Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lessons from BP, Japan, and Katrina

Natural disasters become disasters because large population centers develop on, under, over, or next to geologically fragile environs, such as seismic zones, tornado alley, and hurricanes zones.

Man’s hubris is that we can control nature. We may be able to temper nature, but the full force of nature will trump the forces of man.

Man can no more tame nature than a wild animal trainer can domesticate a lion or tiger.

40 years of geologic quiescence and apparent safety lead to delusions of safety and hubris.

The midst of a disaster is not the time to reassess risk analysis.

Worst case scenarios, although rare, do occur, sometimes worse than the projections. If models project a maximum seismic event of a 7.0, don’t be surprised by a 7.1 or 7.8.

A 9.0 earthquake will do tremendous damage to a built environment. Most buildings cannot be designed and constructed to withstand such a quake. So too with a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. The Category 5 will destroy almost any levee in its path.

The force of a tsunami will differ on whether it comes at high tide or low tide.

A great nation, such as Japan, can be brought to its knees when its critical infrastructure, especially roads, railroads, and power, is crippled.

We are truly a global economy with extended supply chains. A volcano in Iceland can disrupt international air travel.

Don’t run your tests in broad daylight on a clear day, because incidents can occur anytime.

Technology that tests the limits of technology will be tested.

To paraphrase Ayn Rand, periodically question your premises and assumptions. Fukushima’s backup generators, the key to the emergency cooling systems, were flooded by the tsunami. Tokyo Electric Power Company placed them on low ground on the assumption the sea walls would hold. After Katrina, when many of the backup generators flooded out by being placed close to the ground, this assumption was no longer viable.

Emergency action plans rarely work as planned in a major disaster, but they provide a framework for flexibility. A grossly inadequate EAP, as BP’s, is not worth the
paper it’s printed on.

As in bridge, a responder who hesitates is lost. Government at all levels initially responded poorly to Katrina, and TEPCO hesitated in cooling the reactrs with sea water, while BP had trouble understanding what was happening with the blowout preventor.

Beware at the beginning of a disaster of the statements of fear mongers and shills for neither know the facts.

The underlying facts and risks will not be known as the disaster unfolds. Only later will the facts come out. For example, Three Mile Island was not the nuclear apocalypse as initially portrayed by the media. Neither was the Gulf Blowout, although it did cause enormous environmental damage.

The media usually highlights the worst case.

Emergencies are often a learning experience. We either learn from the mistakes of disasters and tragedies, or they will reoccur. After Katrina, TEPCO had sufficient time to move the generators.

Engineers and scientists can creatively respond, as with BP and TEPCO, to solve the problem, and adapt future plans accordingly.

Human nature being what it is, we do not always learn from our mistakes. Sometimes we simply want to rebuild in the same place in the same way.

Lightning can strike twice in the same place. For example, New Orleans was struck by hurricanes nine times before Katrina. It will happen again.

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