UnNatural Disaster
The RDS Alternative
The disaster at New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was not Hurricane Katrina. The disaster was how we, as a Nation, prepared for it and responded to it. In saying this, I am not indicting any agency, state, local or Federal; nor, I am blaming any political party. With all of these there is clearly plenty of justifiable blame and opportunity for improvement. No, I am placing the cause at the feet of our entire social system. We are all victims and we did it to ourselves.
This article is a criticism. It follows Elliot’s rules of criticism which says that a statement of the good has to be established and verified - as a standard - and then a work compared to that standard in terms of how the standard was met, and/or where there was failure to meet it. Then, suggestions of how to improve the work have to be offered up by applying the standard.
Elliot, of course was talking about the criticism of a work of art - in his case, poetry. It may seem that using the term “a work” is out of place in the context of hurricane Katrina. But actually, this lies at the heart of the issue. A system, be it a social system, an economy, a building, a regional infrastructure or a city is a human work. It is the consequence of design and, in the case we are discussing, of billions of decisions made over decades and centuries.
Nature was not the cause of the disaster - we were. Nature merely did what Nature does. We ignored decades of evidence, overspent our budget, turned our heads away and were trapped in the folly of our own making.
We were not honest with ourselves coming up to Katrina; we were not honest during the first week; and, given our recent history, it is unlikely that we will be honest in the near future. This is because we confuse true criticism with blame for political gain instead of self-examination as part of a collaborative, creative process, the goal of which, is significant and sustainable improvement. This is because we blame people (most of whom are doing the best they can) rather than the system we “designed” and of which we are a part. In our society, to be “blamed” is to lose status, income, position and and even livelihood - not a great prescription for candor. If everyone has to be defensive, we will not get at the true issues. If we will design together, we will have a far better chance.
I titled this piece un-natural disaster because that it what happened. We did not act as Homo Sapiens. We did not think. We did not plan. We did not anticipate. We did not invest as we should. We did not prepare. We did not respond appropriately. We did not act. We, instead, played a gambler’s hand in a video-game version of life. We lost. If we are truly compassionate for the suffering of those who endured this experience, we will learn from what happened. We will turn their tragedy into a response that greatly diminishes the probability of this happening again. In doing so, we may start the process of putting our society back on the path to a natural way of living. In this, there is hope that we may have a future.

This criticism will proceed in four parts:

1) The definition of the GOOD;

2) the BASIS of this definition;

3) the measure of how we achieved this or FAILED to do so;

4) a DESIGN for a better, anticipatory response capability.

Along the way, I will point out a number of patterns that are extremely destructive when operable in circumstances such as Katrina. These include: the failure of imagination; the corruption of language; an inadequate paradigm; our destruction of education; the politicalization of our process; and, the flaw in the American dream. These dominate social patterns, which have undermined our ability to appropriately respond, will be treated separately and linked to this page.
the GOOD
Profit is not the margin that can be extracted from a system and process in some arbitrary, short term period. True profit is what can be taken from the system’s margin without systemically weakening and ultimately destroying the system’s sustainability and value. A significant percentage of a system’s margin has to be reinvested in the system to keep it viable. In our society, we are extracting more than allows sustainability, reinvention and rebirth. We do not account for the variability of the system that makes up the environment of the system in focus. All systems, alive or “dead,” “natural” or human-made, have to function with a margin in order to maintain health and existence. Margin goes to storage. Without this, a system cannot grow, adapt to variable circumstances or recreate itself. Profit is the net-out of the system that is possible without putting this regenerative capability at risk. The greater variability in the environment of a system, the more margin that must be stored. The true profit that can be taken out of any system is therefore small. When you see huge “profits” being declared and extracted, watch out. You are standing under a falling tree waiting for more wind.
