Monday, January 14, 2013

Natural Disasters and Illogical Humans

The February 2013 issue of Men's Journal has an excellent article about engineer Bob Bea by Alex Prud'Homme - - The Master of Disaster.  Bea is the co-founder of the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California at Berkeley.  Bea is one of my favorite engineers - - the nation's foremost forensic engineer.  From the flooding of Katrina to the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout - - Bea is the engineer that typically gets the first phone call when people and organizations start asking the hard how, why, and who questions.

I would recommend the article.  Rarely are engineers profiled in national publications in such thoughtful detail.  This is from the article:

"The cause of most large-scale calamities, notes Beu, is "the human factor."  Too often, designers fall in love with their ideas lose sight of practical, quotidian concerns.  "We engineers tend to believe in the myth of perfection." he says.  "We understand the logic of systems and machines.  What we don't understand is all of you illogical humans.  We aren't trained to take into account things like hubris, greed, sloth, office politics, and the rest of it.  It's not part of our skill set.  But it needs to be.  Dealing with the human factor is almost always more complicated than the technology."

Beu continues this line of thinking further in Reinventing Flood Control (with Daniel Farber, Karlene Roberts, and Edward Wenk - from the Tulane Law Review):

"The first step in disaster prevention is understanding the role of human and organizational error in creating and ameliorating risk.  People tend to think of risk as a physical phenomenon stemming from natural events or complex engineering projects such as nuclear reactors.  Such physical phenomena are a necessary component of risk, but they are only the starting point in addressing safety concerns.  Whether a risk materializes and the extent of the harm if causes is almost always mediated by human actions.  Those actions, in turn, take place inside organizations with their own histories and cultures.  To understand risk, we need to see the human context as well as the physical events that cause harm.  Only then can we begin to determine the appropriate response to risk."

The Age of Extreme Weather and Super-Disasters may require us all to get more comfortable with the Bea Bible of Natural Disasters - - "Never let a good disaster go to waste.  I'm in the prevention business.  And you can't prevent what you don't understand."

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