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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

President Bush in his address to the nation last night said he is asking for an enormous effort, one that sounds a bit like the Marshall Plan--even has a ring to it of FDR's public works projects--to reconstruct the Gulf Coast region ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. The president said just a few days ago that no one had foreseen the incredible damage that a storm of Katrina's strength might inflict.

But he was wrong. His own government scientists at FEMA participated in a computer simulation exercise called Hurricane Pam a year ago July, which predicted almost exactly the Katrina scenario in New Orleans, with a storm surge that topped levees, wiped out half a million buildings, leading to an evacuation of a million people.

So we got to thinking, what other predictable natural disasters are lurking? Which ones are we ignoring? Sometime in the future, following, let's say, a killer asteroid collision or a deadly bird flu epidemic or a meltdown of a power grid or a powerful earthquake, the big one that takes out California or the central US, will we be saying again, `Who knew? Why weren't we warned?' when, in fact, we have been warned about the possibilities of all these disasters?

So this hour, we'll be talking about what we can do to prepare for that next big one, the next disaster, natural or perhaps from a terrorist attack. We'll talk about the lessons learned from the emergency response to Katrina, what emergency service providers around the country are doing to ready their communities for future catastrophes and what about preparedness in general for disasters we cannot predict? Can we be ready for them, too?

Plus, the failure of the levee system in New Orleans, after years of warnings that they needed to be strengthened, has focused attention on our public infrastructure; other levees, bridges, roads, oil, gas pipelines, sewer and water systems. Are we doing enough to keep these systems in good working order throughout the country? We'll get a civil engineer's take on the situation.

What do you think? What disasters do you think are lurking out there that we're not paying attention to? Perhaps we need a new definition of just what homeland security means. If you'd like to give us a call, our number is 1 (800) 989-8255, 1 (800) 989-TALK.

Let me introduce my guests. Kathleen Tierney is the director of the Natural Hazards Center and professor in the department of sociology and the Institute of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She joins me today from the studios of KGNU in Boulder.

Welcome back to the program, Dr. Tierney.

Dr. KATHLEEN TIERNEY (University of Colorado): Thanks for having me, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Henry Petroski is the author of "Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering," published by Knopf in 2004. He's written lots of book about engineering. He's the Aleksandar Vesic Professor of civil engineering and professor of history at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He joins us by phone from Maine.

Welcome back to the program, Dr. Petroski.

Dr. HENRY PETROSKI (Author, "Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering"; Duke University): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Lucile Jones is the scientist in charge of the Southern California Earthquake Hazards Team at the US Geological Survey in Pasadena, California. She joins us from the campus of Caltech in Pasadena.

Welcome to the program, Dr. Jones.

Dr. LUCILE JONES (Southern California Earthquake Hazards Team; US Geological Survey): Well, thank you.

FLATOW: Rich Eisner is the regional administrator for the Coastal Region in the California Office of Emergency Services in Oakland and the manager for the state's earthquake and tsunami programs. He joins us from KQED in San Francisco.

Welcome to the program, Dr. Eisner.

Dr. RICH EISNER (California Office of Emergency Services): Good morning.

FLATOW: Good morning. Good afternoon to you. Dr. Tierney, was the situation in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast avoidable?

Dr. TIERNEY: Oh, absolutely, it was. In fact, that's the heartbreaking part of this story, how avoidable it really was. Whether you're talking about what has been in the news a lot lately about the levees and the public works that needed to be strengthened there, to the terrible tragedy of the evacuation, there is, in fact, no reason why so many hundreds of thousands of people needed to be trapped in New Orleans.

FLATOW: And why was it avoidable?

Dr. TIERNEY: Well, in terms of the mitigation issues, the initial prevention issues, the problem of the vulnerability of the levees had been well outlined and well identified, and it was common knowledge--and I'm saying common knowledge in the emergency management, civil engineering and social science communities--that those levees could withstand, at best, a fast-moving Category 3 hurricane. There had been a lot of attempts to try to get some more investment made there. They failed.

With respect to the evacuation, similarly, it was well-understood beforehand that there were many hundreds of thousands of people actually in the impact area who lacked their own transportation and would not be able to get out if an evacuation order was given. There were delays. There was delays in terms of issuing mandatory orders, and there was a complete failure to try to think about how to get the most vulnerable people out of harm's way. It didn't have to be like this, Ira.

