You live in an age of disasters. The 2008 financial meltdown and the COVID-19 pandemic were both disasters, as are cyberattacks, wildfires, droughts and myriad natural catastrophes. The list is literally endless. People typically consider a disaster as a discrete event with dire consequences. But disasters aren’t improbable, one-off events; at this point, they are practically the norm. Disasters and the tragedies they cause may not be avoidable, but with the right planning and preparedness, people can minimize disasters’ consequences.
- Disasters aren’t anomalies.
- Planners should assume disasters will occur.
- People need “situational awareness” to respond effectively to disasters, especially recurring ones.
- Disaster response demands having all leaders on the same page.
- When you assume more disasters are inevitable, a “managed retreat” may be your best response.
- To control mounting losses, try to stop the hemorrhaging.
- Conditions don’t remain the same over time; disaster planning can’t be static.
- People tend to disregard near disasters rather than recognizing them as warning signs.
- Pay attention to history and to how people die.
Disasters aren’t anomalies.
Disasters are calamitous events that cause destruction and death. They encompass a wide variety of phenomena: financial meltdowns, pandemics, cyberattacks, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and much more. People all too frequently view disasters as bad luck that human beings cannot control.
“There are universal lessons that can teach leaders to be ready when the disruption occurs, so they can ‘fail safer’.”
People who study disasters tend to divide their duration into two phases: before and after the disaster, generically called “the boom.” In the time period that precedes a disaster, governments, businesses and other institutions adopt measures that ideally will prevent calamity. In the phase after the disaster, people attempt to recuperate from its consequences. People strive to avoid or delay disasters or to mitigate their consequences, but disasters occur anyway.
Disaster managers should focus on what happens after a disaster to respond and rebuild effectively. They should prepare for “all-hazards,” that is, all possible disasters, and find ways to minimize their consequences.
Planners should assume disasters will occur.
In 2018 and 2019 respectively, two Boeing 737 MAX planes crashed, killing 346 people. The crashes resulted from a Boeing design error that limited pilots’ capacity to control the 737 Max. Engineers pointed out the flaw to executives, but they let the planes fly for competitive market reasons. Boeing explained away the first disaster as a series of highly improbable events, including blaming a pilot for mishandling of the situation.
“Any planner, leader or manager has to embrace the potential for disaster as a given.”
The 737 MAX crashes were disasters waiting to happen. They began long before 2018 and 2019 because Boeing executives didn’t seriously consider the possibility of such disasters. Disaster managers understand that a major disaster will occur, and plan for it.
A disaster management response, whether in the public or private sector, should include an organizing principle, such as the “Incident Command System” (ICS), which helps allocate resources at a significant scale in response to a crisis. The ICS is a hierarchical system that extends from a Public Information Officer and Safety Officer to teams for planning, logistics and finance. The ICS must define the core of the crisis and proceed in a timely way. The United States’ delayed response to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, enabled the pandemic to become a much bigger disaster than it should have been.
People need “situational awareness” to respond effectively to disasters, especially recurring ones.
To prepare properly for chronic disasters – those that occur over and over – you must know “when and what is going on.” You need a method for gathering real-time information about the disaster as it takes place.
Situational awareness (SA) involves keeping a record of what happened, indexed to time, place and location. Do not wait for the next disaster before creating an SA template for future reference. An SA template includes “perception” – identifying what is taking place; “comprehension” – understanding the meaning and significance of events; and “projection” – considering what is going to happen over time.
“Time and again, I am struck by how often key players find it difficult to understand events as they play out in real time. They seem caught off guard, as if they never imagined that the boom would come.”
When collecting information, delve into the details of catastrophic events. Pay attention to peripheral “noise” and to what is not said.
For example, in February 2020, San Francisco’s mayor noticed that members of the city’s Asian and Asian-American community, which has strong ties to the epicenter of the new virus, weren’t attending Lunar New Year events in the expected numbers, even as the federal government was reassuring the public that COVID-19 wasn’t a serious worry. The mayor responded by instituting social distancing protocols and stay-at-home orders long before most other US mayors did.
Communicate disaster related information directly, articulating everything, including the peripheral, noisy information. Make what might seem farfetched appear familiar and everyday.
Disaster response demands having all leaders on the same page.
In disaster planning and preparedness, ensure that everyone can proceed with the same strategy and purpose. Establish security measures that enable everyone to perform their tasks at the highest possible level. Unfortunately, many institutions’ approach to “security architecture” tends to fragment that architecture into different, specialized silos, which impedes unified action.
