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 user 2005-09-12 at 11:01:00 am Views: 44
  • #12666

    The Next Big One

    Where America is most vulnerable and how the nation can better manage the risks ahead.
    Dr. Irwin E. Redlener is in Baton Rouge, La., setting up mobile medical
    units. He has been in Louisiana and Mississippi for many long days
    helping people deal with the horror of Hurricane Katrina, and his voice
    is full of anger and despair. “The country is really just not prepared
    for a major catastrophic event,” says the director of the National
    Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman
    School of Public Health. “Whatever it is — the Big One in San
    Francisco, a terrorist attack — it doesn’t matter. The unfortunate
    truth is our ability to imagine and plan for catastrophic disasters is
    woefully inadequate.”

    For the moment, the nation’s economy appears to have dodged the
    disaster bullet. Repairs to refineries and pipelines are under way, gas
    prices are coming down, and overall growth continues to be strong. With
    government and private funds pouring into Louisiana, Mississippi, and
    Alabama, that region should recover over time. The same can’t be said
    of relations between Washington and state and local officials who are
    still battling over responsibility for the flooding and looting in New
    Orleans. As criticism over the slow federal response rose like the
    area’s floodwaters, the White House responded with leaked reports of
    local bumbling. That had Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana
    fuming on ABC-TV’s This Week that “if one person criticizes our
    sheriffs or says one more thing — including the President of the
    United States — I might likely have to punch him. Literally.”

    Yet, the political recriminations show that even as we approach the
    fourth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the nation
    remains divided on what to do when terrible things happen. We still
    have difficulty grasping the notion that we are not safe from disaster
    in our own country. We couldn’t imagine a foreign terrorist attack on
    our soil. It happened. We couldn’t imagine an entire city disappearing
    under water, its population evacuated — but too late. It happened. We
    must begin to imagine future disasters, perhaps multiple catastrophes,
    for they, too, may well occur. It is no accident that this is precisely
    the conclusion that the 9-11 Commission reached in analyzing the
    attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “The most important
    failure was one of imagination,” it said.

    However much we want to believe it, New York and New Orleans are not
    unique events. The Next Big One is almost certain to come, and soon,
    perhaps in the form of an earthquake in California, an avian flu
    pandemic starting in Chicago, or a dirty bomb in Washington or
    Manhattan. Homeland security experts have identified a wide range of
    grave risks.

    We know this because an enormous amount of information flowing through
    our political and civil organizations already reveals these risks –
    just as data existed to foretell the New Orleans and New York
    disasters. In these two events and in others (the Challenger and
    Columbia shuttle accidents and the breakdown of the electric grid in
    the summer blackout of 2003), the issue wasn’t information. Problems
    emerged because of deeply flawed organizations beset by poor
    management, siloed cultures, and inadequate communication. People could
    not deal with what they believed to be remote, low-probability,
    high-risk catastrophes even when confronted with irrefutable data.

    In the business world, disruptive innovations and events occur
    frequently. CEOs and companies get blindsided for the same reasons. The
    Internet, China, startups, and surging oil prices are just some of the
    surprises in recent years. But the consequences of these kinds of
    shocks are limited to a hit to the bottom line, unemployment, and
    falling share prices. The stakes during a terrorist attack or natural
    disaster are vastly higher.

    There’s no way to be sure, but a confluence of trends appears to be
    raising the frequency, magnitude, and costs of many killer risks.
    Global integration is bringing everything and everybody closer faster,
    from technology to terrorists, visitors to viruses. Potential
    proliferation of small biological, nuclear, and chemical weapons is
    making security more difficult. Whatever the cause, the earth is
    warming, making much of the weather more ferocious. The U.S. appears
    vulnerable today to a growing number of potential disasters. Avian flu
    alone threatens to kill millions. It’s a scenario people find difficult
    to absorb, let alone act on. Yet even though any one disaster is
    unlikely, the growing number of possible catastrophes raises the
    likelihood that at least one of them will strike.