FLATOW: We had 9/11 and then we had a commission that examined what went wrong with 9/11, and we've had everybody in the government saying how we should be better now, be better prepared after 9/11 for dealing with emergencies. Why were we so ill-prepared? What did we not learn from 9/11 or what changed after 9/11 that perhaps made things worse?

Dr. TIERNEY: Well, there are a lot of people in the research community and in the emergency management community who believe that post-9/11 trends and actions that were taken have actually left us more vulnerable, both to natural disasters and to terrorist attacks. Two of the biggest problems have to do with what happened when FEMA merged with the vastly larger bureaucracy. The second problem has to do with the overwhelming focus that had been placed in this country on prevention, deterrence and preparedness for terrorist attacks, virtually at the exclusion of every other type of extreme event that could strike our country.

I am not, by any means, saying that we shouldn't prepare for terrorist attacks. That is absolutely necessary. But to act as if the laws of nature were repealed on 9/11 and that we would not be seeing bigger and stronger hurricanes, that we still didn't have a potential for a catastrophic earthquake in California was lacking in foresight, to say the least. That would be a gross understatement.

FLATOW: Henry Petroski, before I move on, let me ask you if you heard the president--and I'm sure you've read the text of--or at least the news reports of his speech last night? He vowed to rebuild the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. Is it possible--as an engineer, as yourself, as someone who has studied the situation, is it possible to recover from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and rebuild it?

Dr. PETROSKI: Oh, sure, without question, it can be recovered from and rebuilt. But at what cost will be the key question. And whether $200 billion will be that cost, I think, remains to be seen. Engineers are prepared to rebuild to recover, but they can only do so much with so much money. There are going to be pressures to divide the money up. It's not only New Orleans that was, you know, impacted, of course. There will be pressures to spread the money around. And then as we just heard, there are still, you know, other disasters lurking that we have to be prepared for. Are we going to take further money away from preparation for natural disasters elsewhere? It's a very, very difficult predicament to be in, coming as it has in the wake of 9/11. I think there are going to be some very tough decisions that are going to have to be made over the coming years. Everything involves risk, and the question is going to be what level of risk are we willing to accept?

FLATOW: Is it possible to raise--you've written about this in The New York Times, an OP-ED story, saying that it is actually possible to raise the level of New Orleans, the new New Orleans, above actually Lake Pontchartrain.

Dr. PETROSKI: Oh, yes. There are historical precedents for this. The city of Galveston was raised as much as 16 feet after the hurricane of the year 1900, which killed at least 6,000 people. The city of Chicago was raised in the 19th century when they wanted to install a new sewer system. So it can be done, but obviously, the impact on the character of the city, the impact on the people is enormous. And the question is will there be a will? But what does New Orleans want or what will New Orleans tolerate?

FLATOW: Do you have to bulldoze the buildings out of the way to build up the land?

Dr. PETROSKI: Well, yes, that's one way of doing it, but you could also raise the buildings and then fill in under them. That's the way it was done in Galveston. Or conversely, in Chicago, first they raised the streets and then the buildings were jacked up to meet the new street level.

FLATOW: Lucile Jones, one of the most anticipated disasters in California is the big one. Are people prepared for that?

Dr. JONES: We are much more prepared than we were 25 years ago, but we're not nearly where I'd like us to be. There's a lot more that we could be doing, and it gets back to the same ideas that have just been raised. It depends upon how much will we have to address the problem before the earthquake vs. what we are going to end up paying afterwards.

FLATOW: Do you feel that it's the job of the state to do that or it should be looking for federal money?

Dr. JONES: I think it's a job that's probably--the state needs to be a big partner in it, but it's probably not one that can be done alone at that level, because the type of things that we're talking about, you know, what does prepared mean? There's the ability to respond afterwards, and that's always--the first responders are always going to be the locals turning to the federal government for support when they become overwhelmed. There's also the issue of what we do beforehand, like, you know, strengthening the levees in New Orleans. It could have been done beforehand and had less problems now.

There are other mitigative activities that we could be taking in California. We could be doing more to retrofit our older buildings. We could be looking at the fact that all of our pipelines and lifelines across the San Andreas are going to be offset during that event. That's something where there's an engineering solution to fix it, but we haven't yet decided it's worth spending the money on.

