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Lessening the Impact of Disasters

Susan Cutter

The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters. Charles Perrow. x + 377 pp. Princeton University Press, 2007. $29.95.

Charles Perrow, an organizational sociologist now emeritus at Yale, is best known for his seminal work Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (Basic Books, 1984). In that book he suggests that, because of the complexity and interconnected nature of most modern technology, industrial failures are inevitable, even normal, and that many of them will have disastrous consequences. In his new book, The Next Catastrophe, he offers suggestions for reducing America's vulnerability to disasters.

Using examples involving natural hazards, technological or organizational breakdowns and willful acts of terrorism, Perrow argues that U.S. vulnerability has, at root, three interrelated causes: "concentrations of energy," such as dams and substances that are explosive, toxic or flammable; "concentrations of populations," especially near areas where large quantities of energy are stored; and "concentrations of economic and political power." He notes that "much of our critical infrastructure is in the hands of large corporations" and is concentrated in interdependent nodes (for example, airline hubs). His solution is to decentralize, diversify and build redundancy into all systems in order to "shrink the targets," thereby reducing the impact of the failures that will inevitably occur.

The book is divided into four sections. The first is a primer on natural disasters, in which Perrow maintains that vulnerabilities are created by the failure of organizations to protect us from disasters, coupled with the aforementioned concentrations of people and power. He offers a number of specific examples, ranging from the 1993 Mississippi floods to Hurricane Katrina. His central theme—that we have moved from considering natural disasters to be "acts of God" to viewing them as "acts of people"—is not new.

Part 2, "Can Government Help?," considers disaster preparedness and response, and the failure of governmental organizations to protect us. Perrow's history of the Federal Emergency Man­agement Agency (FEMA) from its creation in 1979 through its restructuring after the 9/11 attacks contains few original insights. More detailed accounts that offer a better understanding of the agency and its actions can be found in the 9/11 Commission Report and the Congressional and Government Accounting Office assessments of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, as well as a number of recent academic books highlighting the organizational problems and dysfunctional performance of both the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA.

Part 3, "The Disastrous Private Sector," examines critical infrastructure and the failure of organizations, executives and regulations to reduce our collective vulnerability. Perrow explores the potential for catastrophe in privately held facilities, highlighting their spatial concentration and their interconnections. His comments on nuclear power plants and chemical facilities mostly repeat what he had to say in his earlier book, but his chapters analyzing vulnerabilities in the national power grid and the Internet provide new and interesting information.

Part 4, "What Is To Be Done," addresses the limitations of formal organizations and the inadequacy of all efforts to protect Americans from major disasters. Here Perrow suggests that institutional failures are unavoidable. They arise from the failure of workers and managers to do their jobs; the willingness of top executives to knowingly make choices that result in harm to their organizations, their customers and the environment; the failure of regulatory agencies to enforce standards already in place; and the failure of all three branches of government to produce the regulations we need. He concludes that "given the limited success we can expect from organizational, executive, and regulatory reform, we should attend to reducing the damage that organizations can do by reducing their size."

Perrow believes that we are better prepared than in the past, but he admits that disasters are becoming more severe and occurring more often. The remedy he proposes is to redirect planning and preparedness efforts to "all targets" instead of "all hazards" and to reduce the concentration and size of the populations that are at risk and of the installations that pose dangers to us. He also suggests that current federal efforts focused on terrorism are misguided. We have "the most to fear from natural disasters," he says; industrial disasters pose the second-greatest threat, and we have the least to fear from terrorist disasters.

Overall, this is a very engaging book and one that I'm sure will enjoy wide readership. However, it has a number of weaknesses that might preclude its use in the classroom. First and foremost is the heavy reliance on newspapers as source material. The hazards-and­disasters community has produced a robust literature, especially on the sentinel events of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina; unfortunately, Perrow ignores much of that excellent scholarship, especially within the social sciences.

Another difficulty is that vulnerability means different things to different groups—the term's connotations are not the same for social-science researchers as for systems engineers. It would have been instructive for Perrow to provide a definition to ensure that readers are thinking along the same lines. How can we appreciate that vulnerabilities have increased when we're not sure whether he's talking about hazards to people, organizations, infrastructure or all of the above?

From the perspective of hazards-and-risk research, reducing the concentrations of infrastructure or of populations at risk ignores the driving forces (for example, the historical patterns of settlement and the location of economic activity) that produce vulnerabilities in the first place. Reducing the density will not reduce vulnerabilities; instead it will transfer the risks and vulnerabilities geographically, economically or temporally.

Regrettably, the book contains a number of factual errors. For example, Perrow says that when Hurricane Hugo made landfall in 1989, FEMA took no action, instead waiting for days for North Carolina officials to ask for help—but Hugo hit just north of Charleston, and it was actually South Carolina officials that FEMA was waiting on. Similarly, when he mentions Ernest "Fritz" Hollings—the well-known U.S. senator from South Carolina who famously characterized FEMA as "the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever known"—Perrow misidentifies Hollings as being "from the devastated state of Florida."

Nevertheless, the book does bring up a number of interesting questions in a readable style. I hope that it will spark some much-needed conversation on the topic of what can be done to prevent future catastrophes.

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