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'The Devil Never Sleeps' makes the case for disaster preparedness in a changing world

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Homeland Security analyst Juliette Kayyem says she grew up expecting disaster. It was a side effect of living in earthquake-prone California.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: We were prepared in ways that seemed so normal, and that's how we need to get with all disasters now. I mean, we did earthquake drills. We had a list of everyone's phone numbers. I knew where to walk to if I was away from home. Those are the kinds of investments that we can make on an individual level.

INSKEEP: The former Department of Homeland Security official is making an argument for a particular kind of readiness - prepping for an age of more frequent disasters, which she writes about in a book called "The Devil Never Sleeps."

KAYYEM: In an age that we are in where disasters are not random or rare, we basically need to learn to fail safer. And I think that's inevitable, but I also think that it is hopeful because it will help save lives and curb destruction.

INSKEEP: Are you assuming that the world is changing in a way that will make disasters more frequent or feel more commonplace, at least to Americans?

KAYYEM: Yes. I mean, and I look at the numbers. I mean, if you just take a three-year period, from 2017 to 2020, the United States had seven what we call hurricane disasters. So that's over $1 billion in damage. That total was about $335 billion of damage. In all of the 1980s, there were six, and their damage was just about 38 billion. And this is all, you know, adjusted for inflation. So you can just see in the numbers alone that we're suffering these disasters and consequences because of the changing climate, because how we live and our connectivity, which is, you know, both a blessing and a curse. And so they will keep coming. And it's not just the climate disasters; it's the cyber disasters and, of course, what we've experienced the last couple of years with the pandemic.

INSKEEP: So what do we do about that?

KAYYEM: Well, I think - I mean, part of it is redefining success. I'm in a very simple profession. I often say what we do is not rocket science. You know, we tend to divide the world into just two phases, right? There's right and left of boom. And the boom is agnostic. It could be a cyberattack, a terror attack, a pandemic. And left of boom is all the things we try to do to prevent the harm, and right of boom is all the stuff we do to try to recover. And success is generally viewed as, can we stop that bad thing from happening? And failure is when we can't. And I think now we need to prepare for disruptions, that sort of moment of the boom as a common phenomenon and view success as whether those preparations essentially led to less harm and destruction than might otherwise have occurred.

INSKEEP: So we don't prepare to prevent a disaster.

KAYYEM: Yeah.

INSKEEP: We prepare for the inevitability of disaster. And you go through some case histories from different countries. What did a Japanese nuclear disaster about a decade ago show you about preparedness?

KAYYEM: Well, this is interesting. Well, everything I do was interesting. Let me go back. So we...

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: It's good to feel that way about your job. But go on.

KAYYEM: No, OK, so let's go back. So the Fukushima nuclear meltdown happened in 2011, and most people who think about the earthquake and then the tsunami and then the meltdown, you know, are sort of narrated as well. Nuclear energy and nuclear facilities are inherently unsafe, and that is true, but we do a lot of things that are inherently unsafe. We get into metal tubes and fly across the country or across the world.

And what I didn't know until more recently was that there was actually another nuclear facility, Onagawa, just down the street from Fukushima. It was hit harder. It was closer to the epicenter. It also suffered from the tsunami. But because the people at Onagawa prepared to fail safely - they understood that they could respond to something, some disruption, and avoid the worst, which was, of course, radiation meltdown - they were prepared for it. They built for it. And they had emergency response features that were very, very sophisticated so that in the moment of that boom, when the water was coming, the Fukushima folks sort of stood there and just watched the water come over the facility, where the Onagawa folks were ready to shut it down. So the difference between a radiation leak and a not radiation leak is the lesson learned. And they were ready to fail.

INSKEEP: Is there something about human nature that makes it hard for us to prepare?

KAYYEM: Yes, absolutely. And we have a name for it. It's called the preparedness paradox. It is the - you know, the more we prepare for bad things, the less the destruction is, and then everyone wonders, why the heck were we so prepared, or why did we need to get prepared? The best example of that is, of course, Y2K, when the computers switched over to 2000. There was a lot of focus on getting the computers ready because we didn't know if they would, you know, go to 0000 or the year 1000. That effort was actually successful because nothing happened on January 1 when the computers changed to the year 2000. Looking back or the narrative of Y2K, it's often described as being an overreaction to a threat. The reality is it was because the preparedness worked. So we call that the preparedness paradox because you never can win.

INSKEEP: And you've got another example that gets to this question of preparedness and the human difficulty of being prepared. You compare the 2004 tsunami that devastated Indonesia and lots of other places with a later occasion when there was a tsunami warning. What do you get from that?

KAYYEM: I didn't know much about tsunamis before the 2004 devastation, which killed 250,000 people in the moment...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

KAYYEM: ...When the waters hit shore. And common sense would have us believe that, well, if you were close to the water when the tsunami was coming, you were dead, and if you were further away, you could survive. And going back, that actually turned out to not be true, that older communities on the shorelines, villages that had been there a while, understood how to read the ocean. When the ocean goes still and the waters start to recede, they say run for the hills. And so they understood what was happening. For newer villages and immigrant villages and, of course, tourists who are in hotels, they see the water recede, and they think it's a curiosity. It's a, you know, interesting phenomenon. And so when we went back, it showed that proportionally, those who understood how to read the oceans survived in greater numbers. So what do you do if you're that country? Well, you say, OK, I better tell everyone that when the waters recede, run for the hills. So you saw significant changes in information and education.

So fast-forward to 2011. There's another major earthquake in the ocean, and they don't know whether a tsunami is coming. So the alarms go off. They start communicating to people, and people start running for the hills. Fortunately, there was no tsunami, but it was a test of that preparedness system that showed we actually can't stop the tsunami, but if it had hit in 2011, lots fewer people would have perished. That is success. And that's how we have to view it in an age of disasters.

INSKEEP: Juliette Kayyem's new book is "The Devil Never Sleeps." Thanks so much.

KAYYEM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.