Disaster Creep: How Bad Decisions Can Turn Extreme Events Into Bigger Catastrophes

Disasters may seem sudden. But their seeds can be sown decades before the actual event. How? A series of seemingly inconsequential individual decisions can collectively have massive unexpected negative consequences after an extreme event at a later date. No one decision by itself “causes” the catastrophe, but collectively they lay the groundwork to magnify damages. I have adopted the term “Disaster Creep” to explain what happens when:

  • Individual decisions gradually erode margins of safety over a period of years.
  • Then, an extreme, precipitating event pushes defenses past the point of failure.

We saw it:

Both disasters followed similar patterns. Each upfront decision benefitted some people in some ways, but gradually eroded margins of public safety. Then, in both cases, unanticipated weather events threw the state into chaos it could not handle.

US59 during Harvey. Photo by Melinda Ray.

Before Floods

Some, but certainly not all developers:

Even some governments are complicit. They:

Not only is the last point a dangerous policy in and of itself, it encouraged urban sprawl. In concert with lax enforcement of regulations, the sprawl destroyed more wetlands, forests, and riparian vegetation that buffered us from flooding.

Individual residents bore part of the blame, too, for not:

  • Learning about the factors that contribute to flood risk, then…
  • Buying homes in safe places, with good drainage, thus encouraging developers to discontinue bad practices.
  • Purchasing flood insurance.
  • Holding government accountable.
  • Monitoring upstream developments that cut corners on drainage.

Then came the big rains and predictable results. An extreme event touched off a man-made disaster years in the making. Had we not let margins of safety erode, far fewer homes and businesses would have flooded.

Before Texas Power-Grid Failure

We can trace similar decisions, each of which appeared innocent (or even beneficial in some ways) – until a massive winter storm touched off a chain reaction that cost dozens of lives and billions in property damage.

To name just a few contributing factors to the power failure, we:

  • Created a grid that was largely (but not wholly) isolated from surrounding states that might have helped provide power.
  • Deregulated power generation without ensuring adequate standby peak-generating capacity.
  • Constructed wind-power without winterizing turbines.
  • Failed to anticipate the freezing of natural gas wellheads and pipelines.
  • Let the free market create complex wholesale plans that cut pricing to the bone, thereby discouraging investment in additional capacity.
  • Exposed consumers to unimaginable financial risk.
  • Created a market where producers could profit handsomely from shortages.
  • Ignored FERC recommendations to winterize power plants more than a decade ago.

Surprise, surprise. Then, when the temperature plunged below freezing, a quarter of Texas lost power. Half the state had to boil water. Dozens of people died. And repairs will cost billions.

A natural disaster? Certainly not. States in far colder climates enjoyed continuous power throughout the event. So this was preventable.

Why Do We Let Disaster Creep Happen Repeatedly?

We want to believe that government will establish rules that keep us safe and that level the playing field for competitors. But is anyone really watching? Who really reads or understands all those regulations and reports anyway?

We look at the engineers’ stamps and assume compliance.

Who really investigates the county or city engineer’s department before buying a home to ensure they enforce their own regulations? No one!

Who really understands how ERCOT is put together and what all of its vulnerabilities are?

We assume government oversight that in many cases simply does not exist.

How many people:

Very few, I bet. Kind of makes you wonder where the next big vulnerability is. Public health? No. Wait. That was 2020.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/25/2021

1276 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.