Revisiting Fear Sex and Pandemic

I wrote this series of articles for during the H1N1 pandemic.  Now that the topic of pandemic has returned to the media I thought it was worth taking them out again (I made slight edits in the spots that made me cringe to reread them, but not change to content.)

Fear, Sex, and Pandemic

Photo credit KYZ

Photo credit KYZ

Think back to July 2009, mid pandemic, waiting to see if the novel H1N1 virus will mutate to become even more dangerous than the killer it is.  You wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at the actions and attitudes of the general public though.

After an initial period of hyper awareness, the world’s population calmed down to a point where we see none of the changes needed in behaviors and policies to reduce the impact of a mutation.

There is a direct connection between the initial over reaction, and the current under reaction. Too many individuals feel as if they were duped, having once vested emotions, they don’t plan on being duped again.  That initial response, however, as counter productive as it was, it was entirely predictable and will happen again the next time unless Pandemic risk communicators change the way they talk about pandemics.   Pandemic risk Communicators don’t seem to get human nature.

Psychology, meets cognitive neuroscience, meets biology. Risk communicators work to influence human behavior through information and education.  The only way to do this is through understanding what it is that makes us tick.  In the past few years, great strides have been made in explaining the source of some consistent human behaviors.  The NYT’s Nicholas Kristof has an editorial summarizing the tendency of our brains to irrationally prioritize threats,  For the most part, we stop everything to focus on a threat that feels like it may be imminent, but we are heavily inclined to ignore thoughts of risk, this despite the fact that most risks are easily avoiding when objectively analyzed.

Photo credit Myradphotos

Photo credit Myradphotos

We don’t have a multi-dimensional reaction when we encounter danger or a really attractive person. Our reaction to both danger and sex isn’t very advanced. It’s like the on/off volume dial on a cheap portable radio–we sense a threat or sex-and you can almost hear the click as the dial turns to on.  If we sense the danger/sexual anything is minor, like a bee-or a potential wardrobe malfunction, the dial cranks a little and our typical reaction is to divert a bit of attention away from what we are doing. The closer to home a situation hits, the higher the dial is cranked, until we can notice nothing else, our hearts are beating, our breathing coarse.  Sex or danger, we won’t be sleeping well until it is resolved.

These innate reactions are used to manipulate us. That is inevitable in a market economy, since it is the most effective way to get people to do what you want them to.  Advertisers link their products to our longings for social status and happiness, companies do everything possible to help us focus on the low initial price knowing that we won’t take the huge later cost seriously-heck, we may be dead by then.  News companies tell us to turn into 11 to see why we are all going to die.  They do this because enough of us do so even when we know better.

Which, of course, brings us to naked flight attendants. Safety educators try to use human nature to get the behaviors they want as well.  Air New Zealand finally figured out a way to get people to look during the preflight safety messages-having the message done by flight attendants in nothing but body paint:

If sex and danger are tops, how can we get anything done? For sex, our systems seem to have handled it by building in a counter compulsion away from embracing our sexual desires-how that counter compulsion plays out varies, clearly influenced by environment, culture, age, spirituality, opinions, etc.

For the most part, it seems we take the compulsion to focus on sex, and the counter compulsion, and let it mess us up.  And yet, so far species wide, there has always been a next generation, so despite everything, it is working for now.

We are surrounded by danger: the earthquakes, the land slides, disease, and Dick Cheney.  How does our species handle omnipresent danger with our unidirectional response? The planet is in a state of constant change, all over the globe, physics happens.   If our subconscious responded to each of these real dangers, we would exist in a constant state of fear response (indeed, some people do, and find it very hard to even leave their house.)

We reduce the threat of constantly being obsessed with the thoughts of danger by being inclined to ignore all but the most glaring. You would assume that is irrational though, since ignoring future risk means that we set ourselves up to be taken by surprise, to walk right off of cliffs (which certain percentage of us literally do, sad to say).  The implication is that on a species wide level, it is more beneficial for some of us for some of us to blithely walk right into danger than to stay in a constant state of fear arousal.

When we stay focused on risk, we stop focusing on living.  If we all do that, species wide, we would never have started wandering, we wouldn’t interact, trade with or fall in love with people from other tribes, we wouldn’t be in a state of constant migration, over ice bridges, under fences-we would have isolated ourselves and most likely failed as a species.

So, hurray, we live better when we don’t worry about risk! ….Or do we? Admit it, if you are like most people you nodded your head at the thought that life is better if you don’t worry too much about risk.  What will be will be-of course you do, that’s what I’ve been saying, we are all inclined to feel that way.  But in reality, on a personal level.

All over the world people are inclined to ignore thinking about future risks, how this plays out varies around the world, clearly influenced by environment, culture, age, spirituality, opinions, etc.   Some regions and cultures feel that it is inappropriate to take steps to reduce risks, since it shows a lack of faith that things will be OK, vs. others that are more accepting towards the idea of identifying what can go wrong and fixing it before it does.

Turns out that if you reduce the number of bad things that will happen, you increase the number of good things. Regions of the world that adopted safety education programs decreased the number of ‘unintended injury childhood fatalities’  by 50% in less than 30 years.

Pandemic flu preparedness advocates want to increase the number of good things that happen around the world, by showing that it is possible to avoid the really bad thing that is pandemic flu. They blew it though.

Photo Credit SarahG

Photo Credit SarahG

To encourage the adoption of steps to reduce a pandemic, pandemic preparedness advocates worked to make the threat feel vivid and real. If you’ve never read the studies pointing out that people work really hard to avoid taking risk seriously, it seems like the best way to encourage people to adopt actions to reduce a threat is by pointing out the threat.  This doesn’t work, of course.  When people have read all of the studies, they often then decide that they need to change their focus-work to make the threat feel more vivid, more real-bring the threat home.  The combination of these methods not only didn’t work, but they are the cause for the counter productive response to the emergence of the current pandemic.

Just because people weren’t responding, doesn’t mean they weren’t paying attention. Pandemic Preparedness advocates intend to provide a one two punch, first a vivid description of what can go wrong if we don’t act, and then information on what actions are needed.  Most of the population doesn’t get that far though, (human nature wins) so the majority of the population simply received multiple descriptions of just how bad things will be.  This set up the situation we saw at the beginning of the H1N1 pandemic.

Photo Credit Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha

Photo Credit Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha


Six reasons Pandemic Risk Communicators need to abandon the use of ‘the horrible outcome’ as an emotional lever for funding and action.

  1. Only a small percentage of the public will respond in the way the educators want.  Yes, a small percentage will respond to the ‘useful parts’ of the message and change habits, but almost everyone else’s sub-conscious will remember the “danger” bit.  Our wiring makes us strongly inclined to reject thoughts of future risk.
  2. All ‘call to action’ messages that trigger our fear response-are not sustainable, healthy, or useful. The fear response is supposed to provide a surge of activity to get out of a problem that is supposed to end so the system can normalize.  Sustained triggering of the fear response leads to excessive stress and burn out. Effective preparation for Pandemic flu doesn’t require a surge of focus and energy, instead it requires changes to lifestyles and habits. Fear response is very useful for achieving funding-explain the possible situation to decision makers and you can succeed in having a short term burst of action: the decision maker can allocate funding-then their system go back to normal-they’ve funded the problem, done their bit and can relax.
  3.  It’s hard to make good decisions if your subconscious thinks you may be in mortal danger, so the message hurts more than helps. Having explained in vivid detail the horrible consequences of non action, those consequences become the focus of thoughts when there are signs that a pandemic maybe starting. Even the individuals who adopted the message have the image of what will be happening to everyone else, and they must get past that image to act.  It is almost impossible to make good reasoned decisions in this circumstance, and that is what we saw.
  4.  It creates misleading expectations about what a severe pandemic is like By creating a vivid narrative of a pandemic emphasizing the number of deaths and the risk of social breakdown from a pandemic, it is very easy to have the impression that life under pandemic that is vastly different than what it actually is like.  I suspect if surveyed, the general public would have no idea that during the 1918 pandemic, only 24% of the population got sick, and of those that did, 98% recovered.  This point was left out, probably because it reduces the power of the argument to act or face dire consequences-it gives individuals the excuse not to act they were hoping for (I probably won’t get it).  What that really succeeded in doing, was creating expectations for pandemics to feel vastly different than they do.  So many of the population looked up, rationalized their threat, and have now looked away-vowing never to be tricked into feeling so horribly scared by news of a pandemic again.  We are currently experiencing life in a pandemic.  This is probably pretty close to what the initial days of the 1918 pandemic felt like as well.  We actually are really good at pushing awareness of deaths out of our consciousness, we have learned to ignore the yearly toll of the seasonal flu, and a good number of people have already learned how to ignore the additional deaths from pandemic.  That would have been true in 1918.  This isn’t that far off from what it would have felt like, not what the population and news media expected: instant horror.
  5.  It makes counter productive backlash easy to happen. The entire point of advocating preparing for a Pandemic is to keep it from happening.  If the dire outcome does happen, it means all efforts failed-and if it doesn’t happen, when faced with the general populations inaction, the assumption then is that clearly outside factors led to the change in fate-not preparedness efforts.
  6.  Ultimately, the potential for a ‘horrible outcome’ of a pandemic has always been beside the point.  The risk of a horrible outcome is a reason to prepare-just one of them, and a counter productive one. Human nature is such, that by evoking the threat, it became easier to focus on the existence of the threat than any other message provided-but knowing that the threat exist does nothing at all to help and quite a lot to hurt when the threat is played out.   The actions needed to reduce a pandemics progress will lead to increases in over-all health, productivity, resilience for other disasters-they solve a lot of problems for the population, potentially avoiding a dire consequence is just one of the benefits.  The existence of potentially dire outcomes shouldn’t be swept under the table or distracted away from, it should simply not be the point that is repeated most frequently and definitely not used as an emotional lever.

