Disaster comm, Part 3: Constant vigilance

The Ever Given, a ship stuck in a sandbar in the Suez Canal. A backhoe pushing on it from shore looks tiny in comparison.
TC Talk
Disaster comm, Part 3: Constant vigilance

This is the last of our 3-part series in which we discuss The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning to Live in an Age of Disaster, by Juliette Kayyem. In this episode, we talk about the importance of continually examining your systems, and learning from mini disasters instead of brushing them off.  Finally, we put our newfound knowledge to the test when a baking attempt goes awry. Content warning: Gun violence.

Sources and further reading


AWelcome to TC talk. That’s tech comm talk. I’m Abi. I am a professor of technical communication and rhetoric.
BAnd I am Benton.
AIs this microphone pointing the right direction?
BI think it’s the right direction anyway,
Aso am I on top? On the bottom?
BOh boy.
ANo. Is my waveform. Which waveform is mine? Okay. The one on top.
BOkay. I am Benton. I am not an academic.
AAlthough you play one on this podcast.
BI play one on this podcast.
AYou’re brilliant, but you lack a PhD in rhetoric and scientific and technical communication. So the idea is that we kinda play off each other. You rein me in on my academese. And
BAnd you rein me in on my
Aon your descriptions of blowout protectors.
AI had a less than fun time trying to edit that section in our last episode. But I did my best. Alright. It’s way too sweet.
BIt’s way too. I like that.
BI mean, I’ll drink yours if you want.
ASo it’s the whiskey sour. But we didn’t have simple syrup and I didn’t feel like making it. So I used maple syrup, which I imagine is much more concentrated in its sweetness. But I think the flavor meshes well with whiskey. But the quantity I will need to adjust in the future.
ASo the way we’ve been approaching it is that I do a bunch of reading in my field and areas of interest. And we talk about it. But for the last couple of episodes, we’ve flipped the script
BNow I have flipped the script.
AAnd it is facing you because you drafted it based on reading that you did in an area that is of interest to you, but that we both agreed connects very closely with tech comm.
B*As a reminder, that area is risk and crisis communication. Specifically, how to respond to disaster that has already occurred. We’ve been discussion the book The Devil Never Sleeps by Juliette Kayyem. In our first part, we talked about changing the way we think about disaster in order to prepare and respond better. In the second part, we talked about the ways leaders can gather and share information to build trust with their audiences. And in this episode, we talk about the importance of continually examining your systems, and learning from mini disasters instead of brushing them off.*
AAlright, so we’re just picking up where we left off, Have at it.
BSo in Kayyem’s next chapter, “buildings don’t just fall down.” She looks at what happens when you use the past as a reference point for the future. And a big chunk of how that fails is when we don’t update and retrofit based on new data.
AOkay. I have heard that saying many a time that those who do not learn history are bound to repeat it. Is that how that goes?
Athe idea being that it’s good to know your history, but she’s adding a complication here.
BRight. Marx put it this way that history happens twice. The first time is a tragedy, the second is a farce. So Hitler was a tragedy. Trump was a farce.
ADid Marx really say that?
BThe stars of this chapter were the Champlain Towers South condo that collapsed on its own and the Texas ice storm power outage. It was a matter of climate change, creeping change that enabled what was robust and acceptable enough to become not, not able to withstand what currently is.
ARight. So old structures may have worked well in their time, but as the world changes around them, they become less stable.
BExactly. Do you remember hearing anything about the condo that just went splat on itself?
ANo. I don’t even remember where it took place.
BIn Florida.
AWas it in the past couple years?
AOkay. Oh, does she talk about I35 at all? Because that disaster is probably closest to home for us.
BYeah. She May have.
AThe bridge collapse. But the thinking being it seems to happen out of the blue. And she’s saying that’s not the case.
BIt doesn’t happen out of the blue, it happens out of the blind spot. If you’re not looking, you don’t see it sneaking up on you. And then ope. The way that building codes work in the United States is that they get updated periodically, based on changing storm data, changing state of the art in architecture. Things get updated and not because they have fallen apart, but they don’t meet code anymore because the code has changed to be stronger. This condo was built to code, I believe. And when you have a condo that is looking at making building wide repairs, that cost for it is shared by everyone who lives there. And therefore has to be approved by at least some majority of the people who live there. So when there is a building manager who makes decisions like these, one person then needs to know how critical it is that this happens instead of everyone needing to know how critical this update happens.
AYeah, that’s fair. So not everybody understood the risks to not updating the building or they weren’t in a financial position to do so.
BThe pool on the roof had issues with the weight, water being collected in there. And it stressed the foundation. It stressed the structure to the point where the building cracked in half and, you know, pulled a Minard Hall.
AOh, right. You’re referring to my office building as a graduate student at North Dakota State that
Aliterally collapsed over winter break. And desks were hanging out of the building because there was like a missing wall.
BThat was in fact a case of literal undermining.
AOh, was it.
BThey were digging right near it. And that it literally undermined the support of the building and then phhhlw.
AAnd then the wildest thing about it is that they let us go in under supervision to collect our things. There’s no electricity. There was no heat, just darkness and cold
BExcept for except for the light that was coming in through the cracks in the building, right?
ARight. It was incredibly lucky that it happened when there were no students or staff on campus.
BMm hmm.
AOkay, so what does this teach us about disaster communication or risk communication?
BIt isn’t necessarily so much about the disaster and risk communication as it is about the logical fallacy that went into the disaster that some of these residents were thinking to themselves. We don’t need to update that. Buildings don’t just fall over.
ASo a little bit of that normalcy bias.
BNormalcy bias, this is the way we’ve always done it. This has been fine for decades. Why do we need to do this now?
AWhy do we need to pay more taxes to update the high school with mold dripping from the ceilings, asbestos in the walls.
BAsbestos. It’s a great insulator. Not very good for breathing.
AAnd a great carcinogen.
BSo her second example was the Texas ice storm power outage
AWhen Ted Cruz went to Cancun.
BSo Texas. They have their own power grid. The rest of the United States, there’s two.
AOh, really.
BMm-hmm. And the reason that Texas has its own power grid is that they did not want to fall under the jurisdiction of FERC. The Federal Energy Regulation Commission.
AThey said FERC that.
BYeah. They said FERC That. So electricity going over state lines, over power lines makes it in the jurisdiction of the Fed. And so that’s why there’s, you know, there’s more oversight and there’s more regulation. But they kept theirs inside their own state, so they didn’t have to deal with it. Texas is huge. So the thinking was that
AIt’s bigger than California. Which I did not realize until I looked at a map recently.
BIt’s substantially bigger. Yes. it is a very large area. And so if there’s an ice storm in one part of the state, the thinking was, this is such a big state. We’ll Pump power in from a different part of the state. You know, if there’s a hurricane on the Gulf side, we have power coming from the other side of the state. They weren’t ready. They hadn’t planned for a big ass ice storm. Moreover, they had so much of their infrastructure deregulated and not up to the resiliency standards that the rest of the country was. There was plenty of wind. Their wind turbines wouldn’t work because they didn’t have space heaters in them to keep them functional in cold temperatures.
Abecause Texas never needed that before
Bbecause it’s Texas. Why do they need to heat up wind turbines? Why do they need to heat up the alternator, the thing that turns rotation into electricity. Why do they need to heat that up?
ABecause America’s setting the planet on fire.
BYes. And on ice, alternately.
AYes. So the lesson here is keep checking on your systems in relation to the changing environment around them.
BJust because an analysis was run by engineers saying that this system is good to go, that was done at a point in time, don’t assume from that point in time that we are good forever. You know, like there’s it’s literally like the paradigm shifts. The paradigm shifts when the climate shifts.
AYeah. So I think this gets back to the whole premise of the book, which is that we live in an age of disaster. And things are not the same.
BYou have to expect it and be ready for when the boom comes. So she also, in this chapter, includes a discussion of risk homeostasis theory, which initially seemed like an odd pairing to me. What do you know about that?
ARisk homeostasis theory?
BSo the theory is, and she demonstrated it through skydiving, a comment by a skydiving person that for every increase in safety in skydiving equipment, there’s a corresponding increase in risky behavior among skydivers to keep the death rate constant.
BThat isn’t merely about skydiving, that is about everything that humans do that is risky. If you have ever driven in a car that feels like it’s going to fall apart, or if you’ve driven a car that has a big vibration, you don’t go fast in those. You drive to the point where you’re like, I don’t know, and then you back off a little bit. But super smooth roads without, anything like crowding in on the sides of them. That’s why people drive 90 mi an hour on the interstate because they feel safe doing it. Even though they’re not. They drive to the point of ah Yes, I am now taking risk. Yeah, so that is risk homeostasis theory that the safer something feels, the more risky a person put in that situation will behave.
AOkay, that makes sense.
BHuman psychology strikes back at engineering.
AI actually heard that as one argument against masking is that if people are told that masking keeps them safer then they’ll just go out more instead of staying at home and flattening the curve. This was early on.
AI don’t know. I mean, I guess what they didn’t account for in that scenario was people saying to hell with all of it, COVID’s not real. So what do we do about that then? Just be aware of it?
BI think that the common theme in all of it is vigilance, constant vigilance. Making sure that your assessment of the safety of your building is still valid or the resilience of your power grid is still valid.
AAnd the behavior of your people isn’t undoing the safety you’ve invested in.
AI mean, just make the changes. Don’t advertise them like hey, because our cars are so much safer now, you don’t. Oh, how is this for an example? A Tesla.
BA tesla?
AAutopilot. When that’s touted as a safety measure. Then people disengage their brains from it and things go awry.
BI mean, I definitely feel like, assuming a technologically advanced civilization in the future, that self-driving cars will be the primary sort of cars.
AOh, yeah. I hope so. 
BIt’ll be boutique to be the one controlling on a moment by moment basis where your vehicle is heading and how fast and all that.
AKind of like driving a stick shift now.
BRiding a horse.
AI fully agree with you that I hope for a future where vehicles are largely automated. I think that would be much safer on the whole. If Elon Musk is heading up that charge, I do not have high hopes for that.
BOh man. So we’ve talked about one logical fallacy in thinking about disasters. And now we’ll move on to another one. And it’s titled the near miss fallacy. So this fallacy is that a near miss can be treated as an oddball or an outlier instead of what it really is: a warning.
BThink of Challenger and Deepwater. All of these little oversights had been commonplace. And instead of being punished by a regulatory body or a disaster
AOr corrected?
BOr corrected? Yes,
AYeah. The Challenger. The O rings. Some people were trying to blow the whistle. There was just too much inertia.
BYes. The one guy was trying as hard as he could and got sidelined. And Challenger, I don’t remember if we had mentioned it because it’s been so long ago. But a part of what the Challenger was being pushed for in terms of like, let’s, let’s get this launch done today. Let’s do it today. The next day was State of the Union address by Reagan.
BHe wanted to have a great feather in his cap. Instead, he had a rocket blow up.
AI did not know that that was one of the pressures in play.
BI don’t know how overt or how, you know. Having pressure from the top is when shit happens because the top doesn’t know what’s going on beneath.
BDespite that, this chapter actually highlights a few wins. I’m sure you remember the big Chipotle E. Coli outbreak?
AOh yeah. I haven’t eaten at Chipotle since, actually.
BThat’s funny.
A Not necessarily because of that, but happenstance.
AYeah, yeah. So what did Chipotle do?
BSo the company had actually taken previous near misses seriously and they were able to respond when they had a contamination issue.
AHm. They didn’t put all their resources into preventing contamination, but they put some resources towards we need a plan when it happens.
BYes. They had done the thinking through of, Oh my gosh, what if this had gone this way? Well, what plan should, what should we do about it? Within six months they had bounced back from being hit really hard in the media.
AWhat did they do though?
BAfter finding out about the contamination, they recalled stuff, they pulled stuff out of coolers and threw it. The cost of inaction was greater than the cost of overaction.
ASo in other words, they, they threw out stuff that probably wasn’t contaminated, to be on the safe side,
BRight. I mean, that’s that’s the way that a lot of recalls actually work.
AExactly. Doesn’t this kind of go against what you were just saying about the the risk hypotenuse theorem, hypothesis? Hypo.
AThank you.
BStay the same.
