Source: U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (2018).

Cassandra’s Curse: Disasters Revisited

The study of Greek mythology can provide examples of failure to heed the call of emergency management specialists and experts. The story of Cassandra is an illustration of this warning. To win her favor, the Greek god Apollo gave her power to predict the future. However, once she received the gift, she refused further advances, angering Apollo. In retaliation, he cursed her with an additional power of an inability to convince anyone the predictions were true. For emergency managers and other related agencies, Cassandra has come to represent the challenges faced when trying to convince others that predicted events will happen.

Many case studies and incidents are witness to the challenges of predicting disasters. For those required to develop planning and preparedness actions for future events, many are discounted or even ridiculed. However, many of those predictions have come true. Incidents such 9/11 as well as Hurricanes Katrina and Michael are recent examples of predicted incidents that, at some point, were ignored. In many cases, there was a simple belief that it had never happened before, so it will not happen now. The resulting destructive impact from these disasters became a sobering reality that the improbable event had become probable.

Unimaginable Events

In 2001, the attacks of 9/11 provided a clear picture of the “failure of imagination” to stop these events. The 9/11 Report provides a comprehensive picture of what should have been done as well as a road map for the future regardless of the method of attack or nature of incident. The 2001 Phoenix Memo produced by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Arizona and the 2001 Presidential Daily Brief produced by the Central Intelligence Agency provide a backward look into what might have been a warning of what was to come. Before that, though, a 1968 article in the New York Times called The Mountains Come to Manhattan, along with the accompanying photo in the article, paints a chilling reminder of why warnings from experts need to be heard. The article raised concerns for navigation issues and possible flight diversions while landing at the nearby airport – a significance that was not realized until 9/11.

In 2004, the Hurricane Pam exercise demonstrated the destructive potential of a hurricane hitting the New Orleans area. Whether any of the recommendations were taken seriously or not, the results of the exercise paralleled the damage and destruction that marked the 2005 Hurricane Katrina. Although the storm was destructive in its impact, the fact that warnings had been voiced by specialists in this area prior to the storm continues to raise questions. A case in point was that of Ivor van Heerdon, the deputy director of the Louisiana State University (LSU) Hurricane Center. Reports indicate that, since 2001, he and his team had warned that models indicated the extent of destruction that would follow a significant hurricane. In 2005, those predictions came true.

In 2018, a similar event would take place that would forever change the landscape of the Florida Gulf Coast, as well as the interior of the Florida Panhandle. Hurricane Michael made landfall in Panama City moving northeast in a destructive path. The destruction would impact the area for years to come and forever change the belief that it could not happen here. This belief had been developing for years as other storms impacted the area to a lesser degree.

Unthinkable Destruction

In 1985, Hurricane Kate made landfall in Mexico Beach, Florida as a Category 2 storm moving northeast through the Florida Gulf Coast area. With the greatest impacts to the east, the storm had minor effect on the area west of the storm. This set the stage for the belief that such a storm could not impact the interior of the Panhandle area as it was too far inland. Numerous misses by other threatening storms through the years would only exacerbate this belief.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan, would again strengthen the belief that the interiors of the Florida Panhandle would be immune to such a storm. Emergency management personnel briefed that the storm could impact the interior and requested the authority to take actions needed to prepare for such impacts. As the event unfolded, Hurricane Ivan began its turn to the west away from the area. As such, there was a general belief that the area would not be impacted except from what was termed a little wind and rain. No major concern existed.

Again, emergency management personnel warned that was not the case and a danger existed from other threats such as heavy rain, strong winds, and severe tornadoes. Adding to the danger was the fact that no hurricane or tornado shelters were presently available. A suggestion was made by individuals outside the emergency management chain of command that Jackson County should use a local call center building for housing those evacuating their homes. It was termed a strong building, but emergency management personnel strongly recommended against this action as the facility was not rated for hurricane or tornado sheltering. As such, emergency management personnel, under a local state of emergency, issued evacuation orders for low-lying areas, as well as those living in mobile home trailers and manufactured homes.

