History Class

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Is what you want, looking at the past, to have no worst day?

I have a worst day.  I hope and pray I won’t have to trade it down for an even worst one.

I have been thinking:  Looking back, you’ll have a worst day.  Almost undeniably.  But to focus and dwell on that worst day causes its power to loom large in your psyche.

If you’re the type to dwell on and worry over worst days, I suggest worrying about worst days in the future.  It’s easier because it’s speculative and because something can be done about it.

I always recommend to people that they study emotion and the nature of the psyche.  This is because the nature of healing begins deep within the self, within the ego, within the witness.

Anyway, I was worrying about such natural disasters, and thought to post this letter I wrote about the next Hurricane Katrina.

In a large calamity of any kind, there is a real risk of cannibalism.  This is because the ratio of dead to living increases as people get hungrier.  I know of no reported incidents of cannibalism in the aftermath of Katrina, but then I do not know that such incidents would be reported.

As bad as Katrina was, we must remember that we had plenty of forewarning.  An evacuation was ordered.  The human costs inflicted on us by Katrina were caused primarily not by the storm itself, nor even the flood, but by the consequent breakdown in infrastructure.  The social machine broke, and people got hungry.

Reviewing the reports about Katrina, and looking into FEMA’s published materials, I have no confidence in FEMA’s current strategies or way of thinking about disasters.  They simply have not learned the fundamental lesson of Katrina: when the machine is broken, the machine is broken.  We cannot rely on a highly centralized, coordinated effort to reinstate order when our infrastructures themselves are destroyed.

I have gotten so far with FEMA as to talk to Bruce Brodoff.  Bruce can be reached at (617) 956-7517.  Bruce asked me who I represented:  whether I was a reporter, or involved with politics.  Yesterday, on learning that I am a private citizen, Bruce brushed me off.  I have just spoken to him again, and discovered that he has no intention of answering my questions.  He ended the conversation.

I am relying on you to address this.  FEMA’s basic approach fails.  For example:

SATPHONES.  One problem in Katrina was that people could not talk to one another.  Everyone wanted satellite phones:  tricky, expensive equipment that nobody has.  Even if you have one, the guy you need to talk to does not.

MORSE UNITS are one alternative to look at while we’re waiting for the cost of sat phones to come down.  These are cheap, rugged reliable technology that got us through two world wars.  They do not rely on anything other than a small radio, a big antenna loop, and a battery.  They can broadcast around the world.  They can be used to coordinate large-scale operations with thousands of men.

Are we not looking at using Morse code simply because people in FEMA — people, perhaps, like Bruce Brodoff — want new, shiny toys?  Or because they are afraid they’d be laughed out of the meeting?  Did people really die in Katrina because FEMA is keeping up with the Joneses?

Morse units may not be glamorous, but they WORK.

HUNGER.  Some napkin math this morning tells me that if we convert elevator shafts to micro-food silos, it will take an average of 3 stories of edible grain (like rice or barley) per square mile to keep Boston fed for a week. How much food is now stored in Boston against such a need?  As far as I know, none.  (“Yeah, ‘as far as you know,’” Bruce told me.)  If Katrina is any indication and if the P.R. publications, if the Congressional reports are any indication – there is none.  And if you ask the question and are not a reporter, the conversation ends.

THIRST.  Further math tells me that it would take 20 tanker trucks of water per square mile to keep Boston alive for a week.  Tanker trucks are not expensive.  Bangor, Maine buries tanker truck tankers around the city as a distributed reservoir.  We could put them on top of buildings.  Some is better than nothing.

There is simply no way to repair the top-down, highly centralized and hierarchical approach to prevent a man-made disaster like Katrina from happening.  We got rioting because people got hungry, and people got hungry because there was no food.  A decentralized approach that relies on cheap, rugged, stupid technology will be more robust and less prone to failure than a highly centralized one that relies on tricky, modern, untested technology.

Let’s please avoid cannibalism in the next Katrina.  There are a lot of things we need to be doing, and nobody is willing to hear it because they’re all high-tech wizards who imagine they know what they’re doing.  Can I talk to an amateur please?

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Published in: on June 11, 2012 at 10:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

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