Natural Disasters and Distrust

In an emergency, government must convince people it knows best for them. That's easier said than done.
June 2019
(AP)
Donald F. Kettl
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin

When Houston’s Deer Park petrochemical facility exploded in a fireball in March, thick black smoke billowed thousands of feet into the air. Residents were terrified. But local officials assured them that there was no health threat because the plume lofted the toxic chemicals far above the danger zone.

Then, four days later, after fire crews finally were able to put out the blaze, the same city officials issued an emergency order telling the residents to shelter in place. Now everyone was confused. Why would they need to take shelter after the fire had been extinguished?

The explanation was that a cloud of benzene, a dangerous carcinogen, had escaped. The risks were so grave, in fact, that an agency of the federal government -- the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- closed the Houston ship channel, one of the nation’s biggest waterways, disrupting shipments of gas and grain.

Such disasters make tough calls for all levels of government. Those in charge often have just moments -- or at most, hours -- to make decisions that affect thousands of lives. Too often, they don’t have the technical information they need, and those on the front lines sometimes have the least of all. At Deer Park, the local fire department didn’t know for more than an hour after the initial explosion just which chemicals were burning.

That kind of uncertainty makes it hard for citizens to know whom to trust -- and they often have very long memories, especially if they think local leaders under- or over-reacted in the past. Building trust begins with the very first message from the authorities. In an emergency, there’s no do-over. They have to get it right, right away. In the Deer Park emergency, they did get it right, but it was hard to convince residents that was the case.

Every emergency sets the stage for the next, and the next is sometimes right around the corner. Just weeks after Deer Park, another tank farm exploded, this time in nearby Crosby, killing one worker, letting loose toxic chemicals and leading to another shelter-in-place order. The issue of whom to trust came up all over again.

No one wants to put citizens at risk, so the authorities often reach for an extra cushion of safety by recommending an “abundance of caution.” But that too can be dangerous. No note of caution is ever free, whether it’s keeping kids inside school following an explosion or ordering an evacuation from a brush fire. When Hurricane Rita threatened Houston in 2005, the evacuation created a massive gridlock and ended up killing almost as many people as the storm itself. The public saw a serious overreaction. And when citizens conclude that the government overreacted, they’re likely to disbelieve what they’re told the next time around.

That cascades into a bigger puzzle. In disasters churning with technical complexity, are locals up to the job? Following the Deer Park explosion, a Dallas-area state representative, Tony Tinderholt, argued for legislation at the state level “to set certain standards for those emergency operations and decision points.” Relying on the locals, he feared, wouldn’t be enough.

Deer Park Mayor Jerry Mouton countered by saying his team had responded well to the tank farm emergency.  “I don’t think legislation’s going to solve this,” he said, “whether it be here on the state level or in Washington.” Disasters, he insists, always begin as local events, and local officials have to respond first.

But the tank farm was an international operation, owned by a Japanese company, and it had been cited for multiple safety and environmental violations by both federal and state officials. It’s hard for the locals to own the solution when there are so many other players involved. 

The messy boundaries of responsibility apply to many different emergency situations. Last year, a single click by a lone state government worker in Hawaii mistakenly sent out a mass alert that warned the island was under a missile attack. The warning seemed plausible enough -- it came at a time when tensions between the U.S. and North Korea were high, and the North Koreans had just test-fired a rocket with the range to hit Honolulu. Tourists and residents scrambled to find shelter, and a Catholic bishop solemnly gave his parishioners absolution of their sins. It took 38 minutes for state officials to figure out how to correct the false alarm. Gov. David Ige had forgotten his Twitter password.

In this area, the federal government makes policy. But local and state governments are on the front lines of implementing it and, more important, explaining it. The willingness of citizens to follow instructions -- for a live disaster and for the next one as well -- depends on how skillful the explanations are.

Going forward, three things are certain. The locals will have more such jurisdictional problems to deal with. It will be difficult for them to hit the right notes. And it’s getting easier for those at other levels to second-guess them, given the complexity of the problems and the huge cost of making a mistake. All of this vastly complicates the core problem of trust.