ABecause like for Chipotle, if they’re like, Wow, we really went above and beyond making our stuff safe. Does that then mean they become lax in training employees in food safety measures? I don’t know.
BBut I think that in this case, it’s more a matter of response. You know, they were prepared with response as opposed to having your suppliers be extra vigilant about testing and that sort of thing. Before disaster, as opposed to what you do after disaster.
AOh, I see what you mean.
BYeah. It’s more about response and formulating your response while you don’t have the pressure on. Because that’s when you can think clearest. Another win is the ever given. The ever given was the name of the ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal in 2021.
AThis was a win?
BSo the photo that went viral, of course, was this backhoe that just looked like a kid’s toy next to this giant shipping container hauler. Looking like there is no way this thing is gonna do anything to get it loose. But shipping companies had this exact sort of scenario play out from 1967-1975. From the Six-Day War to the end of the Yom Kippur War, there were like 14 or 17 ships that were in the Suez Canal when war broke out between Israel and Egypt. They couldn’t go anywhere. And all of these ships were just like, Well, I guess all we’ve got is each other. And so they kind of formed their own little community of boats and linked together and because they were literally stuck in the Suez Canal, they could not leave. Because of hostilities on each side. Eight years seems like a long time to be stuck in a canal on a boat. But shipping companies had to send ships around Africa to maintain trade. The Ever Given was only stuck a week. But shipping companies knew this would cause a backlog because they were accustomed to a certain flow rate. And so a week’s worth of shipping had to get sent around Africa so that there wouldn’t be a week’s worth of shipping constantly built up on each side of the canal.
ARight. So because of this six days war, six years war, these companies had shipping routes around Africa. Is that what you’re saying?
BYeah. These shipping companies, they had to figure something out. But in 2021, they just had to dust off these old handwritten, typewritten accounts of what the plan is when we can’t use the Suez Canal.
AIt seems wild to me that this doesn’t happen more often. You know what I mean? Because that was, that was several decades in-between a ship getting stuck.
BTo be fair, there was probably some smaller things.
AWhat was special about the Ever Given? That’s what I want to know.
BI don’t think I’ve ever given it a second thought.
A*Drum hit*
BAnd apparently the thing that was a problem was that it hit a sand bar and then went sideways so that they couldn’t just back out.
AWhere is the Suez Canal?
AAll this time I’ve been thinking of the Panama Canal, Which is not the Suez Canal.
BThose are really the two of greatest consequence.
A‘Cause I was thinking, why would they need to send it around Africa?
BWhat the hell does Panama care about Egypt and Israel? This is nonsense.
AAlright It all makes more sense now.
BThank you for that, English major.
AWhatever. I was the star geography person on my high-school knowledge bowl team. Don’t get me started on this again.
BWhat does that say about your high-school knowledge bowl team? Hm.
AWhat does it say about my memory of key canals in world history? Okay. So, yeah. What’s next?
BOkay, so the last success she highlighted was the Boston Marathon bombing. Three people died at the finish line, which is a tragedy. But hundreds were treated successfully because extensive triage planning was already in place. Why was this planning in place? Because marathon leaders had encountered near misses before and decided to have a plan to handle the possibilities that these instances made them aware of. So they were able to respond immediately and keep things from getting worse.
AOkay. Yeah. I totally see what you’re saying, is that instead of brushing these things off as out of the norm and therefore, highly unlikely to happen again, they learned lessons from them that they were then able to implement when needed?
BYes. Exactly.
AI’d like to hear an example of a success that was not motivated by a prior mini disaster.
BWell, yes. But then it wouldn’t have been in that chapter.
AOh, fair enough. Yep.
BSpeaking of learning from disasters, or learning from mini disasters, is her last chapter in the book which is titled listen to the dead.
AListen to the dead, but not the undead. As we learned about in our zombie discussion.
BThe undead don’t have anything very intelligent to say either. It’s mostly grrrr. So listen to the dead focuses most on noticing how and why people die in a disaster. Hurricane Laura in 2020 didn’t kill anyone from the storm surge, or the weather. Because the National Hurricane Center used great language in their messaging campaign, calling the 17-foot projected surge “unsurvivable.”
AThey didn’t hold back.