FLATOW: Yeah. We'll talk more about these issues and bring in our other guests after we take this break, talking about waiting for the next big disaster. What can we do in advance in anticipation of it? Stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You've listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about disasters waiting to happen and what we might do about them in advance, with my guests, Kathleen Tierney, the University of Colorado in Boulder; Henry Petroski, author of "Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering" at Duke, and he's also a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University; Lucile Jones, who is at US Geological Survey in Pasadena; and Rich Eisner, who is a manager of California's earthquake and tsunami programs.

And let me ask you, Rich Eisner, what keeps you awake at night?

Dr. EISNER: I don't get a lot of sleep, the bottom line is. Concerned about...

FLATOW: Lots to worry about, I'll bet.

Dr. EISNER: Well, there is a lot to worry about, and it ranges from wild land fires to earthquakes and tsunamis. California is a hazard-rich state.

FLATOW: Do you think that people will start to pay more attention to these things or is it all just follow the money?

Dr. EISNER: Well, the dilemma we've seen over the last five years with this huge infusion of money to support preparedness for terrorism is that local emergency managers, state officials have followed the money. And we have not been able to pay the attention needed to natural hazards.

FLATOW: What would be the most--biggest, crying out need now in California for a natural hazard? Would it be the earthquake?

Dr. EISNER: I think the earthquake both in Northern California and Southern California because it has very broad impacts on about 30 million people.

FLATOW: Lucy Jones was talking about preparing for these pipelines and things that cross over the San Andreas fault line. Do you agree with that, that's a high priority?

Dr. EISNER: Absolutely. And it's not just the southern San Andreas. It's the Hayward fault in Northern California, and all the water coming into the Bay area comes across the Hayward fault, as do fuel pipelines, power lines, major transportation routes, so we could have a situation in either Northern or Southern California where we're basically cut off from the rest of the continent.

FLATOW: Did we learn any lessons for--Kathleen Tierney, from 9/11 about--it seems like you're saying we--the--we have really learned nothing about to deal with giant events that spin out of control and recovering from them.

Dr. TIERNEY: Well, I'm sorry to say that, unfortunately, that's the case. And while we're talking about 9/11, you know, the 9-11 Commission put out, as you know, a very large, very lengthy report, and there was a chapter in the 9-11 Commission report that talked about the emergency response, and this was one poorly written chapter. I mean, it really lacked a complete understanding of what preparedness and response actually are, and its recommendations were, to say the least, unhelpful. We know...

FLATOW: Can you give me an example of what that--what you mean by that?

Dr. TIERNEY: Well, most of the space in the chapter was devoted to talking about individual first response agencies and counting up the number of resources that they had. Another big focus was on communications equipment and communications issues. The management of large-scale disasters involves much, much more than communications equipment and, you know, how many fire trucks you have. It involves developing an integrated, strategic vision that cuts across organizations in the public and private sector for how we are going to mange these large-scale events.

Preparedness includes things like public education and public awareness, the development of strong interorganizational networks, the development of memoranda of understanding, mutual aid agreements, the training of ordinary citizens who are the true first responders in any disaster situation. It involves commitment from high-level government officials at the federal, state and local level that put disasters and emergency management on the public agenda. All of these kinds of things. Most of what was dealt with in the 9/11 report had to do with tactical and operational issues, not with policy and strategic issues. It is at the policy level and at the level of large-scale strategy where the thinking and the change needs to take place.

FLATOW: Do you prepare differently for a terrorist attack than you would for a natural disaster attack or is it the same preparation?

Dr. TIERNEY: Well...

Dr. EISNER: Are you asking me or...

FLATOW: Let me ask...

Dr. EISNER: OK.

FLATOW: ...Kathleen first and then I'll go around.

Dr. EISNER: OK.

Dr. TIERNEY: Yeah. Let me talk just a little bit about this, and I know that Rich will have something to say on this as well. We have a profession of emergency management in this country. We have people with professional certifications. We have people with master's degrees. We have people with PhDs. We have our own journals. We have our own scientific meetings, etc., etc.

The general principle of emergency that has been adopted in this country is a principle called all-hazards planning, that you don't plan for an individual event. You set up a framework where you are able, first of all, to analyze your vulnerabilities and then plan to address those vulnerabilities.

A second principle is known as the principle of comprehensive emergency management. That is that there is attention paid to mitigating future disasters, preparing for them, responding to them and recovering from them, and that these four phases--mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery--should be well integrated. And the actors involved in these different phases should be talking to one another and all working from the same rulebook, if you will.

It is not a principle of emergency management that one plans for a single disaster or type of disasters. To do so goes back on 20 years of advances that have been made in emergency management, and I'd like to ask Rich if he'd like to pick up on this.

FLATOW: Rich Eisner.

Dr. EISNER: Well, absolutely. I think Kathleen has identified where we are and where we should be going, which is if we have a terrorist event, the only significant difference is there's a crime scene. It looks like a catastrophic earthquake. It looks like a massive hazardous materials spill. It looks like possibly a pandemic. The response side is dealing with care and shelter. It's dealing with urban search and rescue issues. It's dealing with transportation and communications recovery. It's a functional response, regardless of the event. And I think we have focused over the last five years on one type of event, and we have not really addressed the needs of strengthening our infrastructure to withstand natural hazards.

FLATOW: Henry Petroski, how do you get the politicians, the decision-makers, the people who fork over the money, the people who make the long plans for natural disasters--how do you convince them that one is imminent, even though it's not imminent?

Dr. PETROSKI: Well, I think I would ask them to look at the historical record and learn from that. I think a lot of the discussion that we're having here and that has taken place in the wake of 9/11 has recognized that natural hazards were neglected compared to terrorism. That's a natural response to a failure of the kind that 9/11 was. It's like the squeaky wheel gets the attention. Whatever has been the most recent disaster becomes the next disaster in the minds of many people, especially politicians, because they react that way.

I think if we, you know, take a step backward and look at the bigger picture, we recognize that this kind of dynamic is happening, and we should not now, for example, let New Orleans or the Gulf Coast make it seem that the only natural disaster to worry about is a hurricane. Certainly, that's important, but there are other disasters.

I would also say that not all disasters give equal warning. In the case of a hurricane, there is some warning. There are weather forecasts. We watch these things coming across the ocean and up the Gulf. Something like a terrorist attack gets much, much less warning, so I think we have to keep that kind of thing in mind also. And there are all sorts of natural disasters that can occur that might not seem to be totally natural. What is a dam failure in the course of an earthquake? Is that a natural disaster or is that a structural failure? The definitions become muddy. So I would urge people that are going to analyze this, whether they be a commission or a committee, to try to look at the bigger picture, to try to look at the historical context, and recognize that what's going to happen over the next century is not unlike what has happened over the past century.

FLATOW: Yeah. What is a bird flu pandemic? Is that a natural or is it a manmade? What is running out of antibiotics because we have none that work anymore, you know, other disasters waiting to happen?

Let's go to Lauren in Massachusetts. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN (Caller): How are you?

FLATOW: Hi.

LAUREN: First up, I want to thank you very much for having this show, and I have to say your guests have made some very insightful points. As far as the difference between the natural disasters and the terrorist attacks, I worked in New York City during the 9/11 recovery, and terrorist attacks are targeted. Things like natural disasters, they pretty much hit everybody. So you don't have the ability that--the targeted areas are going to be generally more affluent, a smaller section of a community, etc. Something like Hurricane Katrina is huge.

And since 9/11, I've been involved in some emergency management planning as a horse owner, because they're not dogs and cats that you can just sort of take with you in your own family car. That's a bigger issue. And in doing that, I've discovered--and in watching a lot of the Hurricane Katrina stuff, you've seen that the disaster management plans, what few there are around, have no provision at all for people taking pets with them. And as we've seen in a lot of the Katrina stories, people didn't want to leave their pets behind, and that was a decision for a lot of people to stay in their homes, and they shouldn't have. If there was an opportunity to at least get them out of there with them, even if they had to put them in another shelter, they would have been more willing to go. If there was some kind of communication to people that they could have done this, it would have saved a lot of lives, because people would have left, and secondly, it would have cut down on a lot of their problems they're having now because of animals, as well as people, who are dead and who are polluting the water that's there.

FLATOW: Let me get a response...

LAUREN: Actually, it's a a huge problem.

FLATOW: Rich Eisner, any comment?

Mr. EISNER: Well, I think that all disaster victims are not equal, and in fact victimness is frequently defined by the amount of resources you have, whether you can invest before the disaster in mitigation to prepare yourself, whether you have the resources to go to a hotel rather than going to a shelter. So I think we need to recognize that in our planning. And it appears that certainly this last event, they didn't really accommodate or account for the fact that people could not self-evacuate if they didn't have money.

I think the issue of animals, I think, is right on point. We have seen with the fires and floods here in California that we have to set up parallel shelters for domestic animals, for people's pets.

FLATOW: All right, Lauren. Thanks for calling.

LAUREN: Thank you.

FLATOW: We're talking about disaster this hour on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

Let me ask you, Rich, tell us about California's disaster plan. Let's go through a scenario. What would happen, say, in the event that a major earthquake occurs in the Bay area or Southern California? Do things automatically kick in?

Mr. EISNER: I think...

FLATOW: Besides the ground, I mean.

Mr. EISNER: The ground kicks and, in fact, because of the number of disasters we've had going back into earthquakes at the turn of the century in 1906, we have a pretty robust emergency management system, probably paralleled by Florida because of the number of hurricanes. We've had a master mutual aid agreement which gives the governor the authority to move resources anywhere in the state from local government to local government. We've had that since Earl Warren was governor in the mid-'50s. Because of the earthquakes and fires, we've developed what's called the Incident Command System, which is an organization structure that about 10 years ago was adopted by FEMA, and that's now been expanded into a standard of care for emergency management nationwide. So as was stated I think earlier by Kathleen, you need to have a strategic organization and a strategic view.

What would happen in a major earthquake is, first of all, with the assistance of folks like Lucy Jones and the USGS, we would have a map within one or two minutes of what the ground motions look like. We would know where the damage was most likely and we'd be able to immediately start ramping up, moving resources into the affected area. And the mutual aid systems would kick in to get resources shared locally, and then if locals didn't have the resources they need, they could ask the state for assistance, and then we would draw on FEMA.

FLATOW: Lucy, do you think--is the state prepared, well-prepared for a major shake?

Ms. JONES: We're in a lot better shape than we could be, without question. I think that one of the points that Rich makes here is that the ability of the scientists to, if not predict the time, at least predict the consequences of an earthquake...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. JONES: ...is an important part of planning ahead or for any natural disaster. He talked about the shake map where we would be delivering information about the ground shaking. That's part modeling. We see in New Orleans that the scientists had modeled what was going to happen; they told you what it was going to be. What we need to do, though, is make sure that we communicate between the scientists and turn those models into action to mitigate.

FLATOW: Henry Petroski, LA a few days ago got a little bit of a scare with a little bit of a brownout or a blackout in certain parts of the city there and got people to wondering, gee, this reminds us of two years ago when there was a major blackout in the country. Yet what has happened in those two years to repair the grid?

Prof. PETROSKI: Well, I don't know, Ira...

FLATOW: Yeah. I'm not asking you tell us what has happened, but I'm philosophically saying we don't hear at all about--you know, it's almost like when the problem is gone, we're going back to our complacency again.

Prof. PETROSKI: Well, that's right. Complacency is really the enemy of all of what we're talking about. And it just seems to be inevitable that we do fall back into it, not necessarily those who are professionally involved. They recognize, you know, what the consequences are. But funding, political backing and public support are not likely to be as conscientious. The fact of the matter is that whenever something goes wrong, that we look at it, but as it recedes into the distance we begin to forget about it. It is inevitable that it's going to happen that way.

Prof. TIERNEY: Ira...

FLATOW: Yes.

Prof. TIERNEY: ...this is Kathleen. I'd like to make a couple of points here.

FLATOW: Sure.

Prof. TIERNEY: On the issue of, you know, natural vs. man-made disasters, disaster researchers really think of a disaster as the coming together of three elements. One is the physical force itself, like a 6.7 earthquake or a Category 5 hurricane. The second is...

FLATOW: Kathleen, I want you to hold those thoughts because I don't want you to get through three of them and have to stop. We have to take a break. So...

Prof. TIERNEY: OK.

FLATOW: ...we'll go through those four points after we come back from this break and talk more with Kathleen Tierney, Henry Petroski, Lucile Jones and Rich Eisner. And more of your calls about what you think the problems are that we'll be facing in the future in terms of disasters. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about Hurricane Katrina and preparing for future disasters with Henry Petroski, Lucile Jones, Rich Eisner and Kathleen Tierney. Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255.

Kathleen, you have the floor again as when I rudely interrupted you.

