Scientists predicted a major earthquake in Haiti
year ago, but the world wasn't listening. Hurricanes, earthquakes,
tsunamis are often described as "once in a century" events. Rare but
hugely consequential events "don't sit at the front of people's
consciousness," Useem explains in an interview with his coauthor and
Professor Morris Cohen in an online Knowledge@Wharton article.
big challenge, he says, is to get business and community leaders to
think about disasters as inevitable, even if the timing
isunknowable.Haiti has been impoverished for years,
with a vulnerable population and many poorly constructed buildings.
Kunreuther, who has studied insurance, says very little property in
Haiti was insured. While opportunities for entrepreneurship exist, the
professors agreed rebuilding will be harder than it has been in
wealthier countries. After a 1923 earthquake devastated Tokyo,
for example, Japan made sure new buildings met improved and safer design standards.
Useem describes an extreme case of bad news that never reached the top: Before the Challenger Space Shuttle
over the Atlantic killing its seven crew members in January 1986,
numerous problems had delayed the launch. One was the infamous O rings
that cracked in the cold. The manufacturer and the engineers who
understood the booster rockets where they were located knew about the
problem. There were discussions and reports,
but as Useem puts it, "top management did not absorb that information."
suggests more forceful ways of communicating about known risks with
unknown frequencies. If people are told there is a one in 100 change of
a flood or hurricane in the next year, the odds don't sound scary
enough to impel action If they are told youlive in this house for 25
years and there is a one in five chance you will have a major flood or
hurricane, the reaction is different. If people think an event is
likely at some time, they're more likely to plan and prepare.
lesson from mass disasters, Kunreuther says, is that it never effects
just one country: "We are in an interconnected world. We have
interdependencies" He says interconnectedness can make us realize
disasters are global as well as local and lead us to think more broadly,
in longer terms, and coordinate our efforts. The ability to mitigate
the impact of disaster depends greatly on decision made before it
"The world has a long term obligation to hang in there." Michael Useem