Disasters, warnings, human nature

(c) FreeFoto.comWhen something terrible happens – be it an earthquake, hurricane, airliner crash, terrorist attack etc – it’d be to some extent comforting to know there were no warning signs, that it couldn’t have been prevented. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) this is very rarely the case. Most often, you have been warned. And warned. And warned.

In the recent Greek airliner crash, there have been numerous reports that the plane was serviced for air conditioning / pressurization trouble in the past. The same plane had made an emergency descent earlier because of sudden depressurization. And they actually reported an air conditioning problem shortly after leaving Larnaca on the fateful flight. Warning signs? You bet. And they were missed or ignored. Of course in retrospect it’s easy to make this connection, but many catastrophies come with much stronger, unmistakable, in-your-face-warning signals.

Take the recent hurricane Katrina in the US; everyone knew it was coming and evacuation orders were given. Yet many of the now perished victims stayed behind; many because they decided to, some undoubtably because the evacuation plan was mostly laissez-faire and not all people had the means to leave. To compare Katrina to last year’s tsunami is somewhat of a sacrilege; countries in Asia had practically no warning (although it’s debatable that it should’ve been possible to give a short warning and soon a system is in place to do just that). For the hurricane Katrina, however, dire warnings came days in advance. It had been known for years and years that the city is vulnerable to hurricanes. It had been known for days that Katrina threatened the area with a direct hit.

With all the warnings why did people stay – even against orders – at a beachfront apartment building? Why were evacuation plans no better for a city that is mostly below sea level, protected by levees that were designed to handle “only” a category 3 storm? When faced with a category 5 storm, it should’ve been clear that the entire city needed to be evacuated. 100% of it. And the evacuation plan consisted of mostly telling people to leave? The article linked above puts it well: “Every generation has to learn” – even if I’d be more inclined to say that every generation needs to re-learn every 20 years or so. FEMA also has a word to say about how victims bear some of the responsibility.

After the Asian tsunami, we heard of locals who themselves had lost their livelihood and homes, doing everything in their power to help the foreigners in any ways they could. After Katrina, we’re hearing stories of urban warfare , looting, rapes, shooting at rescue workers and other craziness. What does this tell about human nature – and it’s possible differences in different places?

Photo by freefoto.com

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