Prof. TIERNEY: Just first of all making the point that when we think about disasters, we have to think about them as involving the intersection or the confluence of three different large factors. One is the physical event itself. The second factor has to do with the vulnerability of the built environment, such as those unreinforced masonry buildings in California that Lucy was just talking about or the vulnerable levees in New Orleans. But the third element, equally important, is the vulnerability of populations themselves. And this is what Rich was talking about when he said that disasters do not hit people indiscriminately, that there is a stratification, if you will, of vulnerability and of the capacity to respond to and recover from disasters. So we have to think about those three dimensions.

Second, I wanted to point out that communities all around the country have access to decision support systems to help them envision what might happen in disasters and plan for those contingencies. I'm thinking here in particular of HAZUS, H-A-Z-U-S. which was developed by FEMA to be a loss estimation tool for earthquakes, for floods and for wind. And HAZUS is widely used around the country by cities in their planning.

Third, and then I'll shut up, I want to mention that, you know, in talking about what needs to be done, there are a number of research agendas and research recommendations out there. For example, in June of this year, June of 2005, the subcommittee on disaster reduction, which is part of the National Science and Technology Council, which in turn is part of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, put out a report called Grand Challenges for Disaster Reduction. And it included a discussion of six grand challenges and what kind of research and action are needed to address those grand challenges. The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute in Oakland, California, has similarly put out a strategic research and action document for how we deal with the earthquake problem in this country. So there are a lot of research agendas out there. There are a lot of recommendations out there.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. TIERNEY: Where's the political will to do something about it?

FLATOW: Well, now you hit the nail on the head of what we're talking about this hour, is where do you get the political will to listen to the people who are saying there are these problems and to actually implement, you know, instead of being treated as, you know, Chicken Little, the sky is falling, that something really unusual and bad might happen.

Andrea in St. Louis, hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ANDREA (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say thanks. You have a great show. And I wanted to bring up the issue of poverty and the vulnerability of the population, as Kathleen was just saying. I'm not--I wasn't really all that aware of what was going on at the time a few days before the hurricane because I don't have a TV. And I was wondering if there actually was effort made to distribute water to, you know, like, for instance, to evacuate before, pre-hurricane. Was there any effort to help people to evacuate?

I came to New Orleans and I've been--I just spent six years living in the New York City area. I was there when 9/11 happened. You know, it seemed to me that things flowed a lot easier because the people in Manhattan have a lot more money than the people that live in New Orleans as a whole group. And if you don't know anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who has a car--you know, I heard the lady in Massachusetts, to put your pet in the family car--if you don't know anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who has a family car, you're not going to get in the family car, you're not going to put your pet in the family car. You know, if you don't even have bus fare, for instance, how are you going to get out of the city?

FLATOW: All right. Let me see if you I can get a response. Anybody answer that? Rich, can you answer that? Do you know?

Mr. EISNER: Well, I think, you know, it's a good point, and our model is that preparedness and response is not just government, it's every individual. It's how you prepare yourself if you have the resources to do it; how local government is able to then communicate what the threats are and how you should individually prepare and have a stake and support local governments. And, you know, from the first look at the at least media reports in New Orleans is there were failures at virtually every level. And you can't blame or point the finger at any single location because everyone is a participant in this.

FLATOW: Let's go to Dan in Shawnee, Kansas. Hi, Dan.

DAN (Caller): Hey, how you doing, Ira?

FLATOW: Hey.

DAN: Actually, I was--you know, in your conversations about earthquakes, a lot of people focused on California, and I thought maybe I could draw your guests' attention towards the damage, the more widespread damage that might be caused by an earthquake from the New Madrid fault, which would be amplified by the soft sediments and the buildings that aren't prepared for this sort of an earthquake. And I'll hang up and listen off the air.

FLATOW: OK.

Mr. EISNER: Ira...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. EISNER: That's actually my worst-case scenario.

FLATOW: That is?

Mr. EISNER: A New Madrid event, for a number of reasons. One, they haven't been fully engaged in building buildings that are earthquake-resistant. In some states they don't have building codes or they don't use a seismic building code. They have a wealth of schools and armories and hospitals that are made of of unreinforced masonry. And all you can do is imagine the scenario in which the earthquake occurs in the middle of winter and there are no structures and no shelters available. It would be truly catastrophic.

FLATOW: And that holds the record, that area, for the worst hurricane in the Lower 48, right?