“The security architecture must include just about every piece of the response capabilities.”
Often, poor “governance structures” – rather than straightforward ignorance – exacerbates disasters. Many institutions reduce safety and security to “gates, guards, and guns,” and focus more on buying equipment than on setting up effective processes.
Organizations should adjust their criteria for a successful disaster response. Their goal should be to manage a disaster’s consequences and ultimately minimize its negative impact. This is how people learn to “fail safer.”
When you assume more disasters are inevitable, a “managed retreat” may be your best response.
When British Petroleum oil built its Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, its representatives promised regulators that there would be no problems. If problems occurred, they said, the rig’s massive “blowout preventer” would automatically shut the rig down and prevent an oil spill. In April 2010, the rig exploded and the blowout preventer failed, resulting in the worst oil spill in United States’ history. The Deepwater Horizon featured only a single “last line of defense” against potential disaster. When that failed, BP had no backup plan.
“A single last line of defense keeps institutions from thinking about how multiple lines of defense can help minimize the damage that is surely going to come.”
A more systemic approach enables you to mitigate negative consequences or, in the event of disaster, render the consequences less awful. Because BP had only a single line of defense, it had no strategy for dealing with the spill’s consequences. It faced other catastrophic issues, including the deaths of 11 people, massive environmental harm, and the urgent need to shut the rig down and stop its release of oil. A backup blowout preventer on BP’s rig might have prevented an oil spill, saved lives and made other damage less catastrophic.
Companies should institute multiple “layered” lines of defense they can activate when disaster strikes. Since more lines of defense often aren’t available, when the risk of disaster is great – and the consequences are catastrophic – sometimes getting out in a “managed retreat” is the best option.
To control mounting losses, try to stop the hemorrhaging.
When the American military began encountering “improvised explosive devices” (IEDs) in Afghanistan and Iraq, it had to adapt how its medics and soldiers treated those wounded by IEDs. The military’s medical experts learned that IEDs often cause calamitous flesh wounds, and the main threat to mortality is that victims will bleed to death. The principal goal in the immediate treatment of such victims is preventing bleeding out and death; minimizing damages, such as amputated limbs; and promptly evacuating the wounded to a functioning hospital. In response, the military trained every soldier as a field medic and developed new, more targeted tourniquets and blood-clotting foam. One Pentagon study found that this strategy saved soldiers and their limbs some 90% of the time.
“Disasters are simply no longer random and rare. And once we can all accept this lived reality – that the devil never sleeps – then we can better prepare for when the next one comes because it will.”
In managing recurring disasters, you must “minimize cascading losses.” Cascading losses describes circumstances in which harmful impacts accumulate, and worsen over time. Disasters are typically not binary or “on/off” events in which either people avoid the disaster altogether or can do nothing about the damages. This binary attitude impedes people from preparing for disasters that occur over and over again.
Conditions don’t remain the same over time; disaster planning can’t be static.
In June 2021, a condominium tower in Surfside – a small, urban municipality in South Florida – collapsed suddenly, killing more than 100 residents. Buildings don’t typically implode for no reason. Several years before the building’s collapse, a consulting firm had warned its managers that the building had suffered structural damage and was at risk.
Multiple factors usually fuel similar disasters. In this case, parts of the building’s reinforced concrete lacked proper drainage, support structures were weak, building inspectors did not enforce regulations and the condominium’s board of directors was slow to address the problems and lacked sufficient funds to do anything about them.
“Safety and security systems are designed based on conditions as they existed when they were built. We come to believe that those conditions are constant because there is no compelling reason for us to think otherwise.”
The world changes, the preconditions for disasters change and disaster planning must change with both.For example, experts long assumed that terrorist groups wouldn’t stage events that created mass civilian casualties because that would undermine their political objectives. With the rise of Al-Qaeda in the late 1990s, terrorist organizations changed their approach. America’s failure to recognize this change limited its preparation for a catastrophic terrorist event, such as the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC.
American intelligence agencies had received ample warning, including similar attacks on US embassies in Africa in 1998, and other incidents. Their passive response exemplifies the human habit of believing that if something has never occurred, then it can’t or won’t occur.
People tend to disregard near disasters rather than recognizing them as warning signs.
