Katrina and Irene

Today is the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina devastating New Orleans in 2005. It’s also the day after the day this year that Hurricane Irene essentially gave the northeast of the USA a lucky break – plenty of damage but no devastation. Considering the immense population density of NYC and surrounds, I can only be immensely relieved – the worst case scenario was cataclysmic, and it’s pure luck that hopes for the best were largely realised instead.

Sociological Images has two posts up about Katrina:
Profits over People: The Human Cause of the Katrina Disaster
Disaster Tourism

Stories about Irene will be all over the news today, and many of them will say that the evacuation orders for low-lying areas, particularly in NYC, were an overreaction. They will say this because there have been so few deaths, so few tragic images for the news media. They will say this even though there are people whose homes are right now unliveable and and who are very, very glad to be in an evacuation centre, and they will say this even though there are other people who didn’t/couldn’t evacuate who are needing rescue from their dangerously damaged/flooded homes. The people who will be saying this will be wrong. Planning for the worst while hoping for the best, and having those plans work effectively to minimise harm, is a successful government planning/intervention exercise – the exact opposite of any evidence of any failure or waste. If the storm had ended up worse, as it did look like for a while, the evacuation plans would still have keep death and damage to a minimum.

Some people have learnt the hard lessons from what went wrong with the official responses before and after Katrina, and tightened up their disaster management planning even if it was already comprehensive. It appears that others would rather see it happen again than admit that decades of refusing to make adequate provisions for worst-case scenarios led to horrific disaster that was much, much worse than it could/should have been in Louisiana six years ago. I’m sure that some of those very same people scoff at others whom they consider under-insured, but they lack appreciation of how comprehensive disaster management planning and consequent evacuation orders are operating from exactly the same principles.

Those principles boil down to considering “what happens if I’m wrong?” about likely risks. If a storm is weaker than feared, and one has prepared for a stronger storm, then the cost of being wrong is that one has been mildly/moderately inconvenienced by routine emergency procedures. However, if a storm is stronger than hoped, and one has only prepared for a weaker storm, then the cost of being wrong is not just possibly preventable property damage, but also that one’s household members might be dead.

Now let’s flip that about for “what if I’m right?” questions on disaster planning. If the storm ends up being strong and one has properly prepared for such a strong storm, then the predicted benefit is survival. Phew. However, if the storm ends up being weak and one has declined to prepare for an anticipated strong storm, then the predicted benefit is some money and inconvenience saved. Meh.

The difference in risk/benefit in the two situations is massively skewed towards “always plan for the worst while hoping for the best” in not just my opinion, but also just about all traditional writings from prophets and philosophers throughout history. So why is it that those who self-describe as “conservative” advocate the exact opposite when it comes to public expenditure/intervention of any kind? Are they really that ideologically welded to boot-strapping that they would rather see huge swathes of both public and private infrastructure destroyed with consequent massive loss of life than admit that governments actually perform some useful functions? Or that collective effort/planning can actually be far more efficient that individual effort/planning in times of collective threat?

I see a similar operational/ideological divide around the issue of climate change.

  • There are those of us who look at the worst-case scenario and decide that planning for the worst while hoping for the best is the only rational course – after all, if we are wrong the worst that has happened meanwhile is that our grandchildren have a cleaner environment with more diverse (and thus more secure) energy and food sources. The richest might also be just a little bit less rich, but they won’t be actually impoverished by any of the suggested programs.
  • Then there are those who reject the worst-case scenario as scaremongering, who find comfort and justification in the best-case scenario and therefore argue that planning for the best is the only rational course because the worst will probably never happen. If they are wrong then the worst that could happen is that our grandchildren and most other animals on the planet will all starve. But at least the deniers will be a little bit richer than if the programs went ahead.

Is this simply an example of a failure of the individualist imagination? A socialised inability to regard any threat ever as a collective rather than an individual challenge,? A resultant refusal to acknowledge that uncoordinated individual responses to collective threats can never be an adequate response? Is part of their lizard brain expecting a Climate Rambo to somehow defend us all?

I know which side of the issue I’d rather be wrong about. When I think about all the money I could have saved over the years by not taking out insurance in those years when I didn’t need to make any claims against my policies, it adds up to many thousands of dollars. Why then have I continued to pay the annual premiums for my house, my car, my healthcare plan? Because the potential cost of the worst-case scenario (homeless and destitute with rocketing medical debts) is so much greater than the potential benefit I would receive from assuming only the best-case scenario (more money for goodies) – the possible risk of inaction greatly outweighs the probable benefit from inaction.

This is exactly why comprehensive disaster management planning is an essential service that public authorities need to provide, with support and coordination from the highest levels of government in response to expert advice. The risks of inaction are simply too great. Effective emergency management costs money to build mitigation, adaptation and evacuation infrastructure. The taxation/revenue raised from the public to cover these costs is really another form of insurance.

