marine Affairs and teaches many courses on subjects ranging from planning, law, geographic information systems (GIS) for coastal management, land development, environmental planning, and human responses to coastal hazards and disasters.

He received a Master of Community Planning and a Ph.D. in Planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to receive his Juris Doctorate from Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California, Berkeley.

Reasons To Take This Course

In recent years, coastal disasters have been some of the biggest stories in the news. In 2004, four hurricanes made landfall in Florida and a massive tsunami devastated coastal communities in southern Asia. In the winter of 2004-2005, landslides in California coastal communities killed people and destroyed houses. Then the 2005 hurricane season (which included Katrina and Rita) proved to be the most active and damaging one ever experienced in the United States.

Because the media focuses on catastrophic events, the public fails to recognize the cumulative toll of coastal hazards. For instance, even though slope failures commonly occur along the Californian and Oregon coasts each winter, the national media only covers the one-time crushing of a coastal neighborhood by a debris flowing and not the ongoing loss of a road, a house, or a life that takes place in numerous individual events along the entire Pacific Coast each winter. Finally, the medial pays far too little attention to the interaction of natural and human systems that cause people to unnecessarily expose themselves to coastal hazards and to be poorly prepared for coastal disasters.

People often live at and visit coastal areas because they are some of the most beautiful, diverse, and dynamic environments on earth. Coastal areas, however, frequently owe much of their beauty and natural diversity to active global, regional, and local geologic and meteorological processes. These processes operate over a variety of spatial and temporal scales. Most coastal residents and visitors probably donÕt notice that the ocean and wind shape and reshape most shorelines on a daily basis. Periodically, however, a coastline will be subjected to as much energy as the physical world can muster; then the changes to the coast are clearly evident-and newsworthy. While perhaps hurricanes come to mind when most people think about high-energy coastal events, coastal areas are also disproportionately subject to earthquakes and volcanoes. Moreover, while tropical cyclones might get most of the press coverage, extra-tropical cyclones (norÕeasters in these parts) can exert a tremendous amount of destructive force across a very long stretch of coastline. We should also remember that tsunamis can strike in many parts of the world with little warning. Finally, coastal areas are also commonly sites for landslides, flooding, and, of course, erosion.

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