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Inside risks

Disasters Evermore?

The U.S. is not good at preventing or handling disasters, so it is time to consider reducing the size of the nation's vulnerable targets: the concentrations of populations in risky areas, the concentrations of hazardous materials, and the concentration of economic power in the huge corporations that sit astride the nation's critical infrastructures.

The devastation of New Orleans was amply predicted, with a large population so obviously at risk. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, nature deconcentrated the population at great human cost. New Orleans could be one-third the size if rebuilt on its higher ground and still be one of the biggest U.S. ports, and yet have fewer but safer levees. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 barely missed Miami; a direct hit would mean enormous devastation. Miami could be downsized by charging realistic, unsubsidized insurance.

Other concentrations of populations in risky areas include California's Delta, where there are settlements 20 feet below the water level behind inadequately maintained levees. A major earthquake could breach levees and flood large areas, letting in salt water from San Francisco Bay and salinizing more than 50% of the state's fresh water supply. The St. Louis area, which is repeatedly flooded, continues to promote intensive settlements on the floodplains, and the state legislature forbids counties from raising levee heights beyond the state standards.

Not just populations are concentrated in risky areas; so are hazardous materials. In the Mississippi Flood of 1993, a large propane tank farm in St. Louis barely escaped having a massive explosion. Our landscape is littered with such potential agents of mass destruction, often in highly populated areas. Large cities are sprinkled with windowless telecommunication `hotels' that store huge quantities of diesel fuel to keep the servers cool. They should be smaller and moved away. A large oil company that failed to secure its oil storage tanks before Hurricane Katrina hit made 18,000 homes uninhabitable. Did it have to be in a residential area of New Orleans? Fortunately, only a tiny part of our railroad tracks pass through cities, so most derailments occur in rural or uninhabited areas, but a Baltimore tunnel fire in 2001 was devastating. Freight trains with 90-ton tank cars of deadly chlorine gas pass through U.S. cities all the time; an accident or a bomb could put a million people at risk, according to official estimates.

Approximately 85% of U.S. critical infrastructures are privately owned, and increasingly highly concentrated. Concentration in the electric power industry has increased since deregulation in the 1990s, and utility rates, outages, and the scope of blackouts have all increased as a result.

Concentration results in more long-distance transmission and less of the local control that was more likely to insist upon proper maintenance and investment in the grid. One-third of the U.S. nuclear power plants store their spent fuel rods in the open, vulnerable to primitive terrorist attacks, tornadoes, or industrial accidents that could release more radiation than the plant itself in a meltdown. The U.S. has 103 of these aging, largely unprotected, often poorly run potential agents of mass destruction within 50 miles of half of the nation's population. The plants cannot be deconcentrated or downsized, but antitrust actions could deconcentrate the industry, reducing its political power. This would allow higher transmission standards to be established and enforced, and more effective regulation of our nuclear plants.

Although these problems are more severe in the U.S. than in Europe because of Europe's stronger government regulations, one particular concentration is transnational: computer operating systems and applications. In the U.S., software is ubiquitous, and the industry appears highly deconcentrated. But the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense (for example) are heavily dependent on Microsoft products. In business and industry, SAP and IBM's CICS are increasingly linked with Microsoft operating systems and applications. Alarmingly, this software runs parts of our critical infrastructures┬Śmaking them increasingly vulnerable to software errors and malware from hackers and possibly terrorists. If there were more variety in operating systems, these critical systems could choose the vendors that offered greater reliability and security.

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Charles Perrow ( is the author of Normal Accidents: Living With High Risk Technologies (Princeton, 1999) and The Next Catastrophe: Reducing our Vulnerability to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters (Princeton, 2007), from which this column is derived.

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