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What Happened to the Cavalry? - Disaster Relief in a Complex World

July 25, 2017

Disclaimer: The views suggested in this article are the opinions of the author and do not represent those of the US Department of Health and Human Services or the government of the United States.

Disasters are a constant in the human experience, and as our societies have developed, so too has our organized response. But while our communication technologies have become vastly more sophisticated over the past century, our speed of disaster response has slowed in the face of increasingly complex systems.

In 1906, one of the most vibrant cities in America was San Francisco, which Jack London called “a modern imperial city.” The Ferry Building was one of the busiest maritime terminals in the world, and people marveled at the speed of intercontinental communications as telegraph operators taped Morse code messages over the wires. Early in the morning of April 18th, a massive earthquake reduced the once great city to a pile of rubble. Over the next 3 days San Francisco became a living Hell on earth. Fires burned out of control, claiming 500 city blocks as well as the lives of over 3,000 residents. An urgent message transmitted to Washington DC from the Oakland telegraph office read, “San Francisco in ruins. Our city needs help.”

Brigadier General Frederick Funston, hero of the Philippine-American War, took individual initiative and immediately dispatched troops to the disaster. In less than 3 hours, scores of troops from the Presidio and Fort Mason were on scene, assisting with crowd control and cordoning off unsafe areas. Compare this response time in 1906, as Stephen Flynn does in his book The Edge of Disaster, to the U.S. military’s response to Hurricane Katrina a century later. In 2005, despite the most sophisticated communications systems the world had ever seen, it took 6 days for the 82nd Airborne, a unit trained to deploy anywhere in the world in less than 18 hours, to arrive in New Orleans.

In an age of high tech communications, social media, cell phones, internet, HF radios and satellites, why did it take so long for the Cavalry to arrive to New Orleans? Part of the answer may be found in the work of sociologist Chick Perrow. I introduced Professor Perrow’s “Normal Accident Theory” in a previous post. Professor Perrow believed that normal failures in complex, interconnected and tightly coupled systems can interact with each other in mysterious ways. Because of complexity, operators are unable able to spot, isolate and repair failures fast enough. According to Perrow, a tightly coupled system is one in which, “processes occur very quickly and cannot be turned off, the failed parts cannot be isolated from the other parts, or there is no other way to keep the production going safely.”

In looking at the military’s response to Katrina there were three interdependent systems that had to work together to facilitate a rapid deployment of soldiers. The first system was the electrical power grid. Information Technology and communications systems require power to operate.  When the  grid goes down, so do our modern communications capabilities. Ted Lewis observed, “In 2000 the National Academy of Engineering named modern power grids—those vast electrical power generation, transmission and distribution networks that span the country—the top engineering technology of the 20th century.” According to Lewis, the power grid is so vast and complex that a map of the entire system does not exist and the grid is in a constant state of change, continually being shaped by “governmental regulation and the laws of physics.”

The next complex system involved was the Internet. The Internet and its associated information technologies have become nearly ubiquitous in the twelve years since Hurricane Katrina, but even at the time, the International Telecommunications Union estimated there were 665 million internet users.

The last complex system involved was the human organizational systems. The myriad of permissions, authorizations, regulations, laws and administrative processes that needed to be followed at a critical time was staggering. Requests for assistance had to be vetted by local, state and federal bureaucrats each influenced by laws, turf and politics. The bureaucratic processes were complex in their own right, but they also relied on the electric grid and internet to function properly.

When these three very complex systems interact with each other baffling, unseen interactions and failures can be expected to occur. Some of these unseen failures likely contributed to decision making delays that slowed the dispatching of troops to the disaster site. In 2005 there was no Brig. Gen. Funston taking individual initiative to send in the troops. The system had evolved to the point where no one felt they had authority to act and their ability to do so was complicated by electrical and telecommunications failures. Professor Perrow observed, “As our technology expands, as our wars multiply, and as we invade more and more of nature we create systems—organizations, and the organization of organizations—(that will) increase the risk for operators, passengers, innocent bystanders, and for future generations.”

If the Perrow hypothesis—that normal accidents in complex systems compound themselves and interact in unexpected ways—is correct, then we can expect large scale failures in the future unless we develop mitigation strategies to reduce their impact. For example, using more green technologies such as solar panels and battery backups could reduce reliance on the electrical power grid and at the same time help reduce the earth’s carbon footprint. Empowering leaders to make decisions at the lowest level possible and allowing them to commit resources early in a response could help streamline some of the bureaucratic processes currently in place, allowing our response to look more like the San Francisco earthquake and less like Hurricane Katrina. Learning how to capitalize on emergent social behavior and focus community efforts efficiently and effectively can make a difference. As we move further into the digital age, confronting complexity will be necessary to minimize accidents and reduce disaster related morbidity and mortality.

Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu