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GUEST OPINION: Preparing for the improbable

A house in Sea Bright N.J. is one of thousands of homes that were severely damaged by superstorm Sandy.

WAYNE PARRY / Associated Press
Published: Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 7:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 16, 2012 at 4:18 p.m.

How do you prepare for something that could happen but is unlikely to?

That summarizes the challenge of preparing for extreme events like the superstorm that brought the East Coast to its knees.

Disaster preparedness folks fear such “black swan” events, defined as an event with low probability and extreme impact, as described in 2007 by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.”

I first learned of black swan events at the National Earthquake Conference in Memphis last spring. Black swan events are not likely, but they are possible. We are talking about black swans more these days since we have had several of them in recent memory, including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Japan earthquake of 2011. And now we have the superstorm of 2012.

For all of human history, all swans ever known were white, and there was no reason to expect that they would ever be anything but white. Then, in the far back side of Australia, birds that were clearly swans were found, and they were coal black. Black swans. How unlikely, and yet there they were.

Most of us have learned, somewhere along the way, about the bell-shaped curve of probability. Most events run toward the average, building up the big hump in the middle of the curve. A few events run to the high or low ends of the curve, giving it its characteristic bell shape. Those events on the ends don't happen as much, but they are not unexpected. Then there are very rare events that do not fall on the bell curve — the outliers. They are not at all probable or likely, but they are possible. They are the black swans. Taleb maintains that they have profoundly influenced the course of history.

So how can we prepare for black swan events? Because they are not likely, we cannot afford to prepare for them with infusions of money and infrastructure. By their very nature, they are guaranteed to have extreme impact on our communities. What can we do? Three basic ideas have been proposed.

• Build resilience into our communities, with numerous interconnections to create the ability to respond and bounce back.

• Create robust systems for communication, since everyone in disaster work knows that communication is always the biggest challenge in times of disaster.

• Create the ability to scale up response rapidly, since information about the event will only be known in real time. Ability to prepare in advance is limited or nonexistent.

We saw those responses in action as the nation responded to the superstorm.

What does all this mean to us in Sonoma County? What black swans might we see here? Some might not be foreseeable, but a couple we can foresee include a major rupture of the Hayward fault with thousands of refugees from the East Bay arriving here in need, or a rupture on the Cascadia subduction zone off the Northwest coast — that earthquake zone that is the twin of the one that went in 2011 in Japan. Our next big shakeout exercise will be looking at that one.

Black swan events are scary indeed. I would rather think about resilient communities and robust communications. Thank goodness Sonoma County has lots of ways I can work toward those goals. Remember that we are in the preparedness phase now.

Marian McDonald is a nurse who specializes in disaster preparedness. She lives in Sebastopol.

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