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It’s not too early to declare 2011 the year of the natural disaster. Tornadoes ripped across the South and Midwest this spring, causing record levels of death and destruction. In Japan, one cataclysmic event inspired another in a horrific chain reaction—earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown. Maple­croft, a U.K.-based risk analysis firm, released a study in August concluding that natural disasters, in the first six months of 2011, have been more costly to the world economy than in any previous year, causing $265 billion in damage. And that was before Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast.

In the face of impending catastrophes, design professionals have benefited from computer simulations and modern mapping techniques that have helped make building codes more uniform and stringent. For a case study in how good building codes can mitigate infrastructure damage and death tolls, consider how much better Chile, with its strong seismic codes, withstood its recent earthquake compared to the devastation that ill-prepared Haiti suffered.

All too often, short-sighted political or economic decisions trump safety considerations. Joplin, Mo., for example, had not implemented the latest recommendations for high-wind building codes prior to the tornado in May that killed more than 150 people. (The city has since adopted the codes on a provisional basis.)

Meanwhile, populations around the globe continue to increase in areas facing imminent threats, including in the United States. “Undoubtedly, private property rights are prevailing over the efforts to avoid hazardous areas,” says Samuel D. Brody, a professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at Texas A&M University.

Based on geographic diversity and the severity of impending threats, we highlight 10 global hot spots (click on the map above) and assess their disaster preparedness—the strength of building codes, land-use ordinances, and other strategies that architects and design professionals are pursuing to mitigate the potential damage of a major crisis.