2010 Hunza River Valley Landslide
Nine months before a massive landslide killed 20 people and destroyed dozens of homes in the Hunza River Valley of northern Pakistan, a humanitarian aid group warned local officials about the growing risk of landslides in the region.
“Much of the losses and damages, if not avoided, could have been reduced had the government promptly responded and got mountain communities and their cattle evacuated to safer grounds,” Salmanuddin Shah, a disaster management specialist at Focus Humanitarian Assistance, told Reuters.
Shah and other experts said the landslide marked one of several disasters in the region that took place after officials had received warnings but "failed to act."
2011 Fukushima Meltdown
The mega-earthquake triggered a catastrophic tsunami in Japan in 2011 that killed 15,891 people. It also set off a disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, where three reactors melted down, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of residents within a 12-mile radius of the complex. Four years later, tens of thousands of people are still unable to return to their homes.
Investigations into what happened at the power plant concluded that the nuclear disaster could have been prevented. Not only were aspects of the plant’s designs not up to standards outlined by international best practices, but investigators concluded that officials had focused on the threat of seismic activity without fully appreciating how a resultant tsunami might affect the plant. The authors of a report about the incident by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concluded: “Bureaucratic and professional stovepiping made nuclear officials unwilling to take advice from experts outside of the field. Those nuclear professionals also may have failed to effectively utilize local knowledge. And, perhaps most importantly, many believed that a severe accident was simply impossible.”
This was not mere ignorance, though. Several reports say officials must have been aware of the threat a tsunami posed in the region. Japan is an island nation that butts up against the Ring of Fire, one of Earth’s most explosive and volatile regions. The threat of tsunamis and earthquakes is part of life there. The New York Times reported that regulators “had for years ignored warnings of the possibility of a larger-than-expected tsunami in northeastern Japan.”
* * *
Better preparedness for future disasters requires political leadership, better engineering, and more funding than is ever available—and not just that. In the face of all kinds of disasters, people often fail to act quickly enough or at all. They ignore mandatory evacuation notices and other dire warnings—sometimes because they don't take threats seriously, but often when they don’t want to leave personal property behind. Humans may be, Martin suggests in his book, hardwired to feel safe even when they're not.
Cognitive issues also affect isolated technical failures because they influence activities related to design, production, distribution, and use of products and services. As an example, cognitive dissonance will cause people to resort to clever ways to reduce dissonance. They will resort to lying and misleading others to maintain feelings of comfort. They even lie to themselves consciously or unconsciously by filtering information or selectively recalling memories.
How do we know which disaster threats are real, anyway? It’s one thing to take a threat seriously when an alarm is sounding, but the prospect of real but unlikely scenarios—an “ultimate tsunami” off the coast of Honolulu or an earthquake that could snap a chunk off the West Coast—the emotional burden of acknowledging risks can be unnecessarily heavy. Besides, there’s a reason the old cliche that you’re more likely to be killed during the drive to the airport than during the airplane flight has held up: It’s comforting to those who fear flying, but it’s also true.