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
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.