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Man-made Disasters

Human-made disaster is disaster resulting from man-made hazards as opposed to natural disasters resulting from natural hazards. It means a disaster or emergency situation that result in civilian population's casualties, loss of property, loss of basic services, and means of livelihood as a result of war or civil strife. The cause of a human-made disaster can be either intentional or unintentional human actions. Human-made disasters or emergencies can be fast or of slow attack. Human-made disaster admits that all disasters are caused by humans. Human-made disaster involves an element of human intent, negligence, or error; or involving a failure of a man-made system. It is also called as man-made disaster.

There is a small town in Pennsylvania called Ashland where Route 61's northbound traffic is temporarily branched onto a short detour. Exactly what the detour is circumventing is not immediately clear to travelers, however few passers-by pay it any mind... a detour is nothing unusual. But anyone who ignores the detour and ventures along the original route 61 highway will soon encounter an abrupt and unexplained road closure. Beyond it lies a town filled with overgrown streets, smoldering earth, and ominous warning signs. It is the remains of the borough of Centralia.

Centralia, Pennsylvania was never a particularly large community, but it was once a lively and industrial place. At its peak the coal mining town was home to 2,761 souls, but today the population of its cemeteries far outnumbers that of its living residents. The series of events which led to the community's demise-- slowly diminishing its numbers to less than a dozen-- began about forty-four years ago. In 1962, workers set a heap of trash ablaze in an abandoned mine pit which was used as the borough's landfill. The burning of excess trash was a common practice, yet at that particular time and place there existed a dangerous condition: an exposed vein of anthracite coal. The highly flammable mineral was unexpectedly ignited by the trash fire, prompting a quick effort to put it out. The flames on the surface were successfully extinguished, but unbeknownst to the fire fighters, the coal continued to burn underground. Over the following weeks it rapidly migrated into the surrounding coal mines and beneath the town, causing great concern.

Soon the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources began monitoring the fire by drilling holes into the earth to determine the extent and temperature of the fire. In retrospect, it was realized that the well-meaning workers may have unwittingly provided the fire with a natural draft by drilling these boreholes, feeding the coal's combustion. As a precaution, the Department also installed gas monitors in many homes within the affected area, but nonetheless many residents complained of symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure.

In 1969-- seven years after the fire was started-- a more involved effort was made to contain the fire using trenches and clay seals, but the attempt was met with failure. In the 1970s, concerns over the severity of the extensive subterranean fire were stirred when a gas station owner noticed that the contents of his underground fuel storage tank seemed hot, so he measured the gasoline's temperature, and found it to be a troubling 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Numerous attempts were made to extinguish or contain the underground fire over the next two decades. The mines were flushed with water and the burning coal was excavated, but despite the persistence of the workers, their efforts were unsuccessful. The work continued for years at a great expense, with no appreciable progress.

After burning beneath the surface for almost twenty years, the fire drew national media attention when the ground crumbled beneath the feet of twelve-year-old Todd Domboski in 1981. The sinkhole-- about four feet wide and 150 feet deep-- had sufficient heat and carbon monoxide concentration that it would have killed the boy had his cousin had not been there to help pull him to safety. It was not the first nor the last sinkhole caused by the fire, but it was the most sobering.

At that point, about seven million dollars had been spent in the firefighting effort. Experts determined that the only option remaining to effectively battle the fire would be a massive trenching operation, at the cost of about $660 million, with no guarantee of success. Left with such limited options, the state of Pennsylvania basically condemned the entire town, and spent $42 million in government funds relocating most of its residents.

The fire still burns today beneath about four hundred acres of surface land, and it's still growing. There is enough coal in the eight-mile vein to feed the fire for up to two hundred and fifty years, but it may burn itself out in as few as one hundred years. A few residents remained in the borough after the buyout, but their numbers have dwindled since then to about a dozen. Most of the unoccupied homes and buildings have been razed, and large portions of the town are being reclaimed by nature, leaving meadows crisscrossed with overgrown asphalt roads and the occasional steaming or smoking hillside.

