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Be prepared

In this April 16, 2010 photo, the volcano in southern Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier sends ash into the atmosphere.

In this April 16, 2010 photo, the volcano in southern Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull glacier sends ash into the atmosphere.

Associated Press

With the New Year comes the opportunity to predict what to expect in the next 12 months. Since past is prologue, it is instructive when making predictions to consider the recent past to discern any patterns.

A significant pattern in recent years is the increasing scale and scope of destruction from natural disasters.

2010 saw massive disruption of lives from earthquakes, floods, fires and other natural disasters. The year opened with the Haitian earthquake that killed nearly a quarter million people and left a million homeless.

But that was only the beginning. Chile reeled from an even more massive earthquake in February. In the spring, European air travel was brought to a standstill because of potentially airplane-crippling volcanic ash from Iceland.

The hottest summer in Russian history resulted in unprecedented wildfires, devastating homes and cropland. Horrific floods in Pakistan directly affected some 20 million people. Throughout the entire year, the entire Indonesian archipelago dealt with frequent massive earthquakes. And this winter, Europe and North America are digging out from record early snowfalls.

Given this pattern, we predict that in the next twelve months some part of the globe will suffer a natural disaster that will significantly disrupt possibly thousands, if not millions of lives.

And although nature doesn't discriminate, we further predict that the brunt of such disasters will disproportionately affect the poor. The rapid pace of urbanization in the developing world too often comes with unplanned use of hillsides or floodplains accompanied by shoddy construction. That pattern invites catastrophe when nature unleashes her fury.

Obviously, no one can predict the specifics of natural disasters. But we can and should prepare for emergencies. And as the potential impact to human life mounts, the principles of emergency preparedness need to extend beyond individuals and families to communities, states and nations.

In this age of hyper-specialization some of the basic principles of preparedness and self-sufficiency have been forgotten. We rationally rely on the expertise of others to keep transport, water, power and communications working. But all should consider how to get by when such systems fail.

On a global level, governments and relief agencies need to think strategically about how best to respond to natural disasters that affect large populations. The outpouring of immediate aid to Haiti demonstrates our nation's instinctive willingness to help. But twelve months later, as Haiti languishes in ruin, epidemic and corruption, it is clear that there is much to learn about how to provide sustainable and effective long-term assistance in the wake of massive natural disasters.

We wish all a joyous and prosperous New Year. But we also suggest increased reliance on the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.