The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America

The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America

The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America

The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America

Synopsis

In the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, many are asking what, if anything, can be done to prevent large-scale disasters. How is it that we know more about the hazards of modern American life than ever before, yet the nation faces ever-increasing losses from such events? History shows that disasters are not simply random acts. Where is the logic in creating an elaborate set of fire codes for buildings, and then allowing structures like the Twin Towers--tall, impressive, and risky--to go up as design experiments? Why prepare for terrorist attacks above all else when floods, fires, and earthquakes pose far more consistent threats to American life and prosperity?

The Disaster Experts takes on these questions, offering historical context for understanding who the experts are that influence these decisions, how they became powerful, and why they are only slightly closer today than a decade ago to protecting the public from disasters. Tracing the intertwined development of disaster expertise, public policy, and urbanization over the past century, historian Scott Gabriel Knowles tells the fascinating story of how this diverse collection of professionals--insurance inspectors, engineers, scientists, journalists, public officials, civil defense planners, and emergency managers--emerged as the authorities on risk and disaster and, in the process, shaped modern America.

Excerpt

“Here is an example of a steel structure subjected to the impacts of a fully loaded, fueled 747 airplane.” With the lights dimmed in the hearing chamber, engineering professor Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl narrated a computer simulation for the House Science Committee. “Here is the plane approaching that building at 450 miles per hour. Close up here, you can see the damage to the structures.” In the front row sat Sally Regenhard, among the dozens of family members in the audience, clutching a portrait of her son Christian. A “proby,” a probationary firefighter still new to the job, he was covering for someone in Engine Company 279 on the morning of September 11. Christian Regenhard was one of the more than 1,100 victims of the World Trade Center attacks whose remains were never identified. “We can analyze … the spread of temperature and weakening of steel and the final collapse,” the engineer explained. “This is what we would like to do for the World Trade Center.” Unfortunately, Astaneh continued, he had encountered “impediments” to his work, impediments like “not having access to Ground Zero and surrounding damaged buildings, not having enough time to inspect the World Trade Center steel … not having the drawings, videotapes, photographs, and other data on the building to conduct our analysis of the collapse.” As such, he concluded that as of March 2002, “we are unable to proceed with our study.”

Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) each offered in their testimony a rather different take on the investigation, stressing that they had been necessarily delayed early on by the imperatives of looking for victims. Lacking subpoena power had hampered evidence collection they conceded, but overall they were confident that their work would translate the tragedy into actionable steps for safer buildings, particularly through the work of the multi-disciplinary Building Performance Assessment Team (BPAT). The . . .

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