A firefighter, a cop, and an emergency manager walk into a bar. This is not a joke. I was with the three of them.
One had red wine, another had a beer, the third ordered scotch. I was drinking Dry Sack on the rocks with a twist.
Can you guess which one had which drink? Can you guess which offered what to the conversation:
“The problem is everyone is in denial about the worst risks.”
“New Orleans after Katrina was simple compared to Sendai after the tsunami. How about Memphis after New Madrid or LA after the big one?” You can know the real pros by whether or not they pronounce it Maaadrid, as in really crazy.
“How about DC, Pittsburgh, and Birmingham after New Madrid? How about pipelines, rail bridges, interstates, and the Eastern Interconnect after New Madrid?” Hows about every little town downstream from a dam?
“How about the whole economy for the next ten years after Long Beach is taken out? I don’t care if it’s tsunami, pandemic, or an IND.”
“How about the whole economy if some cyber-anarchists decide to really screw with credit cards and ATMs?”
“As long as they vaporize my mortgage too.”
The bar talk was not as grim as this suggests. Extended conversations with this crew are like a public reading of Dante’s Inferno (no Paradiso) with a running commentary by the comedian Lewis Black. You roar with laughter over a comment that ought not be documented here. A slightly sick sense of humor is essential to survival in these professions.
“We’re the real problem,” one guy said wrapping his arms around the shoulders of those on either side. “We’re too good. Why worry when the A team’s got your back?”
“Just call 911 and the cavalry always comes.”
“Even under fire… hell, with radioactive brimstone falling from the sky.”
“Thing is, we’re really good at the everyday stuff and lots of the tough stuff.”
“Did you hear about the 911 call because the citizen thought her remote had been stolen. Cops found it in a drawer. They responded!”
“That’s the problem, we are so #$!@ responsive we’ve trained the citizens to depend on us. When the big #$!@ happens they just wait around.”
“There’s two big pile-ups: real increasing dependence. Who grows their own food anymore? Who even eats at home? And where does our food come from? Not anywhere close. Second pile-up: The #$!@ complicated system works really, really well until it doesn’t work at all. So there’s no obvious reason to pay much attention, until it’s too late.”
“So… what we’re really good at is hiding the problems?”
“Sure. There’s a fire. You put it out. You get ’em temporary housing or they go to the in-laws. I keep gawkers away. Everything’s fine. No worries. But in Joplin or Tuscaloosa? Even those huge twisters were tiny compared to what we’ll get when the wrong fault shifts under 5 million or a wildfire overwhelms San Diego. Hows about a CAT 5 and flood surge pounding Miami-Dade?”
“When they call 911 no one will answer, they won’t even get a #$!@ dial-tone!”
“It doesn’t take such a big hit. Maybe catastrophe comes on little cat feet? You read Ted Lewis’ new book? The complex systems we depend on are so intricate just one little complication and the consequences cascade.”
“Sort of like the 2003 blackout caused by tree branches in Ohio?”
“But the cause wasn’t tree branches, it’s the way WE build and manage systems. Tree branches are a preexisting condition. Our choices create the vulnerabilities.”
“You know when I was a little kid,” (the guy to his right mimicked the Staten Island accent) we had a farm right down the road. It’s a landfill now. The big farms in Jersey, they’re all McMansions. Mom and pop get their broccoli and peas from California just like all of us.”
“You know what though? The beers alot better than back then. Hey waitress, another round here.”