Thursday, October 18, 2007

Charles Perrow's "The Next Catastrophe"

Charles Perrow is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Yale University. His books include Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism and Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. He has worked as a consultant for the U.S. military, the White House, and the nuclear-power industry.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his latest book, The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters, and reported the following:
The third paragraph of page 99 goes as follows, illustrating just one of the many problems with the new Department of Homeland Security:

A glaring example of thoughtlessness, on-the-fly reorganization occasioned by the birth of the new department concerned a particularly important sector of first responders -- the effective National Disaster Medical System (NDMS). It deployed and coordinated volunteer teams of doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel in a crisis, some 7000 volunteers. It had been moved from the Department of Health and Human Services to FEMA by the original DHS designers. HHS felt it belonged in HHS, not in FEMA, and tried to wrest control of the NDMS during Hurricane Isabel (September 2003). It did not do well in FEMA and was starved of resources. Its paid staff had shriveled from 144 to 57 and did not even include a physician. NDMS volunteers complained about FEMA’s unpaid bills, faulty equipment, and intransigent leadership.... It warned that two years after their move to FEMA, they were less prepared than ever.

This quote is representative of my criticism of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. The failure of these organizations and many others in the public and private sectors is a major theme of the book. It argues that we cannot expect much from organizations when it comes to preventing disasters of all sorts -- I discuss natural, industrial, and terrorist disasters -- and thus we should spend more of our resources reducing the size of the targets of nature's fury, the industrial accidents, and vulnerable parts of our critical infrastructure. Instead of the Department of Homeland Security, which should be dismantled, we should establish a Department of Homeland Vulnerability that examines the risky concentrations that are vulnerable to all three sources of disasters.

We should deconcentrate populations that live in risky areas instead of waiting for more Katrinas to do it for us at immense human cost. We should deconcentrate the hazardous substances in urban centers; our cities are littered with weapons of mass destruction. And we should reduce the concentrations of economic and political power that sit astride our electric power system, our nuclear power plants, our concentrated food supply and our telecommunications, in particular the Internet. They present easy targets for nature, accidents, and terrorists.

This will require stricter regulations and meaningful enforcement, something we have been able to do in other sectors of society, notably in the areas of health and crime, where our government is moderately strong. It is weak regarding settlements in risky areas and building standards and evacuation routes. That could be changed. We once had antitrust laws that stemmed the concentrations of economic power that favor the concentrations of hazardous materials. We could re-enact them. Until very recently we considered the Internet to be a common carrier open to all, but concentration in telecommunications will make it more vulnerable to hackers, terrorists, and accidents. The domination of operating systems by Microsoft's Windows, which domination allowed it to pay little attention to security, has made our banking system, military establishments including intelligence, and even our power plants vulnerable to hackers, terrorists, and software failures. We could require secure operating systems and software for our critical infrastructure.

We have not been able to prevent or greatly mitigate disasters, and never will be; our organizations are simply not up to it. We will always have disasters from the three sources, but we can greatly limit their size and consequences by reducing concentrations.
Read an excerpt from The Next Catastrophe and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue