Meteorologists tracked Harvey from its inception in mid-August as a low pressure atmospheric trough to its final remnants dissipating over Lake Erie. During its terrible two-week rampage it grew into the most intense hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. in 12 years, killing 83 people and causing nearly $70 billion in damages.
However, for everyone other than the weather bureau, the possibility of anything as brutal as Harvey hitting the Gulf Coast was completely off the radar. The storm, lingering overhead nearly four days, dropped more than 40 inches of rain across a wide swath of Texas. The resulting floods inundated thousands of homes and businesses. Harvey officially stands as the wettest tropical hurricane on record to ever hit the lower 48, displacing more than 30,000 people.
Developing worst-case scenarios is a common form of strategic planning. So whoever plans for potential disasters considers the most severe possible outcome that can reasonably be projected. Unfortunately, the word “reasonably” cannot be applied to Harvey. Even the worst worst-case scenario for industry fell far short of Harvey’s ferocity.
That failure of imagination is understandable. No one could envision devastation as great as Harvey imparted. Not unless your emergency planner is standing on the deck of a huge wooden vessel and goes by the name Noah.
Harvey proved to be the biblical “big one,” that once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-century, once-in-a- millennium phenomenon no one expects could really happen outside of a Dwayne Johnson disaster flick. But instead of facing the worst that their individual agencies were prepared to address, responders found themselves swamped with an amalgam of many severe outcomes, all swimming in deep water.
Now the question is do we gear up to handle something this immense happening again soon? Or do we trust in the law of averages that says an event this dire could not possibly repeat itself in less than the aforementioned millennium, century or lifetime. Please, God, at least not before my retirement party.
Life goes on. Plants and refineries closed by the flooding will reopen — in most cases. At the very least we need to consider new avenues from which to draw extra resources when a department as large as an industrial fire brigade finds itself overwhelmed.
Are mutual aid agreements worth the paper they are printed on in a calamity so equally shared as this? Can we depend on outside contractors kept on retainer? What guarantees that these contractors will not find themselves inaccessible or radically over-booked in such an emergency?
Gearing up to meet the potential for a Harvey-caliber weather disaster on an annual basis is not viable for any business. Burt Lancaster states the case succinctly in the movie “Airport” as the manager of a snowbound facility.
“You don’t spend an extra $2 million for machinery you might use once in 10 years,” he growls. “You buy for the average snowfall. When emergency hits you use what you have and work around the clock.”
What Hurricane Harvey loudly tells us is that we need to broaden our horizons with regard to the worst that can happen, particularly in emergency planning for industry. It is ironic that Harvey’s wrath coincided with the 16th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center.
To quote the final report of the 9/11 commission the most important failure by officials prior to the attack was “one of imagination.”
“We do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat,” the report states.
Clearly, anything as unimaginable as Harvey qualifies as an act of God. Francis of Assisi offers some great advice for emergency planners.
“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”