How we communicate about emergency preparedness is a way that does work:

Switch the focus of the call to action from consequences to benefits. It makes sense for individuals and companies to take steps to avoid illness and disruptions.  A population with fewer illnesses is a more productive, healthier and happier population.   Quantify the benefit of health. Increases in productivity, quality of life, life expectancy, thriving families,

Remind people that staying healthy helps others. The current focus has been on the direct threat to individuals and their families if they don’t prepare.  People have most two likely options: feel vulnerable, which usually triggers the counter-productive stress response and non sustainable actions, or secretly convinced that they are going to be fine, or fated to go, so move the focus off them to their ability to change the world and help others simply by making simple changes to their habits that will make them unlikely to get sick.  This attitude reflects reality as well.  Most people won’t face the worst consequences of the pandemic, but some will.  We all need to work together to help everyone avoid harm.

Focus the attention of communication efforts on the actual changes needed to make pandemic reduction the most likely outcome of every day behavior. Spend more time defining what specific changes need to take place to make health the most likely outcome.  What practices are being adopted by schools, organizations and companies that bring about the desired change-regardless of whether they realize it has benefits to pandemic reduction.  Help those changes become mainstream.

How Can We Reduce the Impact of Pandemic Flu?

We need both behavior and policy changes to make it possible, much less most likely, for people to avoid being negatively affected by pandemic flu:

People need to be able to stay away from others when they are likely to be transmitting viruses. Currently this is very difficult for most, both because some companies will fire you if you do not show up, but also because of a cultural expectation that it is a good thing to work through colds and sickness-to tough it out, and get back to work as fast as possible.

Necessary policy changes: people need to be able to stay home: end the right of employers to say ‘go to work or be fired’.

Behavior changes: need to reduce the social pressure to ‘tough it out’

Promote change enablers: Promote teleconferencing, distance learning, telecommuting and other new technologies that let people be productive from a distance.

Quantifiable benefits: Flexible work policies are already considered best practice because they increase the ability of companies and schools to keep functioning even during other types of disruption as well. It should be possible to calculate the loss in productivity from sick days and project the gains that can be achieved for every % drop in the number of people out sick.

People need to be able to distance themselves, but still be able to function and feel connected to society. Almost all people have strong built in desires to do things that feel useful, and to interact with others.  Pandemic planners recognize that short periods of physical isolation can radically reduce the impact of a pandemic, but this ignores the drive for people to connect so is unlikely to be feasible unless more is done to create situations where people can feel socially connected to others regardless during times they physically are distanced or isolated.

Changes to Policy:  Work to adopt policies to increase the population’s access to the internet, such as the creation of publicly funded wireless internet zones.  Increasing the number of public computers, classes.

Behavior changes: Help demonstrate ways that people can stay connected and involved with the outside world, even if they are keeping to themselves for short periods.

Promote change enablers: Social networking sites are doing a lot to re-connect individuals and increasingly, it is becoming easier and more affordable to access these networks.  Reward and encourage technology companies who take steps to increase the ease of use of their products, either by making it available through multiple technologies (affordable phones, pagers, Netbooks and computers) or by improving user-interface so that it is more comfortable for individuals of the widest scope of age, education, and ability.

