Diatribes of Jay

This blog has essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to social problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

07 September 2005

A Tale of Two Cities

The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was the worst natural disaster ever to hit an American city. Even after Katrina, it probably still is. Thousands of people died; many great buildings fell; and the fire that followed razed most of the city to the ground.

But something positive arose from that searing loss. People learned from it. It took over fifty years, but they applied science and engineering to an important problem: building habitable structures that can survive earthquakes.

Seismology---the study of earthquakes---became a real science, partly as a result of that tragedy. It attracted talent and money. Along with Japan, California became one of the world’s centers of progress and excellence in seismology.

In the last half of the twentieth century, engineering began to cooperate with science. An Australian named Bruce Bolt, who ran the Seismographic Stations at the University of California, campaigned tirelessly for seismologists and engineers to work together. Eventually, they began to cooperate. Scientists figured out how much shaking reasonably probable earthquakes were likely to cause, and engineers designed structures to withstand it.

Bruce Bolt died recently, but his legacy lives on. He had doggedly promoted a simple but powerful idea: if we can’t control Nature, we can at least predict its most likely depredations and plan for them. In part through his tireless effort, the law changed, despite opposition from self-seeking and short sighted politicians, business people and bureaucrats.

Over decades, Californians began to see the need to strengthen codes for new buildings and to reinforce existing structures. First schools, then public buildings, and finally private ones---all were reinforced or rebuilt under tough, far-sighted legal requirements.

A real test of this program came in the Oakland Earthquake in 1989 (also known as the Loma Prieta Earthquake for its epicenter.). A section of unreinforced, elevated freeway in Oakland collapsed, killing 42 people. Part of the Bay Bridge collapsed. But the total loss of life (estimated at 66) was minimal for such a large earthquake in such a densely populated area. In contrast, tens of thousands have died from smaller earthquakes in Iran and Turkey.

The Oakland Earthquake was about a magnitude 7. It was at least ten times smaller than the Great San Francisco Earthquake, which scientists estimate in retrospect as over magnitude 8. (Each increment in magnitude represents a tenfold increase in earthquake energy.) No one knows what might have happened if the Oakland Earthquake had been as big. Yet population density and the number, height and weight of structures were incomparably greater in 1989 than in 1906, and the loss of life was far less. The rational program of building to meet predictable natural disasters had succeeded.

Fate has not been so kind to New Orleans. For decades, meteorologists and flood-control specialists had been predicting devastation if a large enough hurricane hit head on. About three years before Katrina, the PBS television series “Now” laid out the scientific predictions for the general public, in a feature entitled "The City in a Bowl." Yet Katrina did not even hit head on, and still New Orleans died.

The problem with New Orleans was much the same as the problem with San Francisco (and Los Angeles). Earthquake country demands stronger buildings, and flood country requires stronger levees. Yet nothing was done. Now we have over a million displaced persons in our own country, and some of us are beginning to wonder whether there really is a difference between America and Bangladesh.

Once upon a time, there was a big difference, and the whole world acknowledged it. Bangladeshis met disaster with lamentation, prayers, and little else. We met it with study, science, technology, and engineering. We looked Mother Nature in the eye and said, “We can beat you.” And we did. We were a pragmatic, “can do” people. Our confident, competent, rational approach defined us as a nation.

This tale of two cities suggests that something very important may have changed. Our faith in reason and action seems to be growing thin, while our faith in God and political ideology grows.

Many people blame President Bush and his administration. There is some poetic justice in that. President Bush is certainly our chief apostle of religious faith and unthinking political ideology. And the Bush Administration has a lot to answer for. As Harry Truman said (pointing to his presidential desk), “The buck stops here.” But in truth the blame for New Orleans’ inundation (as distinguished from the government’s inept response to it) lies far from this White House in space and time, at the intersection of science and public policy.

Someone decided that the levees around New Orleans should be built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane. Katrina was a Category 4. Someone failed to notice that since 1969, when the levees were first built, hurricanes have been increasing in number and ferocity. Someone failed to heed the repeated warnings in newspapers, in scientific journals, and on PBS, that New Orleans was a city waiting to die. The tragic irony is that shoring up the levees would have been a simple, relatively inexpensive task---far simpler and cheaper (both physically and politically) than reinforcing or rebuilding schools and major buildings in California. Even rebuilding all the levees would have been incomparably simpler and cheaper than the recovery and rebuilding projects that now lie ahead.