Climate change is just a slower disaster. Mitigation, adaptation and evacuation infrastructure needs to be planned, built and maintained. It doesn’t pay for itself. If we don’t start paying for it now, we won’t have time to build it when we really need it.

Categories: crisis, culture wars, history, media

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4 replies

  1. I think that the following article is falsely conflating the issue of news broadcasters being determined to wring every last drop of drama from the alerts (and being somewhat ‘disappointed’ that there wasn’t more carnage and graphic footage) with the ‘over-reaction’ of the planning http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/08/hurricane-irene-and-american-self-centeredness/244239/

  2. Actually in retrospect she may just be talking about ‘over-reaction’ by the media rather than by the government etc.

  3. Earlier this year, I worked for six weeks in a Centrelink call centre. I was primarily taking calls from people regarding Centrelink’s role in the clean-up after several different disasters – the floods in Queensland, NSW and Victoria, the bushfires which swept through Roleystone in WA, and tropical cyclone Yasi, which hit Queensland. Or in other words, I was taking claims for the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment.
    I heard a lot of different stories, and yes, some of them were traumatic – people who’d been caught up in flood surges and trapped in their cars, narrowly escaping getting swept away; people who’d lost track of family members; people who’d had to evacuate in the face of a roaring bushfire, and who were still shocked as a result – but I’ll mention the thing I didn’t hear. One of the questions I had to ask, for every single claim, was “has a member of your immediate family died as a result of [the disaster]?” – and I never once heard the answer “yes”. Most of this was because the authorities in various areas of Australia knew what they were doing with regards to planning, and the number of deaths was kept to a minimum. Indeed, when I took a look at the entry for TC Yasi on Wikipedia yesterday, I was surprised to see that there was only one death directly attributed to the cyclone’s passage: a person who died from carbon monoxide inhalation as a result of using a poorly maintained gas stove.
    I can remember hearing about the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, and wondering “what the hells were they thinking?” (because at the time, Australia was still recovering from TC Ian, which had gone through a bit south of where Yasi hit this year). I could not believe that a government anywhere could be so callous, so thoughtless of its people, as the US federal government was showing itself to be at that time. Then I realised – this wasn’t disregard, it was plain, ordinary disorder. It was what would have happened on a regular basis here in Australia if various federal government departments hadn’t spent the (unnecessary, wasteful) money on disaster planning and disaster recovery work, during the months where disasters were less likely to hit. Things like having plans in place for Centrelink staff to be heading up from head offices in Brisbane and elsewhere with briefcases full of claim forms for disaster recovery payments (or these days, a phalanx of staff with laptops, who basically went to the shelter areas even before the telecommunications infrastructure was back on line and started taking claims as soon as they could, and who dumped the whole lot into the Centrelink systems the minute they could do so). We had the army out there working alongside the SES, helping to pick up the pieces almost before they’d stopped falling. We had all of these structures in place, and so many people working together and willing to work together, that it took me a long time to realise what the main difference was between a disaster in Australia and a disaster in the USA.
    Our culture here in Australia values working together to overcome disasters, both natural and human-made. It’s part of what makes us Australian – the “mateship” that John Howard bleated about so often, the ethos which makes us all help each other out when we’re caught up in a situation which is beyond our immediate control. We do this because we are us – because the idea of not helping out is positively unthinkable.
    In the USA, by contrast, this sort of unthinking helping out your neighbours is something which is definitely not socially rewarded. It’s commented on, but as a sort of exception, a standing-out which, while commendable in principle, is in fact somehow socially wrong because it isn’t the “sensible” thing to do, or the profitable thing to do. It doesn’t reward you financially, so why do it? Let someone else do it instead, and be paid for it.
    And that there is the difference between our two cultures, tied up in a single thread.
    I realise our culture is changing, becoming more USAlienated – I realise this every time I see someone whinging along the lines of “why do we have to have a carbon tax, we’re not big polluters like India or China or the USA?”. But I don’t have to like it, and I don’t have to approve of it.

  4. I’m in NYC at the moment, and I have to say I’ve been very impressed with the way the mayor and emergency services handled the situation. With the exception of this morning, when it was nearly impossible to find out if the hurricane had happened or was still coming, as all the mayor’s aides seemed to have gone home, we had clear, up to date information, which helped us feel safe and led us to take proper precautions.
    Sure, in reality very little seemed to happen. We expected damaging winds, and horrendous flooding, but saw something more like annoying winds and a little flooding (in the area of Brooklyn where I am – can’t speak for others). It turned out we didn’t need to be as careful as we were. I have a lot of uneaten emergency food I didn’t need (and the lines in the stores suggest I’m not alone there).
    It could have been much worse, and would have been without the precautions people took.
    There were very few people in the streets, very little movement around the city, and no outdoor crowds at events, and many homeless people had a place to weather the storm, all of which may have prevented serious injury and (more) loss of life.
    There are worse things than having spent two days inside with friends and family, finding out about what to do in a hurricane, and eating all the ice cream (in case the power went out).

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