Thursday, July 10, 2008

For What It's Worth

One time I recall hearing someone quip that to understand what's meant by the word "expert," you just have to analyze its two syllables. When you do this, you realize that an "ex" is a has-been and a "spurt" is a drip under pressure.

So then.

A group of homeland security experts have spoken:

Book Hill Partners and the Homeland Defense Journal released the results of a survey of 122 homeland security experts on priorities for the next administration in protecting the American people and homeland.

Key findings of the survey include:
  • Over 83 percent of experts surveyed expected a major disaster of some kind in the United States within the next four years, within the term of the next president.
  • Roughly 58 percent of respondents said that the most probable scenario for a major disaster was a natural disaster. More surprisingly almost 22 percent of experts said that the most probable scenario for a major disaster was a terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction (chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear specifically).
  • Almost 72 percent of respondents expect major changes if Sen. Obama is the next president. In contrast, over 80 percent of respondents believed that homeland security policies under a McCain administration would be largely unchanged from those under the Bush administration.
  • The next administration's top four homeland security priorities should be border security, emergency response, development of medical counter-measures to weapons of mass destruction, and port security.
Prognostication is always a nice safe business. Even if you're wrong, it was just an educated guess anyway. But I am curious as to how anyone could predict a "major natural disaster" within a given timeframe. You can lay odds on it, sure, but to expect that one will happen? Hmm...


Dale A. Rose said...

Not to split hairs, but the kind of prediction you're taking issue with is grounded in a historical record - the empirically observed world - that forms the basis for future likelihoods. Between floods, earthquakes, conflagrations, etc., it's pretty easy to craft a virtually unassailable likelihood of a major natural disaster in the next four years. I'd say it's almost a given. Where I thought you should have gone with your criticism was a) to question the utility (not method/accuracy) of that type of prediction - in other words: what do we do with that information; and b) what are the parameters for a "major" disaster? I live in California where over 1500 fires have collectively produced a major disaster as defined within the emergency management field, but in the scheme of things this may not be so major for the nation as a whole. This begs a question about differences between CATASTROPHIC events of monumental proportions (megaearthquake, cat 5 hurricane, nuke) and everything else. Just a thought...

John Bowen said...

Thanks, Dale - you make the point better than I did. You're absolutely correct that in a broad long-term sense, disasters can be predicted. Insurance companies rely on this fact for their very existence.

Your "a" option is where my thinking was headed. It's easy and painless to predict that something disastrous will happen somewhere in the U.S. in the next 48 months - but what use is such a bland, nonspecific prediction?

Your "b" option asks a terrific question, one that has real consequences for preparedness. Our local, state, and federal systems have shown themselves to be generally capable of responding to a localized disaster (even a major one such as the California fires), but much less capable of responding to a catastrophic event with more widespread effects (e.g., Katrina, the 1918 flu). In a catastrophic disaster, critical systems break down in fundamental ways (e.g., communications, power, transportation) seriously impairing the response and recovery.

It's a distinction worth noting, and one that the survey doesn't seem to make.