Worst cases may involve trains

Sociologist Lee Clarke spends his days researching a multitude of worst-case scenarios - but he worries most about trains.

BY SUSAN KIM | PRINCETON, N.J. | March 27, 2006

Chinese speakers, particularly those living in Chinatown in San Francisco, was focus of NERT training.
Credit: Marisa Heller

Sociologist Lee Clarke spends his days researching a multitude of worst-case scenarios - but he worries most about trains.

He studies asteroids, massive earthquakes, and nuclear power plants. And air crashes, terrorist attacks, and monster storms.

He also worries about Avian flu, he said, "if it jumps." Clarke is referring to the bird flu, a virus that has been found in 45 countries and could potentially trigger a pandemic if it mutates from bird to humans. "The mortality rate is 50% as far as we know."

But most of all, Clarke - author of the book "Worst Cases" - worries about trains. "The trains carry the most dangerous stuff around," he explained. "Trains go through every city in the country. They fall off their tracks all the time. It's not because of callous people in industry, although they do say they can regulate themselves," he said.

Trains have enormous potential for death and destruction, he pointed out. "It really is a system that fails all the time. But the potential is there and it's not being looked at. A few years ago some people tried to do a census of train accidents involving toxic chemicals. It has virtually no oversight. I worry about that more than nuclear power plants."

A professor at Rutgers University, Clarke offered his signature quirky take on worst-case scenarios at the Church World Service Forum on Domestic Disaster Ministry. The forum's theme - "building human security" - has provided fodder for dialogue among scholars, disaster responders, and religious leaders.

When Clarke starts studying a worst-case scenario, he takes it to the hilt - right down to the graffiti written on the sides of rail cars that contain very dangerous materials.

But what's the use? "You want us to worry about things that are really far out?" Clarke asked rhetorically. "What about smoking and poverty and wearing seat belts?"

Then - to an audience that has responded to virtually every major disaster - he asked: "Why can't you worry about more than one thing at a time? You might not want to."

And, sometimes, he said, denial is a good thing. "But it must be deliberately chosen."

Thinking about worst cases won't hurt us, Clarke argued. The problem is when we try to control the catastrophes in the wrong ways. "When we come to think we really can control these things, we get into trouble," he said. "We get in trouble once we think we can really control the Mississippi River. This macho control of nature is the root cause of what happened down there," he said, referring to the massive destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, and especially to the levee breaks in New Orleans.

The fact is that rare things happen. And when they do, we tend to learn about them right away. "There's an immediacy that the internet brings," he said. "And that immediacy is a conduit for our imagination. But it needn't drive us to distraction. One of our jobs is to inform people. The reason we can touch it at all is because of the media."

Responders do try to inform people, agreed Kevin King, executive director of Mennonite Disaster Service. But sometimes we can't get people to move," he lamented. "We can't get people to prepare. That's the hard part that we all struggle with."

In a rather unusual turn for him, Clarke chose to accentuate the positive: "But a million people got out - well, just under a million - they got out of New Orleans. That's not to underestimate the people that stayed or the people that died. But a lot of people did get out of the way. A lot of people do evacuate in Florida, for example. There are some crazy people who want to go out there with surfboards."

Clarke focuses on the possible - not just the probable.

But sometimes people tend to get focused on the things that are possible - and ignore what's most likely to happen, mused Melinda McLain, a United Church of Christ disaster response coordinator based in earthquake-prone California. "Especially since 9/11, fear has become the nature of our politics. How do we help people become less fearful and more focused on probable things? We throw money at things and ignore what's absolutely going to happen," she said.

Clarke admits that people can go overboard one way or the other. McLain's statement, he said, "is one of the most cogent and most important criticisms of my argument. But I think we can use possiblistic thinking in a more disciplined way."

So if you're not worried enough about next hurricane season, try asteroids. It's possible - though not necessarily probable - that an asteroid will hit the earth and destroy, say, Paris.

"NASA tries to track pieces that are a kilometer or larger," Clarke explained. "They were able to convince politicians to spend money on that."

Now there's a movement afoot among astronauts and astronomers - a push to map and detect pieces that are below a kilometer. "It's a tough issue," said Clarke. "A politician has to be able to say that's a risk that's not likely to happen in my lifetime. Politicians aren't situated to do that."

Politicians also have to risk the 'chuckle factor,' or the risk people will simply laugh when they bring up the worst-case scenario that's most visible because of movies starring Bruce Willis.

Is there anything Clarke doesn't bother to worry about? "Well, nobody is worried about comets," he said. "They're too big. They're too erratic. If one comes - we're all toast."

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