The High Personal Cost of Disaster

Fateful Choice on a Day of Disaster; When the Tsunami Struck, a Mayor Had to Decide Between His City and Family; WSJ, April 9, 2011.  Mayor Futoshi Toba of Rikuzentakata, Japan, lost his wife and his house in the Japan tsunami, but stayed on his job at city hall.  This article highlights the conflict between personal and professional demands.

More than 2,300 people—a tenth of the population here—were dead or missing.

A month later, Mr. Toba finds himself in a role of bewildering complexity and responsibility, as Japan struggles to recover from the worst natural disaster of its modern history and its leaders debate how—and even whether—to rebuild a part of the country that was already in steep decline. The decisions Mr. Toba and other local politicians make now may well determine whether the hard-hit areas on the northeast coast survive and thrive, or never recover.Mayor Futoshi Toba’s house in Rikuzentakata was destroyed in the tsunami.

Where Is Superman When We Need Him?

Where are the great leaders who can handle a catastrophic disaster?  What are the characteristics and needed experience for such people?  Some major research is needed on leadership for major and catastrophic disasters, especially those with unusual dimensions like the Japan disasters.

Many years ago, when I read comic books, the Superman character had great appeal. You may recall that the mild-mannered reporter named Clark Kent often ducked into a phone booth to achieve his transformation into Superman – the strongman with Krypton-endowed super powers.  The boldly-dressed hero emerged from the booth to take on the big challenge of the day. [More bio info for Superman can be found here.]

We sure could use him today, to lead the way out of catastrophic disasters, though I expect he would not enjoy the paperwork attendant with the job.  Somehow, people still have the expectation that their ordinarily leaders will go through the transformation to a super-leader. Here’s the bad news: when you elect a Clark Kent to a major city, state or national office, you do not get Superman to take the lead for events with extraordinary circumstances. If you are lucky you will get a competent manager, and if you are not you will get a person who crumbles under the weight of the new job. (A practical problem is that we no longer have any phonebooths!)

So, if we are going to have mere mortals lead us and successfully manage disaster response and recovery, we had better do a better job of recruiting and training them for extraordinary duty.

Implications for the U.S. of the Japan Disasters- update

In response to events of the past week in Japan, fresh attention is being  given to the need for effective leadership and the ready determination of  lead responsibilities in the event of a catastrophic event, especially one with major secondary effects.

US Flag flies in Scottsville

Image by MEL810 via Flickr

Who Would Be in Charge if it Happened Here?

Congressman Markey’s Letter to President Obama: Who’s In Charge If Nuclear Disaster Hits America?, March 13.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) raised concerns today that the United States does not have a coordinated plan to deal with a similar nuclear disaster as that which is currently happening in Japan. In a letter sent to President Barack Obama, Rep. Markey, who is the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee and a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, pointed out that currently no single federal agency appears to have designated command in the event of a nuclear disaster here on U.S. soil.

“I am concerned that it appears that no agency sees itself as clearly in command of emergency response in a nuclear disaster,” … “In stark contrast to the scenarios contemplated for oil spills and hurricanes, there is no specificity for emergency coordination and command in place for a response to a nuclear disaster.”

The federal government’s nuclear accident response plan — the Nuclear/Radiological Incident Annex to the National Response Plan — says that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “is responsible for coordinating Federal operations within the United States to prepare for, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies.” Yet the plan also indicates that, depending on the type of nuclear or radiological incident, the coordinating agency may instead be the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), or the U.S. Coast Guard.

Where Would Expert Leadership Come From?

Nuclear Agency’s Assessment Lags. Wall St. Journal, March 17. Some selected quotes:

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s failure to quickly and accurately assess the potential danger posed by Japan’s nuclear disaster is raising questions about the United Nations organization’s ability to respond to such crises.
Teams of nuclear experts from the U.S. and elsewhere rushed to Japan after this past Friday’s earthquake there, but the IAEA is only Thursday sending its director general, Yukiya Amano, with a team. IAEA officials say the agency is doing everything that it can and that it has been frustrated by a lack of cooperation from Japan.
The agency’s inability to quickly dispatch a team of experts has made it almost entirely reliant on the Japanese government for information at a time when much of the world is looking to the IAEA for an impartial analysis of the risks and likely outcome of the nuclear emergency.

Flaws in Japan’s Leadership Deepen Sense of Crisis. NY Times. March 16

Never has postwar Japan needed strong, assertive leadership more — and never has its weak, rudderless system of governing been so clearly exposed or mattered so much.

Wanted: Better Risk Assessment and More Effective Regulation

In the past few days, several commentators have discussed how complex and interconnected life is these days and on the need to do more than let business interests run unbridled.  Here are a few examples of thoughtful commentary:

Robert Reich in the Huff Post, March 15. Safety on the Cheap.

Profit-making corporations have every incentive to underestimate these probabilities and lowball the likely harms. This is why it’s necessary to have such things as government regulators, why regulators must be independent of the industries they regulate, and why regulators need enough resources to enforce the regulations.

The Costly Lessons from the Long Tail of Improbable Disaster, by S. Pearlstein. Wash Post, March 16.

The lesson to be drawn from all this is not that we should roll back the clock and return to a simpler and less interconnected existence. It is, rather, that more attention must be paid to the extra risks that come with all the advantages of modern life. There may be a significant cost involved in preventing low-probability disasters, or having sufficient infrastructure to deal with them when they cannot be prevented. But as we are reminded by this week’s events in Japan, that cost is likely to be less than the cost of ignoring those risks and doing nothing at all.

Harold Meyerson, Wash. Post, March 16, From Japan’s devastation, our Lisbon moment?

What the systemic failures on Wall Street, in the Gulf of Mexico and in Japan should teach us is that the need for active, disinterested governmental regulation is rooted not in any radical impulse, as the American right continually contends, but in a sober, conservative assessment of the human capacity for mistake and self-delusion, not to mention avarice and chicanery. We can underestimate the risks of a particular undertaking, even when we think we have guarded against them. We fall prey to our own sense of infallibility, often as a way to rationalize what is otherwise a risky endeavor. When those risks go bad, the consequences often fall on those who didn’t take those risks themselves, as the millions of Americans who lost their jobs thanks to Wall Street’s follies can attest.

As of March 17, articles are beginning to appear about the problems that the national government of Japan has been having in its effort to regulate the nuclear power industry in their county.  Some articles are only available in full with a subscription to the WSJournal.