[Paleopsych] CHE: Disaster Could Have Been Far Worse, Says Sociologist Who Thinks New Orleans 'Lucked Out'
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Disaster Could Have Been Far Worse, Says Sociologist Who Thinks New Orleans
News bulletin from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.9.19
By JENNIFER HOWARD
The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina came as a shock but it
wasn't a surprise, at least not to Lee Clarke, an associate professor
of sociology at Rutgers University at New Brunswick. In Worst Cases:
Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination (University of
Chicago Press, forthcoming in November), he lays out what could happen
if New Orleans were hit by a major hurricane.
He argues that instead of weighing the probabilities -- playing the
odds -- policy makers need to take a hard look at worst-case
possibilities: What if the Category 5 hurricane does hit a major and
highly vulnerable population center? "As a colleague of mine puts it,"
he says, "things that have never happened before happen all the time."
In an interview, he explains why he thinks the city "lucked out" this
Q. Explain the difference between what you call possibilistic and
probabilistic worst-case thinking.
A. Probabilism says, in normal language, What are the chances X is
going to happen? If the chance is really low, you don't really need to
worry about that very much. That's probabilistic thinking.
Possibilistic thinking says, even if the chance is low, what are the
consequences if that chance plays out? ... If you're 30,000 feet in
the sky and your plane gets into a lot of trouble, it's not the
probabilities that matter, it's the possibilities.
Q. In the book you say that, contrary to popular opinion, "disasters
aren't special. They are as normal as love, joy, triumph, and misery."
Why is it useful to be able to imagine the worst as an ordinary part
A. It increases the chances that you'll be able to control things.
It's a dangerous world. And there's no reason we can't be more
prepared than we are. That doesn't mean we have to live on the knife
edge of terror and anxiety. If you can afford it, you buy life
insurance when you have kids. ... That's not dwelling on the worst
case; it's looking at the possibilities square in the face.
Q. Is it fair to say you weren't surprised by what happened in New
A. No, I was not surprised. This was an easy one. ... What's really
frightening about this one ... is that it was easy to see this one
coming, and many people did.
Q. How could we have been better prepared, knowing what the
A. The body count, whatever it ends up being, didn't need to be as
high. Evacuation could have happened sooner. I'm putting aside the
effort that could have been taken to strengthen those levees. ... But
this is exactly the problem. Possibilistic thinking says, Let's empty
New Orleans on Thursday, 'cause look at this thing -- it's a monster.
... Soon after it crossed over Florida it turned into the storm from
hell. But the risk, from a decision-making point of view, is, What if
we empty New Orleans and [the storm] takes a right turn and goes back
into Tampa? Taking action on the basis of a possibilistic approach is
going to cost us.
Q. Could it have been even worse?
A. Worst cases could always be worse. ... They lucked out. I mean, the
Mississippi pretty much stayed put. ... I sound macabre, don't I? But
I think it's a book of hope.
Q. You talk in the book about "disorganizing for risk." How can we
better prepare ourselves, as individuals and as a society, to deal
with worst-case scenarios?
A. It means thinking about preparedness at the organization level, in
our social networks, in our communities. ... We need our organizations
to be more prepared, but we also need to expand our conception about
what critical infrastructure is. We usually think of it in engineering
terms: We need to protect the power grid, the water supply. And all of
that is true. But we're a highly interdependent society. ... In
central New Jersey, where I live, some of us worry about chemical
plants. ... If something should happen, most likely the safest thing
for most of us to do is shelter in place. That means the first-grade
teacher, she becomes the first responder.
Q. What role should government play in disaster preparation and
A. We need government to be prepared, as much as it can be, especially
when events like Katrina come along. You have to have large
organizations involved in the response, just because the tasks are so
overwhelming. ... But bureaucracies are inherently normal. They're
just not organized to deal with extreme events. ... Command and
control doesn't work in disasters. Assuming that big organizations or
the military ... are always going to ride to the rescue is a
dangerous, dangerous assumption.
Q. In New Orleans, did social networks fail along with bureaucracy?
A. Lots of things failed. Poverty, that's just so important. The
larger principle there is -- and again it flows from seeing disaster
as normal -- that we die as we live, in patterns. So 75 percent of the
victims at the World Trade Center collapse are middle class ... white
men. You wouldn't call that racial or institutional discrimination,
but it was certainly a pattern. ... We have very strong evidence in
disaster research that class is very important. ... It's not
everything, but it's not nothing.
Q. If we're always imagining the worst, won't we live paralyzed by
A. I'm not suggesting that we throw out probabilism, only that we have
a balance. ... People can handle a lot more scary things than we give
them credit for.
Q. What keeps you up nights?
A. Worrying if I'm going to be interesting in my "Introduction to
Sociology" class tomorrow. [Laughs.] I worry a little bit about
near-earth objects because I think there are very few institutional
interests that will push to pay attention to that. I worry about bird
flu. It's only a matter of time. And I worry about our trains -- the
most prosaic of technologies -- we're utterly dependent on them, and
they're just a disaster waiting to happen. Or a target waiting to
happen. A single chlorine car near Los Angeles puts four million
people at risk.
2. mailto:jennifer.howard at chronicle.com
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