Why We Are Vulnerable

The Next Catastrophe: Reducing our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters by Charles Perrow (Princeton University Press, 377 pages, $29.95)

The Edge of Disaster by Stephen Flynn (Random House, 240 pages, $25.95)

Americans at Risk: Why We are not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can do Now by Irwin Redlener (Alfred Knopf, 273 pages, $24.00)

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The disasters of the past six years have made the business of crisis management lucrative and even sexy. In the wake of September 11 and Hurricane Katrina, experts in the field have been awash in new funds, consulting contracts, and media attention.

But the skewed perceptions and politics of recent years have distorted crisis management itself. September 11 ushered in a new breed of specialists -- the "9-12 people" -- who emphasized terrorism and weapons of mass destruction to the exclusion of other perils. Though often lacking in knowledge and experience, they played on public anxieties, promoted secrecy over openness, and resurrected old ideas about the need for tight, closed command-and-control structures to manage disasters. Populating the new Department of Homeland Security, they marginalized or drove out knowledgeable disaster managers in the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other parts of the government.

The 9-12 worldview reflects the logic that Ron Suskind describes in The One Percent Doctrine: If there is even the smallest chance of a terrorist incident, according to this view, the government ought to treat it like a certainty and do everything to stop it. To the 9-12 people, every town and hamlet, not just every urban center, is riddled with terrorist targets. On that premise, the Department of Homeland Security, in 2003, began formulating requirements for communities around the country to prepare for 13 possible events, including attacks with nuclear weapons, dirty bombs, and nerve and blister agents. The trouble is that a preoccupation with remote contingencies comes at the expense of preparing for more likely disasters. Only after a bureaucratic struggle were hurricanes and earthquakes included in the list of events for which communities were required to prepare.

Then came Katrina, the catastrophe that many disaster researchers had predicted: massive winds and storm surges over an impact area the size of Great Britain; colossal levee breeches; more than 1,800 killed; hundreds of thousands left homeless and permanently displaced; direct losses of over $120 billion; and now the sad and prolonged struggle for the survival of one of the nation's most distinctive cities. Katrina exposed catastrophic flaws in the nation's system for managing large-scale disasters, and it shocked the world, vividly exposing how our class system structures the fates of disaster victims. The response to Katrina was an utter debacle, and the slow recovery is a national disgrace.

The Katrina experience, however, is causing a slight corrective swing in disaster management, turning attention to how the nation can better prepare for, respond to, and recover from all types of perils, whether arising from natural forces, industrial or technological hazards, or acts of terrorism. The "all hazards" approach that is now being floated in the wake of Katrina is exactly the strategy that government agencies, researchers, and practitioners had been following since the early 1980s and that was scrapped following 9-11. Now even some in the 9-12 punditocracy seem ready to acknowledge that perils other than terrorism threaten our society and that objective, risk-based approaches to managing hazards are what the nation needs.

The three books under review here reflect this more balanced post-Katrina mindset. They recognize the common sources of our vulnerability to all types of extreme events and the need to follow common strategies to minimize risks. The books are, to varying degrees, formulaic. The authors present an impressive array of worst-case scenarios that runs the gamut from a terrorist attack on petrochemical facilities in south Philadelphia that sends a toxic cloud wafting over a large crowd at a Phillies-Mets game, to avian flu in New York, to catastrophic earthquake-induced levee failures in Northern California. Once readers are afraid -- very afraid -- the authors discuss why the nation remains so vulnerable and then suggest remedies to make us safer.

Sociologist Charles Perrow is most emphatically not a 9-12 person. His 1984 book Normal Accidents and his many publications analyzing how and why technological systems are vulnerable to disaster have achieved iconic status in academic circles. In The Next Catastrophe, Perrow extends his analysis to incorporate "natural" disasters and terrorism more fully. (I put "natural" in quotes because there is always a social factor in the chain of events leading to the human suffering and economic losses that a disaster brings.) For too long, researchers and practitioners have been divided along peril-based lines, with some focusing on hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, others concentrating on industrial and technological events, and the 9-12 people preoccupied with terrorism.

Extending his earlier research on the systemic sources of catastrophe, Perrow's book shows how disasters as diverse as 9-11, Katrina, the Challenger accident, and massive power-grid failures can be traced to three types of organizational pathology.

The first are organizational failures, in which workers and managers do not perform their roles effectively. Organizations responsible for reducing risks become ineffectual for many reasons: inertia, loss of expertise, insufficient resources, complacency. Organizational failures also occur when personnel continue to follow everyday rules that are clearly inappropriate for emergency situations. FEMA's overbureaucratized response to Katrina comes to mind.

