The Cure for Catastrophe

Recommendation: It’s a good topical read and I enjoyed it, but I doubt it will blow your mind

Where to read: It would be irresponsible of me to say anything other than “the couch”

Read with: The New Orleans classic Hurricane cocktail

In brief: Although focused on natural disasters, it’s quite topical if you apply a little bit of lateral thinking. I’d have liked a little more structure and a little less rambling but it is generally pretty interesting and a decent read.

Published in 2016, The Cure for Catastrophe is 90% solid, informative content and 10% pipe dream (I have grave doubts about his rather rosy prognostications). I have been doing a lot of reading about the causes of disaster, disaster response and risk management lately so this has slotted in quite handily.

I’ll be honest, the content is fascinating and the argument clear and compelling but it is quite disjointed. I didn’t find this lack of structure as irritating as I usually do (and lord knows, it is definitely one of the most common gripes on this blog) but it does make it harder to distill the key points. That said, let no one accuse me of not making an effort.

Building codes matter: And, sometimes, childrens’ stories have a point. The first relevant story is the Three Little Pigs, that classic demonstration of the virtues of structural integrity and brick construction in windy locales. Of course, in an earthquake zone unreinforced brick or concrete is a terrible, terrible idea and should be avoided … but maybe you’re worried about providing cheap mass housing and avoiding fire and the hurricanes that hit every wet season and building inspectors are underpaid and bribed routinely to sign off on things and no one ever checks renovations or extensions. That is where a natural phenomena becomes a “natural disaster”.

Build back better (or maybe don’t): The urge to rebuild and restore normalcy in the wake of a disaster makes sense but rebuilding with precisely the same vulnerabilities is obviously a terrible idea. Time and time again, good intentions have been steamrolled by calls to “get the economy moving again” (that is probably sounding familiar right now) and building codes or disaster plans which would have mitigated the danger if a flood or earthquake recurred increasingly ignored, Even if something is rebuilt, sometimes there is a strong case for moving it instead – some locations are just a bad idea (see the John Oliver video below).

Predictive services matter: Back to childrens’ stories, this time The Boy Who Cried Wolf. One of the issues with predictions, and issuing warnings based on those predictions, is that getting it wrong once damages public trust and can have dire consequences down the track. There are several examples in the book of evacuation orders being issued or alerts put out for disasters which, luckily, did not eventuate. Unfortunately, the next time the volcano got a little rumbly people refused to evacuate because it had be unnecessary the last time. During Hurricane Katrina, for example, many residents who’d been unnecessarily evacuated the last time thought the levies would hold again and did not leave. We are already seeing this tendency in the context of COVID in countries where strong early measures prevented outbreaks but have (rather perversely) been criticised for being over the top.

Preventative measures should be implemented carefully: Tsunami walls, bushfire-proof housing, levies, dykes and other preventative measures sound great in theory but they can also create a false sense of security and prevent people from taking other measures to protect themselves. If you think a sea wall is going to protect you from a tsunami, you will be less inclined to move to higher ground than you might otherwise be. The consequences of miscalculation are obviously pretty dire.

There’s clout in clean up: The old adage about never wasting a good crisis holds true of natural disasters. Countries clamour to send in relief or rescue teams for diplomatic rather than practical reasons (eg. the boys in the Thailand cave) and politicians have historically made hay out of either pressuring insurance companies to pay out or from being seen to provide disaster relief. There are several modern examples of this being fumbled – see Trump’s botching of “go to Puerto Rico and hand out supplies” or Morrison’s penchant for grabbing people – but as a general rule, sending in the troops and fixing the mess gives a better bump in opinion polls than presiding over years of deeply boring work in mitigation or prevention.

Insurance bites both ways: Insurance is obviously hugely important in helping people recover but it can also cause massive issues. For example, if insurance covers rebuilding in areas that are not suitable or does not (or is not able to) appropriately price risk, you can end up with populations living on flood plains or fire-prone bush without an appropriate understanding of the risks. At worst, this can lead to massive loss of life.

For a glorious (and tragic) example of the kinds of inefficiency poorly designed insurance cover can create, see John Oliver’s piece on the National Flood Insurance Program:

You can read an excerpt here.

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