Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 8, 2010

Disasters and Catastrophe at Antioch

Filed under: Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 8, 2010

Last week we spent a few days on what constitutes a catastrophe and how we might define it.   There is no consensus.  But among the top contenders are:

Triple-trouble disasters, perhaps what Craig Fugate calls “Maximum-of- Maximums.”  (Has the FEMA administrator derived this mantra from hurricane surge models?)

Cascading systems failure obliterating means of command, control, or coordination. (Well, sure…  but let’s admit there’s an innate tautology in presumptive commanders, controllers, and coordinators defining catastrophe as losing the ability to play their roles.)

A significant shift in the society’s sense-of-self and direction caused by how  the event is interpreted, even if the maximum-of-maximums is not  suffered and command-and-control is preserved.  Regular readers know this is my bias. (See a prior post for more.)

A colleague recently suggested that time-passing is also an important component in defining catastrophe.  How will 9/11 be viewed a century from now?  How do we perceive (if at all)  the 1755 Lisbon earthquake?  What about Chernobyl or Bhopal?  The sack of Rome or Baghdad?  With the passage of time do we understand these events as catastrophic?  If so, how?  If not, why not?

Even more obscure, how about the collapse of Antioch?  Across most of the classical era Antioch was one of the three great cities of the Mediterranean world.   Rome and Alexandria — while much changed — have persisted, Antioch has essentially disappeared.

Founded in 300 BC by Seleucus, a successor of Alexander the Great, Antioch may have been the most vivacious city in the Hellenistic world.  During most of the Roman Empire — even after the founding of Constantinople (324 AD) —   it was the true capital of the East.   It was from Antioch that St. Paul set out to convert the world. 

The historian H.V. Morton describes classical Antioch as a, “city of consumers…full of rich aristocrats and nouveaux riches, and of wealthy, retired people who sought here one of the finest climates in the world. Something that we associate with Venice in the eighteenth century, with Paris in the nineteenth century, and with Hollywood today, with its deification of youth and beauty, distinguished Antioch… It was up-to-date, amusing, elegant, wicked….”

Antioch was always a tumultuous place.  It was situated  at the seam of  Western and Eastern cultures, at the flashpoint of Greco-Roman and Persian imperial ambition, and at the intersection of what are now known as the Dead Sea Fault and the East Anatolian Fault.

Over the centuries Antioch experienced several disastrous floods, earthquakes, and conquests. But it always recovered, usually stronger, more beautiful, and more compelling than before.  Antioch was especially resilient. Yet it did not recover from the earthquake of October 31, 588.  Why not? 

The late sixth century disaster was severe. It  was also  the culmination of a series of disasters.  The earthquake was followed by other closely spaced stress events.  Finally, the late sixth century was a time of significant shifts in economic, political, and cultural realities extending far beyond Antioch.  

It seems to me the catastrophe at Antioch — if you will join me it calling it such — was the outcome of a cumulative set of challenges.

There was a huge fire in 525.  The next year an earthquake reportedly killed 250,000 inhabitants.  On November 29, 528 an even worse earthquake hit the city.  In 538 Antioch was temporarily captured by the Persians.

After reclaiming Antioch in 540 the Byzantine Emperor Justinian led a major rebuilding effort.  The restoration continued apace for over 15 years, barely slowing during an epidemic of bubonic plague that began in 542. The plague continued in spurts and starts for several years

But after the 588 quake Antioch never reclaimed anything close to its former population, status, or wealth.  The October 31 earthquake was bad, but not as bad as two or three prior hits.  Something other than the quake is needed to explain the persistent decline the great city experienced after 588.

Possible culprits include the economic consequences of the mid-sixth century plague years and the (related) financial crisis resulting from drastic overspending by the Byzantine government (this included overspending on Antioch).  There was also a serious drought in the Antioch region over many years at the turn of the seventh century.