In its prime, Centralia was a vibrant community with five hotels, seven churches, nineteen general stores, two jewelry stores, and about twenty-six saloons. Today it is a modern ghost town whose guts have been burned out, and whose main path of ingress has been closed and detoured. Residents are expected to return in 2016 to open a time capsule which was buried in the town in 1966, back when the town's future was still somewhat optimistic. Its future now is decidedly more grim... There are currently no further plans to extinguish the fire, and most modern maps no longer show a dot where Centralia once stood.

The earthquake and tsunami that struck the Japanese coast in March 2011 were an extraordinary demonstration of the power of the earth's natural forces. The tsunami swept away entire towns and killed tens of thousands of people. And yet a Japanese parliamentary investigation has concluded that last year's nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear facility, which occurred in the tsunami's wake, were a "man-made disaster".

In  a highly critical assessment a Japanese parliamentary panel challenged claims by the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), that the triple meltdown at the plant in north-east Japan had been caused solely by a 14-metre tsunami on 11 March last year. The panel said the magnitude-9 earthquake that preceded the waves could not be ruled out as a cause of the accident.

It accused Tepco and regulators at the nuclear and industrial safety agency of failing to take adequate safety measures, despite evidence that the area was susceptible to powerful earthquakes and tsunamis. "The Fukushima nuclear power plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco, and the lack of governance by said parties," said the report, compiled by the Fukushima nuclear accident independent investigation commission. "They effectively betrayed the nation's right to be safe from nuclear accidents. Therefore, we conclude that the accident was clearly ‘man-made'.

The question of how to prepare for low-probability, high-consequence events is one of the most difficult in government and business. Being proactive can be a thankless task; it takes effort and money, and few get credit for avoiding disaster when something bad happens. It's easy to just let it slide, whether via active collusion, inertia, or both, which the report says is what happened here.

There were many opportunities for taking preventive measures prior to March 11. The accident occurred because TEPCO did not take these measures, and NISA [the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency] and the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) went along. They either intentionally postponed putting safety measures in place, or made decisions based on their organization's self interest, and not in the interest of public safety.

And the challenge is only going to get harder. The once relatively-clear lines between "natural disaster" and "technological catastrophe" have blurred as technology has grown more complex, and more woven into the fabric of life everywhere. Our precious engineered systems are based on certain assumptions, and those assumptions are often faulty. More troubling, we are heading into an era where the "natural" part of disasters is getting bigger and more dangerous. Ironically, nature's fury itself is now displaying a growing man-made signal from the greenhouse gases we've pumped into the atmosphere over the past century.

This will mean bigger disasters, and more difficulty in predicting the odds of, and preparing for, the techno-disasters they will spawn. Even when we know what the problem is, the preparation is often inadequate. The DC suburbs webt without power nearly six days after derecho storms knocked it out. The power company, PEPCO, has been unable to mobilize resources to get the region back on its feet quickly, despite repeated failures and political outcry over similar situations in the past.

One basic problem here: our collective thinking on these issues is stuck in the past. We prejudice "natural" over "manmade." The "technological" part â€" that is, the part that people have total control over â€" ends up getting blamed on the "natural" part. This is quite convenient for those who screwed up, because the basic notion of a "natural disaster" is something beyond anyone's control, the proverbial act of God.

This type of shorthand is constantly applied to New Orleans, where a "natural disaster" or "Hurricane Katrina" are often blamed for the flood that destroyed a good part of the city. But the immediate cause of the flooding was the failure of floodwalls and levees that were guaranteed to withstand a Katrina-sized storm surge, but failed thanks to faulty design and construction by the Army Corps of Engineers. To describe this as a "natural disaster" is a distortion: it's all about the failure of manmade structures, and the institutions that built and maintained them. (The preferred alternative in New Orleans is to call this the "federal flood.") Have we learned from this? I can't honestly say.

John McQuaid. The Blurring Line Between Natural and Manmade Disasters. Forbes . 7/05/2012.


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