When the iPhone 4 launched in 2010, it dropped calls and interrupted people’s messages. Steve Jobs and Apple absurdly blamed customers for not using the phone properly. Previous iPhones suffered whatever flaws hampered the iPhone 4 – but no one had complained. The iPhone 4’s dysfunction was a near economic disaster for Apple because the iPhone stands at the core of its business model.
That a disaster almost – but doesn’t quite – happen doesn’t mean everything is fine.
“The ‘normalization of deviance’ is the tendency to ignore near misses rather than acknowledge them as red siren warnings that the system may be facing a meltdown.”
“Normalizing deviance” can be dangerous. Near misses, and the period before a disaster occurs, can offer signs of possible disasters that managers and planners must address. For example, closer study shows that the risks involved in the fatal Challenger space shuttle launch went beyond the famous O-ring flaw. The craft had hundreds of smaller problems that might have suggested an impending disaster or warned that any launch was premature. By and large, NASA engineers were aware of these issues, but they normalized and ignored them to move forward. People often prove willing to dismiss signs of impending disasters, almost always to their regret.
Pay attention to history and to how people die.
In March 2011, a massive earthquake at the bottom of the ocean created multiple disasters in Japan. The earthquake caused a tsunami of some 130-foot waves, which in turn caused the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, expelling radioactive material into the atmosphere and the water. Around 30,000 people died, mostly from the tsunami.Warnings existed of the possibility of a catastrophic tsunami. In a village near Fukushima, for example, someone in the 19th century had carved warnings into rocks about the danger of building homes below a certain level. Experts and lay people knew of the possible consequences of the 2011 earthquake, but ignored them.
“That people die in a crisis is, unfortunately, a given. Things break, societies buckle under the stress. The mistakes made may or may not be easily remedied, but there will be mistakes. A perfectly managed crisis is an oxymoron.”
People must attend to advice provided by their ancestors and broad historical patterns. People also must heed how human beings actually die in disasters – which isn’t necessarily obvious. For example, 2020 saw more named hurricanes than ever recorded previously. A dozen storms made landfall in the United States. The National Hurricane Center launched a massive media campaign with evacuation warnings to minimize the deaths caused by these hurricanes, especially by Hurricane Laura in Louisiana.None of the 28 people who died as a result of Laura died from the storm surge the warnings described. They mostly died from carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of using unsafe generators when the electrical grid went down.
Crisis managers and leaders may not always deal with death, but they do need to address disruptions to their institutions or community. They need to pay attention and study what actually happened and what it tells them, and prepare for the next disaster accordingly.
About the Author
Juliette Kayyem, a specialist in crisis management, disaster response and homeland security, serves on the faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is Faculty Chair of the Homeland Security project. She is also a national security analyst for CNN and the author of Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home.
The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning to Live in an Age of Disasters by Juliette Kayyem is a book that challenges the conventional wisdom of crisis management and offers a new perspective on how to cope with the unpredictable and inevitable disasters that we face in the modern world. Kayyem, a former homeland security official and a senior lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School, argues that we need to shift from a “fail safe” mentality that tries to prevent or mitigate every possible threat, to a “fail safely” mentality that accepts the reality of risk and focuses on building resilience and adaptability in ourselves, our communities and our institutions. She draws on her own experience as well as examples from history, science, psychology and pop culture to illustrate the principles and practices of “fail safely” in action. She also provides practical advice on how to prepare for, respond to and recover from various types of disasters, such as pandemics, cyberattacks, climate change, terrorism and more.
Kayyem’s work is divided into four parts. The first section, “The Age of Disasters,” sets the stage for the book by highlighting the unprecedented number of natural and man-made crises that have occurred since the turn of the century. From hurricanes, wildfires, and floods to cyber attacks, pandemics, and political upheaval, the author emphasizes the interconnected nature of these events and how they are exacerbated by a rapidly changing climate and an increasingly complex technological landscape.
In part two, “The New Normal,” Kayyem delves deeper into the consequences of living in a world where disasters are becoming more frequent and intense. She discusses the psychological impact of constant crisis, the strain on emergency response systems, and the growing sense of unease and disillusionment among communities. The author also critiques the various ways in which governments, corporations, and individuals have adapted to this new reality, often perpetuating a cycle of reactionary measures rather than proactive solutions.
