Disaster Planning Is an Unmitigated Disaster

In the rush to fix blame, the most important lessons of the two major natural disasters to strike the planet in the past year— the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina— are already being ignored. Unless the real lessons are finally given the attention they deserve, we will continue on the same perilous course. We will already be too late in planning for the next disaster.

First and foremost, the hackneyed distinction between “natural” and “human-caused” crises is now completely obsolete. Stronger still, it is completely bankrupt. It no longer serves any useful purpose. At best, it is an anachronism, a carryover from a simpler age. At worst, it is major contributor to the crises we face because it delays action until the crises are seriously out of control and it’s too late to do anything effective about them.

Both the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina should teach us that there is now a seamless connection between “natural” and “human-caused” crises. As inevitably night follows day, one inevitably follows the other. Indeed, the time between them has essentially shrunk to zero. The natural and the human-caused are so interconnected that they must no longer be viewed as two separate events but rather as two overlapping phases of the same phenomenon.

If there is any valid distinction left between “natural” and “human-caused” crises, it is that “natural” disasters are not fully preventable whereas “human-caused” crises are.

Most natural disasters, such as earthquakes, are neither predictable nor preventable. However, many, such as hurricanes and tsunamis, are somewhat predictable even if they are not fully preventable. In contrast, with proper planning and preparation, the overwhelming majority of human-caused crises are preventable even if they cannot be predicted perfectly. Nonetheless, with proper planning and preparation, many of the most serious aspects of natural disasters can be mitigated, and in this sense, partially prevented. It is precisely the fact that so many of the worst aspects of both natural and human-caused crises are preventable that provokes such intense public outrage.

One thing is certain. Natural and human-caused crises must now be viewed as integral and inseparable parts of the same continuous chain. Unless we are prepared, a major human-caused crisis is guaranteed to follow every natural disaster. But this means that as soon as the natural part is triggered, then the response to the human-caused phase needs to be immediate. If it is not, as both the tsunami and the hurricane demonstrate, valuable time will be lost and the human-caused part of the crisis will become even worse.

In short, one can no longer just react to crises. One needs to be continually proactive. And in fact, the better one’s reactive capabilities, the more one is lulled into a false sense of security.

But there is something even stranger that the two most recent natural disasters have to teach. The human-caused phases precede the natural phases! If the responses to the natural parts of the crisis are not already in place before the natural occurs, then it will be too late to treat the human-caused phases.

This is why simulations of worst cases are absolutely necessary. The simulations that were conducted prior to Katrina were, in my opinion, so deficient that they were criminal. They did not include the breaking of the levees even though it was known that this was a real possibility. Furthermore, they were also seriously deficient because, like most simulations that I have examined, they did not include reasonable expectations of what would happen to the most vulnerable populations. Thus, instead of being part of the solution, the simulations were part of the problem, that is, the human-caused crisis.

Another important lesson is that traditional Risk Management, or RM for short, is now a major contributor to human-caused crisis. In traditional RM, one multiplies the probability or the frequency of a particular crisis times its consequences should it occur. (If one throws an unbiased coin 100 times, then heads ought to come up 50 times and tails 50 times. If every time a head results, you win one dollar, and every time a tail results you lose a dollar, then on average, you ought to earn zero dollars.)

In the case of Katrina, it was thought that the probability of a hurricane of its magnitude occurring was only 0.03. Thus, however high its consequences, in effect they would be reduced by 97%! It is as if one would experience only 3% of Katrina’s effects averaged out over many years!

To his credit, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff wants to replace traditional RM by approaches that focus on the magnitude of the consequences only. If we don’t, then we will continue to downplay high consequence-low probability crises like Katrina, not to mention atrocities like 9/11.

Finally, the hardest lesson to learn is that all crises are now systemic. No crisis is ever the result of a single cause. They are due to a whole series of interlocking events. However far removed it seems, the ill-conceived and disastrous war in Iraq is a major contributing factor. The war has drained and diverted invaluable resources and political will.

Like everything else in a complex world, proper crisis planning can never be a purely technical activity. It is profoundly political. But, as I have been arguing, it is profoundly philosophical as well. Indeed, it is the failure of our underlying concepts and institutions to keep pace and to change that is at the root of difficulties.

The clock for the next crisis is ticking constantly. It never rests. It is already recording how well and how poorly we have been doing in preparing for the next crisis. Is anyone learning?

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Investigator with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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