A measure of any species viability is the diligence and competency it invests in the education of its young and the ongoing learning of its population. The focus of this learning is on how to live life in the circumstances of that species time and place. Education, today, is increasingly seen as a means to train an individual to earn a living in a specialized economy. The concept of a whole human being able to live successfully and happily has gone by the wayside. We abuse our modern conveniences and luxuries when we begin to think that we cannot live without them; when everyone has become so specialized that basic survival skills are not taught; When privilege is mistaken for rights; when we build and live in hopelessly vulnerable ways and then declare ourselves “victims” when the inevitable happens. These are not the attitudes nor the behaviors of an educated population. Nor is it evidence of either education or fairness when great densities of impoverished people are crowded into the most dangerous of these vulnerable places and unable to get out. It is goodness to care for those who find themselves in such a plight. The caring, however, approaches mendacity when considered in a broader context. How did we allow failure on such a scale? if education is the foundation of a free society and a healthy economy why are we willing to write off such a great portion of our population? Can we pretend to care for people when human potential is squandered on such a scale? The tragedy struck decades before Katrina. Katrina just made us look at what we had already created.
Ecology and economics cannot be treated as separate let alone antagonistic subjects. Architecture and infrastructure cannot either - they have to be seen at one endeavor and both have to be integrated with Nature. Sustainability has to be created on a regional scale as part of a global design strategy. You cannot “control” flooding the entire length of the Mississippi River, nearly destroying the entire watershed and expect a city at the mouth of the river to survive. No matter if global warming is a natural 100,000 year cycle, an act of God, the consequence of industrialization, a 30 weather cycle or too many cow farts, a warmer period will produce more storms of greater power. We are in a warmer period. These are but a few factors of a large complex system. The basis of survival starts with the determination, knowledge, health, equipment and skills of the individual and progresses through layers of social organization: the family, community, city, state, national and global infrastructure. None of these will work well if there is a serious breakdown on any of these levels. In the case of Katrina, there was breakdown of almost all of them and inadequate linkage between all of them.
Systems will fail. There is no such thing as a system that cannot be overwhelmed. However, systems exist within systems and they contain systems. How these system are configured and interact with one another is critical. Emery Lovins talks about the concept of “graceful failure.” Complex systems have to have enough built in redundancy to resist catastrophic failure and they must be designed to fail “well” when they do fail. These kinds of design strategies are not supported by the modern mania for “efficiency” which tries to remove the margin from everything in order to extract the greatest “profit” for a few from the system. Design, engineering and process efficiency is a good thing as long as redundancy and fast recovery is built in to truly critical areas. Go down to New Orleans, today (September 2005) and tell folks about the virtues of “just in time” water and medicine supplies and the need to “stage” disaster support personnel after an assessment has been made and a plan has been determined. While you are at it, tell the insurance companies how much money was saved by not having response capability “standing around” as one Federal Officer explained why we did not do this. From the design of the levies, to the training of the residents, to placing pumps underwater (!?) to relying on a communications infrastructure that was clearly vulnerable, to the layers of competing bureaucracy - we did not design this system to survive a threat that was clearly defined and certain to happen.
SCENARIO: A Different Experience
When Hurricane Arnold approached New Orleans at force 5 early in the 2017 season it was impossible not to think of Katrina just twelve years before. This time, it was to be different.
This time Nature was nether feared, blamed nor abused. The challenge was met by a population totally fit for the circumstances they had placed themselves in. While no one was looking forward to Arnold, the people who had rebuilt their city and surrounding region were ready to put their home, themselves and their government to the test. They faced a sever challenge, they had practiced, they were equipped, they were ready.
Within minutes of the National Hurricane Center’s prediction, New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast mobilized.
Almost everybody within the track of the plan had several things notably absent at the time of Katrina. Each had a survival back pack with water, emergency rations, copies of important papers and FEMA activated communication devises and credit cards. It was a matter of minutes to grab the pack and go. Those with cars had extra supplies in their trunk, including gas, and had formed the habit of keeping their fuel topped during hurricane season. Those without personal transportation had assigned evacuation transportation. These transportation units had stocked extra supplies and accommodations for animals. Special units were available for elderly and sick. The people of New Orleans knew how long it took to empty their city because they practiced every year on the anniversary of Katrina - expense that once would have been considered excessive, but not today. The major airlines increased their operations to get tourists out and early first responders into the city. Police and National Guard, following long practiced and per arranged orders, set up shop in secure positions. They were able to protect the city safe in the knowledge that their family were out of harms way and knowing that they had well stocked safe haven areas to retreat to when the storm struck. Air relief was repositioned out of harms way so that essential materials and personal could be brought into the city as soon as the storm passed. This included a communications system to be lifted from a tethered balloon capable of covering the entire area. When Arnold arrived it found an empty, locked down city with all it utilities shut down; a city secured by well supplied and equipped people trained to do their job, in safe buildings. It also found a something else. A city that was designed very differently than the one Katrina destroyed.
