Entries Tagged "natural disasters"

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Elite Panic

I hadn’t heard of this term before, but it’s an interesting one. The excerpt below is from an interview with Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster:

The term “elite panic” was coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers. From the beginning of the field in the 1950s to the present, the major sociologists of disaster—Charles Fritz, Enrico Quarantelli, Kathleen Tierney, and Lee Clarke—proceeding in the most cautious, methodical, and clearly attempting-to-be-politically-neutral way of social scientists, arrived via their research at this enormous confidence in human nature and deep critique of institutional authority. It’s quite remarkable.

Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature, which I sometimes think is their own human nature. I mean, people don’t become incredibly wealthy and powerful by being angelic, necessarily. They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away, our seething violence will rise to the surface—that was very clear in Katrina. Timothy Garton Ash and Maureen Dowd and all these other people immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started writing commentaries based on the assumption that the rumors of mass violence during Katrina were true. A lot of people have never understood that the rumors were dispelled and that those things didn’t actually happen; it’s tragic.

But there’s also an elite fear—going back to the 19th century—that there will be urban insurrection. It’s a valid fear. I see these moments of crisis as moments of popular power and positive social change. The major example in my book is Mexico City, where the ’85 earthquake prompted public disaffection with the one-party system and, therefore, the rebirth of civil society.

Posted on April 8, 2013 at 1:30 PMView Comments

The Risks of Trusting Experts

I’m not sure what to think about this story:

Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L’Aquila.

A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter.

Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes.

The 6.3 magnitude quake devastated the city and killed 309 people.

These were all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, and some of Italy’s most prominent and internationally respected seismologists and geological experts. Basically, the problem was that they failed to hedge their bets against the earthquake. In a press conference just before the earthquake, they incorrectly assured locals that there was no danger. This, according to the court, was equivalent to manslaughter.

No, it doesn’t make any sense.

David Rothery, of the UK’s Open University, said earthquakes were “inherently unpredictable”.

“The best estimate at the time was that the low-level seismicity was not likely to herald a bigger quake, but there are no certainties in this game,” he said.

Even the defendants were confused:

Another, Enzo Boschi, described himself as “dejected” and “desperate” after the verdict was read.

“I thought I would have been acquitted. I still don’t understand what I was convicted of.”

I do. He was convicted because the public wanted revenge—and the scientists were their most obvious targets.

Needless to say, this is having a chilling effect on scientists talking to the public. Enzo Boschi, president of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) in Rome, said: “When people, when journalists, asked my opinion about things, I used to tell them, but no more. Scientists have to shut up.” Also, as part of their conviction, those scientists are prohibited from ever holding public office again.

From a security perspective, this seems like the worst possible outcome. The last thing we want of our experts is for them to refuse to give us the benefits of their expertise.

To be fair, the verdict isn’t final. There are always appeals in Italy, and at least one level of appeal is certain in this case. Everything might be overturned, but I’m sure the chilling effect will remain, regardless.

As someone who constantly makes predictions about security that could potentially affect the livelihood and lives of those who listen to them, this really made me stop and think. Could I be arrested, or sued, for telling people that this particular security product is effective when in fact it is not? I am forever minimizing the risks of terrorism in general and airplane terrorism in particular. Sooner or later, there will be another terrorist event. Will that make me guilty of manslaughter as well? Italy is a long way away, but everything I write on the Internet reaches there.

Oddly enough, there is a large of amount of case law in this area, with weathermen as the target. This twopart article, “Bad Weather? Then Sue the Weatherman,” is fascinating.

EDITED TO ADD (11/13): Here is an article in “New Scientist” that gives the prosecutor’s side of things. According to the prosecutor, this case was not about prediction. It was about communication. It wasn’t about the odds of the quake, it was about how those odds were communicated to the public.

Posted on October 25, 2012 at 6:27 AMView Comments

Preventive vs. Reactive Security

This is kind of a rambling essay on the need to spend more on infrastructure, but I was struck by this paragraph:

Here’s a news flash: There are some events that no society can afford to be prepared for to the extent that we have come to expect. Some quite natural events—hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, derechos—have such unimaginable power that the destruction they wreak will always take days, or weeks, or months to fix. No society can afford to harden the infrastructure that supports it to make that infrastructure immune to such destructive forces.

Add terrorism to that list and it sounds like something I would say. Sometimes it makes more sense to spend money on mitigation than it does to spend it on prevention.

