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Anatomy of a high-risk location

Big hurricanes like Mitch get all the attention, but for most Central Americans such storms only punctuate a numbing litany of smaller natural disasters. Hundreds of these so-called "non-catastrophic" disturbances --floods, landslides, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, even tsunamis-- happen each year in the countries between Mexico and Colombia. But few are reported in the international press.

Untold thousands of people are killed or left homeless by these events, and innumerable businesses suffer losses or are forced to close. Recent studies carried out by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United Nations indicate that these smaller disasters have cost Central America and the Caribbean $1.5 billion per year in lost property and productive potential.

Much of the damage from these events can be blamed on human action, be it in the form of inappropriate agricultural practices, homes built in dangerous locations or the simple failure to plan for evacuations. Deforestation and resulting erosion have indisputably increased the frequency and severity of flooding, for example. On the other hand, there are few places on the planet where geologic features and meteorological circumstances conspire more perversely to put people at risk.

In addition to frequently standing in the path of violent tropical storms, the countries of Central America sit atop one of the planet's busiest axes of seismic and volcanic activity. This map displays a very limited record of destructive events caused by these factors in recent centuries, and it shows why such high proportions of Central Americans suffered as a result.

As daunting as these factors can be, it is possible to greatly diminish their impact through careful environmental planning and hazard mitigation measures. "We know how to reduce vulnerability to natural hazards from a technical point of view," says Robert Kaplan, IDB environment division chief for a group of countries that include Central America. "The challenge now is to couple this technical capability with institutions and decision-making processes that can get the job done effectively. And this has to be done at the local level, where people live, as well as nationally and regionally."

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