Cover Image: The Blessings of Disaster

The Blessings of Disaster

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Princess Fuzzypants here: You know that the reader is in for an interesting ride just by the title. How can disaster be a blessing? In a thought provoking, well written and convincing way, the author takes us through the world of disasters from hurricanes, earthquakes and numerous other natural disasters to the man created ones like nuclear war. He uses the Three Little Pigs as metaphor to describe how humanity approaches disasters. While we would all love to think that we are the pig who built his house with bricks, the reality is we very often ignore the nature of where we are doing what we are doing and then are shocked when whatever it was we have ignored happens. Those who might have mitigated the risks are quick to leap in, hands wringing, to be seen as helping. Of course, because human nature is what it is, the actions that might have helped were not implemented because they were not “sexy” and there will always be a battle for competing limited resources.

Once the disaster occurs, the changes that might helped are often rushed into place- too little, too late to help those devastated by the disaster. And herein lies the blessing, albeit in disguise. Since we are so often unable to learn until after the fact and the narrative often gets highjacked by the loudest interests, we do have a chance to do better next time, to plan ahead, to make better choices. It seldom happens but there is the chance.

The books has a lot of humour in it which does not water down the message. One message is if you intend to build on flood plains, fault lines, sides of volcanoes, do not expect the natural occurrences to respect your plans. And while the probability is small each time to be affected, realize that when you are in the cross hairs, the impact will be life changing and perhaps pre-emptive planning might make sense. Then there are the thornier problems, the ones created by man. These are the thornier ones since it requires consensus and for us all to work together, understanding we do not all live similar lives in the same places. Will we ever be able to solve this problem? Neither the author nor I can say. But it is well worth us looking at the facts rather than the flavour of the month and realize one solution may only create another problem.

Five purrs and two paws up.

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The opening chapters of THE BLESSINGS OF DISASTER deal with earthquakes, and there are two things that Michael Bruneau wants to tell you about earthquakes, which is that they are bad because they do a lot of damage, and they are bad because no one can predict them. And then he tells you that again, and again, and there's this long endless loop about earthquakes that sounds like the world's worst TED talk.

I realized, about a fifth of the way through the book, that all this talk about earthquakes made me want to re-read John McPhee's geology books, which are ten times better and more interesting. So that's the plan. I am not criticizing Bruneau here for not being John McPhee, it's impossible for him to do that and he shouldn't try but I just couldn't work up the interest to finish this.

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My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher Rowman & Littlefield- Prometheus Books for an advanced copy of this book looking at human response to disasters.

Humans are not good at learning lessons. I know this from my youngest nephew, who is smart and sarcastic, but does not pay attention or even tries to learn from his mistakes. My nephew will continue keeping on at keeping on something no matter how bad the outcome until exhaustion, sometimes pain, sometimes intervention of some sort makes him stop. Brave and full of grit, yes my nephew has tons of it. Stubborn and with a distinct lack of wisdom to stop and try something new, well yes he has a lot of that also. Even amidst the unimaginable humans can learn something, or take some bit of knowledge that won't be helpful now, but maybe later could, and yet somehow we don't. Alot has to do with stubbornness, more has to do with never admitting to be wrong, and a tremendous amount might have to do with spending and not wanting to. In the The Blessings of Disaster: The Lessons That Catastrophes Teach Us and Why Our Future Depends on It, SUNY Distinguished Professor at the University at Buffalo Michel Bruneau, surveys his life as a disaster engineer showing how people do learn from disasters and how we can use this kind of thinking for problems that were once in the future, but seem to be coming closer and closer.

The book begins with the Japanese response to the Great Henshin Earthquake near Kobe, in Japan, which destroyed billions of dollars in property, and infrastructure. For a country with such an experience in earthquakes the response was pretty poor, due mainly to the fact that earthquakes were not known to happen in that area. The government found out more by media reports than reports from their own people. Bruneau than looks at other countries, calling on his 30 years of disaster and earthquake experience and what he has seen. No surprise in that places that have a clear plan do better, but how do they get a clear plan. What is the motivation or the cost that has made them ignore all the feelings that many humans have, it can't happen here, earthquakes happen in different areas, etcetera. Bruneau uses these ideas to get ahead of some of the major problems that will be effecting humans in the near future, food shortage, water problems, climate change, what we need to plan for, and how to go about it.

A book that is both depressing, and yet hopeful. There is a lot of suffering in the world, and people should plan for it. However we don't. The book is very well written, much more conversational than a book on both policy and engineering should be, which is great. Anything that needs a better explanation is offered, and Bruneau has a very good sense of humor, which does help lighten the mood. The author has really seen people at the worst, and seen the worst that can happen to people. And yet he remains hopeful that we can change, that people can learn and adjust for problems in the future. A message that I find harder and harder to be sure the more time I spend on social media.

Recommended for both disaster and engineering readers. Michel Bruneau's accounts of what he has seen are quite fascinating, and his ideas and thoughts are quite good, and worth debating. A book that could literally save lives, but one I don't know if people have the courage to follow up on.

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This is a good, long survey of various disasters throughout history, how prepared people were for them, the aftermath, and how that affected future planning. The theme is that prepared usually comes about after a disaster rather than before, as people as a group are usually hesitant to invest too much in risks with high impact when the likelihood appears low. The author is an engineer, and as with most of the profession, woudl like to see more planning done up front - but he realizes the economic and political difficulties involved.

You don't have to ba an engineer to read it. I am, and that was certainly why it appealed to me. It's not a technical book, though. He writes for a non-technical audiience, and while it runs long it should hold your interest for most of the way. If I would've done anything differently, I would've traded some of the examples of disaster for suggestions on how to quantify risk in a way that the public might support. Don't just tell us what's wrong, in other words. Tell us if there's a solution (other than jumping at the opportunity after the next disaster).

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I loved this book. Dr. Bruneau explains the science/engineering very well, in plain language and with a conversational tone. Aside from the fascinating topic that Bruneau brings to life, I loved the writing style, so much so that it was hard to put the book down. Even the preface is worth reading. I really felt that he was talking to me over a cup of coffee. Bruneau also uses a great deal of humor, with some laugh-out-loud moments. The debunking Bruneau does is excellent. Overall this is a great book. Thank you to Rowman & Littlefield, Prometheus for the advance reader copy.

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This is a wonderful book that everyone who is interested in earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, floods, etc. must read. The author relays the facts but also writes in a jocular tone that makes his book fun to read. My lone complaint that is certain to be corrected in the final version is that when one is referring to our home planet the word Earth is capitalized. My overall recommendation is an unqualified thumbs up!

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