Mr. EISNER: Well, the largest sequence of earthquakes was in 1811, 1812...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. EISNER: ...and there were an estimated three magnitude 8 events.

Prof. TIERNEY: Actually, the estimates are going down for the magnitude, but one of the reasons that they looked so bad is because indeed the ground out there transmits the energy over a greater distance. So the same size earthquake affects a larger area. And I think that point about building codes that Rich made is incredibly important. There are huge investments that have been made in California, and we're still worried, and yet what about the states where those investments haven't happened? And we often talk--in black humor, we'll say that God hates trailer parks, but the fact is that the cheaper construction that's with the poorer populations is often the ones that are most susceptible to the earthquake damage. So it's another place where class affects the outcome.

FLATOW: Let's go to David in Truckee, California. Is that right, David?

DAVID (Caller): Hello...

FLATOW: Hi there.

DAVID: How're you doing?

FLATOW: Is it Truckee?

DAVID: Truckee, California.

FLATOW: Where is that?

DAVID: It's up by Lake Tahoe.

FLATOW: Ah.

DAVID: Kind of between--up in the mountains above Reno on the way to Sacramento, so to speak.

FLATOW: What's on your mind today?

DAVID: Well, I have a question and a comment. My question is, I appreciate the fact that you're all looking at the various things that can happen from any sort of thing. I guess one of my questions regarding the coastal communities is the smaller-type asteroids and stuff that have struck the planet, you know, numerous times over the years, all these small--I know we track the larger asteroids, you know, the ones that could wipe out the whole planet and the whole population, but what about these small ones that could set off, you know, a mile-high tsunami?

FLATOW: Right. How much of an early warning system--and what do we do about them if we find them?

Ms. JONES: There is an early-warning system in place. There is work at JPL to track near-earth objects. They--as he said, the bigger ones get tracked for a longer time. It's not particularly clear what one does with it, you know, if you know that it's coming in, but you can to some extent use our existing tsunami system because that involves buoys that give you the height of the ocean. And that can track when we get wave increases from the asteroids as well. So it's not a complete lost cause.

FLATOW: Ah, you're talking about after it strikes.

Ms. JONES: After it strikes, plus there is--JPL does run this system to try and keep track of near-earth objects, things that have the possibility of coming in to hit the Earth.

FLATOW: I know the British do also, but I'm not sure how wide a sieve they have for detecting or a net. What's the right word when you put this--for detecting the dragnet of an asteroid?

Ms. JONES: Well, that gets back...

Mr. EISNER: Well, it's interesting that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EISNER: Hi, Lucy.

Ms. JONES: Hi, Rich. Let me--I'll just say one thing...

Mr. EISNER: OK.

Ms. JONES: ...and say that, you know, perhaps you want a probability filter in here. If we worry about every possible thing that could happen to us, we'll never go on with the rest of life. And I think the ones that are most upsetting are things like--well, to be honest, like Katrina where it was well understood and talked about in every disaster class I'd ever attended that the breaking of the levees was a major issue. And when you ignore the probable ones, that's what we've got...

FLATOW: Well, you have to do is look at the face of the moon to see what the probability of us getting hit by an asteroid is or look at, you know, the buried craters we don't see on this planet 'cause they're under the ocean and things.

Ms. JONES: On the long run, it's an inevitability. And there are systems in place. But we do have atmosphere, which the moon doesn't have.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number.

Henry, in the few minutes we've got, maybe we could talk a little bit about you as an engineer and talking about how you would begin to go to rebuild New Orleans. What would be the first steps you would take, do you think?

Prof. PETROSKI: Well, the first steps are being taken right now, draining the city. But then the infrastructure is going to have to be rebuilt, the sewer system, the pumping systems for the city and electricity, restoring that and so forth and so on. Disinfecting it. These are all things that are going to have to be done in preparation. There is going to be a lot of decision-making about what structures are salvageable, what structures are going to be rebuilt and who's going to pay for it. There are a lot of debates beginning right now about the insurance, for example. Is this--what kind of event is this? Is it--you know, is it flood or is it wind, for example, some people are discussing. And this will have a big, big effect. In fact, it could be a showstopper.

In the case of New York City and the World Trade Center, one of the reasons, just one of the reasons, why it's taking so long to rebuild down there is there was the necessity to determine whether it was one terrorist attack or two, and the difference was about $3 1/2 billion on the insurance policy. So those legal issues are going to come in.

