The Deluge IV by David Bates
Three core characteristics of catastrophe:
1. Catastrophes are complex and can become chaotic.
2. Catastrophes cascade over time and space.
3. Catastrophes are cultural phenomena.
More on Complexity: Catastrophes can often be anticipated, but cannot be predicted. A general pattern may be observable, even measurable. But precise projections of time, place, power, speed, and other outputs are innately difficult, perhaps impossible. This reflects a wide range of underlying, sometimes hidden, interdependencies. The scope of cause-and-effect relationships is such that prior experience with more predictable events can potentially mislead as often as help. Misplaced efforts to contain an emerging catastrophe may actually increase volatility.
Example: The 1960 tsunami benchmark selected by the Japanese resulted in siting and protection decisions that in some cases amplified the impact of the 2011 tsunami.
Implications for homeland security: Catastrophe planning and preparedness should focus on strategic capacity and capability rather than tactical response. Leadership in a catastrophe is a courageous, creative process of probing and acting more than a management function of analyzing and responding.
More on Cascades: Interdependent systems — whether natural or constructed, physical or social — generally facilitate cascading effects. Changes in one system can influence many other systems simultaneously or successively. Networks of nodes and links characterize a wide-array of ecological, technological, economic, and cultural systems. The more connections between nodes and the more convergent each node, the more likely — and powerful — a cascading effect involving all nodes. Synergies are amoral. Connections that breed health and wealth can also contaminate.
(We tend to think of cascades as quick and they can be. As interesting are slower cascades that emerge from, for example, drought. In my own research, I perceive that cultural confirmation of catastrophe is most likely when the event persists over significant time or is regularly repeated over time. What humans perceive as single events are seldom catastrophic.)
Example: The Eurozone comes immediately to mind. More relevant to many readers might be wildfires, power grids, and telecom carrier hotels. (Hmm, mix those three together for a catastrophic scenario?)
Implications for homeland security: Dense hubs of multiple connections — such as an Emergency Operations Center — are great for propagating efficiencies and catastrophes. Mitigation is a function of reducing both the overall density of connections and the concentration of connections at any single node.
More on Culture: Well… over the last two weeks, here and here, we have probably written enough about culture. But this characteristic of catastrophe is often overlooked. Major earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, pandemics and even nuclear-capable terrorists will occasionally grab our attention. There are a few thoughtleaders giving sustained attention to cascades, self organized criticality, and other aspects of complexity. The cultural inputs and outputs of catastrophic events are not, typically, topics for homeland security conferences.
Over the last two weeks we have suggested that from a cultural perspective not all catastrophic outcomes are necessarily bad. The decisive factor in differentiating good from bad may be the self-critical self-discovery of the survivors.
Example: In prior posts we have given particular attention to literary examples, but we have also pointed to the judgment of many that the “catastrophic” outcome of horrific plague in 14th Century Europe was the Renaissance. We might also point to how survivors reacted to the San Francisco earthquake and fire or the Great Chicago Fire.
Implications for homeland security: Whole community anyone? How about private and civic engagement in prevention, preparedness, and mitigation? How about private and civic leadership in prevention, preparedness, and mitigation? How about the following comment by a long-time emergency management professional? (I will not name who said it, he still needs his career.) “With the best intentions we have become major contributors to the infantilization of the American people.”
This is part of a series of posts that is examining possible connections between catastrophes, resilience, and civil liberties and the implications for homeland security. Reader comments are welcome and have already influenced the direction of the series.