Catastrophic earthquake, oil rig blowout, fire, storm or pandemic: Thinking about the unthinkable

by John C. Mutter, Ph.D., Professor of Earth & Environmental Sciences and Professor of International & Public Affairs, Columbia University

After a catastrophe, whether earthquake or pandemic or anything else, we wonder what we could’ve done differently–better predictions, better preparation, better responses.

Citation: Mutter, J.C., (2020), Catastrophic earthquake, oil rig blowout, fire, storm or pandemic: Thinking about the unthinkable,

Fire boat response crews battle the blaze on the Deepwater Horizon ocean drilling rig. Credit: US Coast Guard
Fire boat response crews battle the blaze on the Deepwater Horizon ocean drilling rig. Credit: US Coast Guard


When the drill rig Deepwater Horizon was heading for doom in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the events that happened on the platform had never happened before on that rig or any other. Mistakes were made that could have been avoided, despite preparation. Like so many disasters, brought on by nature’s paroxysms or brought about by human misjudgment, there were things that could and should have been done to avoid disaster, and other things that no one could possibly have anticipated.

What could you do to prepare for a catastrophic fire, like the 2018 fire in Paradise, Calif., that burned 150,000 acres and 18,000 buildings, and killed dozens of people? Just this week, PG&E agreed to plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter from the fire. Though it was caused by something human-made (power lines), there was significant discussion after the fire about what we could have done to prepare for such a calamity—things like building better fire barriers or creating more defensible space around a building. And then came the inevitable questions of whether or not to rebuild there—as if perhaps by not rebuilding there we could somehow avoid such catastrophes in the future.

And in Australia it was worse, much worse. Vast sections of the country’s highly volatile eucalyptus forests were incinerated. Millions of koalas and kangaroos perished. I grew up in Australia and we were very much aware of the dangers of bushfires, as we called them. Fire safety was drilled into us at an early age. People faced huge fines if they didn’t follow the rules. There were carefully placed fire breaks all over. Nevertheless, every summer, without fail, bushfires ravaged some part of the country. They seemed inevitable and unstoppable, no matter how well we prepared. Almost every able-bodied person in the country would need to have been a firefighter to control a large bushfire once it got going (there were fewer than 10 million people in the country at the time).


A bush fire blazes in central Queensland. Credit: 80 trading 24 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
A bush fire blazes in central Queensland. Credit: 80 trading 24 (CC BY-SA 3.0)


Storms like Hurricane Katrina (2005) or Sandy (2012) always prompt questions as to whether people should have built in well-known storm tracks in the first place, whether people should rebuild in the same locations, and if they do rebuild, whether they should try to build more flood-proof houses. Again, the goal is human control: what we could do to avoid such catastrophes. Evidence from Sandy says that many people want to stay in place and elevate their homes on stilts. Despite the evident danger, people don’t want to leave a place where they put down roots.

After a destructive earthquake, we wonder what would have happened if we had constructed better in the first place, or been a bit smarter about where to construct critical infrastructure, or if we’d had our earthquake kits ready to go or had enough hospital beds. The list of questions is long, but the list of answers is short.

Currently, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic brought about by the emergence of a wholly new virus. And though in the present we are focused on just surviving, there are inevitable questions of whether we could have prevented COVID-19 in the first place, how we could have suppressed its spread, how we could have predicted it, and what more we should have done to prepare. Again, there are few answers.

On a drill rig, you are constantly reminded of danger. The very sounds around you, the smell of the air and the protective clothing say that this is a dangerous place. So does the ubiquitous signage telling you the location of shut-off valves, fire hoses and escape routes. Frequent safety drills reinforce the notion of danger, but also safety: “We’re prepared, we’ve got it under control, we know what to do.”

Do we, though?


Preparations for a disaster. Credit: Aviano Air Base
Preparations for a disaster. Credit: Aviano Air Base


Polio epidemic

I was 10 or so when a vaccine for polio was finally invented. At school in Australia, which never closed, we had plenty of friends who were affected; they were on crutches, wearing steel braces or getting around in wheelchairs—those were the survivors of polio. Every now and then a classmate would stop coming to school and we knew why without being told.

But no one knew what caused polio or how it was transmitted, so a lot of preventative actions we took to avoid it were foolish in retrospect. Crazy theories abounded. We were told not to touch any of the survivors. We did it anyway; they were our friends. And no one, myself included, got polio from touching a survivor. Many adults still told us to maintain our social distance. I received the early vaccine, the one you got from a needle that looked to us to be at least 6 inches long. It saved us, but the kids who had already been affected could only look on.



Perhaps we can think of COVID-19 in much the same way. It is now thought (known?) that the virus evolved on a natural evolutionary pathway in animals, most likely bats, that were not themselves harmed by the virus, but which, when transmitted by casual contact to humans can cause illness and death. This evolution is common in viruses of this type. No, it was no accident in a Chinese lab or the deliberate act of a technically skilled maniac.

Detecting, much less predicting, that natural evolution is all but impossible. So there is no point saying we should have known this was going to happen, or where it was most likely to emerge. We could not have stockpiled vaccines to be effective against a virus that didn’t exist, as far as we knew. And there is no universal vaccine effective against any and all viruses. We could, however, have predicted that such a pandemic was possible: Some experts did, in fact.


Preparation and response

But how do you prepare for a global pandemic? Or the catastrophe of the Deepwater Horizon? No one prepared for polio; it was just there around you. Maybe you can’t; maybe it’s all about response.

At least with earthquakes, we now have a good idea where—and where not—to expect an event. Fires, volcanoes, storms—we know roughly where to expect those. But like the virus, we don’t know, and perhaps will never know, exactly where, when and how large the next major earthquake will be, or fire, volcano or storm.

Still, we are far from clueless. With Ebola outbreaks, for example, we know where it is most likely to occur again, but not when. And Hollywood movies notwithstanding, we know a volcanic eruption will not burst up through Times Square in Manhattan. There is no need to prepare for that.

Preparation and response are so intimately interdependent that they are almost the same thing. You need to have thought about what might happen in order to know how to respond to what might happen. In the case of earthquakes, though we don’t know the where, when and how big of it, we do know the type of injuries to expect— blunt trauma for the most part. That helps emergency medical personnel a lot.


Knowing what to expect is key to preparing for a disaster. Credit: United States Navy
Knowing what to expect is key to preparing for a disaster. Credit: United States Navy


What if our prediction is wrong?

But what if you are wrong; the preparative thoughts you had about what might happen were just wrong? What if what has happened, like the conflagration on the Deepwater Horizon or the global reach and death toll of COVID-19, was unthinkable to most of us only weeks before it actually happened? The hubris of those who said the blowout would be contained in no time at all matches that of those in high office currently who said that the virus would be quickly contained in the U.S. Selling snake oil remedies doesn’t help either, and could make the situation worse.

In the U.S., we were unprepared, flat-footed and arrogant in response to this pandemic. We had nowhere near enough test kits and still don’t; we had nowhere near enough respirators and still don’t; and nowhere near enough hospital beds and still don’t. New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo has asked the National Guard to turn the Javits Center into a huge, 1,000-bed field hospital. It’s a good idea, but who could have imagined it. Cuomo says it’s the first of four: a proportionate response.

We could have and should have been better prepared for the virus. But the notion of prediction that we are so invested in as natural scientists in seismology, climatology and volcanology has no place here. Preparing for the unprecedented is really tough, but not impossible. Viruses have ravaged humanity for centuries. We learn from them and we put them out of our minds in the belief—hope, really—that something so terrible will not repeat itself in the modern world. Then they do, and here we are, wondering again how to respond and how to prepare for the next time.

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