Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Preventable catastrophes...

I've been reminded a number of times recently that there are two types of catastrophes: preventable and unpreventable. We generally dump all natural disasters into the unpreventable (but don't for a moment assume this means one can't or shouldn't prepare for such) category and man-made stuff into the preventable bucket.

Take for example the spectacular Minnesota bridge collapse from a couple weeks ago. On first viewing the footage of the bridge disintegrating, one can only think how incredible and unlikely the event was: surely no one could have predicted such an outcome? Almost like that little storm that blew into New Orleans a couple years back right? Well unfortunately no (and yes to the storm).

We soon learned that the bridge was deemed deficient and that tens of thousands of bridges around the country fall into this ambiguous classification which seems to indicate that experts believe (but cannot prove) that the bridges could pose a danger. Then we learn that in fact this bridge has been deemed deficient for over 15 years! If that isn't enough to make you wonder if the collapse might have been prevented, this article in the Star-Tribune sure sealed the deal for me. It comes down to a question of this case about $2 million (of which $1.5 million was already budgeted) of repair work that got put on hold when someone decided it would be cheaper to inspect the bridge and replace/reinforce only the supports they could prove were unsound. Sadly they ran out of time to inspect the bridge (if only they had started sooner!), in fact even the $2 million repair job might have been too late, having only been approved in Nov. 2006.

Then there was the mine collapse in Colorado, which snowballed when a resuce team was caught in a subsequent collapse killing (an additional?) 3 involved in the rescue attempt. Every time I hear about this mine or that mine accident (and there seem to be lost of coal mining accidents) I am first saddened but then invariably outraged as I hear that the mine was cited for 100 < x < 300 safety violations in the last year or two.

As Arianna Huffington notes in an excellent post "Mine safety regulators far more interested in looking out for the financial well-being of mine owners than for the physical well-being of miners. "

It seems that all coal mines are dangerous and miners in general have lousy working conditions but can't we figure out a way to improve safety, even if mines cost a bit more to run and coal costs a bit more to buy?

Finally I place war in the ultimate preventable catastrophe category and I found this weekend's NYT op-ed from seven enlisted soldiers ending 15 month tours of duty in Iraq an excellent summary of the clusterfuck we find our military embroiled in over there.


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