Last week NOAA ran an interesting – make that significant – conference in Seattle focusing on the tsunami threat to the Pacific Northwest. Want to dig deeper? You can find the agenda and speaker biographies here. Soon there should be additional material posted…including powerpoints of the presentations themselves, etc. You might want to be on the lookout. As a fly on the wall, I learned a lot.
A Cascadia earthquake could be a big deal; experts (that would start with seismologists and oceanographers, but also include emergency managers, and local and state officials) are focused on it like a laser beam. The topic also occupied a session at last summer’s World Conference on Disaster Management, in Toronto. [You can find my reflections on that earlier meeting here.] Want to visualize the scenario? Take that catastrophic Great Tohoku earthquake and its associated tsunami from last March and bring it to the United States. Consider the impact on U.S. coastal cities from Seattle to Sacramento. Picture massive loss of life and destruction of critical infrastructure along that entire stretch. Don’t think in terms of recovery, but instead a return to some “new normal.” And remember that two of the poster children for American industry – Boeing and Microsoft – and their employees and communities, will be in the affected area.
NOAA’s role in mitigating this hazard? Pretty much focused on the warning per se. And good warnings and a prepared, aware public will combine to reduce loss of life in the event. But the real focus needs to be on reducing the vulnerability of the area, so that those saved lives will be worth living, so that homes will be a safe haven, so that we’ll have jobs to return to, so that schools and hospitals and grocery stores will be open, and the electricity and water and other essentials will be running. We have this within our means, but the action – getting as much of the population and critical infrastructure out of the area as practicable, putting into place the proper zoning and building codes, etc., is at the local level.
Throughout much of the day and especially the latter half, speakers were showing a triangle with communities at the pinnacle and state and local governments at the foundation. The goal not to coerce conformance to top-down regulations but rather provide information resources and other tools that will enable communities to protect themselves. The focus on local action was in many ways the most compelling part of the day’s narrative.
But success is not assured. All along the Pacific northwest, vulnerability is trending upward. More and more people are attracted to the jobs and quality of life of the region. To support these populations, more critical infrastructure is daily put in harm’s way. Communities can’t expect this problem to be self-correcting. Instead community leaders – indeed all community residents – have to shoulder responsibility and make this a priority. And every day, the next big rupture of the Cascadia zone draws one day closer.
Which calls to mind a recent contribution by Alice Schroeder to Bloomberg’s Business Week. She suggests that the Nassim Taleb’s “Black Swan” metaphor for catastrophes has been greatly overused and rendered meaningless in the process. We should all remember that the metaphor was meant to describe events that no one could have foreseen, but that in retrospect seem inevitable.
By contrast, we all see this one coming. We’ve been served notice. Inaction is not an option.
In this case, the private sector has to take the lead. Microsoft and Boeing have to step up and say to the rest of the community “Either we all work together to solve this problem, or we leave.” Left to their own devices, local governments simply don’t have the financial capital – nor can they muster the political capital – to take the necessary actions. Of course, one of the perverse aspects of our current economic situation is that many companies are sitting on lots of cash. Communities are going to find innovative ways to form the public-private partnerships necessary to solve these sorts of “wicked” problems.
And it can be done. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – in partnership with the private sector – will begin replacement of the Goethals Bridge between NY and NJ sometime in the next couple of years: price tag – $20 billion. This would not have been considered even five years ago – now it’s a necessity. All it takes is someone who cares enough about their community to look for ways to get things done in today’s context.
Well said, John!