Chapter 2. Why didn’t they see it coming?
After a crisis, the complex and dynamic event is often boiled down to a simple and evocative narrative. In that post-crisis narrative, the causes are clear if not self-evident. After-action reports and political inquiries typically uncover evidence that someone had forewarned but was subsequently ignored. Whether we talk about Pearl Harbor, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the 9/11 attacks, or the most recent global financial crisis – these events in hindsight appear foreseeable and thus preventable.
This always prompts the question: How could they not have seen it coming? If it was foreseeable and thus preventable, someone clearly did not do his job. Or worse, was someone gambling that known risks would not materialize, as a result endangering people’s lives?
The post-Katrina narrative perfectly fits into this mold. Collective wisdom has it that Katrina was foreseeable and was foreseen. As such, the disaster that ensued should have been prevented. That it wasn’t, is shameful (if not outright criminal).
Here’s the problem with this narrative: Katrina was a so-called black swan event. These are long-tail possibilities that come true – events that never happened before but are theoretically possible. Few people can envision a future that they have not seen before. A black swan outwits collective imagination. As the risks are not calculable and the consequences unimaginable to many, they tend to be ignored.
Once we take the character of a black swan event into account, we can begin to entertain the possibility that the authorities could not foresee this disaster. We can see that they were as prepared as one might expect them to be for a “normal” disaster. This allows for the conclusion that not much could have been done better – even if it was not nearly enough for the super disaster that Katrina turned out to be.
Used online sources:
SFGate: Article (9 September 2005) discusses the possible damages from the Pam exercise as an indication for the damage done by Katrina. The CEO of IEM (the company that created the exercise) is interviewed on Pam and the consequences of Katrina.