Executive failures are a second contributor to disaster. The Bush administration's failure to anticipate the 9-11 attacks and its blundered response to Katrina are conspicuous examples.

Third, the failure to apply and enforce regulatory standards and effectively oversee organizational operations compromises our capacity to prevent disasters. Such failures develop, for example, when regulators are captured by the industries they are supposed to regulate, and institutions permit lax enforcement.

These pathologies take place in the context of changes in physical, social, and economic systems that increase the potential magnitude of disasters. As a result of corporate economies of scale, hazardous materials and manufacturing are ever more concentrated, raising the potential for catastrophic industrial accidents and terrorist strikes. The growing density of people and infrastructure in large urban hubs and other areas that are vulnerable to hazards has already caused disaster losses to soar and will continue to do so. Infrastructure systems are now so complex and interdependent that they create risks of cascading system failures such as those seen during Katrina and the East Coast power outages of August 2003. To counteract these trends, Perrow emphasizes the need for greater decentralization and "target shrinking" strategies.

National-security expert Stephen Flynn is not a 9-12 person, but he writes like one. Flynn's 2004 book America the Vulnerable pointed to complex systems such as transportation networks and industrial- and food-supply chains as offering a variety of tempting targets for terrorists. That volume, which represented the apotheosis of 9-12 thought, focused exclusively on terrorism and said nothing about America's vulnerability to more likely events such as large floods and hurricanes. Written in the same breathless style, Flynn's new book The Edge of Disaster now ventures into the all-hazards terrain, whipping through a series of worst-case scenarios, ignoring their relative likelihood, and often arguing for the same measures that loss-reduction professionals have advocated for decades (for example: "Don't encourage construction along vulnerable coastlines and in flood-prone areas"). Flynn also calls attention to many of the same organizational pathologies that Perrow discusses: risky practices and lack of accountability within institutions, regulatory failures, and the institutionalized incapacity to recognize the threats inherent in complex and interdependent systems.

Irwin Redlener's Americans at Risk also reprises the many organizational and institutional problems that helped bring about 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina. Americans at Risk is perhaps the most emotionally charged of the books considered here, owing perhaps to the author's direct involvement in relief efforts during the Katrina catastrophe. As a physician, Redlener is concerned with systemic weaknesses in the nation's health-care and public-health systems that undermine their capacity to respond to emerging threats ranging from pandemic flu to mass-casualty catastrophes. He also grapples with the question of why Americans remain so reluctant to plan for disasters and offers sound advice on how we can become better prepared. Yet while highlighting the strengths of civil society in disaster response, he calls for an expanded role for the military -- a move that most emergency-management professionals and researchers would not support.

The three books have a lot in common. The authors discuss at length the many weaknesses in our homeland security and emergency management systems, and they call attention to the inherent vulnerability of the complex systems on which the American way of life depends. They also stress that secrecy is the enemy of safety because the public needs to be informed and engaged in preparedness efforts, and because secrecy permits organizational pathologies to fester.

All three books also emphasize the need for resilience -- a robust capacity to withstand extreme events and to rebound when disasters occur. Realistically, extreme events of all types are part of our nation's future, and when prevention and mitigation prove inadequate, we have to be ready to respond and rebuild. Only by increasing resilience in its many dimensions can the nation protect itself against risks of all types.

None of the authors, however, address the dirty secret that disasters do not matter much in U.S. society, except to those people unfortunate enough to become their victims. There is virtually no sustained political support for disaster preparedness and loss reduction. Advocates for improved disaster-safety measures typically must work to overcome governmental indifference, political opposition, and public apathy.

Landowners, developers, the real estate lobby, and the other groups that make up the growth machine dominating local politics stand ready to oppose and water down loss-reduction measures. Industry demands less oversight, and government obliges. When oil interests come up against wetlands, oil wins. The almighty market must operate unfettered, disasters notwithstanding.

The reality is that disasters are part of the nation's cost of doing business. How else can we explain the fact that the potential for catastrophic disaster has been allowed to explode? Although insurers may quake at the costs, hundreds of billions of dollars in disaster losses can readily be absorbed by the U.S. economy. Victims of catastrophe can dig into their own savings or seek compensation through government programs, insurance, and charity. Although all three books make many convincing points about how to reduce our vulnerability to disasters, they skirt around the uncomfortable fact that so much of our vulnerability is political and economic in origin.