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Fear and Trembling: The Mental Barriers That Keep Us From Planning for the Truly Catastrophic

Jul 05, 2016
Photo of Micah Clark Micah Clark
Senior Research Associate
National Security and Public Safety

Maybe it’s just the crowd I run in, but I’ve never come across an article that so many people have been planning to read as “The Really Big One,” a Pulitzer-prize winning piece that narrates the discovery and catastrophic consequences of the Cascadia Fault Line, an 1,100-kilometre-long tectonic fault that scientists agree is due to unleash a cataclysmic earthquake on the American and Canadian Pacific Northwest.

The article, written by journalist Kathryn Schultz and published in The Atlantic nearly a year ago, prompted enormous public response (some say panic) and even a White House summit. Yet in the last week alone, I’ve spoken to half a dozen people who have it bookmarked in their web browser but who, as one friend said, “haven’t mustered the courage to read it yet.”

This response—to know of, but not to fully acknowledge danger—isn’t just isolated to one scary article about an earthquake. While ostriches don’t actually bury their heads in the sand, the image has endured because it’s a fitting metaphor for our capacity to avoid catastrophic realities.

Notwithstanding the ostriches in my life, I’m fortunate to work with people whose job is to both acknowledge and act in the face of the truly catastrophic. The Conference Board of Canada’s Council on Emergency Management (CEMT) is a group of dedicated emergency management professionals who meet three times a year across Canada to wrestle with emerging risks and explore promising approaches.

Our most recent meeting focused on Planning for Catastrophic Events and was held (appropriately enough) in New Westminster, British Columbia. The meeting’s theme was unfortunately timely, occurring the same week that enormous wildfires were burning more than half a million hectares in and around Fort McMurray, Alberta. The fire created a tragic but fitting backdrop to our discussions.

The Fort McMurray fire has many of the trappings of a genuinely catastrophic event: the fire displaced some 80,000 residents, prompted a national and international emergency response, and is expected to significantly affect Alberta’s economic output. Indeed, it is expected to be the costliest disaster in Canadian history. Yet, miraculously, the fire avoided directly claiming any human lives, avoiding the massive loss of life that is the defining characteristic of most catastrophes.

While it may seem strange to debate definitions in the face of disaster, it’s one aspect of a larger problem that emergency managers face on a regular basis, and one that has profound practical implications: society cannot prepare for catastrophes that it does not fully understand and acknowledge.

Preparing for a catastrophe takes time and money, and emergency planners struggle to find those resources in part because the public and its representatives struggle to comprehend catastrophes and reckon with the potential consequences of inaction. The first step in solving any problem is acknowledging that you have one.

Why is it so hard to wrap our heads around catastrophic risks? Here are four problems that make catastrophes so hard to understand and plan for:

  • Catastrophes stretch the boundaries of our imagination and our mental courage. The sheer magnitude of a truly catastrophic disaster is difficult to fathom: massive loss of life and livelihood, months or even years of population displacement, profound economic implications. It is difficult, for instance, to conjure the image of 16,000 dead citizens, as happened in the 2011 earthquake in Japan, or even begin to think through the evacuation of 50 million people, a scenario that Japan reportedly avoided by a “paper thin margin.” The job of disaster planners is to demonstrate that such catastrophic risks are real, while stopping short of inciting panic and paralysis. Planners must responsibly engage the imagination of their constituents while offering practical solutions.
  • Catastrophic risk often builds gradually, but with sudden, unpredictable impact. Warming oceans, shifting tectonic plates, and human migration occur over long periods. Until disaster strikes, there often isn’t a single, defining moment that spurs action and preparation. Global warming is the cardinal example of this problem: for years, international efforts to prepare for its catastrophic effects were hobbled by a fractured consensus that it was even occurring.
  • Globalization and urbanization have created a web of new risks and interdependencies. These drastically complicate risk assessment and planning. Among other things, the growth of global supply chains and urban diasporas mean that a pandemic or major weather event in another part of the world can create lasting economic and social damage at home. When a massive 2010 heat wave in Russia destroyed crops and reduced that country’s GDP by 1.4 per cent, the resulting ban on grain exports contributed to a 1.6 per cent rise in poverty in Pakistan. Global travel can also endanger citizens abroad: the deadliest natural disaster in Swedish history occurred not in Sweden, but in Indonesia and Thailand, where 543 Swedes were among the approximated 228,000 people killed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
  • Catastrophes demand a collaborative, shared vision of the future. By definition, catastrophic events outstrip the resources of local responders, making collaboration with outside responders an absolute necessity. Planning for catastrophic disasters is therefore always a joint exercise, which requires building consensus on the realities of the potential disaster and shared responsibility for the response. This is challenging, but emergency planners in the Pacific Northwest have shown that it can be done. The M9 Project at the University of Washington has been engaged in interdisciplinary earthquake research since 2014, and in June 2016, simultaneous, integrated exercises involving some 20,000 people took place in Canada and the United States to test the Pacific Northwest’s readiness to weather the magnitude 9 Cascadia earthquake Kathryn Schultz wrote about. In addition to providing critical lessons to emergency professionals, these simulations provide a rare opportunity to make risk real for citizens and decision-makers.

It’s important to note that some of this work was underway long before “The Really Big One” rippled across the internet in the summer of 2015. Emergency professionals have been quietly working on this problem for years, and they have rightly pointed to certain shortcomings in the article’s inferences and implications. Yet even critics of “The Really Big One” agree that “it helped people realize there are a lot of things we should do now to prepare for earthquakes.”

By dealing with a difficult concept in a compelling way, Schultz demonstrated how powerful the public imagination can be in motivating and mobilizing resources to tackle problems of catastrophic proportion. Of course, public pressure can dissipate just as quickly as it arrives (or, in the case of my ostrich friends, it may not arrive at all). It takes the work of dedicated emergency managers and planners to channel public awareness and concern into meaningful, life-saving change.

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Spontaneous Volunteers: Community Participation in Disaster Response and Recovery
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