The other day I was talking to a tourist that I met while out and about in New Orleans. We got to talking about what I do for a living. I told him I study disasters. Interestingly he felt that was a "pointless thing to study". "What do you need to know about disasters?" he asked, "they happen, they suck, we move on". As those who know me can attest, these type of ignorance strikes my core and leaves me little choice but to continue a dialogue. He asked me what I would have done differently when it came to Katrina. I listed off a variety of things including, widespread buy in of flood insurance, stronger and better levees, earlier mandatory evacuations, contraflow, public transportation out of the city, places for individuals to leave pets, etc. He looked at me, and quite seriously asked, "well then, where were you when Katrina happened."
Nearing my wits end I answered, "I was 15 years old. I was sitting in class learning algebra."
But he got me thinking, even if Katrina had happened today and I had all this information there wouldn't be anything I could do about it much outside writing a blog post (see post on Isaac). The "lessons learned" from disasters aren't lessons that one individual or even a single agency can implement. The lessons learned involve individuals and households, businesses, nonprofits, and government all taking actions. Many of these actions are not as easy as setting up a pet shelter (to reassure residents that their pets will be safe and encouraging those that might not have, to evacuate) before a hurricane comes along. Many of these actions require deep cultural changes. Changes that aren't going to happen overnight, if they ever happen.
How many times are we going to "learn the lesson" of buying flood insurance before everyone actually buys flood insurance (excuse not addressing the greater nuance related to individuals and household's ability to purchase flood insurance)?
It got me thinking about what our responsibility as researchers, as scientists, is to the general public. The now infamous case in Italy of the seismologists that were convicted of manslaughter after allegedly providing inaccurate earthquake predictions serves as a warning and sets a scary precedent to scientists everywhere. I came across this article today about historians looking back at where we are now and asking why we didn't act on climate change.
Even if we have all the information to prevent a situation from happening it doesn't mean we have the platform to do so.