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Three Important Lessons From The Oso Mudslide Tragedy

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It will take time to get answers to many of the questions arising from the landslide that buried the small town of Oso, Washington.  Appropriately, the top priority of those on scene is to complete recovery efforts while attending to the heart wrenching needs of the survivors.  Meanwhile, with the passing of each day, the attention of those of us not directly involved with the tragedy inevitably drifts away.  Before that happens, we need to pause and consider three key lessons from this and other recent large-scale disasters.

First, this disaster was a “predictive surprise.”  Just as with a hurricane or earthquake, the risk of a landslide can be forecasted and the consequences arising from that risk can be anticipated.  What often takes us by surprise is the precise timing of these events.  Too often we behave as if disasters are rare and unknowable “Acts of God.”  As such, we end up convincing ourselves that we are somehow powerless in the face of such events—which is nonsense.

There is a great deal we know about man-made and naturally-occurring risks (and most catastrophic disasters are a mix of the two) and researchers are learning more about them all the time.  For instance, virtually all the risk conditions that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified as most conducive for a landslide were in play near Oso.  The triggering event would appear to be that the area received twice the normal rainfall in the prior 45 days.

The second lesson is that in the critical moments after disasters strike, the first responders are rarely professionals.  Instead they are family members, neighbors, friends, and perfect strangers who are at hand.  Just as when volunteers ran towards the explosions after the Boston Marathon bombings, many of the rescues in Oso were made by neighbors rushing to assist those calling for help.  When the mudslide blocked the highway in front of his car, 23-year old Kody Wesson jumped out and waded through waist-deep mud to help rescue a 6-month old baby.  It turns out that there is often a little bit of hero in many of us.

140329215151-03-washington-landslide-0329-story-top Equally important is tapping the capabilities of volunteers in dealing with a disaster’s aftermath.  The reflex of law enforcement is to set up barricades and for trained rescuers to direct anyone not wearing a uniform to stay out of the way.  This is shortsighted for large-scale events for reasons highlighted in the Oso tragedy.  No one knows how to work heavy equipment in mud and rain better than the logging community.  And the people who live in a neighborhood know it best.  In Oso, loggers simply ignored the police who at first tried to keep them out of the search area.  It is crazy that they had to steer down the risk of arrest in order for emergency management professionals to wake up—as they thankfully did—and realize these men were assets to be embraced.

Baked into the DNA of managing large-scale disasters must be to how to harness the desire and ability of survivors and volunteers to lend a hand.   Rules that work well in more routine emergencies need to be modified for bigger events.   Emergency responders should plan for and be prepared to capitalize on unsolicited help. Social media can play an important role in making this work.

Third, we need to acknowledge that our societal tendency to ignore the risk of disasters until they happen is reckless and unsustainable.   Decisions about where we live and how we live matter a great deal when it comes to elevating the risk of human and property losses.  Specifically, we need revisit how communities approach approving land-use applications and how states and localities adopt and enforce building codes.

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It is purposeful denial, bordering on negligence, which allows residential property development in dangerous areas.  That negligence is fed by a self-destructive cycle that begins when builders and developers with short-term interests are granted local permits to build new homes on low-lying barrier islands, flood plains, or near steep hills in the wilderness.  These homes then require investments in new public infrastructure, which in turn require additional tax revenues to build and sustain.   In order to expand the tax base, towns end up approving new property development adding new fuel to growth.  When the foreseeable disaster inevitably strikes, individual property owners are often wiped out and the American taxpayer ends up picking up most of the tab.

The way out of this madness is to embrace resilience as a societal imperative.  Resilience requires investing in modeling, monitoring, and assessment capabilities so that we can better forecast and understand risk.  Based on that understanding, public policy and economic incentives need to be aligned to encourage intelligent land-use decisions and to support mitigation measures such as model building codes.  Finally, resilience requires all of us resolving to learn from when things go wrong so we can make things better and smarter before the next disaster strikes.

 

About The Author

Stephen Flynn is Professor of Political Science and Director, Center for Resilience Studies, and Co-Director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University. He is author of The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation.

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