Quantifiable Benefits: Increasing the connection between people reduces problems related to social isolation and provides individuals more resources in times of emergencies.

We need to reduce crowding: rush hour commute-work to bring about flexible hours.

Necessary policy changes: flexible work hours-reduce the need for everyone to surge on to the streets at the same time during rush hour.

Behavior changes: point out ways that individuals can make small changes to routine to avoid crowds: don’t take public transportation during rush hour.  Avoid movie premiers during pandemics, watch the movie at less crowded times.

Promote change enablers: show how ordinary people and businesses are figuring out ways to function without close face to face contact-sales kiosks, internet based orders/sales, business process adjustments to build extra space and barriers in situations that require client interaction.

Quantifiable benefits: Reduced pollution, less strain on public transport. Improved -time not spent waiting can be spent on more useful things-thus, improving quality of life, and again, greater productivity.

Reducing the health impact on the poor is social equalizer steps to reduce the impact of health problems of the individuals who face the highest challenges in our society, can go a long way in solving many of our most difficult problems.

If helping create a healthier world for the most vulnerable isn’t good enough, then Remind everyone that we are all in this together.  The more people who get sick, the harder it is for all of us to stay well. It makes sense to create policies and adopt behaviors that allow the whole population to stay well. We all need to focus on creating a reality that makes it easy for everyone to avoid getting and passing on the flu.

Taking steps that slow down the spread of viruses increases the quality of our lives.   Pandemic planning is do-able and logical but we need to change the way we talk about pandemics to move towards responding by reducing risks, instead of fearfully reacting to them.

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Quick! Before your urge to be ready fades!

It is not logic that keeps us from reducing risks before earthquakes, it is brain chemistry.  It has been more beneficial for people to avoid thinking about risks and live their lives than it is for our brains to have us objectively think about each and every risk.  Trust me, we would have far fewer children and far fewer rags to riches stories if our brains let us look at danger objectively.  But the problem is, because our subconscious lure us into feeling that it is important not to worry about what might happen–it means that we are walking into avoidable harm again and again.  When it comes to the situations that can leaad to catastrophic destruction in our community and our lives, we need to overrule our subconscious–it does make sense to objectively think about this danger, it does make sense to act on it now.

Act on it.  If you only feel like you want to prepare for disasters after a disaster, it means the source of your urge is your third party ‘fight or flight’ response from the images and situation–this will go away soon and you may well go back to talking about how you wish you were prepared but not doing anything.  Take this chance to make preparedness something that is easy to sustain.  It really isn’t hard:

Go through your cupbards, junk drawers and storage areas to pull together all the things you have that can be useful in a disaster.   Determine what you may be missing.  This slideshow may help show what to gather and where to preplace them.  You are preplacing solutions that you can use during any sort of disruption:

Use your online or computer’s calendars to put in reminders to spend 15 minutes every 6 months or so just looking at what you have again–did you run out of something?  Your goal is to build the existence of that kit into your life–if you go hide it away you probably won’t even remember it when you need it since your subconscious will be calling the shots.

Use your phone, computer, online contact lists to get information about all the people and animals you love–but also the people who may be caring for them, or in a position to give you an update on their status.  Create a little form you can handle to teachers, babysitters, dog walkers and your neighbors that explains that you would like to be able to reach them after a disaster so you can help each other, but that local lines probably won’t work, so could they give their normal number, if they receive text messages, Social media usernames and the number of a friend or relative of theirs that lives out of the area (since long distance lines often work when local lines are clogged)  Include all of your contact details on it too. Print a pile of these out and have them ready to give out.  Yes, there will be some people who shake their heads–but really, you are going to place yourself in a position of not being able to learn the status of the most important people animals and things in your life because you are afraid of someone sniggering?  Puh-leeze.

Take the time to honestly look at where you and the people you care about live, work and study–look at interactive hazard maps, look at the building styles, use this home retrofit checklist, bring in a specialist to help.   Don’t spend money to do your kitchen, before you do retrofit.  Do you have the right type of insurance? If you are at risk from flood, landslide, seismic shaking–insurance won’t cover the losses without special riders.      Can the buildings you spend your time in withstand the hazards it will face?  If not–work to rebuild, retrofit or move.  Simple as that.


