Tornado in Missouri: Why disasters are becoming more frequent, and what we can do about it.

The state of the universe.
May 13 2011 5:56 PM

The Century of Disasters

Meltdowns. Floods. Tornadoes. Oil spills. Grid crashes. Why more and more things seem to be going wrong, and what we can do about it.

A half-mile wide twister tore through Joplin, Mo., on Sunday, killing nearly 100. The tornado was one of 68 reported across seven states this weekend. Unfortunately, this century will be a time when natural disasters and failures of human design go hand-in-hand. As Joel Achenbach explained earlier this month in the article reprinted below, we've engineered a planet that works well but is susceptible to catastrophic failures. 

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Charles Perrow, author of Normal Accidents, told me that computer infrastructure is a disaster in the making. "Watch out for failures in cloud computing," he said by email. "They will have consequences for medical monitoring systems and much else."

Technology also mitigates disasters, of course. Pandemics remain a threat, but modern medicine can help us stay a step ahead of evolving microbes. Satellites and computer models helped meteorologists anticipate the deadly storms of April 27 and warn people to find cover in advance of the twisters. Better building codes save lives in earthquakes. Chile, which has strict building codes, was hit with a powerful earthquake last year but suffered only a fraction of the fatalities and damage that impoverished Haiti endured just weeks earlier.

The current Mississippi flood is an example of technology at work for better and for worse. As I write, the Army Corps of Engineers is poised to open the Morganza spillway and flood much of the Atchafalaya basin. That's not a "disaster" but a solution of sorts, since the alternative is the flooding of cities downstream and possible levee failure. Of course, the levees might still fail. We'll see. But this is how the system is supposed to work.

On the other hand, the broader drainage system of the Mississippi River watershed is set up in a way that it makes floods more likely. The cornfields in parts of the upper Midwest, for example, have been "tiled" with pipes that carry excess rainwater rapidly to the rip-rapped streams and on down to rivers lined with levees. We gave up natural drainage decades ago. The Mississippi is like a catheter at this point. Had nature remained in charge, the river would have mitigated much of its downstream flooding by spreading into natural floodplains further upriver (and the main channel would have long ago switched to the Atchafalaya river basin—see John McPhee's The Control of Nature—and New Orleans would no longer be a riverfront city).

One wild card for how disastrous this century will become is climate change. There's been a robust debate on the blogs about whether the recent weather events (tornadoes, floods) can be attributed to climate change. It's a briar patch of an issue and I'll exercise my right to skip past it for the most part. But I think it's clear that climate change will exacerbate natural disasters in general in coming years, and introduce a new element of risk and uncertainty into a future in which we have plenty of risks and uncertainties already. This, we don't need.

And by the way: Any discussion of "geoengineering" as a solution to climate change needs to be examined with the understanding that engineering systems can and will fail. You don't want to bet the future of the planet on an elaborate technological fix in which everything has to work perfectly. If failure isn't an option, maybe you shouldn't try it to begin with.

So if we can't engineer our way out of our engineered disasters, and if natural disasters are going to keep pummeling us as they have since the dawn of time—what's our strategy? Other than, you know, despair?

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Well, that's always worked for me, but here are a few more practical thoughts to throw in the mix. First, we might want to try some regulation by people with no skin in the game. That might mean, for example, government regulators who make as much money as the people they're regulating. Or it could even mean a private-sector regulatory apparatus that polices the industry, cracking down on rogue operators. The point is, we don't want every risky decision made by people with pecuniary interests.

Second, we need to keep things in perspective: The apparent onslaught of disasters doesn't portend the end of the world. Beware disaster hysteria in the news media. The serial disasters of the 21st century will be, to some extent, a matter of perception. It'll feel like we're bouncing from disaster to disaster in part because of the shrinking of the world and the ubiquity of communications technology. Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta are always in a disaster zone somewhere, demanding to know why the cavalry hasn't showed up. 

Third, we should think in terms of how we can boost our societal "resilience." This is the buzzword in the disaster-preparedness industry. Think of what you would do, and what your community would do, after a disaster. You can't always dodge the disaster, but perhaps you can still figure out how to recover quickly. How would we communicate if we got flared by the sun and the grid went down over two-thirds of the country? How would we even know what was going on? Maybe we need to have the occasional "18th-century weekend" to see how people might get through a couple of days without the grid, the cell towers, the cable TV, the iTunes downloads—the full Hobbesian nightmare.

And make an emergency plan. Buy some batteries and jugs of water just for starters. Figure out how the things around you work. Learn about your community infrastructure. Read about science, technology, and engineering, and don't worry if you don't understand all the jargon. And then, having done that, go on about your lives, pursuing happiness on a planet that, though sometimes dangerous, is by far the best one we've got.

Joel Achenbach is a reporter for the Washington Post and the author of the new book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher.

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