    The good news is that preparing for one disaster prepares for all of
    them. Planning relies on the same infrastructure and organizations.
    People are reluctant to pay to prepare for an unlikely event that may
    happen once in a lifetime. Paying for the possibility of a series of
    different unlikely events seems to make even less sense. A new approach
    to both terrorist and natural disasters may work better: Allow cities
    to deal with all contingencies at once by using the same
    infrastructure. Pioneered by the State University of New York at
    Buffalo’s Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research,
    this approach to multiple hazards is being used in California to
    “enhance the resilience of the critical infrastructure that communities
    will need,” says director Michel Bruneau. “The three most important
    things are power and water, acute-care facilities like hospitals, and
    response-and-recovery capabilities.” Strengthen these three, and you
    are better prepared to deal with almost all eventualities.

    Here is what should be done to manage the nation’s risks and prepare for the worst.

    live in a private, hyper-efficient, just-in-time economy with no slack
    built into it. But dealing with catastrophe requires just the opposite
    – extra capacity and backup. Cell-phone communications failed in both
    New York and New Orleans in part because there was little backup built
    into the systems. Telecom players have no profit incentive to provide
    extra capacity to deal with emergencies. So Washington has to either
    provide financial incentives for companies to build spare capacity or
    pay for it directly.

    The same just-in-time problems apply to hospitals, medical supplies,
    and vaccines. There are few stockpiled beds and medicines to deal with
    catastrophes. Access to cipro to fight anthrax and smallpox vaccines
    remains limited. A medical cushion is needed. “Communities have to have
    a surge response in hospitals,” says Dr. Redlener.

    The federal government already spends billions annually on Homeland
    Security, public works, and public health to defend against disasters,
    but it is not focused on areas of greatest threat. The democratic
    political culture that so defines America also acts to dilute resources
    across 50 states. Congress is pouring money into Wyoming to defend
    against terrorist attacks that are far more likely in San Francisco or
    Washington. It is sending millions of dollars to Alaska to build
    bridges to tiny islands that could have gone to bolstering the levees
    of New Orleans.

    The political game of buying off legislators to build a consensus
    around bills makes little sense when preparing for disasters. Less pork
    and more focus of the billions already appropriated in Congress to
    supporting bulwarks against disaster would make the nation safer.

    Establishing clear lines of authority in case of disaster before
    disaster strikes is equally important. New York had them. New Orleans
    didn’t. U.S. Appeals Court Judge Richard A. Posner, author of
    Catastrophe: Risk and Response, says each locality and state must work
    out a compact with federal authorities beforehand. “There’s urgency,
    uncertainty, people running around like chickens without heads — you
    have to have one person in command, with staff and authority,” says
    Posner. Why did it take four days for the National Guard to enter New

    Acting on information that falls outside the expected is also
    important. The FBI agent who warned about terrorists in flight schools,
    the engineers who asked for photos when the space shuttle’s wing was
    hit by foam, the people who wrote reports of problems with New Orleans’
    levees — all were signaling disaster, and all were ignored by decision
    makers who couldn’t, or didn’t want to, imagine what they foretold.

    The economic cost of September 11 was $70 billion. The tab for the New
    Orleans flooding could top $200 billion. An avian flu pandemic could
    cost trillions. We are quickly learning the costs of not managing the
    risks of disaster. Spending to prepare for worst-case scenarios may be
    far cheaper.

    But much depends on our political culture. In the past America’s
    political system has chosen to react to rather than plan for
    catastrophe. Politicians reflected the fears and reluctance of their
    constituents to grapple with disaster. New Orleans and New York show
    that it is time for them to begin to inform those they represent of the
    real risks that lie ahead and the real costs of preparing for them. It
    may be that people are finally ready to hear that message. What must be
    done is already clear. Getting there quickly is the challenge ahead