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Rushing to pin the blame after a disaster

Watching the unfolding of the Katrina tragedy, many of us understandably want to finger the culprits. But we should be wary of what has been called "hindsight bias."

To explain, let me lay out an alarming disaster scenario for the Buffalo area. It starts with a severe winter storm that closes down the streets, stops business and keeps us at home for a few days. So far, that's familiar. But it's followed by an ice storm that downs power lines and makes roads slick and dangerous. Relief cannot get into the city; Meals on Wheels can't get to the elderly; drugs can't get to the sick; those on home life-support don't have electricity.

Now comes the bad part. Remember the ice storm that hit the Adirondacks in 1998, stranding 320,000 without electricity? Many of those rural people had fireplaces or wood stoves. But in Western New York most of us have natural gas furnaces, which need electricity to operate.

As our disaster scenario continues, a deep, biting cold hits Buffalo. The majority are now trapped without heat. Reports start emerging of elderly people freezing to death, others dying of carbon monoxide poisoning from unvented heaters, and of fires burning uncontrolled because firefighters are stalled on icy roads.

As usual, those with the fewest resources suffer the most, since they are least likely to have backup heating or extra food. Those with four-wheel drives try to get away, but disabled cars clog the roads. The City of Buffalo has a lower rate of car ownership than New Orleans, and the elderly and inner city poor cannot get away, even when roads briefly open up.

Sure, it's a terrible scenario, and chances are great that it won't happen. It's probably a lower chance than that of a Category 4 hurricane hitting smack against a levee. So, we're warned.

Are we now going to act urgently to spend the billion or so dollars (just an estimate) to change the region's heating systems? Are we going to purchase a few dozen extra-large emergency generators able to keep shelters warm, just in case? How about stockpiles of fuel and food?

Are we at least going to restore job cuts to Erie County's Office of Emergency Services, which has lost 30 percent of its budget and many employees, or add to Buffalo's emergency management coordination office, made up of one person?

The answers to all questions, except perhaps the last, will be "No." Nor is it completely clear that, in view of our many problems, emergency management should have the highest priority. After all, we don't know how likely this scenario is.

If the terrible event does occur, all the future critics, all biased by hindsight -- who are as of now in no rush to spend money on disaster prevention -- will howl for blood. Such a rush to blame has the destructive effect of turning responsible officials into defensive bureaucrats.

There is, after all, no such thing as a good disaster. Those on the front lines of decision-making become the most obvious scapegoats. While others rush to pin blame for the Katrina tragedy, let us be sure we've got our own house in order.

Ernest Sternberg does research on disaster planning at the University at Buffalo's Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

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