We are all aboard the Carnival Triumph. That’s the cruise ship stranded at sea starting on February 10. Our comfort and survival rest on interdependent systems most do not understand; and some systems many actively avoid thinking about.
Usually the systems work well. But recently there has been a rash of cascading failures: Carnival Splendor, Costa Allegra, and Azamara Quest. The capsizing of the Costa Concordia is a different category, but not not irrelevant. In the wider world of cascading failures other labels are applied: Tohoku, Haiti, Lehman Brothers…
“We know that the fire originated in front of a generator,” Patrick Cuty, a senior marine investigator for the U.S. Coast Guard, told CNN on Sunday (February 17)…. It appears that the fire suppression worked as designed, Cuty said Friday (February 15). The engineer who was on watch around dawn February 10 saw the fire ignite over a video feed and immediately notified the bridge, Cuty said. Based on an inspection of the engine room Thursday, Cuty said the fire did not appear to have been large.
On Monday afternoon February 18, the Associated Press reported, “A Coast Guard official says the cause of the engine-room fire on the Carnival cruise ship Triumph was a leak in a fuel oil return line.”
According to the New York Times:
The passengers had left the Port of Galveston in Texas on Thursday (February 7) for what was to be a four-day cruise to Cozumel, Mexico. They ended up sleeping for five days on sewage-soaked carpets and open decks, with food so limited that they were reduced to eating candy and ketchup on buns. “It’s like being locked in a Porta Potty for days,” said Peter Cass, a physician from Beaumont, Tex., as the ship crept closer to Mobile on Thursday. “We’ve lived through two hurricanes, and this is worse.”
I had hoped by now there might be more public detail on confirmed cause-and-effects. I can’t find what I consider fully credible information. But since I am just a blogger — and mostly want to argue an analogy — here’s a rough summary of what I understand:
- A comparatively small fire — probably accidental in origin — was quickly extinguished.
- But as a consequence water pumping, air conditioning, propulsion and ship stabilizers were all disabled. The Triumph was left “dead in the water.”
- The crew was wonderful, according to many. Most of the passengers were cooperative, collaborative, and creative under stress.
- But living conditions quickly turned from luxurious to life-threatening. The second of what will surely be many lawsuits, claims that passengers were “exposed to extremely toxic and debilitating conditions resulting in severe and permanent injuries.”
- The response, both official and unofficial, was “effective”. No one died. The ship will cruise again.
Toxicity was mostly a matter of ongoing exposure to untreated human waste. With over 4200 humans in close quarters pitching this way and that, human hygiene was seriously challenged.
This was also a problem at the New Orleans Superdome following Katrina. This is at the core of the cholera epidemic in Haiti. It was an issue in several New York high rises for weeks after Sandy. In the aftermath of any sustained loss of power, pumping, or water, sewage system failure is a secondary — or sometimes tertiary — consequence that can quickly overwhelm densely populated places.
Water is often treated as yet another critical infrastructure. Water pumping, storage, distribution, and treatment systems are among our most ancient human infrastructures. But the water system is not just a contributing function, it is also a key supply: for hydration, fire suppression, and hygiene. We can survive with no electricity, without fuel, and — for a considerable period — even without food. But lack of water — or the persistent presence of wastewater — can very quickly overwhelm every other human capacity.
I almost headlined this post “Sh*t Happens”. I am still my mother’s child so I hide it in the final paragraph (raising a multitude of issues related to hypocrisy, passive-aggressive tendencies, and various pseudo-Freudian totems). But, indeed it does happen, both literally and figuratively, even as we pay our fare and blithely expect a three hour cruise.