This tale of two cities has a very simple moral. Modern science and engineering have brought us unparalleled health and prosperity. But they have also made our world complex and dangerous. In such a world, people die when we ignore reality and fail to deal with it, whether out of political ideology, blind faith, or simple inertia.

Science and engineering led our country to wealth and power because they work, just as they have in earthquake-prone California. But politicians, bureaucrats, the media and our leaders seem no longer to respect these disciplines. Politicians ignore the conclusions of scientists when those conclusions don’t satisfy their ideological preconceptions or political needs. Global warming is a prime example. Bureaucrats don’t understand science or engineering and are often too lazy to find people who do. And the media---believing that any controversy sells TV time---elevate junk scientists to the same level as Nobel prize winners in order to market food fights as news. And so we have a majority in a recent poll “voting” to dilute the teaching of evolution with ideological and religious twaddle. Our President approves.

Sure, evolution is “only” a theory. But so are atomic energy, the solar system, and gravity. Scientific theories like these are useful not because they make us feel self-important and the center of the Universe. Believing in a sun that revolves around the Earth did that but not much else. Science and engineering are useful because they work. They allow us to bend Nature to our will.

Evolution predicts that antibiotics, if overused, can cause bugs to develop resistance that makes the drugs useless. So we cut down using antibiotics for colds and flu (against which they don’t work) and keep our pharmaceutical powder dry for the next bacterial plague. Evolution also predicts that genetically homogeneous crops may cause disastrous famines---like the Irish potato famine of the nineteenth century---when plant pests mutate. So we diversify our crops and avoid the fate of Ireland. These detailed predictions, made by science, help us avoid suffering and catastrophic loss of life. Try that with “creationism” or “intelligent design.”

If our educational system were not largely obsolescent and rotting, even adults would know that science and engineering are not just religion by another name. They are uniquely valuable because they do useful work in the real world. They make our lives better in this world, not the next. If we ignore them, as New Orleans did before Katrina, we suffer and die here and now.

We Americans used to understand that point. Even our proverbs recognized it. Once we said, “Praise the Lord but pass the ammunition.” Now New Orleans is under water because people---maybe a whole lot of people---have lost their bearings.

In less than five years, our nation has endured two unprecedented tragedies. Both were caused in part by our failure to recognize and deal with reality.

We might not have prevented September 11. But any chance we might have had to do so was squandered through grossly incompetent organization and management of our intelligence services. It does not take twenty years' experience as a spook to understand that refusing to share information among multiple organizations with thousands of workers all trying to do the same job is not a winning strategy, and that those responsible for that policy ought to be in another line of work. Yet nothing has changed. Except at the CIA, the same people are running the same sorry show, with new figureheads having no real authority.

As for Katrina, the loss of New Orleans was entirely preventable. One does not have to be a meteorologist to know that Category 4 and 5 hurricanes are not “once or twice a millennium” events, as once was thought. All one has to do is have followed the news for the last decade. It does not take advanced technology to shore up a few levees. Nor would doing so have appreciably increased the national debt. All it would have taken is a little basic competence, understanding of the real world and political will. Yet despite decades of warning, nothing was done.

What is worse, no one has yet been held accountable for either failure: September 11 or the flooding of New Orleans. If recent history is any guide, no one ever will be held accountable. That means, among other things, that history is likely to repeat itself.

In ancient Rome, blunderers fell on their swords. In Imperial Japan, they committed seppuku. In the heyday of American business and government, they were fired or forced to resign. Not any more. Now they are given the Medal of Freedom and praised, their failures left unmarked as lessons for the future. If failure has no price, there is no incentive to succeed. The prime directive of all bureaucracies, “Cover Thy Ass,” is now our commandment for operational government at all levels.

What will it take to get us to return to hard-headed reason and accountable competence among our leadership? What will it take to get us to realize that Mother Nature does not yield to political ideology, pork-barrel politics, or religious dogma? What will it take to understand that implacable terrorists do not succumb to wishful thinking, only to realism, brains, and intelligent planning and action? Will our reawakening require a terrorist nuke in our nation’s capital? another Katrina? a dozen Katrinas?

September 11 put the writing on the wall. Katrina highlighted it in red. Do “we the people” still know how to read? This tale of two cities suggests that we won’t have much more time to get the message.

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