I grew up in the military during WWII. I understand risk [1947: Queens Die Proudly]. By the time I was in the 4th grade I had survived several hurricanes, one at sea. We, as individuals and as a community, prepared for them. We did not assume that the infrastructure would stay in place. None of these, however were of the force of Katrina. I am certain, however, had a catastrophe of this magnitude had struck, the response of the system - as primitive as it was by “modern” standards - would have been entirely different than what I watched with dismay on CNN during the week following Katrina.
I walked in a Japanese city where about 24 months before over a 100,000 people died in one night of deliberate fire bombing. In a country still devastated by a lost war, there was little evidence of this event. I wonder how this was done. I wonder if the people were removed and some contracts issued to a few large contractors. How resilient is a society based on extreme specialization, outsourcing, concentrated wealth and complex bureaucratic procedures? Do such individuals really own their property? Are they really capable of participating in civil society?
I met Bud Gilmore in the mid 60s [link]. he was the one who introduced me to science, systems and cybernetics. Bud was an eccentric inventor. He lived in a converted WWII Army barracks miles out of Phoenix in the desert. When you walked into his living room you discovered that it was actually a fully equipped machine shop. The electronics shop took up 75 percent of the guest bedroom. Bud had a state of the art performance sedan and an equally powerful and pristine motorcycle both of which he kept in a garage that he had lovingly built with his own hands. Everything that Bud owned was functional, the best that could be had, and was carefully maintained. I noticed over in the corner of his property was a 1954 Chevrolet. It was plain and faded but, on closer inspection, in extremely good condition. I asked Bud what the car was for. He said that it was his “get out of Dodge car.” Compared to where nearly 30% of US citizens now live, nearly 40 years later, high ground out in the middle of an Arizona desert was a very safe place to live. Bud explained “there is no place that is totally safe.” “You have to be self sufficient with training and supplies for a period greater than the worst case time period for social order to be restored.” “This is your responsibility if you want to live” - he added “if you deserve to live.” Bud showed me his car. It was selected carefully. A car, “built like a truck” with high clearance, nondescript in appearance, simple to maintain and repair and well equipped. Gas, food, water, medical supplies, copies of essential records, basic tool kit, radio gear and cash carefully hidden in several different places - and, of course, a significant defense capability. Bud was not a radical survivalist. He was a committed technician. Like everything he did, he analyzed a situation and built and maintained his response capability.
The most devastating consequence of Katrina was what it revealed about a little discussed aspect of our society: the extremity of class in the richest nation on Earth. In prior times, poorer people were not necessarily that less capable of survival. Here, we saw a different circumstance. We saw a huge population of nearly helpless people bereft of the knowledge, physical capacity, tools, health and social networks necessary to adequately respond to the challenge at hand. This is massive disenfranchisement from a natural life, the nation, the society; from the times in which they live. Our massive response, late as it was, followed the victim focused model, prevalent in modern medicine, where the “patient” is made even more helpless, passive and dependent. As a society, we should help our fellow humans - we must do this in a way that actually builds human dignity, capacity, capability and does not reinforce the patterns that made them so vulnerable in the first place.
SCENARIO: Preparing to Live
Arnold, one of the greatest storms in American history, caused minimum damage and left few causalities. This was not the consequence of “good luck” - it was the result of planning, practice and the implementation of the early stages of a new regional design. The hard lessons of Katrina were turned into a systematic education program that everyone who returned to New Orleans took seriously.
The surprise to many was that actually preparing for disaster had many benefits to the living of everyday life. People felt more secure and competent - because they were. They came to know their neighbors and government officials better and they established respect and trust though interaction and demonstration - not blind faith. They took interest in what made their city work and became much more active in local design and decision making. They applied their new found skills to everyday life. They kept in better physical shape. They LIVED better. It turned out that preparing for Arnold was not a cost at all. It netted many benefits long before it saved a city.
