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Horror in Haiti: What Can We Learn?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 4, 2010
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
Some bad news needs to be ignored. But which news, and when? How can we prepare for storms, floods, pandemics, terrorist attacks, financial meltdowns and other possible mass devastations?

Michael Useem says we need to develop a kind of peripheral vision that lets us see the real warning signs in bad news, criticism and unwelcome information. Useem and Howard Kunreuther are authors of a new book, Learning From Catastrophes: Strategies and Reaction and Response.

Scientists predicted a major earthquake in Haiti two 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. A 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 exploded 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."

Kunreuther 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.

Another 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 happens.

"The world has a long term obligation to hang in there." Michael Useem

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