BPeople got the hell out of there, man. But most of the 28 people who died from the storm were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from poorly run generators.
AOh no.
BYeah. Carbon monoxide also killed 72 people who were caught in their cars in the 1978 New England blizzard. In 1978, they didn’t have as good forecasting ability. So the storm kind of caught people by surprise. And people were in their cars and there was so much snow that like it would freeze over their tailpipes and carbon monoxide killed them in their car. It’s a real, real upper of a chapter. But one of the reasons that Kayyem says we need to pay attention to the way people die, ties directly back to avoiding stupid deaths.
AStupid deaths, meaning not deaths because of individual stupid decisions, but deaths that were fully preventable.
BYes. She then brings up the first disaster that I was aware of as a current event, Columbine. What do you remember?
AOh. This is gonna be hard.
AWell, I did listen to a You’re wrong About episode about it.
BShe’s probably on the same page as those folks.
Athe whole point of that podcast is to kind of debunk popular cultural understandings of people or events. That was very interesting. Things were certainly different than I I remember hearing about them in the news at the time. It’s very hard to engage with this topic. Having been alive during the first,
Bthe first school shooting.
AAnd now fearing for my children growing up in the United States.
BRight. When they started to walk the hallways shooting, students were told to hide in the library. And there was no way out.
BThe world changed a lot. Especially terrorism around this time. The previous concept was that people who brought a gun into a public place were robbers, or were going to take hostages to try to get what they wanted. Columbine was absolutely a paradigm shift. Sometimes the bad guys Just wanted to burn it all down indiscriminately. “Some men just want to see the world burn.” I did want to quote the book here too, because it’s infuriating. Quote, “with decades of mass shootings, we’ve now learned that there is no benefit for first responders to delay entry into a facility.”  Apparently Uvalde didn’t get the memo.
AI was watching some media appearances that she made recently talking about school shootings and how we need to change our messaging around it because hiding has not resulted in better outcomes.
AIt’s fighting that results in the better outcomes. For instance, the shooting in Colorado Springs.
BMm-hmm. What she described about the paradigm was before Columbine the only strategy was just run. Afterwards it became run, hide, fight. It seems like now the best strategy is just fucking throw down.
BShe also talked about tsunamis. She said, specifically in the hills above Fukushima, there’s a, you know, an engraved stone that says, learn the lessons of the dead. Do not build below this point.
BYeah. it was like it was probably like 100 years old at that point, the disaster that the engraving was based on. But they didn’t learn and they built lower.
BYou know, nature isn’t static. It’s dynamic. And so your planning has to be just as dynamic. It can’t be static. So I guess that’s the takeaway is that if your plans are based on physics, you’re in good shape because they’re static. Laws of physics, static. Conditions, human, environmental, not.
A Yeah, anytime you operationalize physics, it’s in an imperfect world with imperfect people.
BMm-hmm. So I guess that’s a bit of a somber way to end my, my streak of three here. But
AYeah, I see value in this book, especially for big-picture thinking about the nature of disaster, responding to disasters, understanding how humans interact with disaster. And communication plays a role all through that.
BYeah. To sort of reiterate and recap what she had said at the beginning of her book, if I’m remembering correctly, even if you don’t, if you don’t expect you’re going to get your city council or your state or your country to recognize the importance that being ready for disasters is going to have, you being ready and having your resources prepared, even your mental resources prepared, is going to make it that much easier for your community because you won’t be in need.
AYeah. I’m glad she didn’t start by saying and the takeaway here is that you as an individual, need to…
Bbe ready for everything,
Astock up on canned whatever.
BI’m not sure which aisle they keep the canned whatever in, but
AI mean, I think to some extent that’s important, if only to feel a sense of agency in the midst of something chaotic and out of your control. Like
A thinking back to
BMarch 2020,
AYep, the start of COVID, thinking back to how for you at least in the Fargo flood, you needed to be in motion, you needed to be helping. That is how you personally made it through.
BI honestly feel like I thrived through it.
AWell no need to rub it in.
BI was energized by civic engagement there.
A Yeah. But I think we need to be careful about not therefore letting those above us off the hook.
BOh, absolutely not.
