Published: Jan 21, 2011 3:52 AM EST
Updated: Jan 21, 2011 12:52 AM EST

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Convening in a city known worldwide for catastrophe, members of a National Academy of Sciences committee said the nation faces a future of costlier disasters unless more is done to prepare for the worst.

"We're in a new era of catastrophe," said Howard C. Kunreuther of the Wharton School of Business. "We are facing losses that are far far greater than what we've had in the past."

Kunreuther is part of a 13-person committee exploring the risk catastrophes pose and how to better equip all levels of government and society for the next big catastrophe to clobber the nation.

The committee was formed to review the nation's ability to handle catastrophes - especially now, 10 years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The committee will issue its recommendations next year to Congress and the White House.

The study was commissioned by several federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Department of Defense.

He said losses in the United States have steadily risen since the 1950s. For example, he cited data showing that between 1950 and 1959 there were about $53 billion in damages from catastrophes and between 1990 and 1999 damages had increased to $778 billion. The losses were calculated by the Munich Re Group, an international insurance company that tracks catastrophes.

The National Academy committee chose to hold its first meeting outside Washington in New Orleans to hear from officials, nonprofit workers and experts along the Gulf Coast, a region devastated in August 2005 by Hurricane Katrina and flooding from levee failures.

The committee's next meetings are an itinerary of American disasters: It will travel to Iowa and then southern California. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was flooded badly in 2008 - causing about $6 billion in damage - and southern California is known for its droughts, wild fires and earthquakes.

The panel is looking at the benefits of better building codes, restructuring insurance to encourage people to live in safer places and moving people out of harm's way. The panel's main charge is to come up with ideas to make communities more "resilient."

"We're trying to learn lessons and the best practices," said Susan Cutter, the committee's chairwoman and director of the Hazards & Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.

Cutter said people keep moving into places that are unsafe.

"We have people building in places where they shouldn't be and we have governments that allow people to build in places where they shouldn't," she said. "And we have government policies that reward bad behavior. Why do we allow people to build million-dollar homes on barrier islands?"

Committee members said they hoped their report would help wake up Americans who tend to take action only after a disaster strikes.

Michael F. Goodchild, a committee member and geographer at the University of California-Santa Barbara, said disasters are bound to become more costly because "societies are becoming more complicated."

"We're more integrated than before," he said. "So, any catastrophe has broad implications for the rest of society."

Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, wiping out entire towns along the Gulf Coast and causing about $125 billion in damages. Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded after poorly designed floodwalls protecting the city collapsed.

The storm was blamed on the deaths of more than 1,600 people. The storm - and the confused and slow federal response that followed - was a wakeup call for emergency planners nationwide and prompted wide-ranging changes at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Since Katrina, FEMA has updated its emergency response plans and numerous studies have been carried out to ensure such a debacle in responding to a catastrophe doesn't happen again.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)