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Lessons From The Crucible Of Crisis

As coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) continues to claim lives around the planet, the United States observes the bitter anniversaries of two tragedies: its most damaging volcanic eruption and its largest marine oil spill. Forty years ago, on 18 May 1980, Mount St. Helens volcano erupted in Washington state, claiming 57 lives and triggering an enduring legacy of downstream sediment and hydrogeologic disruptions (see the Perspective by J. J. Major on page 704). Just 10 years ago, the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill began on 20 April 2010 and continued to release oil for 87 days into the Gulf of Mexico from a damaged deep-sea well before it was finally capped. Eleven rig workers died in the explosion. As we all continue to struggle with the current pandemic crisis, it is an opportune time to ask what lessons in the response to previous catastrophes should not be forgotten.

The first lesson is that the battle is usually won or lost in the myriad actions that are taken in the days, weeks, and years before it has even begun. The “just in time” installation of a seismic network on Mount St. Helens that gave warning of the pending eruption surely saved lives in the nearfield of the blast zone, but overengineered river drainage systems were unable to accommodate the sediment load resulting from the volcanic collapse. Any interventions that make systems more resilient can facilitate recovery from disasters—a lesson that was dramatically demonstrated during the Deepwater Horizon spill, which affected a region already stressed from excess nutrient loading, hypoxia, overfishing, diversion of natural sedimentation for flood control, and pollution.

As a corollary to the first lesson, in preparing for the next emergency, expect the unexpected. Emergency managers, policy-makers, regulators, and even scientists too often assume that the next crisis will be “just like the last one.” Not even scientists predicted the magnitude of the eruption at Mount St. Helens, which released more energy than Hurricane Katrina (2005) and produced the largest landslide ever recorded in human history. In the United States, there are historically explosive volcanoes within reach of major metropolitan areas (Mount Rainier—Seattle/Tacoma; Mounts Spurr and Redoubt—Anchorage) that could create a very different death and damage scenario than isolated Mount St. Helens. Oil spill responders were training for another Exxon Valdez tanker spill (1989), not for a Deepwater Horizon deep-sea blowout. The offshore industry is prepared now for another deep-sea blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, but nations also need to be ready for a spill far from a major industrial port and/or with a very limited weather window (e.g., the Arctic).

Scenario planning can be effective both for determining which prior actions will build resilience and lessen the impacts of disasters and for preparing for the unexpected. This approach was used effectively during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill for considering a range of scenarios for what might happen next, to prevent a legacy of problems that cascade from the environment to people and the economy. Cross-disciplinary teams of experts developed a wide range of future possibilities of what could go wrong (e.g., remobilization of offshore oil during hurricanes), even if improbable, and what actions could prevent or mitigate the worst consequences of those scenarios (e.g., closing the freshwater intakes to the city of New Orleans prehurricane). The scenarios proved eerily prescient.

Both of these lessons apply to the current pandemic. Its death toll in any region is varying with the prior health status of the population, the quality of the health care system, and the early precautions taken in the months and weeks after the first report of the disease to mitigate its spread. Any longer-term actions to curb obesity, reduce the incidence of diabetes, and eliminate respiratory afflictions caused by polluted air, smoking, and other factors are beneficial to public health even without a major pandemic. Undertaking scenario planning now can prevent unfortunate surprises as nations work to reopen their economies, reestablish travel and tourism, cope with the staggering levels of unemployment, and adjust to new norms in personal and professional lives engendered by the pandemic. In addition, it can also ensure that society builds back better such that it can cope with the next global health emergency, no matter how different, with less impact to people and economies.


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