Posted on August 13, 2012 at 12:41 PMView Comments

The Problem of False Alarms

The context is tornado warnings:

The basic problem, Smith says, it that sirens are sounded too often in most places. Sometimes they sound in an entire county for a warning that covers just a sliver of it; sometimes for other thunderstorm phenomena like large hail and/or strong straight-line winds; and sometimes for false alarm warnings ­ warnings for tornadoes that were incorrectly detected.

The residents of Joplin, Smith contends, were numbed by the too frequent blaring of sirens. As a result of too many past false alarms, he writes: “The citizens of Joplin were unwittingly being trained to NOT act when the sirens sounded.”

Posted on May 30, 2012 at 6:44 AMView Comments

A Systems Framework for Catastrophic Disaster Response

The National Academies Press has published Crisis Standards of Care: A Systems Framework for Catastrophic Disaster Response.

When a nation or region prepares for public health emergencies such as a pandemic influenza, a large-scale earthquake, or any major disaster scenario in which the health system may be destroyed or stressed to its limits, it is important to describe how standards of care would change due to shortages of critical resources. At the 17th World Congress on Disaster and Emergency Medicine, the IOM Forum on Medical and Public Health Preparedness sponsored a session that focused on the promise of and challenges to integrating crisis standards of care principles into international disaster response plans.

Posted on April 6, 2012 at 11:03 AMView Comments

Unanticipated Security Risk of Keeping Your Money in a Home Safe

In Japan, lots of people—especially older people—keep their life savings in cash in their homes. (The country’s banks pay very low interest rates, so the incentive to deposit that money into bank accounts is lower than in other countries.) This is all well and good, until a tsunami destroys your home and washes your money out to sea. Then, when it washes up onto the beach, the police collect it:

One month after the March 11 tsunami devastated Ofunato and other nearby cities, police departments already stretched thin now face the growing task of managing lost wealth.

“At first we put all the safes in the station,” said Noriyoshi Goto, head of the Ofunato Police Department’s financial affairs department, which is in charge of lost-and-found items. “But then there were too many, so we had to move them.”

Goto couldn’t specify how many safes his department has collected so far, saying only that there were “several hundreds” with more coming in every day.

Identifying the owners of lost safes is hard enough. But it’s nearly impossible when it comes to wads of cash being found in envelopes, unmarked bags, boxes and furniture.

After three months, the money goes to the government.

Posted on April 15, 2011 at 6:49 AMView Comments

Doomsday Shelters

Selling fear:

The Vivos network, which offers partial ownerships similar to a timeshare in underground shelter communities, is one of several ventures touting escape from a surface-level calamity.

Radius Engineering in Terrell, Texas, has built underground shelters for more than three decades, and business has never been better, says Walton McCarthy, company president.

The company sells fiberglass shelters that can accommodate 10 to 2,000 adults to live underground for one to five years with power, food, water and filtered air, McCarthy says.

The shelters range from $400,000 to a $41 million facility Radius built and installed underground that is suitable for 750 people, McCarthy says. He declined to disclose the client or location of the shelter.

“We’ve doubled sales every year for five years,” he says.Other shelter manufacturers include Hardened Structures of Colorado and Utah Shelter Systems, which also report increased sales.


The Vivos website features a clock counting down to Dec. 21, 2012, the date when the ancient Mayan “Long Count” calendar marks the end of a 5,126-year era, at which time some people expect an unknown apocalypse.

Vicino, whose terravivos.com website lists 11 global catastrophes ranging from nuclear war to solar flares to comets, bristles at the notion he’s profiting from people’s fears.

“You don’t think of the person who sells you a fire extinguisher as taking advantage of your fear,” he says. “The fact that you may never use that fire extinguisher doesn’t make it a waste or bad.

“We’re not creating the fear; the fear is already out there. We’re creating a solution.

Yip Harburg commented on the subject about half a century ago, and the Chad Mitchell Trio recited it. It’s at about 0:40 on the recording, though the rest is worth listening to as well.

    Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a shelter,
          worthy of Kubla Khan’s Xanadu dome;
    Plushy and swanky, with posh hanky panky
          that affluent Yankees can really call home.

    Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a shelter,
          a push-button palace, fluorescent repose;
    Electric devices for facing a crisis
          with frozen fruit ices and cinema shows.

    Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a shelter
          all chromium kitchens and rubber-tiled dorms;
    With waterproof portals to echo the chortles
          of weatherproof mortals in hydrogen storms.

    What a great come-to-glory emporium!
    To enjoy a deluxe moratorium,
    Where nuclear heat can beguile the elite
          in a creme-de-la-creme crematorium.

EDITED TO ADD (8/9: Slate on this as a bogus trend.

Posted on July 30, 2010 at 12:47 PMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.