Originally created 08/13/97

Maps of menace



WASHINGTON - Is no place safe?

That's a logical question after hearing from Mark Monmonier, a map expert who charts dangers ranging from natural disasters to crime rates in a book, Cartographies of Danger: Mapping Hazards in America.

His list of the 10 riskiest places in the United States is topped by "almost any place in California," and not just because of earthquakes. There are wildfires, landslides and a few active volcanoes. There are also tsunamis - once called tidal waves - as well as smog, freeway snipers, riots, oil spills and water shortages.

"I don't suppose I'll be terribly popular (in California)," said Mr. Monmonier, who teaches mapmaking at Syracuse University in New York.

His list includes at least one city that regularly scores well in surveys of the best places to live. That city, Seattle, is second on Mr. Monmonier's risky list because it is located just 70 miles from active volcanoes on Mount Rainier and Glacier Peak.

It also includes a few popular vacation destinations - North Carolina's Outer Banks, located in prime hurricane territory, and Alaska and Hawaii, where coastlines are vulnerable to earthquake-generated giant waves - and some major cities in the South where warm weather leaves residents vulnerable to crime all year.

Mr. Monmonier has for years collected maps showing danger areas. His book tackles dangers by topic in chapters ranging from Crimescapes to `Ill Winds to Lavas and Other Strangers.

"Maps are pretty good indications of how much we really know about hazards," he explained. "You can look at some maps and really see how peoples' understanding, how science's understanding, has improved."

He cites the example of tornadoes. Most people consider "tornado alley" in Oklahoma and Texas to be the most dangerous area for twisters. But maps of tornado activity show the danger area shifts over time. In April, a tornado is more likely to occur in Indiana or Illinois. The danger spreads to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri in May, then moves north and west in June.

Maps can also be helpful in fighting crime, he says, because they can help police identify hot spots and target their resources to the areas most in need.

But in other cases, he warns, "maps are sort of propaganda ... to create the impression that science knows what it's talking about, to convince people to do something or not to do something."

One example is flood insurance. "It would be impossible to have a flood insurance program without maps but ... these maps look considerably more accurate than they really are," he said.

So is there a safe place to live?

"I'm living in one now," he said from his office in Syracuse. "I'm not on a flood plain. I'm not in an earthquake zone. I'm not where tornadoes are a problem."

Syracuse? With all that snow and low winter temperatures?

"We can sort of cope with (winters)," Mr. Monmonier explains. There are plenty of plows and people who do emergency planning take the climate into consideration.

But even winter can be a problem, he admits, "for people who have heart trouble and decide to shovel the driveway."