Arnold did not find the entrenched poverty that Katrina did. Traces of it was still there, of course, because generations of habit cannot be eliminated in twelve years. The Gulf Coast economy, by 2017, was will on its way to becoming a sterling example of a healthy ecological/economic replacement bio-region. This was not accomplished by either welfare nor gentrification. The people who returned after Katrina and the people who came - and stayed - created a new economy. The massive Federal aid did not come in and go out as had been originally feared. Yes there was participation of many large, highly skilled and capable corporations from outside the region. This was down by an unprecedented rules of engagement. These corporations came to stay. They trained and hired locally. They invested. The committed to community. They helped people build a future. A new kind of city was designed - so was a new practice of free enterprise. Aid became true investment. What was built what not what had been before except what was judged to be of historical significance. The unique culture of the region was not lost - it recreated itself as an expression that was both old and new at the same time. People took their time to do it right yet progress was remarkably quick. Thinking, learning, planning was leisurely - implementation was fast. More than a city emerged from the muck and ashes/ of katrina.
The failure was that of a social system that was not designed, engineered and practiced [link: practice] to be an adequate response to a predictable and well studied condition.
A Little League baseball team would not go to a championship game without practicing. Yet, an entire region failed to test and know that their survival system was competent. Think about this. The implications are staggering. If you feel vulnerable - wherever you live - you should.
In our society, a person cannot drive a car without a license to do so. A doctor cannot practice without years of study and certification. An officer cannot command a combat unit without training and demonstrated competency. Whatever the means by which we vet these individuals, the principle behind them is the same. It is the practice of prudence. We fail, however, to run a city this way. We do not require that people be competent to deal with the circumstances that are intrinsic to the conditions which surround that city. When we build the first city in space [link: space colonies], on the Moon, or Mars do you think that 5,000 people will be selected at random? In the case of a conventional city on Earth, the people self-select where they live. In this conventional city we have people with special training such as police, firemen and medical personnel. Yet, can they do their job in an extreme situation surrounded by a population that is totally untrained and unequipped in basic survival skills; who live 15 feet under water and do not know the consequences of the fact that the levies were designed for a category 3 hurricane - not greater? This is driving a city without a license, practicing medicine without training and taking command without competency. And, by the way, one planet is a single-point-of-failure strategy that puts the entire human race at risk [link: space].
Our failure was that we developed beyond our means. Not only did we employ the wrong development designs and practices for the region, we did not even protect them from the consequences of their impact on the region itself. Our built environment, itself, created many of the conditions that increased it own vulnerability. And, even to the extent that we understood and acknowledged this situation, we defined the problem to fit what we were willing to spend not in terms of the intrinsic aspects, and thus the requirements, of the condition itself. What happened, is of course, many more time expensive than doing the job right in the first place. What happened was a consequence of individual marketplace choices and political consideration not engineering. Katrina was not an engineering failure per se. The condition was made far worse by the misapplication of engineering in the arrogant attempt, throughout the entire Mississippi river and delta, to overwhelm Nature with control focused projects inadequately conceived and financed. We destroyed the ecology of the region, over developed it, ignored the clear signals of risk, passively allowed a group of people to become virtually trapped in the circumstance, responded slowly at the moment of challenge, and are now helping the “victims” in a way that will likely make them more dependent. This will probably encourage the “rebuilding” to be the same as before - only “stronger” - positioning our society for a repeat of the disaster. Now, everyone is focused on the expense of rebuilding - as a “cost;” we may not be thinking nearly enough about the money and the wealth that will be generated in the rebuilding. We also may not be looking too closely at where all this money is really going and who is collecting it. If this region is rebuilt, at the investment level that will be required over a number of a few years, will it make sense if a large number of the people living there, afterward, are still unskilled and poor? Do you think this is the only place like this in the USA? Interesting in light of potential terrorism and global weather change.