These challenges were extended and amplified by the Byzantine-Sassanid (Persian) wars of 602-628 AD,which once again brought foreign conquest to Antioch.   This long war  weakened both the Byzantines and Sassanids, setting the stage for the Arabs to take the city in 638.

So… at least in the case of Antioch, we can see non-resilience and non-recovery after 588 as the culmination of a range of inter-related factors unfolding over time. Most of these factors would have been impossible to confidently forecast, but are clear in retrospect.

While this may seem a weird weekend indulgence in historical musing, I am prompted  by a radio conversation regarding today’s Gulf coast.  Given the continuing impacts of Katrina — especially on the Mississippi delta marshes — the likelihood of a major oil spill, the expectation of an especially bad 2010 hurricane season, and a range of other factors, the effects do seem cumulative.  Will there be a culminating event?  Will we decide it is a  catastrophic event?

For further consideration:

Anatolia: a history forged by disaster (National Geographic)

History of Byzantium by Timothy E. Gregory

Antioch: The Lost Ancient City (Worcester Art Museum)

Antioch Mosaics (Baltimore Museum of Art) — On February 5 I was in Baltimore for meetings related to regional catastrophic planning.  By the time I finished the snowpocalypse had already claimed my home in Piedmont Virginia and was moving north.  Before hunkering down in my hotel (where I was snowbound for four days) I visited the Baltimore Museum of Art.  These fabulous room-sized mosaics have enthralled me ever since.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 8, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

Ah yes great post! Why? Most HS and EM decisions are made on too short a period of record. Specifically and primarily the last 500 years since W.Hemisphere events began to impact the world.

Comment by Mark Chubb

May 8, 2010 @ 9:50 pm

Phil, I hope you did not understand my comments last week as an endorsement of the notion that a catastrophe should be defined ex post facto as a “cascading systems failure obliterating means of command, control, or coordination.” If you did, I can understand why you would worry about the tautological implications of such a statement and the associated reasoning.

What I was trying to say was far simpler and focused on predicting or forecasting the capacity of the different response strategies to satisfy pre hoc expectations. Most everyday, run-of-the-mill emergencies respond well to command/control strategies because they fit within existing well-defined response routines. They involve little ambiguity, little competition for resources or outcomes, and as such require little creativity.

Bigger events that involves multiple responders almost always require coordination, if not to manage competition for resources then to manage the competition over agenda setting as it relates to preferred outcomes. The more complex the incident, the scarcer the resources, or the more obscure the outcomes, the harder it is to gain any agreement on such matters.

As such, I assume a catastrophe involves a degree of complexity (not complication) that overwhelms routines and imposes a degree of ambiguity and competition on the participants that requires them to negotiate and cooperate (share means, ends, or both) to achieve an outcome that meets expectations. This often involves a degree of creativity on the part of the participants.

The longer it takes leaders, responders and the public to achieve a modicum of cooperation, the harder it is to move from response to recovery. Without collaboration (a shared commitment to managing means and ends collectively as opposed to means or ends alone) recovery is inhibited or delayed.

If there is an element of tautology here it is that my approach suggests that the cascade continues indefinitely, quite possibly until social collapse occurs, until and unless collaboration emerges. But as I see it, this is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than anything else.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 9, 2010 @ 3:03 am


Thanks for the reinforcement. My use of coordination in the Antioch post was not aimed at your use of coooperation/coordination/collaboration. I think you and I are on the same page (even if potentially on different paragraphs). But we are in the clear minority.

The vast majority of colleagues tend to adopt some version of the triple-trouble or systems-collapse explanations. Therefore their solutions tend to focus on strengthening command-and-control (or sometimes coordination) capabilities.

You and I are focused much more on a set of what many of our colleagues, with some skepticism, see as soft-skills. You and I would probably prefer to characterize them as resilient or agile skills.

For me — and I am guessing for you — ambiguity is a persistent characteristic of life, and can be a beautiful thing. I was encouraged at graduation from college, to “embrace ambiguity.” Many of our colleagues perceive ambiguity as the enemy. I expect we are each right and wrong depending on the context. But then, I am (usually) comfortable with ambiguity.

