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Posts Tagged ‘Army Corps of Engineers’

There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster

March 13th, 2011 No comments

That’s not completely true, of course, and in the aftermath of the triple-barreled horrors in Japan — earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown — it might even seem callous to suggest otherwise, as the title of this post does. Surely the first two of these are natural disasters in the purest sense.

But calling something a “natural disaster,” while a humbling reminder of the fact that, as one seismologist said, “nature always bats last,” sometimes gets in the way of looking into the deep questions that make such disasters more or less catastrophic. Indeed, Andrew Sullivan wrote:

Readers have asked why we haven’t covered this event exhaustively. My answer is that this is a natural disaster, unlike, say, a revolution or a war, which requires little added comment.

I couldn’t disagree more. Consider:

Hurricane Katrina was barely one when it reached New Orleans — the big story there was the ineptitude of the Army Corps of Engineers, local, state, and federal politicians and bureaucrats, and the ham-handed efforts by the Department of Homeland Security (forced into a public health role for which it had little appetite and less competence, as dramatized so chillingly in Zeitoun).

The earthquake that decimated Haiti was, in its effect, far worse than the one that hit Japan, even though the magnitude of the first — 7.0 — was far less than the 8.9 (or is it 9.0?) of the more recent one.What’s the difference between 7.0 and 9.0? Here’s a quick Richter scale refresher:

[E]ach step on the Richter scale is 10 times greater than the one before it. An earthquake that measures 8.0 is ten times stronger than one that measures 7.0, and an earthquake that measures 9.0 is one hundred times stronger than one that measures 7.0. So Friday’s earthquake in Japan was almost 100 times stronger than the one in Haiti in 2010.

So why was the less powerful natural disaster more consequential than the much stronger one? Largely because of the vast differences in infrastructure and public health preparedness between the two island nations. It’s by now a commonplace of public health doctrine that any naturally occurring, negative incident — say, infectious disease or (let’s use the term here) natural disaster — will have far worse consequences for the poor than for the rich. And while Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Japan remains one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. So the Haitian government estimated 230,000 dead (others guessed fewer, but all agree that the number exceeded 100,000), while the Japanese devastation, though too early to quantify yet, will almost surely be much lower. (As I write this, 20,000 is the new “best guess.”) So the earthquake about 100 times stronger (in Japan) will likely end up causing the deaths of about one-tenth as many people as the weaker one (in Haiti). Please don’t think I mean to minimize any of this. I’m trying to make a point, and I can barely stand to watch these images.

There’s plenty more to do, and to say, than to simply gawk at the horror and tally the dead. There are questions of constructing buildings to withstand earthquakes (and boy, did Japan do a good job there — not even one of the strongest quakes in recorded history caused a single skyscraper to topple; again, compare Haiti), personal preparedness for disaster (and the interesting psychological questions relating to why we don’t prepare for low-frequency, but high-impact events), and, inevitably, the safety of the nuclear power industry.

In its way, a natural disaster causes us to think about, report on, and try to fix just as many things as does a revolution; just in a different way. And it’s a mistake to think that one raises more complex questions that the other.  There are simply two very different kinds of entropy to be dealt with.

9/11, Katrina, and the BP Oil Spill: The Inconsistency of Compensation

May 29th, 2010 2 comments

The by-now predictable, tedious, and irresponsible Republican bulwark against raising or eliminating the criminally low liability cap that would leave claimant against BP out in the cold really has me frosted. And it’s gotten me thinking about how we compensate people for loss in front-page cases: September 11; Katrina; and this BP oil “spill.”

Let’s talk about who was responsible for these tragedies, and how the victims have (or haven’t been) compensated for their losses.

September 11 was, of course, a terrorist act, but under established principles of tort law, other actors could be liable: airport security, airlines, and — further down the chain — the federal government, for missing the warning signs. But the government, to bail out the struggling airline industry, and in an effort to pile sandbags full of money at the border, created the Victim Compensation Fund. At taxpayer expense, the Fund (not really a “fund” at all) paid out more than seven billion dollars, mostly to surviving family members of those killed when the Towers fell. Some received millions, because payment was largely based on a tort model. I’ve criticized this approach, noting that government should not be compensating people as though they’re tort victims, and that doing so reflects a confusion between the principles of corrective justice (righting an imbalance between two parties caused by one party’s negligence) and distributive justice (deciding how best to allocate the resources across society).

To call what happened in New Orleans “Katrina” is really a misnomer, because the hurricane isn’t what caused the widespread and continuing destruction of large sections of the city: the government did so, through the negligence of the Army Corps of Engineers in connection with the building and maintenance of the levee system, and of untold bureaucrats in designing the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (“MR-GO”). The government is immune from suit for the levee failure (but not for MR-GO related negligence), so those injured, financially wrecked, or rendered homeless in the wake of Katrina had to content themselves with the meager assistance afforded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. (Criticisms of FEMA’s response are legion and some, like this one from Kevin Drum in Mother Jones, are devastating; but they miss the more central issue.) I’ve criticized this approach in several places, including the documentary film “America Betrayed,” and this article.

Now comes the BP disaster, which threatens to swamp the rest. Yet because of an ill-considered federal law that I discussed here, BP will be liable for clean-up, but for only a relative pittance ($75 million) for liability to those economically or otherwise ruined. Unless this cap is lifted — and the legal change is made to apply retroactively — or unless there’s a government “fund” created, many of those destroyed by BP’s probable criminal acts will be entitled to…nothing.

How can our different responses to these tragedies be explained? Only by thinking about politics and power, not by looking at justice. But there might be a limit: Expect the law to change, and for BP to be held accountable. (Please!) If not, President Obama has suggested that the taxpayers will be on the hook. If we are (and I wouldn’t object), let’s spend more time thinking about a better model of compensation when we’re all left holding the bag.

And we must demand more comprehensive regulation: As Rachel Maddow pointed out this week (with her outrage well-justified by the facts), a similar spill went on for months about thirty years ago, and the same useless efforts were made then, as now, to stop it. She concludes, correctly, that Big Oil has gotten much better about drilling deeper and deeper (200 feet v. 5,000 feet), with correspondingly higher risks, but not any better at all about stopping it once it happens. Enough.