Part three, “The Unfinished Revolution,” shifts the focus to the need for a paradigm shift in how we approach disaster preparedness and response. Kayyem argues that the traditional emergency management model, which relies heavily on federal agencies and top-down decision-making, is no longer sufficient for the complexities of modern disasters. Instead, she advocates for a more decentralized, community-driven approach that emphasizes resilience and adaptability. The author also stresses the importance of integrating climate change mitigation and social justice into disaster preparedness efforts.
The final section, “Living in the Age of Disasters,” offers practical advice and case studies that illustrate the effectiveness of community-based initiatives. Kayyem showcases inspiring examples of grassroots activism, collaborative governance, and cutting-edge technologies that are helping to build more resilient communities. She also provides guidance on how individuals can better prepare themselves and their families for disasters, emphasizing the importance of mental preparedness and the need to foster a culture of community engagement.
- The world is facing an unprecedented era of disasters, and it is crucial to understand the interconnected nature of these events. Kayyem argues that disasters are no longer isolated incidents but are intertwined with global issues such as climate change, economic inequality, and political instability.
- Disaster preparedness and response require a holistic approach that addresses the physical, emotional, and psychological needs of individuals and communities. Kayyem emphasizes the importance of developing a culture of preparedness and resilience, rather than simply relying on emergency response systems.
- The book highlights the need for a more agile and adaptive approach to disaster preparedness and response. Kayyem argues that traditional approaches to disaster management have been overly focused on predictability and control, rather than embracing the uncertainty and unpredictability of disasters.
- Kayyem emphasizes the importance of collaboration and coordination among different levels of government, as well as between governments, NGOs, and the private sector. She argues that a more effective response to disasters requires a more integrated and coordinated approach to preparedness and response.
- The book provides practical advice for individuals and communities on how to prepare for and respond to disasters. Kayyem offers a range of strategies, including creating emergency kits, developing evacuation plans, and fostering community resilience.
- Kayyem also discusses the importance of addressing the root causes of disasters, such as climate change and economic inequality. She argues that a more comprehensive approach to disaster management must address these underlying issues to create a more sustainable and resilient future.
Throughout the book, Kayyem’s writing is clear, concise, and accessible, making it easy for readers to follow her arguments and grasp the complex concepts she presents. The use of real-world examples and case studies effectively illustrates her points and adds depth to her analysis.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is its interdisciplinary approach. Kayyem skillfully weaves together insights from fields such as climate science, sociology, political science, and technology, creating a comprehensive picture of the challenges we face. Her attention to the intersectionality of disaster risks and social inequalities is particularly noteworthy, as it highlights the disproportionate impact of disasters on vulnerable populations.
The book’s call to action is urgent and impassioned, leaving readers with a sense of hope and a renewed sense of purpose. Kayyem’s emphasis on community-driven solutions and the importance of individual engagement is both empowering and motivating, encouraging readers to take an active role in creating a more resilient and sustainable future.
- Insightful and timely: Kayyem’s book could not be more timely given the current state of the world. Her insights into the interconnected nature of disasters and the need for a more agile and adaptive approach to preparedness and response are invaluable.
- Practical advice: Kayyem provides practical advice for individuals and communities on how to prepare for and respond to disasters, making the book a valuable resource for those looking to improve their disaster preparedness.
- Holistic approach: Kayyem’s approach to disaster management is holistic, recognizing the physical, emotional, and psychological needs of individuals and communities.
- Lack of depth in some areas: While Kayyem provides valuable insights into disaster preparedness and response, some areas of the book could benefit from more depth and analysis.
- Complexity of the subject matter: Disaster management is a complex and multifaceted issue, and Kayyem’s attempt to cover all aspects of the subject matter may result in a book that can feel overwhelming at times.
Here are some additional thoughts on the book:
- I appreciate Kayyem’s focus on consequence management. It is a more realistic and achievable goal than trying to prevent all disasters from happening.
- I also appreciate Kayyem’s emphasis on the importance of communication and coordination in disaster response. These are often overlooked factors, but they are essential for a successful response.
- I think the book could have been a bit more comprehensive in its coverage of different types of disasters. However, it is still a valuable resource for anyone who wants to learn more about disaster preparedness.
“The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning to Live in an Age of Disasters” is an essential read for anyone looking to understand and prepare for the complex and rapidly changing world we live in. Kayyem’s insights and advice are invaluable for individuals, communities, and policymakers looking to mitigate the impact of disasters and create a more resilient future. While the book may lack depth in some areas and can feel overwhelming at times, its comprehensive approach to disaster management makes it a must-read for anyone looking to navigate the complexities of a world in crisis.