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:
- In Harvey, when more than 150,000 homes flooded in Harris County.
- Last week, when millions of Texans went without heat in sub-freezing temperatures for days due to grid failure.
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.
Some, but certainly not all developers:
- Built subdivisions in dangerous locations that encroached on floodways, floodplains and wetlands.
- Restricted the conveyance of rivers and streams by adding fill to floodplains.
- Destroyed wetlands, nature’s sponges.
- Channelized natural streams – increasing their gradient, the speed of water and erosion.
- Clear-cut forests and filled in natural streams.
- Misrepresented soil types in engineering plans to exaggerate the amount of infiltration and reduce the amount of detention “needed.”
- Based engineering on antiquated rainfall tables.
- Failed to update floodplain assumptions as areas upstream developed.
- Did not build adequate detention-pond capacity to offset adverse impacts of development, including decreases in the time of accumulation.
Even some governments are complicit. They:
- Failed to update flood models and maps for decades as their counties developed.
- Fired staff who insisted developers follow flood-plain and environmental regulations.
- Gave tax breaks to those who mine sand in areas that flood repeatedly, thus sending sediment downstream that reduced conveyance of rivers.
- Tolerate rivers of mud flowing out of developments that clog downstream rivers
- Used lax regulation and enforcement to compete for new development.
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.
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?
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:
- Know that the penalty for stealing a Twinkie from a convenience store is greater than the fine for flooding 600 homes?
- Know that counties sometimes outsource engineering investigations to the very companies being investigated? (In other words, they get to approve their own compliance…or lack of it.)
- Understand that the TCEQ only inspects sand mines once every three years?
- Remember that the Texas Legislature killed a bill to establish best practices for sand mines?
- Know that TCEQ’s average fine for sand mines is little more than a speeding ticket?
- Know that dozens of leaking oil storage tanks and wells have existed in Forest Cove for years?
- Realized ERCOT didn’t enforce FERC recommendations?
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.