Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 1, 2010

Catastrophe in the Gulf?

Filed under: Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 1, 2010

Saturday’s lead story in the Washington Post provides more fodder for our consideration of how to define catastrophe.

Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen said in an interview Friday that the company’s plans for responding to oil spills did not address the complete failure of equipment on the seafloor designed to prevent a blowout of the sort that took place on the massive drilling rig.

“We’re breaking new ground here. It’s hard to write a plan for a catastrophic event that has no precedent, which is what this was,” Allen said, defending the company against not writing a response for “what could never be in a plan, what you couldn’t anticipate.”

The Admiral is correct.  To plan for what is unprecedented is very difficult.  To prepare for an unprecedented but predictable high consequence risk is, therefore, even more critical.  It is too soon to assess the level of preparedness or the effectiveness of the response in regard to the Deepwater Horizon explosion.  The unfolding of  disaster does not ipso facto mean preparedness was insufficient.  Harm experienced does not necessarily condemn the adequacy of the response.  But it certainly raises questions.

Hammond Eve, who did environmental impact studies of offshore drilling for the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, said the federal agency never planned for response to an oil spill of this size. “We never imagined that it would happen because the safety measures were supposed to work and prevent it from happening,” he said.

Another failure of imagination?  It is sounding and looking like it.  If so, before we quickly condemn, we might consider how our obsession – especially our regulatory obsession – with quantitative measurement, “hard” facts, and predictable outcomes can overtime constrain and de-value imagination.  There is certainly an important place for rigorous and quantitative measurement.  But by itself, this does not fulfill the potential of  good judgment.

John Amos, who spent 10 years as a consulting exploration geologist for oil and gas companies and now heads SkyTruth, an operation that uses government satellite imagery to monitor environmental disasters, said he was not surprised that both oil executives and federal officials failed to properly forecast the risks associated with offshore drilling. “Just like the explosion of a volcano, to a geologist like myself, these kinds of incidents are fairly predictable, but when they happen, they come as a shock to us,” Amos said.

The disaster at Deepwater Horizon does not yet meet the full definition of catastrophe that I outlined on Thursday.   It is certainly a surprise to many, but not to all. Many have warned something like this was bound to happen. There is significant scope encompassing hundreds of miles of coastline and square miles of open sea. The secondary effects (especially ecological and economic) are likely to be significant, these effects could spur political consequences.  Scale is not yet clear, but it seems to loom large.   The social interpretation of the event is still emerging.  It seems to me that this final element will be the crucial factor in whether this event will mark a sudden change in direction by some significant element of society.


Editorial Note:  Does anyone know the source of the unattributed Friday interview with Admiral Allen?  I have read or watched seven Friday interviews with the man (he was busy) and cannot find the quote given above by the Washington Post.  Especially given the characterization of the quote, it would be worth reading the full context.

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Comment by Mark Chubb

May 1, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

Phil, it probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to you that I rather like your definition of catastrophe, and consider your analysis of this incident through that prism a thoughtful and appropriate response to critics who question its applicability.

Likewise, you probably won’t find it unusual that I agree with you about the question of qualitative versus quantitative risk and vulnerability assessment. The former benefits directly from engaging multiple perspectives, while the latter tends to make that much more difficult.

If anything, I hope this incident helps change minds about the importance of considering the unthinkable. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to question our assumptions before we accept any situation as either unforeseeable or inevitable.

If nothing else, we can always ask ourselves the pre-mortem question, “If, despite our best judgment, this situation was to end in catastrophe, what would be the cause?” I’d wager that in a surprising number of cases, something comes to mind if only we’re willing to listen carefully to our intuitions and use our imaginations.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 2, 2010 @ 5:00 am


Are we each saying there are important aspects of life – especially life in homeland security – that are beyond our control? We can and ought to imagine the possibilities and prepare as best we can. But we cannot precisely predict and, therefore, we cannot fully plan.

Last Thursday Shawn Fenn contributed a very helpful and cogent comment on catastrophe. It included a reference to Quanantelli’s work (Some Implications for Crisis Planning and Managing Drawn from Katrina,” available at http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Quarantelli/). Mr. Fenn concluded, “If we boil the criteria down, the most operationally significant distinguishing factor seems to be a crippling breakdown of the established vertical and horizontal command/control and coordination/cooperation structures necessary for incident management that extends beyond the area of impact.”

I appreciate the boiling down. Further, when command/control totally breaks down we are almost certainly in or heading toward a catastrophe. But I will be surprised if we ever lose command/control or coordination/cooperation structures in our response to Deepwater Horizon. Yet, I think we could very easily see this become a catastrophe (at least one that meets my definition).

So… even when our mechanisms of control are operating at full capacity, we may still not be in control. Catastrophe is still possible.


Comment by Mark Chubb

May 2, 2010 @ 8:44 pm

I am most definitely saying some things are beyond our control, or at the very least our capacity or willingness to exert control. It has become nothing less than risk management dogma that anything predictable is, by definition, preventable. As far as I am concerned, that is only true insofar as we exhibit a capacity or willingness to act on such insights. The fact that we don’t act on such impulses in many instances suggests something important is at play.

We discussed the possible explanations for these tendencies a few moths ago. I believe you suggested that an unwillingness to embrace tragedy had a lot to do with our inability to adapt to emergent situations. I suggested in response, that hubris often played a role too, because we as a people have become too enamored of our abilities to foresee and often forestall outcomes considered inevitable by past generations.

It has been my experience that command/control is overrated as a menas of averting catastrophe. As such, I am uncomfortable suggesting that the failure of such strategies has much to do with the cause or consequences of catastrophe. While I have a little more confidence in coordination/cooperation as a means of sharing understanding about means and ends, I believe it is not so much the inability of these methods to help us avoid problems so much as our inability to advance beyond them that explains the emergence of catastrophe.

Command/control approaches work in situations where epistemic uncertainty is the dominant problem faced by decision-makers. As things become more complex and competition for resources increase, coordination/cooperation help us deal with ontological uncertainties by enabling prioritization as a means of negotiating or avoiding conflicts.

If those affected by an emergent and evolving crisis cannot engage one another in ways that allow them to develop a shared sense of meaning and purpose (a means of addressing teleological uncertainty), I would argue, we have the beginnings of a catastrophe. We can tell this is the case when those involved start talking about accountability before the scope or scale of situation has shown any signs of stabilizing.

We need not accept responsibility for something bad happening to share responsibility for doing something about it. Accepting that we cannot change something that has already happened is an important first step toward accepting responsibility for doing something about it right now. Based on our discussions, I am increasingly convinced that this requires leaders and decision-makers to acknowledge and accept tragedy, display humility, and operate as if all they have is the present.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 3, 2010 @ 2:57 am

Mark, Sounds like you and I are agreement. I will add, but not presume to speak for you, that precisely because our worst risks are likely to exceed our capacity for control and because human pride (hubris) persists: planning, training, and exercising are worth every minute and dollar we can find. Our limitations are no excuse for passivity. In fact, as I think you have outlined so well, our limitations should be motivation for full cultivation of our potential for coordination and cooperation. This potential is best seeded and nurtured before the crisis is upon us.

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