Approximately a day later, a strong EF2 tornado, spawn from Hurricane Ivan, traversed the county causing a large amount of destruction in its path. Several trailer parks and housing subdivisions, as well as the local federal prison, were impacted. The call center building that had been identified as a possible hurricane shelter took a direct hit from the tornado. Half of the facility collapsed, and debris (comprising glass and metal) was blown throughout the other half of the building with such force that exterior walls and windows were blown out. If the call center had been used as a shelter, it likely would have resulted in serious injuries and deaths to those in it. Calhoun County to the south was not as fortunate – four were killed by tornadoes from the same system.

Before and for the many years after Hurricane Ivan, local emergency management officials repeatedly warned of the potential impact of a strong Category 2 or weak Category 3 storm making landfall in the Panama City, Florida area then moving northeast through the Florida Panhandle. It was only a matter of time. The destruction from such a storm was still unthinkable to local citizens. After Hurricanes Kate and Ivan, it was generally thought that the county, which lay 40 miles from the coast, would not be impacted because the land mass between the county and the Gulf (called the Sand Hills) would impede such a storm.

On 10 October 2018, the unthinkable storm occurred. Even as the storm moved northeast and closer to the Panama City area as indicated by the hurricane models, many still believed the land mass would prevent a major impact to the interior counties. That belief was so strong that, when some of the government offices closed, personnel were told they would be closed for only two days. However, on that date, the storm that had been predicted all those years prior did not come ashore as a Category 2 or 3 hurricane, but as a Category 5 hurricane with winds of 160 mph tracking along the exact predicted path warned about for 17 years. The system entered the interior county of Jackson County, 40 miles to the northeast, with reported winds of near 102 mph or higher – near major hurricane status (other reports place the winds near 140 mph). An after-action report stated that the main city in Jackson County had 400 buildings and structures destroyed, another 600 sustained major damage. The impacts of that storm can still be seen today, with recovery efforts ongoing.

Heeding the Warnings

The experiences and, more importantly, warnings from these events can be applied to preparedness efforts today. Throughout the ranks of first responders, there are “Cassandras” whose predictions have been ignored or thought to be unrealistic. Yet repeatedly many predictions have come true, leaving communities to ponder the what-if scenarios of what might have been different if they had heeded the warnings. However, memories fade with time, and daily routines embrace the fallacy that it cannot happen again. The process must change to integrate the assessments and warnings of specialists who are trained to identify potential threats and anticipate their impacts.

A pathway to this change can be found in two seminal works on the subject. They each present a thorough exploration of past incidents and the reasons why communities fail to comprehend and give credence to predictions from subject matter experts. In The Gray Rhino – How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers, Michele Wucker provides an outstanding in-depth exploration of the subject. Her book provides an excellent insight on the issues and the difficulties that are present when trying to convince those who refuse to be convinced. The second book is equally in-depth. In Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes, Richard Clarke and R. P. Eddy developed the “Cassandra Coefficient” as an excellent tool for convincing the naysayers of the probability of an event taking place. The tools are there and just need to be employed.

In most cases, predicting the future only requires looking at the past. The lessons learned from the successes and failures provide a road map for the future. To quote a cliché that is very applicable today, “Those that do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” Whether to study past disasters and heed the warnings of experts are choices that must be made, and those decisions have serious consequences. Emergency managers are extremely cognizant of these consequences and strive to provide the most succinct and timely disaster intelligence that is available. However, if that information is ignored, the consequences can be more than anyone may imagine.

Rodney Andreasen

Rodney Andreasen is a retired emergency management director from Jackson County, Florida. After serving approximately 20 years in that position, he retired in December 2020. Before that, he served 21 years in the Air Force, retiring as a Master Sergeant. He currently owns Xspct LLC providing consulting services on active shooter prevention and Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a master’s degree in Technical and Occupational Education, Auburn University of Montgomery with a master’s degree in Justice and Public Safety, and the Naval Postgraduate School with a master’s degree in Security Studies Homeland Security and Defense.



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