Preparing for the worst?

If a worst-case scenario happens, and there's no one around to react to it, is it really that bad?

BY SUSAN KIM | BOULDER, Colo. | July 14, 2004

"Look at the blackout last summer. It's entirely possible to take out the grid for six months or more."

—Lee Clarke

If a worst-case scenario happens, and there's no one around to react to it, is it really that bad?

It's not a riddle -- it's research, said Lee Clarke, a sociologist at Rutgers University whose soft-voiced, offhand humor belies his macabre concentration.

In layman's terms, Clarke thinks worst-case scenarios - from earth-obliterating asteroids, to monster storms, to plane crashes, to train wrecks - deserve some attention.

Because, in some ways, our society is increasingly at risk for, well, "the worst," he said, readily admitting he tends to order gin-and-tonics on airplanes to calm his nerves.

We're at risk for huge disasters for many complex reasons but one simple one is that we live in increasingly dense neighborhoods and population centers. "We're at risk because of the concentration of populations in modern society," said Clarke, speaking at the 29th Annual Hazards Research and Applications Workshop in Boulder, Colorado.

He cited a fairly new threat - SARS, an acute respiratory illness that erupted with epidemic speed - as an example. "SARS was scary not because of its fatality rate but because of its spread rate," he said.

Our technological interdependence is another factor that puts us at risk for major things to go wrong, he added. "Look at the blackout last summer. It's entirely possible to take out the grid for six months or more."

And whether it's a future massive blackout or the historical sinking of the Titanic, "the bottom line is we haven't given enough thought to worst cases - as a physical phenomenon and as a cultural abstract."

Let's start with worst-case scenarios as a physical phenomenon. It's, well, body count that counts, Clarke said. Journalists, scientists and the general public can and often do tally up death tolls from past floods, plane crashes, and other disasters so they will be able to say: this is the worst disaster of this sort ever, or in the last decade, or in the last 100 years. "That's when you have a history of events you can look at," Clarke said.

But worst-case scenarios can also be a cultural abstract. Then, death tolls might be low relative to similar disasters. "There are lots of things we count as worst cases even though the body count is not that high - the Challenger space disaster, for instance."

What's important is not so much the scope of the scenario as the reaction to it. Worst cases seem both overwhelming and uncontrolled to the people who watch them unfold, Clarke said.

And the more the victims of a disaster are like us, the worse the disaster seems to be. "In 1999 a big boat caught fire and sank off the coast of China. Three hundred people burned or drowned. It barely made the news here. Now imagine if that happened off the coast of North Carolina."

When afraid of a worst-case scenario, people in the U.S. tend to comfort themselves by attempting to think probabilistically. And that's perfectly rational, he said.

"Asteroid and comet impact into the earth is a hazard issue," he said, admitting that the risk is low for one to hit the earth. But the results, if the unfortunate scenario should ever happen, are highly likely to be extremely unpleasant, to put it mildly. "Let me tell you, you're all at very high risk if the thing hits."

Both kinds of thinking are rational, on a scholarly level and a personal psychological one, he said.

What about the everyday stuff, not the asteroids of science fiction? What about, say, losing your hand in your lawn mower? "That's a no-brainer," said Clarke. "Have somebody else mow the lawn."

Or, the fairly common question, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: should I drive or fly? Probability-wise, it's common knowledge that more people die in car crashes. "It's safer to fly than drive," said Clarke.

Yet many people are still nervous about flying, he pointed out, though most of them manage to control their fears if they need to take to the skies. "We don't grab the door of the plane and say 'I gotta get outta here.' Me, I will get on the plane, and have a gin and tonic."

Why the fear? Because if the plane goes down - just like if the asteroid hits the earth where you're walking your dog one morning -- you're highly likely to die, said Clarke. "You're 268 times more likely to die if the plane crashes than you are if the car crashes. If I go down, I'm probably gonna buy the farm."

What's the point? Why research people's fears about the worst that can happen?

Because sometimes calculating probability doesn't explain why people are afraid. And sometimes ignoring a hazard simply because it's unlikely to happen - simply isn't a good idea, said Clarke.

A low probability for a disaster often translates into a decision - at whatever level - to neglect planning for or researching that disaster. "It's unlikely that an asteroid could kill everyone in Los Angeles - but if one explodes over Los Angeles it could be very bad.

"We think we've outgrown the risk of the asteroid strike and we've put comets off into the distance."

What worst-case scenario does Clarke himself fear the most? "I think it's trains. Trains run off the tracks all the time. They carry horribly dangerous things. They're virtually unregulated. It's only a matter of time."

He's very practical, Clarke reassures his audience, because many of them who have to catch a plane home are now unnerved by his talk. Just ask him and he'll offer you reasonable advice - like don't swim with alligators and don't put your hand under your lawn mower.

"I mean, I emphasize worst cases. But I want to be a reasonable person, looking at an intellectual and a practical problem. Hey, folks, I might be worried about the comet, but I'm not one of the people worried about the spaceship behind the comet."

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