Anniversary Remembrances of Two Disasters

Thirty years ago to the day I was still working for NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR), and stationed in Boulder. A gaggle of us were back here in DC for an OAR management retreat. It was the final day, snowing to beat the band, and we couldn’t wait to get home.

One of my colleagues, Hugo Bezdek, who at that time directed NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) in Miami, Florida, was held up getting to National Airport. A fatal Metro accident had snarled up surface transportation across the system. Hugo missed his flight.

That flight he missed? Air Florida 90, which crashed on takeoff into the 14th Street Bridge and plunged into the icy Potomac.

Of the 83 people on board, 78 died. Today’s Washington Post carries the story. [Actually, it carries several stories. Once you reach and have read the first link, click on the photo gallery. It’s sobering – chilling, actually – but it gives us less excuse to trivialize this tragedy. Helps bring the pain and fear and loss home a little bit, and gives a glimpse into some of the heroism displayed that day. Another companion piece follows up on the handful of survivors.]

But the main point, as captured by the lead article? The loss of those 78 souls was not in vain. Investigation of the causes for the crash was extensive and thorough. The root problem was icing on the frame, wings, and engines of the aircraft. Ice not only adds weight but reduces the lift of the aircraft, with fatal results. The plane had been de-iced, but then stood on the ramp perhaps forty minutes or so before attempting takeoff.

But the investigators didn’t stop there. This was the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) – in the business of identifying all the root- and contributing causes of every crash and near-crash, and issuing comprehensive findings and recommendations. The NTSB noted that the pilots failed to de-ice the engines. They relied overmuch on aircraft instruments that had been clogged by ice and were no longer giving meaningful readings. They had little experience with ice. Today, the NTSB recommendations have been adopted and are in force. All pilots receive more and better training on this threat. They follow strict procedures and protocols for every takeoff where icing conditions exist. The chemicals used for de-icing the planes are more effective.

You get the idea. We learned from experience.

The Washington Post carried another article this week – on the Haitian recovery from the earthquake of two years ago.

Take a moment to compare with the airline crash. On January 12, 2010, that magnitude 7.0 quake killed over 300,000 people. It left a comparable number injured, and 1,000,000 homeless. The social scientist Paul Slovic tells us we’re numbed by figures like this…they lose their ability to horrify. They become mere statistics to us. They’re no longer people, with real lives and hopes and aspirations cut short. So for comparison, imagine that 78 people died in the Potomac from a plane crash every four hours, every day. It would take almost 4000 such plane crashes – two years of such four-hourly crashes – to match what happened in a few hours that day in Haiti.

The Washington Post article on this two-year anniversary was not quite so upbeat. Some 500,000 people still live in shelters. The recovery process is agonizingly slow. It mirrors what we’ve seen in New Orleans in the six-plus years since Katrina and what we’re seeing in Japan in the months since the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

Part of the problem is one of scale. But the other part is the bit of learning from experience – a topic of numerous posts on this blog. In each of these cinstances, we’re largely rebuilding as before.

We lack an NTSB analog for so-called natural disasters (which are as much a function of human decisions and actions as their aviation counterparts. As my colleague Gina Eosco and I have argued, we need such a Board for natural disasters. Right now, nothing along those lines is in the works. But it could be. This single, simple, sensible, inexpensive national and international action could transform our world’s posture toward natural hazards.

On the 30th anniversary of Katrina, the Haitian earthquake, and the great Tohoku earthquake, will journalists be able to report that people are safer going forward?

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