It was known that New Orleans was vulnerable to the kind of devastation that Katrina wrought, but no one paid attention until it was too late. Could the same happen with a nuclear disaster?
In the summer of 2004, FEMA and several other emergency response groups created a fictional “Hurricane Pam” exercise to better assess how to respond to a slow moving Category 3 hurricane that hit New Orleans — as Katrina did a year later. According to a report from Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center (one of the groups that participated in the exercise) “a storm like Hurricane Pam would:
- cause flooding that would leave 300,000 people trapped in New Orleans, many of whom would not have private transportation for evacuation;
- send evacuees to 1,000 shelters, which would likely remain open for 100 days;
- require the transfer of patients from hospitals in harm’s way to hospitals in other parts of the state;
- trigger outbreaks of tetanus, influenza, and other diseases likely to be present after a storm; and
- create 30 million cubic yards of debris and 237,000 cubic yards of household hazardous waste.”
Just before Katrina was born, one of the LSU participants reported that “A second Hurricane Pam Exercise is planned for this summer. Agencies will be able to expand on aspects of response and recovery that were not explored before.” As we now know, they didn’t need a make-believe exercise, and the early warning signs were not adequately acted upon — with catastrophic consequences.
Risk analysis breaks down a catastrophic failure into a sequence of smaller mistakes, and paying attention to those partial failures can provide early warning signs before disaster strikes. But only if we pay attention to them, and our track record is extremely poor. According to one of my colleagues who is an expert in this area, Sacramento is another flood disaster waiting to happen. Yet little is likely to be done until it is too late. Early warning signs of the current economic meltdown were also ignored with disastrous consequences.
As bad as those consequences were, they will pale in comparison to the price we will pay if we don’t start paying attention to the early warning signs of the risks posed by nuclear weapons. In October 2002, forty-one heavily armed terrorists seized hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theater. There is evidence they also considered attacking the Kurchatov Institute, with enough highly enriched uranium for dozens of nuclear weapons. In August 2007, the US Air Force “lost” six nuclear warheads for 36 hours, during which time they were improperly guarded.
As emails #5, and #6 on my web site explain, the 2008 Georgian war had the potential to bring the US and Russia into direct confrontation. And the ongoing enmity between Russia and Georgia continues to create a risk that is not only being ignored, but exacerbated by the American public’s misperceptions.
Those of us who point out these early warning signs risk being painted as Cassandras. But Cassandra gets an undeserved rap as a madwoman: All of her predictions were right!
Apollo blessed Cassandra with the gift of prophesy. But, when she spurned his advances, he cursed her by making no one believe her predictions. In one very apt example, Cassandra knew that Troy would be destroyed if the the wooden horse was taken into the city, but no one would listen. The Trojans believed the horse was an offering to Athena that would make Troy impregnable. Instead, Troy was destroyed by welcoming the wooden horse.
Both the Trojan horse and nuclear weapons were supposed to make their possessors impregnable, but both contain the seeds of their complete destruction. So, if we are portrayed as modern day Cassandras, we might even take it as a compliment. While we need to be more effective than her in communicating our concerns, fortunately we have tools, such as blogs, the Internet and email, that she did not. Please help spread the word by recommending this post to others.
Member, National Academy of Engineering
Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering, Stanford University