Lessons From Disasters

Copyright © 2005 Dorian Scott Cole

Why did it take the government 5 days to get trucks of food, water, and troops to New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina? Why do people continue to live in a bowl that frequently floods and is sinking? The human condition is always complex.

For years I have asked myself the puzzling question of why people do, or don't do, things. Is there just something rebellious in the human spirit? For example, I used to ask my teenage kids, "Why did you do that?" The inevitable answer was, "I don't know." It mystifies me when I hear that people don't think about their actions, they just do things.

I'm just as mystified by larger decisions that people make (not that I never act irrationally - this isn't a blame article). We moved to the St. Louis area in the early 1990s. My wife loves old houses. One day we were driving and she pointed out a house and said, "I would love to live in that house." I answered, "It's on the flood plain." I would never move there. Months later 100 year flooding happened and the house was soon underwater. Even the Dakotas flooded - the dry, most inland area of the US that you wouldn't think could possibly ever flood.

When we later moved to Atlanta, I made doubly sure we were on high ground. It made sense. Today (we are back near St. Louis on high ground), I see that many of the effected communities moved to higher ground, but some areas that I saw flooded in the 1990s are once again home to beautiful new businesses and residences. I'm mystified. I guess that if you can find an insurance company and the economic development seems politically expedient, you can build a barrier in the middle of a river and erect a building in the mud.

People in California that build on the edge of cliffs mystify me. Or those who build where a mudslide can cover them... People who build on the coast and dare hurricanes to hit them, mystify me. Well, people still live in Venice, the sinking city, and Cancun bounced back after being wiped out by a hurricane. I guess we will see about New Orleans.

I like New Orleans - been there several times - nice vacation spot if you go there in March before the hot/humid weather, and would rather drink hurricanes than endure one. I would like to see the historic and tourist areas rebuilt. But I question the wisdom of rebuilding. Moving businesses and residences to higher ground makes sense. New Orleans has had trouble with flooding for 300 years. It flooded in 1927, 1965, and 1995. It faces flood threats from both the Mississippi and the Gulf. It is 14 feet below sea level, and has to operate pumps continuously to keep out the water. The bad news is, the ground is sinking further because of the pumping. Plus, changing weather patterns and other conditions warm the Gulf water, causing storms to intensify. New Orleans' and Gulf Coast problems may only get worse.

Why do people continue to live there? My first college psychology experiment had to do with why people make (or don't make) the decisions they do - motivation. I learned a lot about attitude. People make choices out of powerful emotion - not so many decisions really are rational. There is also some thought about "inertia." That is, when people are going in one direction, they tend to continue going in that direction. In simple terms, if they already live somewhere, they tend to continue living there.

For many people, their family lives in New Orleans, their work is there, their homes are there, their life is there - the decision to leave would have to overcome a lot of emotional hurdles, and that isn't likely to happen. So what if flooding threatens - that remote threat seems irrelevant in comparison.

Inertia is one side of the coin. The other side is simply how we frame the question. For example, if you ask people to "opt in" to receive a newsletter or advertising information, the answer is likely to be "No." Why? Because the person has to think of a reason to justify saying "Yes." Chances are, he is unlikely to dream up any benefit, and the idea of receiving email or mail will outweigh his perception of the slight benefit.

If you put "Yes" by default, and permit people to deselect the yes box, they are less likely to say "No." Why? Because they have to think up a reason to select no. They aren't likely to dream up a reason, so unless they are allergic to receiving unwanted communications, they will let "Yes" stand by default.

This has been found to work in setting up 401K plans for new employees. Many people won't plan for retirement - won't opt in to these retirement savings accounts. Retirement is usually too far away to seem relevant and motivating and it takes money away. However, if an employer sets up the account by default, the employee is unlikely to dream up a serious enough reason to opt out and go to the trouble of doing it.

I'm certain that opt in, opt out had no significant impact for many people in New Orleans who didn't evacuate. They simply had no transportation, no money, no way to protect their possessions, and nowhere to go.

I think that opt in, opt out thinking does apply to the decisions of political leaders, however. There are a lot of interesting indications about basic human nature that I observed in the several crises the US has recently faced.