AAnd and I don’t get the sense that that’s her point at all.
BShe is very leadership focused. But she does make an effort too, to not go too far the other way and make it seem like you don’t have any power. She said that this is valuable for if you’re not a leader valuable because anyone can step up and be a first responder in a disaster.
AOkay. I have a question.
BWhat’s that?
AWhen you set fire to your cake and I got the fire extinguisher out,
BGrrr. Is this going in the podcast?
AYou did not react well. Perhaps you can reframe my actions as me simply being prepared for the possibility of disaster.
BSure. I guess that I could have looked at it in a different way. Are you putting this in the podcast?
BOkay. So I screwed up on a recipe for a cake and there was too much oil in it, which as the cake baked, it came out and started dripping into the bottom of the oven. And
AThat’s what lit on fire. I didn’t know. All I saw was literal flames in the oven.
BWhich honestly, if there’s going to be flames in your home, the oven is the safest place for them to be.
AI agree, but
BIt was made to handle the temperature.
AI just wanted to be on the safe side.
BYes. However, when you pulled out the dry chemical fire extinguisher, my mind was like, Oh my God, that thing is going to destroy our house with like powder everywhere for months and months.
ABut that’s what you do with an oil fire. You don’t throw water on an oil fired that was literally oil on fire.
BIt was literally oil on fire. It’s true. I was just worried that you were going to prematurely powder our home.
AThat’s fair. That’s fair. By the way, I saw this thing on Instagram.
BOh, boy.
AIt’s called a fire blanket.
ACan we get one?
BYeah. Sure.
ABecause it will put out a fire of any type and will not leave a chemical mess in your home. Let’s bring some resolution to the story. How did you ultimately put out the fire?
BOh, right. So I ultimately put out the fire by turning off the heating element.
AThat’s a good start.
BI turned off the heating element to stop adding heat into the triangle of fire, which is heat, fuel, oxygen.
ATriangle of fire? I’ve never heard of this.
BSo you need to have all three of those things and
Atake one out and you kill your fire.
BTake one out and you can kill the fire.
ASo say again, heat, oxygen, fuel.
BYep, heat, oxygen and fuel. My strategy was I’ll turn the heat off and I will leave the oven door shut for awhile. So that oxygen that’s in there will burn up and after it’s cooled down a bit, I’ll open it up. Get the nasty smoke out.
ANow, before I forget, our smoke detectors did not go off. They should have.
BWe ought to test them.
AWe should consider this our near miss.
BOoh. You’re bringing it back. Look at you.
Aand check those out.
BIt sounds like a plan.
AAnd the best part of this story is that because the cake itself was not on fire, which I did not realize at first. It was actually edible and delicious.
BIt was. I had to.
Aalbeit it had a slight smoke flavor tinge to it.
BIt did? I didn’t notice that.
AI mean, that was all we were breathing for like a day after that, so. That’s an exaggeration.
BI managed to remove some of the excess oil from it and finished cooking the cake. Cooking, baking the cake.
AAnd I should add, we had guests.
BYes, we had guests,
ABut you know, it didn’t hurt that my mom showed up high.
BYou gonna publish that part too?
AI don’t think I can.
BYou’ll have to get permission.
AWell I don’t know. If she’s not listening, she’ll never know.
BYou think there’s a chance she’s not listening? She is definitely one of one of our number one
Bsupporters in Spotify.
AThat’s quite possible. Yeah, thanks Anchor Wrapped for telling us that we have listeners for whom TC Talk is their number one podcast.
BWe love you all.
AMy heart goes out to you.
BAnd even if we’re not your number one, thank you for inviting us into your heads.
AIndeed. Now go test your fire alarms. Get yourself a fire blanket. You can get them for a discount if you buy them in bulk, give them to your family and friends.
BYou can get a discount for buying them in bulk?
AYou know, more than one, 4-pack or whatever.
AThis is not a sponsored episode.
BRight. That’s why we’re not telling you to get a particular brand of them. But I will say download the FEMA App. You know, FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Whenever there’s a weather alert or like it’s unsafe to burn outside, anything of that sort for your area, it will let you know.
AAlright. We have some action items.
AThanks everyone.
BAnd to all a good night.