A Tale of Two (Real) Worlds

“Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to error that counts.” – Dag  Hammarskjold

In this post, we’re still observing the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and examining new policies, or shifts in policy, that would reduce our future vulnerability to hazards. Yesterday we looked at the first of these: no adverse impact. Today we look at the second.

Consider a tale of two (real) worlds. Let’s call the first Natural Planet. On this planet all disasters are “natural,” associated with floods, earthquakes and such. Munich Reinsurance has been keeping disaster loss figures for Natural Planet over the past 50-60 years. As you would expect, the figures are noisy year-to-year, but the trends are not encouraging. They show that losses are increasing more rapidly than the sum of the world’s GDP’s. This is clearly unsustainable! Ask for an explanation, and this is how folks on Natural Planet respond: populations are generally rising; people are increasingly settling in more hazardous areas, like the world’s coasts; and they’re gradually getting richer, so that the property exposure per capita is increasing.

Now let’s look at the second (equally real) world, which we’ll call Commercial-Aviation Planet. In this world, flights per year have quadrupled since the 1960’s. However, there’s no corresponding increase in accidents. The number of accidents[1] varies quite a bit from year-to-year, but the overall trend is level, or nearly so. Why aren’t commercial aircraft accidents dramatically increasing? Why is life on Commercial-Aviation Planet so different from Natural Planet?

Well, in 2001, a famous trio of social scientists – Gilbert White, Ian Burton, and Bob Kates – in looking at conditions on Natural Planet, offered a different perspective, and explanation, for what is going on there. In an article entitled Knowing better and losing even more: the use of knowledge in hazards management, they concluded that either (1) knowledge is lacking, (2) knowledge is available but unused, (3) knowledge is available but used ineffectively, (4) there is a time lag between the application of knowledge and the results, or (5) the best efforts to apply knowledge are overwhelmed by the rapid increase in vulnerability, etc. [Their article goes into a lot more detail, and is worth a serious read.]

That matches with an image folks on Natural Planet see on the television screen. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, networks show a man, or a woman, or a couple, at the scene of what’s left of their former home. They’re picking through the wreckage and are (quite appropriately, and sadly) distraught. They’re grieving. They’re saying “this was my (our) grandparent’s home, and we’re going to rebuild as before.” That’s another day on Natural Planet.

By contrast, on Commercial-Aviation Planet, in the aftermath of an aircraft accident, the television shows the wreckage of a crashed plane (and this is a relatively rare occurrence, by the way). Someone, perhaps wearing an NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) jacket, is saying “we’re recovering the flight recorder, and collecting all the evidence. We’re going to understand the reasons for this accident. We can’t let this ever happen again.”

Wow. These video clips certainly seem to be worlds apart. On Natural Planet, there’s a drive to rebuild as before. This shows courage, it shows a triumph of the human spirit (measured one way), and it shows “the importance of place,” as we all know in our gut, and as social scientists are quick to remind us. All of this should be respected. However, viewed through another lens, it can also look like a failure to learn from experience. Now let’s look at Commercial-Aviation Planet. People on this planet, if they heard someone saying, “The wing fell off this airplane, but we’re going to rebuild this plane as before,” would walk off shaking their heads, and vow never to fly again.

But wait a minute! These aren’t two different planets. They’re two faces of one and the same real world. For that matter, the vignettes show two different sides of our individual (hopelessly split?) personalities. Why do nations and states – and, for that matter each of us – respond so differently to these two scenarios?

I’ve asked a lot of people about this over the past several years, and gotten a range of answers. Some say in the case of natural hazards, it’s the sense of place that’s the driver. The attachment to our roots is so strong as to trump everything else. Some blame programs such as the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). They say flood insurance creates a moral hazard. They cite cases of repetitive loss like that highlighted in a recent issue of USA Today  – the Wilkinson MS home that has been flooded 34 times since 1978, a home currently worth about $70,000 but racking up insurance payments of $660,000 over the period. Some say the natural hazards case is more complex, more politically-charged, etc. than the aircraft accident. Obviously, many different motivations contribute.

But it might be in part that the NTSB is playing a critical role. That’s why, in 2006, writing in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, my colleague Gina Eosco and I suggested that the country needs an analog to the NTSB – a National Disaster Reduction Board or NDRB – with a mandate to investigate the full range of disasters: natural hazards, including disease outbreaks; industrial accidents; and willful acts of terror. In the interest of space, I’m not going to repeat details of the argument here. It’s a short article and you can read it if you wish. Suffice it to say that the existing NTSB has a number of features which make it an interesting model. It is small, only about 400 people. It is independent – (contrast the recent dust-up about the failure of the Minerals Management Service to keep the oil industry it was nominally supervising at sufficient arms-length). It only investigates causes of accidents and issues findings – leaving it up to the FAA, the airlines, the airframe manufacturers, and others to implement or ignore its suggestions. It brings on representatives from these stakeholder groups (the airframe manufacturer, the airline(s) involved, etc.) into its investigative teams. [At first blush, this might seem inconsistent with the “arm’s length” idea; however, the employees of the stakeholders sign very specific legal agreements governing their conduct while on such NTSB teams, limiting their contact with their employers, etc.] It investigates all possible causes or contributors to the incident. For example, when the wing falls off a plane, the NTSB doesn’t confine its attention to pilot error, but looks instead at wing- and plane design, maintenance and operation, weather conditions, and so on.

Perhaps equally important – the NTSB is a standing federal agency. For a number of years, the National Science Foundation used to fund the National Academies of Science-National Research Council to do post-disaster studies, on an as-needed basis. Experience showed that the academic committees who did the investigations produced excellent products, but sometimes only after unacceptably lengthy delays. In more recent years – following 9-11, Katrina, and other such events – Congress has established special commissions to investigate. Sometimes, because these groups are ad hoc, they are forced to spend considerable time agreeing on an investigative process. (By contrast, the NTSB operates under well-established protocols.) In the case of Katrina, the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate mounted separate studies, each numbering hundreds of pages. However, each of the three reports focused only on the shortcomings of the emergency response during the few days around hurricane landfall. They ignored a broader set of political and engineering decisions at federal, state, and local levels regarding land use, construction of levees, etc. that were made of periods of many years.

So…for your consideration, a second policy option: foster a culture of learning-from-experience by establishing an analog to the NTSB.

That’s it for this week. Enjoy the holiday weekend, but, if you live along the East coast, keep a weather eye on Hurricane Earl. Back after Labor Day.

[1](check this web url, and scroll through the report until you find the figure on page 18 of the report, page 20 of the pdf, entitled accident rates and onboard fatalities by year)

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5 Responses to A Tale of Two (Real) Worlds

  1. Jaye Lunsford says:

    The iterative approach you’re describing for “Aviation Planet” is totally at odds with the approach used in environmental impact statements for many years, that you allude to in an earlier post and that people in the U.S. have come to expect as the model – that is, one where you propose a project, anticipate the impacts, make a decision, and then go forward and don’t look back. Perhaps this culture, that doesn’t reflect on / reexamine assumptions, contributes to some of the repetitive blunders of “Natural Planet” … but it’s a culture we’ve inadvertently fostered based on the model we’ve established for public decisionmaking?

    (BTW, great blog, Bill!)

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