The Unpredictable Nature of Disasters
Three Mile Island, the Northeast blackouts, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
All four crises have more in common than you might think, including unpredictability, root cause and a human component.
When the core of the Number 2 reactor melted at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, it was the most serious such accident in U.S. history. While there were no official deaths reported, approximately two million people were exposed to some level of radiation. The disaster was caused by a combination of human error, design deficiencies and component failures. Despite rigorous training and protocols, plant operators were unprepared for the possibility that their instruments might provide inaccurate valve readings. Thus, they did not respond quickly enough when the reactor’s core began to melt. This accident changed the perception of nuclear energy in the United States. It also brought the development of U.S. nuclear power to a screeching halt, stopping future projects for 30 years.
On Aug. 14, 2003, a series of faults caused by tree branches touching power lines in Ohio led to one of the most widespread blackouts in North American history. The total power outage lasted for over six hours and left 72,000 customers in the dark, including thousands in Manhattan. However, the largest grid failure happened decades earlier on Nov. 9, 1965. This blackout covered 80,000 square miles, lasted 13 hours, impacted eight northeastern states, and affected 30 million people. It was primarily caused by a maintenance worker’s failure to properly set the protective relay at one of the power generation stations. On an unusually cold day, the level of electricity people were using to heat, light and cook in their homes overloaded the system. A tiny surge in power, originating from the Robert Moses Generating Plant in Lewiston, New York, tripped a relay that was set too low. This deactivated a major power line headed for northern Ontario. The remainder of the electricity flowing to the tripped line was diverted, causing more lines to overload. Each of their relays tripped, and with nowhere else to go, the power headed east into New York state and overloaded lines there as well. This all happened in less than five minutes!
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. The explosion injured 17 and killed 11 of the crew’s 126 workers, the largest marine drilling oil spill in U.S. history. A surge of natural gas blasted through a concrete core 18,000 feet deep and traveled up the Deepwater Horizon rig’s riser to the platform, where it was ignited. It took 87 days to get the leak under control. The spill contaminated beaches and wildlife spanning hundreds of miles, causing billions of dollars in damages, most notably in the fishing industry. Many still recall watching the daily news broadcasts of what seemed to be a never-ending gush of five million barrels of oil streaming into the gulf. A cascade of human and mechanical errors led to this incident, including a failure to observe and respond to critical readings, cementing operations, and last-minute changes to plans.
We are all living the COVID-19 pandemic in real time. At the time of this writing, there were at least 20 million COVID-19 cases recorded worldwide with over 730,000 confirmed deaths, a case fatality rate of about 3.7%. The United States is reporting more than five million COVID-19 cases, with at least 160,000 confirmed deaths. The pandemic and resulting shelter-in-place orders led to the highest unemployment rates in over a century. Businesses across the country are struggling to survive, and many may not. Even the shrewdest epidemiologist who might have predicted a widespread viral pandemic could not have foreseen an associated worldwide economic collapse. And both in the midst of a historic groundswell of protests across the world against racial injustice. Three events of this magnitude at one time is unprecedented. And human behavior, as in the previous examples, in one way or another either created or perpetuated all three.
My point is that most of these events were avoidable and even predictable. There may have even been well designed plans and stringent protocols in place to mitigate the impact of any one single disaster. However, what no analyst, scientist, engineer or other clairvoyant has ever been able to precisely predict is how humans will behave when confronted with a chain of events that stem from what I call “multi-causational factors.” Most prognosticators also don’t account for the fact that organizations are terrible at leveraging historical, institutional knowledge and learning from past incidents and failures. Another factor that contributes to most disasters is that there is always an unknown “third variable” that no one ever contemplated.
I am not a nuclear engineer, scientist or epidemiologist, and I certainly cannot predict the future or allay anyone’s fears about what major disaster may happen next. However, I am pretty confident that the next major disaster, collapse or epidemic will include a naturally occurring event combined with a miscalculation in human behavior and an unknown third variable that no one ever saw coming. Thus, as the old adage goes, history is doomed to repeat itself, even when so many seem to believe “it will never happen again.” Going forward, let’s recognize our vulnerabilities, learn from what history has taught us, and use what we have learned to make our processes, systems, environment and lives more resilient.
Henry Wright is SVP and senior director of the Risk Solutions Group at McGriff Insurance Services.