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A letter regarding Susan Cutter's review of The Next Catastrophe

In her review of my recent book, The Next Catastrophe ("Lessening the Impact of Disasters," May–June 2008), Susan L. Cutter claims that the book’s comments on threats to nuclear power plants and chemical plants "mostly repeat" what I had to say in Normal Accidents, published in 1984. But in fact, The Next Catastrophe deals almost entirely with new data and new analysis of these problem sites. My earlier book focused on accidents; this one focuses on regulatory failures with regard to nuclear power plants and on the increased concentrations of hazardous materials in chemical plants in the two decades since the last book. I believe that The Next Catastrophe has the most substantial analysis of chemical plant risks in the social science literature.

It is also misleading for Cutter to say that "he admits that disasters are becoming more severe," as if this were a concession, when instead I document the increasing severity and explain the reasons for it. The following sentence also is a misrepresentation: "The hazards-and-disasters 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." Very little scholarly material had appeared on Katrina by the time the book was finished, and I do discuss scholarly interpretations of 9/11. But none of the discussions of these events—neither those that were available when I was writing the book nor those published subsequently—are oriented toward reducing the size of targets. Downsizing New Orleans is anathema to almost everyone who has participated in scholarly discussions of the disaster; very few discussions of 9/11 and terrorism consider the threats exaggerated, and I cite those that do. The scholarly community clings to conventional and obvious recommendations, which I argue are futile. In addition, investigative reporters have done better analysis of failures than have social scientists (for example, the Washington Post analysis of the startup of the Department of Homeland Security, or the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette analysis of the vulnerabilities of railroads and chemical plants), making reliance on newspaper stories essential.

Cutter asks for a definition of my view of vulnerability, asking whether it includes people, organizations or infrastructures, or all three. Since I discuss death rates, cyber attacks on organizations, and the failures of electric-power and other infrastructures, it is clear that I mean all three. Rather than "ignoring" driving forces, I frequently note the historical driving forces that resulted in concentrated settlements, and I address how economic drivers could be mitigated. And I discuss the evidence that argues that reducing density does not necessarily transfer the risks geographically or economically. These issues are not "ignored," as Cutter insists. She obviously disagrees with my conclusions, and she implies that reducing vulnerabilities is impossible or ineffective. I expect that the bulk of the scholarly literature would agree with her, but arguing the opposite does not constitute ignoring these issues.

Charles Perrow
Yale University

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