Five operational implications for emergency management as seen through the shipwreck metaphor

–What has been called the “shipwreck metaphor” is actually several that have evolved from Roman times (if not earlier) to the present. To simplify, in crises we are like:

  • spectators safe on the shore looking out to the storm-tossed ship; or
  • survivors trying to keep afloat by clasping onto a plank or other debris, only later to be tossed up on the shore, if at all; or
  • those who keep rebuilding the ship while at sea, storm after storm, as returning to port is not possible nor is finding a nearby shore.

These, and their variants, are used here to rethink and extend in new ways some of the proposed responses by the key infrastructures (water, electricity, telecoms, and road transportation) to a magnitude 9.0 or greater earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone just off Oregon and Washington State.

–Five points about infrastructure operations come into rapid view via the shipwreck optic:

1. Clearly, there are major occasions when infrastructure staff and emergency managers grab whatever is at hand and improvise a solution, just like they undertake workarounds during normal operations or temporary disruption of services. Staff also continue to build upon already patched up infrastructures (think of the Y2K fears at the turn of the century related to the millennium bug).

What hasn’t got as much attention is how new construction for pre-disaster mitigations, say retrofitting bridges and levees, are nevertheless still patchwork learned from prior failures and–really when you think about it–little or no different from workarounds generally.

2. When it comes to retrofitting, our interviewees have two primary views. In one, it looks more like dry-docking the ship back at port and significantly upgrading a key part. In the other, retrofitting the bridge takes place while the road infrastructure as a whole is still in operation.

But acting as if you can dry-dock the ship back at port is by definition not an option nor is that retrofitting in the sea of operations seen as patchwork or standard-normal workarounds.

To say then that retrofitting is part and parcel of non-routine maintenance and repair, given a shipwreck is always possible, is very different from claiming that retrofitting is “building in resilience” for the shipwreck ahead (as many argue).

3. That informed people still stay at sea (and in known earthquake zones) even if they can get away tells you something about their preferences for safety with respect to the known unknowns of where they live and work versus safety with respect to unknown-unknowns of doing otherwise.

It simply isn’t sufficient to counter: Even if people could move out (and, to reiterate, many can’t), they move to new risks and trade-offs. These aren’t risks; they are unknown unknowns. Hence the counterfactual, “what would have happened if you had moved to different seas,” looks to be based in very worrisome assumptions about any ability to pre-identify, let alone specify, that “would.”

4. A two-week readiness program (i.e., you have two weeks of supplies on hand to survive the earthquake) is hopefully one plank to grasp once the earthquake happens. On the other hand, a raft or its analogue keeping a group afloat (after abandoning ship or, if you prefer: the ship abandoning them) would be better, e.g., a neighborhood generator to be used by households on the block.

5. Note that this shift in the unit of analysis from ship-as-infrastructure to survivors-as-individuals is major. Efforts to restore critical infrastructure services, even if temporarily during immediate response (e.g., through placement of mobile telecommunication towers), becomes a key operational interconnection between the individual as unit of analysis and the infrastructure as a resurfaced unit of analysis.

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