“The big one.” Perhaps you’ve heard that term used to refer to some possible future catastrophe. All too easy to use “the” too cheaply. Somehow that implies a catastrophe that cannot be exceeded. Better to call it “a” big one.
At the World Conference on Disaster Management a panel of experts shared collective views on this scenario. The title of the session? North America’s next big quake: It’s overdue – and we aren’t ready. The panelists? Jerry Thompson, a writer/director from Raincoast Storylines Ltd; John Copenhaver, CEO, Contingency Management Group; Michele Turner, Director of Policy Governance at Microsoft; and Ron Kuban, co-President, Canadian Risk and Hazards Network.
Jerry Thompson started things off by painting a brief picture of the Cascadia subduction zone, a 1000-mile stretch extending roughly from San Francisco north to British Columbia. Every few hundred years (maybe a dozen quakes over a 3500-year period), the entire length of this zone convulses with enough force to drive a tsunami maybe 100 feet high. Picture as much damage as we saw in Japan in March, but this time affecting Sacramento, CA; Portland, OR; Seattle WA; and Victoria and Vancouver, BC Canada – five cities taken down in the span of fifteen minutes or so.
The last such earthquake and tsunami? In January of 1700, as recorded in the Japanese records of damage on their distant shore. The outlook? A repetition of such an event sometime is virtually assured. By contrast, the timing is highly uncertain. A ten percent chance of a recurrence within the next 50 years, according to some geologists.
Are we prepared? Seriously? What do you think?
John Copenhaver was up next. Drawing on his experience as a former FEMA regional director, he painted a picture of the emergency response. He started by pointing out that this event would indeed come as a surprise. Despite a range of efforts to build public awareness, most of the folks in harm’s way, numbering in the millions, would be caught flat-footed. He forecast that national awareness of the earthquake and tsunami would be quick, and efforts to respond would begin almost immediately, but that the enormity and scale of events would prohibit meaningful action right away. He estimated that most emergency managers in the area itself would themselves be victims, as well as their families, or, at best, isolated and relatively helpless. Those based outside would find it straightforward to reach the fringes of the disaster zone, but extremely difficult to penetrate any meaningful distance into the interior. Structural damage would be massive. Critical infrastructure would be non-functional. Electricity, natural gas, water, transportation would all be out. And the damage would be extensive and involve transformers, generators, and other heavy gear that isn’t simply available off-the-shelf. Replacement would take weeks to months, not days. The military would be brought in immediately, without the usual delay out of sensitivity to the distinctions between military and civilian roles in such emergencies. However, even this would not be enough.
Michele Turner followed. Her role was to give ideas on how the private sector might prepare. She had lots of good suggestions. After all, we’re talking about Microsoft here – a company with a lot of brainpower and, with headquarters in Seattle, a lot at stake. But it was hard to escape the conclusion that preparations to date are inadequate. They may provide a measure of protection against smaller events but are by no means adequate to the task of coping with the more powerful earthquakes that seem possible. She spoke of planning. Essential. Partnerships. Likewise. She emphasized prospects for progress. But all much easier to contemplate in the abstract than to execute in the aftermath of the disaster. [This theme, in fact, was common to all the scenarios discussed at the WCDM…whether the worldwide food shortage, the cyber-threats, or weapons of mass destruction. ]
Ron Kuban batted cleanup. Literally. He spoke to the issues of recovery and reconstruction. He made a number of excellent points. Recovery will take decades. “Recovery” will not, however, mean a return to the former state. It means the emergence of a “new normal.”
You and I can see this in disasters of lesser scope. Take the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Vegetation, and critters have returned quickly to the mountain’s slopes. But the ecosystem today is something different from the dense stands of conifers that dominated the landscape prior to the eruption. A year after Katrina hit New Orleans, the birth rates in the city’s hospitals were primarily Latino, reflecting the influx of workers who had been cleaning out the debris from the flood, as distinct from the original residents. The city of twenty years from now is likely to have a demographic quite different from that which gave New Orleans its traditions and reputation. [And 65 million years after the K-T meteor hit, the dinosaurs have yet to make a comeback. We’re still in the new normal.]
Kuban spoke rather optimistically, noting that reconstruction provides the opportunity for innovation – the chance to correct past mistakes and try new approaches. Social scientists tell us, however, that if detailed plans and commitments to carry through aren’t in place prior to the disaster, such progress is difficult to achieve in the event.
Audience reaction was interesting. The 800+ assembled in each of the sessions were for the most part not academics or leaders far-removed but practitioners – emergency managers from across the United States and Canada, and from a smattering of other countries. By and large they were folks accustomed to dealing with disasters on the ground and vendors offering a number of tools – products and services for sheltering homeless populations, conducting search and rescue, etc. Few seemed shocked or intimidated by these doomsday scenarios of the plenary sessions; you got the sense they spent days and months – and careers – living in the shadow of such awful prospects. Nor were they fatalistic.
Their present priority? To warn policymakers and officials above them of the risks when and if these dark days might come to their town or city or province. Their attitude? To recognize and accept that in a world preoccupied with today’s troubles – joblessness, stagnant economies, costly healthcare, unfavorable age demographics, and political strife – the resources they seek to build community resilience for some distant, uncertain calamity will likely not be forthcoming. Their commitment? To do their best to improvise and make do when the hazards come – and accept any blame for not having done more.
All in all, an inspiring bunch.