The art behind making disasters manageable

The book Dull Disasters examines how we can get ahead of the inevitable cataclysmic events, rather than resorting to futile generosity after the fact

I don’t know about your city, but everywhere I’ve lived in Canada, it snows. As we get past Halloween, I dig out my snow shovel, so one day I can dig out of the snow. I do this every year. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel or the shovel.

Authors Daniel J. Clarke and Stefan Dercon are Oxbridge Brits, so only know about snow from movies about Victorian Christmases. But they’re my kind of guys, hoping for what they call Dull Disasters (the title of their 2016 book). The subtitle of the book is How Planning Ahead Will Make a Difference.

If we plan ahead, the disasters will be dull. If you wake up to a snowy driveway and must wade through that snow looking for a shovel buried under snow in the backyard, it’s much worse.

On the international stage, they note that there’s not even a snow shovel kicking around. The way we deal with disasters is with a “begging bowl” after the fact – no preparation. It’s fine to rely on the kindness of strangers, but that kindness can fluctuate. It can be half or double the last kindness.

“Being generous after a disaster is too late,” they say. For those who think we can’t plan ahead, think again. Don’t we already know the parts of the world susceptible to floods, famine, fires, droughts and so on? Don’t we know what our developed, industrialize cities might face? There won’t be a tsunami or volcano in Regina, for example.

This book also notes that politicians won’t get credit for advocating and funding preparedness. They will get credit for big relief funding after the fact, though. If politicians did fund future preparedness, it would be the next round of political leaders who got credit. It’s the rare politician who would do the right thing knowing someone in the future might get credit. But spreading risk through time and space with preparation and insurance just might work.

The authors offer a solution that’s a combination of my snow shovel approach and insurance. Insurance spreads out the risk through a lot of policy holders, a big pool of money, over time, or all of the above. They also rightly note that there are things we can decide long before a disaster. “What should be on standby, ready for take-off, at all times. …”

I believe them and am happy to up the ante. I think most things can be decided beforehand. As the authors note, satellite data, rainfall patterns, and such can trigger the delivery of food supplies to Africans and crop insurance to farmers. “A trigger should not lead to a set of options for a decision-making body; it should result in an automatic decision.” Bravo! Get the snow shovel.

There are details and improvements to be discussed. The authors note that in California, insurers are required to offer earthquake insurance when selling policies to homeowners.

The upgrades for me include mandatory insurance, as is required for drivers in many jurisdictions. For people who own homes under sea level or on a floodplain, how about the option of insurance for the main floor only? This, and building codes, might discourage putting valuables in the basement – or having a basement at all. How about a break on insurance for people who stiffen up homes and bolt things down in earthquake zones, and who lift their appliances off the ground in basements?

Humanitarian aid or going into panic mode “should not be the first line of defence,” say these authors. Panic is not a good idea in our cities and it’s nuts to expect humanitarian aid in developed nations.

Let’s make decisions and plan, way ahead of time.

 Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities. 


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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