Disasters offer difficult lessons

Why do people always have to die in order for us to get anything done?

For any of us watching the news this past week or who have friends and loved ones in the Gulf Coast region, we sat intently as Hurricane Gustav ravaged the islands of the Caribbean and eventually made landfall along the Louisiana coastline. Taking one glance at the media coverage of the storm, it was nearly impossible not to make the connection to that other hurricane that also made landfall in Louisiana exactly three years and seven days ago.

I don’t need to remind anyone of how the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina uncovered still simmering resentments and shared weaknesses that many of us believed no longer existed in our nation. This time around, it was nothing short of wonderful to see the efforts being made by the state of Louisiana and the disaster relief personnel to mobilize and evacuate the areas in danger of being swept up in Gustav’s 115 mph winds.

As it sadly seems to be the case more often than not, the lessons learned for dealing with disasters correctly are only truly internalized after the loss of many lives, after having catastrophically failed. Now, I know about learning from one’s mistakes. I do it all the time, and I would guarantee that no one who has ever set foot on this planet hasn’t learned at least a small lesson from making a mistake.

But these are not small mistakes. These are mistakes that cost human lives. Even worse, these are mistakes that have already occurred once, twice, maybe multiple times in the past, and we have proven to ourselves that we are still like insolent toddlers who stubbornly refuse to admit any wrongdoing until we are caught in the act.

Katrina is not the first or last catastrophe to rightfully wake us from the complacency of safety and peace. I don’t even have to go very far back in time to find just a few glaring oversights in judgment.

On Aug. 1, 2007, the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge “catastrophically failed”, collapsing and sending 13 people to their deaths. The event hit all the news wires, and pictures showing the twisted metal and dust rising from the accident were plastered on every 24-hour news channel.

A 2006 report found problems with cracking and fatigue in the bridge, and it was also declared “structurally deficient,” a term used to describe a bridge that has been downgraded to carry only light traffic because of integrity issues. Aug. 2, 2007, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty added that there had been talk of replacing the bridge in 2020.

Although still rated as sound, 13 years seems like a long time to wait to replace a bridge that was considered just above the minimum safety threshold. Building materials always come with a recommended level of stress to ensure the material is not overburdened. However, this extra level of strength is not to be used as an excuse to leave a weakening bridge standing for an extra decade. It is supposed to allow for a time to act before it comes crashing down.

These unnecessary risks are apparent everywhere as we try to constantly push our means. History, and even recent history, is littered with these overreaches in what is possible. Ballistics armor for American vehicles was not standard in the initial stages of the war. Only after the military realized that the entire nation was a war zone and unprotected soldiers started dying did officials increase their efforts to armor all vehicles.

Many western countries still are slow to deliver drugs to many areas of the world that are suffering from supposedly eradicated diseases like tuberculosis and polio. Drug resistant strains have already begun to rear their heads, and our complacency to tackle these emerging threats is perhaps the greatest threat of all. By not controlling these diseases, even half a world away, we are just setting ourselves up for the day when some strange mutation will make the world susceptible again.

I’m not taking this idea of ensuring safety too far. In fact, there are cases when people take fear and the idea of making sure every little loophole is covered to a level beyond my own comprehension. This is easily demonstrated by the cases in European and American courts to halt the startup of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland. The LHC is the world’s largest particle accelerator, whose job is to smash together subatomic particles for scientific study. The plaintiffs charge that the machine could cause devastating cosmic anomalies like microscopic black holes that would destroy the Earth, and call for further safety studies before it is activated. However, other studies have stated that if these phenomenon could occur, they would have already been observed somewhere in outer space. Fear can be a little bit of a stretch, as I’m pretty sure no black holes will be in the forecast for next week.

I’m not saying that by being super careful and spending gobs of money we will be able to head off all disasters and prevent all tragedies, but the alternative of crossing our fingers and relying on hope is completely unacceptable.

It’s all about hedging our bets and realizing that preventative measures can spell a world of good. It’s about making the effort to spend a little extra time and money to shore up that little spot of risk that potentially can bring us to our knees. It’s about realizing that when we read the words “Those who cannot remember history are doomed to repeat it,” these are not just a collection of nouns and verbs. These are actually not so subtle whispers of truth.