Prepare for Catastrophes at All Levels, Says Lecturer, By: Susan Ervin-Tripp

Tuesday March 14, 2006

Worried about the impending earthquake in the Berkeley area? There has been a series of lectures at Stanford and at UC Berkeley for the centennial of the 1906 earthquake. Kathleen Tierney spoke March 1 on “Preparedness for catastrophic and near-catastrophic events: Issues and challenges in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.” Professor Tierney is director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, professor of sociology, author of works on hazards and disasters, and a member of many committees on disaster research. Her appearances on NPR and PBS discussing catastrophe planning can be found on the Internet. 

She advocated planning for a catastrophe like another earthquake at the national, state, local government, neighborhood, business, and household levels. In catastrophes, because of infrastructure destruction, household or office water and food supplies and citizen rescue groups may be necessary. During the discussion the issue of mandatory preparations, similar to mandatory smoke alarms, was suggested in the audience. 

In the case of Katrina, scientists had already predicted the Category 4 hurricane the preceding week and given accurate descriptions of what eventually happened. The levees were known to be good only up to Category 3, yet Homeland Security did not prepare for transportation, food, and housing for evacuees, or evacuation of the poor and disabled. Katrina ranks with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the Galveston 1900 storm as one of the worst natural catastrophes in United States history because of such poor preparation and response. 

Dr. Tierney differentiated emergencies, disasters, and catastrophes in the area affected, the range and level of official response systems required, infrastructure damage, public involvement as first responders, and cascading long- term effects on health and the environment. Local authorities like police and fire departments can handle emergencies, but in disasters—like the Berkeley 1923 fire—neighboring cities or the state provide aid. At present, she said, the United States has no catastrophic response plan but only hastily prepared and impractical proposals that are more like fantasies than realistic plans.  

A detailed report on FEMA in 1993 after Hurricane Andrew suggested improvements, but instead of the optimal integration of mitigation, preparation, response, and restoration they have been separated. Many functions, and associated funds, have been given to the military. The trained civilian experts brought in by the Clinton administration began leaving FEMA for private contracting companies as political appointees took over. Many experts believe that such changes have made the U.S. more vulnerable to catastrophes like an earthquake in California. 

Social scientists have identified several heuristics which have been observed when people think they are planning for ambiguous future events, including myopia—too short-range views—or focusing on similar past events that in fact were not as grave as what actually could happen, providing poor models.  

One of the novel features of reactions in natural catastrophes is a process called “elite panic” in which persons with prestige and property become fearful of social disorder. Their response is to become obsessed with looting and civil disorder, to the point of fearing the poor and minorities, arming themselves, issuing shoot-on-sight orders, and developing rumors like the stories about rapes and murders in the Superdome after Katrina. When speaking on the Lehrer News Hour about Katrina, Professor Tierney commented that “looting in natural disasters in the United States has been extremely vanishingly rare. Looting is almost never a problem in natural disasters.” In New Orleans, people trying to rescue neighbors were arrested by armed veterans, workers were removed from rescue operations to control looting instead, and some citizens were prevented from crossing onto higher land because of these fears. Right now, discussions in the national government about planning for a bird flu epidemic include whether to issue shoot-to-kill orders, despite the experience of orderly civil behavior during the 1918 flu epidemic.  

The last lecture in the series will be “Designing for disaster: UC Berkeley looks ahead” by Mary Comerio at 7:30 p.m., March 15 in Sibley Auditorium..