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Preparing for the inevitable: What we still don’t understand about natural disasters

Some natural disasters — the earth-shattering, world-ending kind — we can't prepare for. But smaller disasters, cataclysmic on a local scale, strike all the time. And yet each time they do, they never fail to take us by surprise.

The problem isn't so much that we can't anticipate disasters, says geologist Susan W. Kieffer, but that the public, and policy makers, don't understand the way they work as well as they should. In "The Dynamics of Disaster," Kieffer, a professor emerita of geology at the University of Illinois and a MacArthur "Genius Grant" recipient, explores what we know — and what continues to perplex and fascinate us — about the earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, hurricanes, cyclones and tornadoes that come along with living on Earth. While the risk will always be there, she writes, by better understanding what are, at the core, natural processes, we can be better equipped when the inevitable happens.

Kieffer spoke with Salon about Mother Nature, human nature and the ways in which both sometimes act against our interests. The interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

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