Regions like the Gulf Coast, Florida, the Atlantic and Pacific coasts are tremendously overpopulated and overbuilt. They may - or not - be so if we choose to build another way. Given our present architecture - how we configure our infrastructure and buildings - they are not safe, ecologically sustainable nor, ultimately, financially viable. These regions are great places to live - most of the time - and have attracted massive growth over the last 25 years. Our choice of development strategies has increased theses area’s vulnerability in many cases. And, the development has often destroyed much of the natural amenity that attracted people in the first place. We call ourselves - I have often thought displaying a certain arrogance - Homo Sapiens, “the wise.” We have to ask ourselves how wise is it to keep on developing new when we allow our existing infrastructure to deteriorate because we cannot “afford” to keep it up. We have to wonder if putting 25% of our oil processing capability in a single ecologically sensitive place, vulnerable to one hurricane, is smart. In my youth, these areas were called “wastelands” useless for anything except industrial development. Now we know that these areas filter water, spawn a great deal of new life and protect the mainland from storms. Why is a barrier island called “barrier?” Why do we build on one? “Intelligent?” Yes it is nice to live by the water. Why not develop in a way that provides access for the many - not just for those who can afford to buy and wall off their “piece” - does not destroy the natural beauty and function of the Earth, and can be highly resistant to natural weather cycles and human malice? What would have a few well placed bombs done to the levies of New Orleans or in Northern California? This is good design? How many tens of thousands of similar conditions have been created by short term thinking devoid of considering the systemic consequences to those who built and to all of the rest of us? Where people live and how they choose to build is not a causal decision. It is said that people are merely exercising their freedom. Where is the freedom when thousands die, billions are wasted and Nature is defiled? The wise - or the careless? What is economical about the way we finance risk [link: in nature’s casino]?
SCENARIO: A New City Concept
The great surprise in the aftermath of Katrina was how quickly shock, and anger turned into the determination to get to the root causes of the disaster. It soon became clear, to a broad segment of the population, that the blame-game was a futile exercise. Yes, there were “things that went wrong and things that went right.” People determined that “fixing what went wrong” would not sum up to an adequate solution. A new architecture was required.
It was decided that the cities and infrastructure in the entire Gulf region had been proven inadequate as there were many intrinsic design flaws in how development was originally conceived and carried out over the course of the last two centuries. It was decided that there were certain cultural and historical artifacts that should be preserved. Other than this, the citizens of the region decided to start with a blank slate and design the first truly 21st Century region and network of cities. It was decided to do this by involving all the people of the region, and those who would come to be involved, in an adventure that will take two generations to achieve maturity.
What emerged, by the time of Arnold, was the basic infrastructure of a totally new city concept. This new city incorporated the viable aspects for what had existed before. It became an emergent, self-adjusting environment and redefined the meaning of “master planning.” This beginning new mega-city passed the test of Arnold and gave credence to the claim that New Orleans, the Gulf Region and its many cities will soon be one of the safest places to live in the world.
A comprehensive, anticipatory design creates a “response” before, during and after an event. It responds to the immediate consequences of the event and the long term opportunities. It is based on a powerful model of future conditions and possibilities supported by both science and imagination. It asks “what is the opportunity in the disaster and how can the rebuilding bring us closer to the ideal model the community has of itself?” The opportunity, in the case of Katrina, is to build better than what existed before - better in the kind of architecture not just in strength. Just what that is should not be defined by a knee jerk, macho response to defiantly “build back” what was. As “heroic” as this may sound, it may just be foolish and the set up for an even bigger disaster in the future. Nor can a good design be a top down “solution” that imposes an arbitrary and too simple order on a complex, emergent circumstance. A real solution is requisite with the circumstance; it emerges as the outcome of a rigorous yet open ended process. It addresses all of the known factors, intrinsic to the design challenge, and those that can be anticipated. What is considered to be reasonable conditions, for the design to account for, must be based on history, experience, objective thought and imagination - not on short term economics, politics and crony “capitalism.”
The purpose of a system is its output. If you want a different result you have to design a different system. In the case of a complex social system, all the stakeholders have to be represented in this design process. The architecture of the design process will determine the architecture of the result. Structure wins.
SCENARIO: A Master Planning Process
After Katrina, the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast decided to approach the process and design of the restoration of the region in a way far different from the way that the region had been “designed” in the first place. They decided that it would be a collaborative process not the consequence of governmental, business and design professional elites. At the same time, they realized that knowledge and skill was required, as well as, the full representation of all the voices of the city.