In regard to Antioch, however, I was actually trying to make my (our?) definition of catastophe less ambiguous. I previously set out five characteristics of catastrophe: scope, scale,secondary effects, surprise, and social interpretation. Here I am offering a sixth: cumulative effect or, straining to stay with an S: snowballing.

Comment by Mark Chubb

May 9, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

Thanks, Phil, for that clarification. We do indeed remain on the page. And, yes, I do agree with you addition of cumulative effect to the previously stated five characteristics.

I can think of many other classic examples, where either slowness or failure to learn from previous events how to come together as a community, not to solve our problems but to resolve our differences, had a catastrophic effect on the survival of a community.

I think it was Bill Cumming who cited Jared Diamond’s work in any earlier comment. Diamond’s approach is a bit different from ours (he seemed more concerned with chronic conditions that lead to societal collapse), but certainly illustrates the cumulative effect on societies of failing to learn new ways of working to address their relationships with one another and their environment.

Comment by Citizen Joe

May 10, 2010 @ 5:21 am

Unfortunately, in this 21st century, catastrophic events abound as professional politicians have little regard for those taxpayers “entrusting” them by precious vote to do the job, right the wrongs…Politicians unable to read the pages of proposed laws before adopting, understanding or even truly caring about the ramifications of such ineptness….

We as a nation are not only enveloped in catastrophe, we are paralyzed and while even my friend Roubini has some optimistic outlook, unfortunately because of the lack in resiliency, the ability to compromise, a series of economic events from local, state, national and international will lead to massive economic failure and guess what, we have no real federal, state or local comprehensive response to help our good populace.

In fact, here in Boston, a major water main break saw bottled water flying off the supermarket shelf and within a few hours, bottled water at a premium. Imagine, only a few day challenge and no bottled water remaining as folks were buying eight and ten cases giving little care for the next guy standing there without even one bottle!

The real catastrophe is mankind. The arrogant greed, the accolades and glow of credential, the selfish nature as global population reaches 7 billion, well, even the central bankers knowingly choose to print “fiat” federal reserve notes, massive IOU’s written to the Chinese, a catastrophic $12trillion bankrupt nation, the Europeans bailing out those that will never be able to reel in debt and spending as people bear arms and revolt…this is catastrophe and you Mr. President, since taking office, you have spent so much money in your first term and only term spiralling massive debt and soon interest payments at a point of providing only a catastrophic scenario!

Outsourcing America in every way has been the catasttrophe and unfortunately the beginning of war immersing nation after nation causing massive despair will be the end result of partisan and blantant disregard for budget, Constitution and neighbor….

God Bless America!

Christopher Tingus
Citizen Joe
Main Street USA

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 11, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

All choices made by humans are bounded by their context and that includes knowledge and geography and history. Choice of the lesser of two or more evils is often the real context for the leadership of the human race. Just that concurrence of events and sometimes their various permutations and combinations leads to strange outcomes. Perhaps the saying should be not that chance favors the prepared mind but that chance favors the flexible thinking of those without preconcieved notions of what must occur. tnyaire

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Friday Free Forum

December 13, 2013 @ 12:11 am

[…] On this day in 115 AD the city of Antioch, in modern day Turkey, experienced one of the several earthquakes experienced during its centuries as the leading city of the Eastern Mediterranean.  This particular seismic event was remarkable for its destructiveness and the records left of the event.  It is estimated to have been about 7.5 on the Richter Scale.  Up to 260,000 are thought to have died.  We know more about it than many ancient quakes because the Emperor Trajan and his successor, Hadrian, were both in the city at the time and barely escaped.  Four centuries later another earthquake began a catastrophic cascade from which Antioch did not recover. (A previous post at HLSWatch has addressed the modern implications of the eventual catastrophe at Ant…) […]

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 13, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

I note since this post and comments GAO has reported several times on catastrophe preparedness. The reports are of some interest!

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