Lesson 1: Reality is real, and we're opt out by default. The 100 year catastrophe is one key to our leader's failure to act in our behalf. New Orleans was considered to have only a 5% chance of being flooded in a 100-year period, and that was for a Category 3 storm. There was no protection envisioned for a Category 4 storm, which was Katrina. "Well, it probably won't flood in St. Louis this century, or in Mississippi and Alabama, and never in the Dakotas. And the US has never been attacked on its own soil..." These are far away problems. There is no motivation in 5% - it supports the default position of doing nothing.

Past disasters prove that no theoretical event seems important enough to guard against until an event actually happens. Even highway improvements don't get done until the deficiency kills a threshold of people that demands action. Neither the government nor the population will support spending the amount of money that it takes to protect against most catastrophes.

Was 9-11 preventable? Certainly the government knew that terrorists could plan attacks against the US, and had previously tried to blow up the World Trade Center. But the attacks failed. There is no way that the public and organizations (like the ACLU) would have agreed to the level of monitoring currently happening, nor would they have approved of long delays at airports while bags and people are checked. While finger pointing may be popular in politics and on news shows, prior to 9-11, any politician who had suggested such things would have been tarred and feathered.

Could the disastrous effects of the tsunami that hit Indonesia have been moderated by early warning systems and improved communications? Certainly. The systems exist and are in use. But that area was unlikely to spend the money on seafloor monitors, and many of the warning sirens that did exist were in disrepair. The risk wasn't considered high, and it simply wasn't worth the effort and cost.

Could the effects of the hurricane that struck New Orleans have been moderated? Yes - discussion of New Orleans' precarious situation, and planning, has gone on for decades. There might have been logistical provisions in place for emergency evacuation, emergency communications, emergency food and water, but...

Nature brings us dust bowls, tornadoes, heat waves, cold waves, flooding, mud slides, ice storms, hurricanes, volcanoes, global warming, electrical storms, earthquakes, hail, droughts, insect infestations, sinking land... chances are that the ugly 5% is going to happen repeatedly in various parts of the US in every century, even every decade. As the population increases, every 5% happening has more critical impact. 1 to 5% needs to be an opt "in" by default, and only then consider serious reasons to opt out.

Lesson 2: Security. Security is a major part of life support. People function effectively from a secure environment. The less security, the less they are able to function. It doesn't take many armed looters roaming the streets before a functioning society is reduced to chaos. People in Iraq, during this war, manage to function in a dysfunctional way. Many of them are able to function because they take anti-depressants to alleviate fear and anxiety.

In New York after 9-11, Mayor Rudi Giuliani and the city services secured the city. In New Orleans, men with guns disrupted emergency helicopter landings at a hospital, and at night some of the overwhelmed police barricaded themselves into their headquarters to protect themselves - many just quit. There was widespread looting, rape, and many other crimes. Troops didn't arrive to restore order for five days.

Fundamental law and order are essential to society. The rule of law must prevail. However, we know from the response to school shootings by students and from terrorism that we can't make enough rules and enough laws to stop all bad things from happening, and we have to recognize what is a reasonable limit.

For example, the "security person's" response to school shootings, in formal hearings, was a laundry list of many many items that might help. The burden placed on people and the school system would have been immense if these had been implemented. Later findings by top law enforcement organizations were that these cannot be stopped by the system. If a young person focuses on bad solutions to his difficult personal situations, and other young people make his situation difficult, a shooting is possible.

Another example, the 9-11 knee-jerk reactions to security is being reconsidered. Not allowing nail files on airlines, and checking grandmothers in random checks is nonsense. Protecting the railways seems to be a near practical impossibility. Protecting the ports is a very expensive and time consuming proposition, but necessary. The nation's borders with Canada and Mexico are porous, and very expensive to guard. But other measures are working.

Lesson 3: Being overextended. There are times when you just have to do what you have to do, even if you are worn out and broke. But those are generally exceptions. Most of the time, things are accomplished most effectively from a position of strength.

Due to poor planning, we are overextended militarily and financially in Iraq. Instead of providing security there, we are dumping billions in ineffective attempts to secure the country (or population). As soon as troops leave an area (or population), the insurgents return and reestablish their logistics network and control over the population through intimidation. In the meantime, the National Guard and Reserves in this country are being rotated through Iraq, instead of being available for National crises. (I think that the National Guard should have a US only mission in coordination with Homeland Security, and it is an unfair encumbrance to the people, families, and locales for them to be rotated through foreign wars except in extreme circumstances.)