This criticism rests on several premises which I will outline below. It also attacks several embedded habits of our present postindustrial but not yet knowledge-based social-economic system. These also I will review. Disasters like Katrina are logical consequences of our social-economic system. Disasters can never be completely avoided, of course. Their frequency and impact can be reduced. Their kind can be greatly influenced. The human component of the equation which, makes up a disaster, is very much in our minds and hands. It is our actions, or lack of them, that we must be concerned. Our actions are driven by our (design) assumptions and our values. These manifest as the habits of a society. We have many which set us up for katrina and for many other kinds of simiar situations. Our society is far more fragile than we like to believe. Our image of ourself - our myth [link: the flaw in the american myth] works to keep us trapped in this circumstance.
Then... there was Rita
As I have been finishing this Paper Rita, referred to by the acting director of FEMA as an “extra” storm, has become the news. The response to Rita was much better. There is much talk about “having learned form Katrina.” This is good, of course, but herein lies the great vulnerability and “bad habit” [the story of ogg] of the Human race. We do learn quickly. We do respond. We do it well enough to have survived a 100,000 years or more (which is really not a long time) and to become very careless. We have become the dominate species on the planet - demonstrated by our ability to destroy others at a super rapid rate - but now we face an adversary worthy of us: ourselves. Most of what makes us vulnerable are conditions we ourselves have created or have chosen to ignore. Our hidden assumption is that we will always be able to react to and overwhelm anything that comes our way. Large scale, complex, systemic problems do not lend themselves to this kind of easy solution making. This has been the point of my work for 30 years [link: a future by design not default]. A point that has crashed against the rocks of a misplaced pseudo pragmatism. The Human race has developed in a way that we are a large scale, complex, systemic problem. I am not saying that bad. I am saying that we are creating conditions that will overwhelm our present way of doing business. We need to change. We cannot survive by only learning from the past. We have to anticipate. We have to learn - and design - based on our best imaging of the future.
With hurricane Rita, many people were astounded, mad and hurt that there were two within a month. The response for them was that it was not “fair.” This is a curious combination of scientific nativity, humility and and assumed privilege. Please do not think that I am without sympathy. I am not. It is a feeling for humankind that compels me to write this be it popular or not. In one CNN interview a family was talking about having to leave their home after Katrina where they were wiped out. So they migrated to Galveston (!). They were astounded that they had to move again. The young daughter said that she and her friends were confused, angry and hurt” and felt like a “hurricane magnet.” When asked where they were going, the mother said to Biloxi, Mississippi where they have friends.” This is where the casinos were wiped out. There are two more months of the hurricane season left. I guess that one can take encouragement in that it seems the spirit of gambling is still alive. It is not my intent to pick on this single family at a time of their trials. I point out that they are not survival worthy nor is the intimate social system of which they are a part. The amount of relevant, useful and necessary information missing from this family’s consideration and their practical option set is staggering.
Return to INDEX
GoTo: INDEX - Matt Taylor Papers
GoTo: American Myth - the Flaw
GoTo: Birth of An Idea
GoTo: Bootstrap Into Space
GoTo: Crystal Cave
GoTo: Four Scenarios
GoTo: Gaia Project - Who Represents Earth?
GoTo: Master Planning Process
GoTo: Mega Cities
GoTo: Money - the Tool That Became a God
GoTo: The Monkey’s Paw
GoTo: Planetary Architecture - The Case
GoTo: Problem Solving - Lessons From Life
GoTo: Queens Die Proudly
GoTo: Quest
GoTo: Rate of Change
GoTo: REAL Estate Development
GoTo: Rebirth at Ground Zero
GoTo: ReBuilding the Future
GoTo: ReBuilding - Syntopical Dialogs INDEX
GoTo: ReBuilding - Syntopical Reading 500 #1
GoTo: ReDesigning the Future
GoTo: September 11, 2001 - Replacing Armature
GoTo: The Specialization Trap
GoTo: A Small Question
GoTo: Structure Wins
GoTo: System In Focus
GoTo: UpSideDown Economics - 12 Aspects
GoTo: ValueWeb Architecture
GoTo: Weak Signals
GoTo: Worthy Problems
Matt Taylor
September 4, 2005


SolutionBox voice of this document:



posted: September 4, 2005

revised: October 3, 2005
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(note: this document is about 48% finished)

Copyright© Matt Taylor 2005