It might be literally years, if not more, before actual rebuilding in any significant way begins. Then the question's going to be how. I've been hearing that people are talking about abandoning their property in New Orleans. Who is going to decide how to rebuild the city and in what form? We mentioned just briefly earlier about the possibility of raising the city. Might it be wise, for example, to raise it in strategic places so that they would be refuges for people, for example, who don't have the means to escape an oncoming flood or a hurricane, to escape to high ground? Might it be wise to put the emergency facilities on high ground rather than, as we saw, the Superdome, which began to flood?

These kinds of planning decisions are just enormous, and they have so many dimensions that it's hard to know what is going to happen. I suspect that there's going to be somewhat of a repeat of what's happening in New York City and namely that there were so many constituencies that there's virtual gridlock about going forward.

FLATOW: Right.

We're talking about Hurricane Katrina and the possible next disasters that might be upon us on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

I also wonder, is it possible, Henry--and I'll ask all of you as we're getting close to the end--in the polarizing political climate that we have today, for long-term contracts and projects to be carried out from one administration to another? You're talking about how many years? Possibly a decade or more of rebuilding a city and the whole coastal area there. And I'm reminded when President Carter implemented plans to send the country down the road toward energy conservation and alternative fuels, something that would take many years to complete, one of the first things that President Reagan did when he took office was to eliminate those programs. So how do we assure that big public works projects will be given enough time to be completed in the way they started out?

Prof. PETROSKI: Well, that's an excellent, excellent question. I would suggest the way that we might begin to think about it is to establish some kind of autonomous entity that would have continuity beyond a single administration, something like a Tennessee Valley Authority, let's say, or something that's bigger than whatever the local and temporal politics are.

Ms. JONES: You know, California established 30 years ago a Seismic Safety Commission to provide a watchdog look at the government and to be able to say `Hey, wait a minute, you're going in the wrong direction' at times that that came up. And I think that something of--a structure that goes beyond individual administrations may be important. And I think...

Mr. EISNER: And I think also that there tends to be a flavor-of-the-day kind of approach, that the efforts in the last administration--it was called Project Impact--to promote mitigation, promote pre-disaster investment, because it was associated with the Clinton administration, was abandoned by the current administration. It really undercuts the whole effort in disaster preparedness.

Prof. TIERNEY: I would like to add to that and to say that the problem of disasters in this society cannot be addressed in a partisan fashion. There are no Republican disasters and there are no Democratic disasters. There are only disasters. But before we do anything at all, we need in this country an independent, objective, investigative commission consisting of experts who will help us understand what went wrong in Katrina and what went right. We need people like Professor Petroski and Dr. Jones and Richard Eisner and other experts to staff a committee to give the American public a credible answer to the questions that they have been posing.

FLATOW: Well, I think that's a good place to stop because we've run out of time. We'll see what happens. We'll see, you know--we noticed how much was implemented from the 9-11 Commission. We'll see what this commission is composed of and how much of their recommendations, when formulated, are taken into account.

Kathleen Tierney--thank you--is director of the Natural Hazards Center and a professor in the department of sociology and the Institute of Behavior Sciences, University of Colorado in Boulder. Rich Eisner...

Prof. TIERNEY: A real pleasure.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Rich Eisner is regional administrator for the Coastal Region and the Governor's Office of the Emergency Services in Oakland, California, and he is manager for the state's earthquake and tsunami programs. We didn't get into tsunamis, but I'm sure it's keeping you awake also.

Thank you for joining us, Rich.

Mr. EISNER: No problem.

FLATOW: Henry Petroski, author of "Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering," and he's also Aleksandar Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering, professor of history at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Thank you, Henry.

Prof. PETROSKI: Thank you.

FLATOW: Lucile Jones is scientist in charge of the Southern California Earthquake Hazards Team at the US Geological Survey in Pasadena, California.

Thank you, Lucile, for joining us today.

Ms. JONES: Thank you.

(Credits)

FLATOW: Surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com. We've got SCIENCE FRIDAY's Kids' Connection up there, free curricula. Just press on the teachers button on the left side of the screen and you can download it. Also you can podcast SCIENCE FRIDAY. Instructions--how to get a free podcast of SCIENCE FRIDAY there on the Web site. And you can also send us e-mail and see the other links that we've kept up there for you this week.

I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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