Security needs to be established in Iraq from a position of strength. Security needed to be provided in New Orleans from a position of strength. Instead, it took five days to get food, water, and troops there to provide humanitarian aid and restore order. Very little gets done effectively for the primary needs of logistics and security when you are overextended.

Lesson 4: Data, communications, and stockpiles. Thankfully the troops in Iraq can call home on cell phones and base phones. They can also communicate every day with their families and others by email. In the US and many other countries, people can take and send pictures with their cell phones, get notifications of important events and news, play games, listen to music, browse Internet sites - there is a convergence of various communications and entertainment media. In many US cities, people can set up their computers in "hot spots" and hotel rooms, and have broadband Internet access, which can include telephone access. These services are largely local, but communications satellites also link the entire world, providing television, cell phone, and even Internet access.

In New Orleans, people fled their homes leaving behind personal identification such as driver's license and social security numbers. Communications systems shut down completely. They lost contact completely with relatives, friends, and family as people were separated by flood waters or evacuated to different directions.

If losing homes, friends, relatives, income, communications, food, water, and identification weren't dire enough, many lost access to vital medications. Many people can't survive without insulin, heart medications, anti-psychotic, and other medications.

While some may think that anti-psychotic medications aren't necessary, what can happen to a few when they go off their medication is the person gets delusional, thinks that voices are telling him to kill someone or harm himself, and he may carry it out. For that type of psychosis, it is a major security problem. (People were killed, and one bus carrying passengers overturned - who knows why.) Others may get very depressed, which is not good in times of high stress.

We don't have national registries that allow people who have lost contact to find each other. (The Red Cross offers a similar service - would be people with the right experience to put a permanent national and international effort together.)

We don't have communication among various pharmacies to permit look-up of medications for emergency purposes. We don't have registries of medical records for emergency consultation. We don't have an effective way to restore lost identification. We don't have uninterruptible communications sources. But there is good money in downloading musical ring tones.

There are privacy issues over medical records, and HIPPA addresses these. There should be an opt in and opt out plan for this registry, and a rigorously enforced "no commercial" and "no insurance company" exclusion (with Federal fines in the several millions of dollars to discourage offenders).

We are a paper-based society standing just past the threshold of the electronic information age. Critical records such as identification, medical, insurance, etc. could be kept in an online registry for ready retrieval, and data could easily be kept in multiple locations throughout the US in case some data centers are damaged. (The banking system keeps digital images of every check written.) It takes someone with vision, aware of the needs, to put this together. We already have secure technology and most of the basic communications infrastructure (lacking adequate emergency communications). But security is paramount - we need to keep commercial interests out - identification and security are not the same as commercial concerns. But it can be done reliably and with security today.

Military field rations and water last in storage for years. Why do communities not have emergency stockpiles?

There needs to be emergency contact registries that let people notify others that they are OK, where they are, and where they are going. Big brother and commercial interests should be barred from entry - period. People in emergency situations shouldn't be afraid to use the system. Again, the Red Cross seems like a natural sponsor and any government-independent program would need permanent funding.

Real needs. Leaders and the public tend to get caught up in single issues. In a way, that is good, because it takes focus to explore issues and get things done. In another way it is bad because it takes attention away from other essentials. Terrorism, preparedness for terrorist attack, and fighting terrorism is getting more attention than deserved. Terrorism is an essential law enforcement issue with a focus on prevention: screening, investigation, monitoring activity, protecting sensitive and high profile targets, and raising the profile in law enforcement and public awareness - this is being done relatively well in the US.

It is well recognized that there isn't enough security in the world to stop a terrorist from attacking someplace in the US. The US war on Terrorism needs to be morphed into an international law on crimes against humanity, so that fomenting terrorism, terroist training, conspiring and planning terrorist strikes, and carrying out terrorism can be fully dealt with on an international basis, including pressure on other countries to comply. Natural disasters take a far greater toll than terrorism. It is time to focus on national and international disaster preparedness, whether terrorist or natural.

Lessons summarized

Wise planning is far superior to wasting billions on misplaced concrete. But planning without creating concrete preparedness is nothing more than wasted billions.

At minimum, we learn from experience... don't we, or are threat assessment, planning, FEMA exercises, and real disasters just useless information? We need to "opt in" by default.

- Scott

Note: If you are interested in the conflicts, choices, and committments involved in executive decision-making - the good and the bad - you might find interesting: Decision Making, by Irving L. Janis and Leon Mann, 1977.

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