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If Natural Disaster Strikes Along the U.S-Mexico Border
WASHINGTON, DC, March 20, 2008 (ENS) - Hurricanes, mudslides, tornados, wildfires and earthquakes - these natural disasters are difficult to overcome no matter where they happen, but when they occur along the U.S.-Mexican border, the difficulties are multiplied. Two languages, two sets of laws and regulations, and lack of formal avenues of cooperation are some of the problems.

Dr. Paul Ganster chairs the Good Neighbor Environmental Board (Photo credit unknown)
A new report by a presidential advisory committee issued Wednesday recommends ways for U.S. and Mexican officials to improve their cooperation in coping with natural disasters that occur along their shared border.

The Good Neighbor Environmental Board presented its annual report today in Washington to the president's environmental advisory group, the Council on Environmental Quality.

Dr. Paul Ganster, who serves as chairman of the Good Neighbor Environmental Board, expressed the Board's recommendations to the U.S. president, vice president and speaker of the House of Representatives in a letter dated March 19.

The Board recommends that U.S. officials:

  • Prevent or minimize the impacts of natural disasters through appropriate zoning codes, building codes, landscape requirements, watershed management, and municipal strategic planning.

  • Build capacity at the local, state, regional, and tribal levels to effectively manage natural disasters, including cross-border coordination.

  • Better integrate current disparate preparedness and response management systems and practical exercises so as to cover all types of emergencies, including natural disasters.

  • Expand existing domestic and binational agreements to incorporate U.S.-Mexico border-specific measures related to natural disasters, including measures tailored to specific natural features and human settlements.
Good Neighbor Environmental Board members include representatives from all four U.S. border states - Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California - as well as nine federal agencies.

Representatives of the border states include senior officials in business and industry, state and local government, ranching and grazing, non-profit groups, tribes, and the academic community. Managed by the U.S. EPA, each year, the Board meets several times in different communities along the U.S. side of the border. Members also have extensive networks across the border that includes families, friends and professional contacts.

Over 11,500 maquiladoras, Spanish for U.S. owned and operated assembly factories in Mexico, are located along the 2,100 mile border with the United States.

At the western end of the border, Tijuana alone has 4,000 maquiladoras, employing nearly one million workers.

In the U.S.-Mexico border region, the report acknowledges, low-income populations face particular challenges as they often live in risk-prone locations such as steep slopes subject to slippage or in river bottoms or flood plains subject to flooding.

Typical Mexico-U.S. border maquiladora workers' housing using scrounged and recycled building materials (Photo by Anne Farina Hoog courtesy American Friends Service Committeee)

Their housing tends to be of lower quality construction and less resistant to damage from wind, earthquakes, and floods. Because many low-income residents do not have adequate insurance on their homes and possessions, they are reluctant to evacuate and avoid potential personal injury.

To deal with these and other difficulties, several agreements of intent have been signed over the years, but the Board reports that they "have yet to be implemented and therefore remain untested."

"Formal agreements between the U.S. and Mexican governments for responding to local transborder natural disasters have not evolved as rapidly as has the need for such mechanisms," the Board states.

On the bright side, U.S. border communities and their Mexican neighbors have begun to work together at the local level to prepare for natural disasters.

"One noteworthy result," the Board reports, "is the development of sister city emergency response plans. These plans, jointly developed by residents of neighboring border cities, set out specific procedures for working together in the event of chemical release and often entail training exercises to maximize preparedness."

Complementing these sister city plans are a number of more informal, ad hoc arrangements. Having business associates, friends, and family on both sides of the border becomes a primary motivation for marshalling the resources to get the job done, regardless of where an individual or their agency may be based.

Informal arrangements also have their limitations, the Board states. "Once the immediate threat is dealt with, attention turns back to other pressing matters. Assistance tends to be focused principally on issues of short-term recovery rather than on prevention for the medium and long range. More effective contributions will require a long-range preventive approach directed toward structural issues."

In addition to planning for natural disasters, the Board says at least $1 billion worth of water and wastewater infrastructure projects remain unfunded but are urgently needed to bring the border area up to the level prevalent in the rest of the United States.

To read the report online visit:

(English version) http://www.epa.gov/ocem/gneb/gneb11threport/English-GNEB-11th-Report.pdf

(Spanish version) http://www.epa.gov/ocem/gneb/gneb11threport/espanol-gneb-11th-report.pdf

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.



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