Disasters often made worse by our failings

Philadelphia Enquirer, Sept 11, 2005
by STUART DIAMOND, Professor, Wharton Business School
The increasingly evident failures of planning and logistics following Hurricane Katrina are very similar to those with a number of other well-known disasters of the last quarter century: the Bhopal gas leak in India, the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear accidents, the space shuttle crashes, and the World Trade Center attack.
That the previous disasters were caused by people, not weather, is of no consequence. The institutional failures that allowed significant loss of life are the same, and they have continued without much improvement for decades. They include the following:
Nearly the exact conditions and consequences of all of the disasters, including Katrina, had been modeled in detail and were well known to experts.
Officials responsible for protecting human life were either unaware of the expert studies or ignored them.
Little or no infrastructure was put in place to mitigate the disasters once problems began to unfold.
In all cases, the public had been assured – fasely – that worst-case or nearly worst-case scenarios had been planned for.
After the disaster, the government officials responsible for averting or mitigating disaster claimed that the disaster had been “unavoidable,” was “unthinkable,” and that “no one could have prepared for this,” when in fact these statements were also untrue.
To be more specific about the comparisons: In the Bhopal gas leak in India, thousands more died because the government allowed poor people to live right up against the plant fence, unprotected from the poison gas. With Hurricane Katrina, the government allowed thousands of people to live below sea level and right up against a levee system that needed upgrading or repair.
In the World Trade Center disaster, even with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s leadership in calming the public, serious questions have been raised about the organization and effectiveness of emergency workers – the same kind of problems that have surfaced with Katrina. In both cases, lives were lost unnecessarily.
In the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear accidents, the design of the hardware, as well as the emergency response in terms of government and evacuation, was poor and late. Same thing with Katrina.
In the space shuttle accidents, warnings from experts went unheeded – just as with Katrina. Indeed, the major federal agencies involved – whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Federal Emergency Management Agency – simply didn’t do the job in the way the public had expected them to do it: fast, organized, with copious resources.
The world is now faced with even greater threats from terrorism. If the institutions can’t handle high wind and a lot of water, how are they going to handle poisons and radiation?
After decades of failures, we need to make some improvements. First, the government’s communication system is terrible. Not just after disasters, but beforehand – in getting to decision-makers the studies of experts and the warning signals. A lot was made of this problem after Sept. 11. Katrina shows that our early-warning system is still poor for many disasters. A process needs to be developed, for disasters natural to technological to criminal, so that the vast expertise we have accumulated actually results in change.
Second, no leadership structure exists that gives one person, or one office, head responsibility in disaster response. This should be a 24-hour office charged with assessing the problem immediately and being able to command and muster large resources immediately. In virtually all of the disasters mentioned here, responsibility and blame were fragmented.
Third, the ability of the government to warn and move people quickly is very poor. What will happen if there is a poison gas incident in a metropolitan area? Does the average citizen really know what to do in a disaster? Why are people given the choice to stay home in a public-health emergency? And even if people are moved, there is little infrastructure set up to receive people from other areas in crisis.
One of the fundamental responsibilities of government is planning. As in too many previous disasters, the cost in life and money from Katrina will be in vain unless the people taxpayers pay to develop and implement planning actually do the jobs they keep telling us they are prepared to do.
Stuart Diamond (diamonds@ wharton.upenn.edu.) covered the Bhopal, Chernobyl, and Challenger space shuttle accidents as a reporter for the New York Times, and Three Mile Island as a reporter for Newsday.

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