A controlled burn of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, May 19

David Brooks has a good column today on the Deepwater Horizon disaster that sums up a significant problem my last post touched on: modern life is made possible by various complicated technological-bureaucratic systems. And these things can go south rather quickly and surprisingly. Part of the problem is that they’re complex, and not managed well. That’s par for the course. But the tricky thing is our collective expectations: we (and often the people running them) expect them to just work, and our expectations are way wrong:

Over the past years, we have seen smart people at Fannie Mae, Lehman Brothers, NASA and the C.I.A. make similarly catastrophic risk assessments. As [Malcolm] Gladwell wrote in that 1996 essay, “We have constructed a world in which the potential for high-tech catastrophe is embedded in the fabric of day-to-day life.”

So it seems important, in the months ahead, to not only focus on mechanical ways to make drilling safer, but also more broadly on helping people deal with potentially catastrophic complexity. There must be ways to improve the choice architecture — to help people guard against risk creep, false security, groupthink, the good-news bias and all the rest.

This is about right. But not exactly. (more…)

What is a “natural disaster”? The question is important, not least because arbitrary, imponderable “nature” wreaking havoc on humans and our fragile civilizations is such an archetypal predicament.

Today, though, there’s a big problem: we can’t tell any longer where nature leaves off and civilization begins. And that’s confusing.

Start with global warming and work your way down. Mankind is now causing what used to be called “natural disasters.” The Gulf oil spill is not a natural disaster in the traditional sense: nature didn’t cause it. But it is a natural disaster in that it’s disastrous to nature.

Or take the oft-litigated (in the courts and the media) case of Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levee system. I’ll repeat this here, for clarity: most of the devastating flooding of New Orleans occurred because faulty floodwalls collapsed because of errors in their designs approved by the Army Corps of Engineers – i.e., the U.S. government. Natural disaster? Not really, though obviously nature had a hand in it. John Goodman’s character Creighton Bernette articulates this eloquently in the first episode of Treme.

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Every natural disaster affects the human “footprint” on the planet differently. So it’s not exactly apples-to-apples to compare this past weekend’s Chile earthquake with the Haiti quake. The latter hit closer to a sprawling urban area, and so the death toll is naturally going to be much higher. But on the face of it, the numbers are striking: more than 200,000 Haitiians died, mostly due to collapsing buildings and infrastructure. The Chilean death toll is still below 1,000 and likely to remain much lower than Haiti’s.

Besides the relative luck of geography, there’s a manmade reason for that: Chileans realized they had built their cities on major earthquake faults and their government took steps to prepare for the worst.

Haiti’s earthquake was shallower and closer to a major city, Port-au-Prince, than was the Chilean quake, which accounted for much of the devastation in Haiti. Stricter building codes and better enforcement of them played a major role in reducing the loss of life in Chile, says Andres García, manager of AGR Analysis, a construction and building management company in Viña del Mar, Chile.

“Chile has been building according to the best standards in the world for at least 20 years,” García says. “As the technology and techniques have gotten better, the rules have gotten stricter. And that’s what has minimized the loss of life this time around.”

All this seems pretty obvious from a civics lesson standpoint. Yet if you look at the United States, we’re in considerably worse shape prepping for earthquakes and other disasters. Our infrastructure is falling apart, as the American Society of Civil Engineers has repeatedly noted, which of course means a lot of important stuff is more likely to collapse or implode in the event of disaster. The West Coast has earthquake-resistant building codes, this report from the Institute for Business and Home Safety notes, but not so the Midwest, which is overdue for a quake from the New Madrid fault.

Why such a patchwork? Because disaster planning is not a national priority. In some ways, this makes sense: the United States covers a vast and varied landscape. Conditions and risks vary widely. In Chile with earthquakes, or with the Netherlands and floods, there’s a clear top-down rationale. Not so here.

The problem is, though, that the footprint of potential natural disasters is getting larger, in the U.S. and abroad. And as that expands, so does the onus on the federal government. There’s more sprawl and development covering a wider area than before. Much of it is in disaster-prone areas, close to coastlines, fire-prone forests and fault lines. In America, people like to live close to nature, and nature isn’t shy about biting back. Around the world, the advent of the mega-city has put more people and buildings over fault lines than ever before in human history.

Add into this the potential effects of global warming on sea level, storms, and fire regimes, and the risks grow even more. That is, beyond capacity of U.S. states and localities, or developing world nations, to absorb.

In an age of austerity, a few more mega-disasters on the scale of Hurricane Katrina – which cost more than $100 billion in federal aid – will really put the hurt on the federal budget. Modest up-front improvements in building codes and other forms of “disaster mitigation” can save billions on the back-end.

But there are all kinds of obstacles. Our government and politics are famously dysfunctional, and there’s a powerful and renewed strain of sentiment that holds any government action in contempt. The Chile situation should be a reminder that governments are, occasionally, quite useful.

Photo by Logan Abassi/UN

Photo by Logan Abassi/UN

At The New Republic, Noam Schieber argues the blanket media coverage of the Haitian earthquake aftermath is just too much. It’s redundant, it’s interfering with aid operations, it’s a waste of resources. His solution: pool coverage. Just as the president is followed around by a rotating pool of reporters, maybe Haiti and other natural disasters should be too:

Just like they do for White House coverage, the major (and some not so major) news organizations could draw up an agreement to send a contingent of print, radio, and television reporters to wherever the next global disaster strikes. The participating news organizations could then use the raw material transmitted back to them to fashion their own reports. The pool correspondents could even be available to conduct on-air interviews with different television organizations, depending on their editorial needs. The arrangement would obviously be less than ideal for the outlets with the biggest budgets. But, collectively, the media would have the peace of mind of knowing it’s not exacerbating the same problems it’s trying to alleviate.

I yield to no one in my contempt for the crass, sensationalistic conventions of TV news (which, given technical demands and the quest for ratings, has by far the biggest footprint of any media). And the coverage of natural disasters employs most of those conventions, notably the faintly ridiculous notion of journalist-as-globetrotting-hero.

But do we really need less coverage of Haiti? (more…)

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