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Earthquakes, Tsunamis and God

Yesterday I received a tweet about the earthquake and tsunami:

“This could possibly be judgment. A village with 9,500 people is missing. This is beyond an earthquake this is a wakeup call”

Why are people so ready to believe God works this way?  He doesn’t. Earthquakes and the tsunamis they trigger are part of the process that allows the Earth to keep supporting life.  The subduction process, where plates covered by ocean are being pulled under the continents–the process is essential to maintianing the carbon cycle and in the distribution of O2 and CO2 on the planet. As the Oceanic plate subducts, a lot of the water  and methane in the upper levels is squeezed out creating a super oxygenated/carbon rich zone along our shores.  As the plate is pulled under the continent, it starts to melt and the remaining water gets hot enough to turn to gas–this process leads to the volcanic eruptions that distribute the Oxygen all around the world.

This process causes a lot of stress to build up that is periodically releaved–earthquakes and tsunamis are a result of that.  I would think that the fact that we are provided warning after warning that this process takes place would matter.  The areas where earthquakes and tsunamies happen have signs that show us that they do–often with hundreds of years warning.    Why aren’t we welcoming the warning and acting on it?

Again and again I hear the idea that we aren’t supposed to act on the warnings, we are supposed to leave things to God.  Poor God must be hitting his forehead.  We know that ‘Physics Happens’.  We know  what, and generally where it will happen and we know how it is going to happen-but we aren’t going to act to step out of the way of it happening.  We are going to ask God to create miracles just for us–to make the law of physics change so that a building that is unlikely to hold up to shaking will hold up for us.  So that an area that shows signs of having been carved out by water repeatedly in the past–that area will not have water pass through it while we live there.

God loves us.  He does not lure only the people he feels need to be judged into dangerous areas–we are the ones that move there, we are the ones that build there, and we are the ones that refuse the hundreds upon hundreds of helpful signs that He really wish we wouldn’t.

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Seattle Times Says the Future is Now, So Why Worry?

I have to say, I am really pleased that Seattle Times has decided to write an article about tunnel safety–if you search the archives you really don’t find many references to the idea.  I am not very surprised that they have decided to highlight the concept that modern engineering and technology can overcome any risk.  That is very much a part of human nature. We definitely feel that we are the masters of our world, our brains definitely make it really hard to objectively analyze risk when there is something we want.  As we know, there has never been any time in history where this aspect of how we act and think have created problems for us.  Oh wait.

The article does a good job of summarizing their position in their summary:

“The notion of a Highway 99 tunnel raises its own set of fears among the public. What about fire, earthquake, tsunami or crashes? It turns out the Seattle project includes engineering solutions that the tunneling industry devised in response to catastrophes in other parts of the world.”

I am not going to go line by line through the entire article–even though it would be pretty easy.  I could start by asking which massive bore tunnel built in a liquefaction area has undergone a near fault earthquake for them to learn from?  I won’t go line by line, but I will point out the line given to explain why tunnels in earthquakes are fine:

“Tunnels have the advantage of being braced by surrounding soil, said Steven Kramer, a geotechnical-engineering professor at the University of Washington.”

This statement shows the disconnect between the assurances of safety and the situation with the proposed tunnel.  As I pointed out in the original post on this subject, the Federal Highway Administration points out that locations where the soil is expected to not stay in place are not good places to put tunnels–because the surrounding soil doesn’t brace the tunnel, instead it pushes, twists and pulls at the tunnel.  That is what creates the risk of catastrophic failure.  I’ve been looking, but I haven’t found any papers or even discussion on a new engineering advancement that can stop large scale liquefaction over miles of  land.  Please feel free to send me information if you find it.

I am not against the idea of a tunnel because I am afraid of change, don’t have faith in engineering, and don’t think it would be really amazing to have a pedestrian friendly waterfront.  As people our brains our wired to suppress thoughts of future risk and as such we build our own tragedies again and again. I am against this tunnel because it doesn’t make sense to replace one structure at risk of catastrophic failure in a large earthquake with another.  We need to find a better solution.

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Why I don’t like the Seattle Tunnel

I don’t like the proposed tunnel in Seattle.  I really don’t like it.  I’ve ranted and raved and complained about the tunnel on Twitter to the point that a few people even noticed that I don’t like it.  It suddenly occurred to me that I need more than 140 characters to explain why I really don’t like it, so here I go.

I don’t like the tunnel because it it is adding as much risk as it is taking away.   Why do I think that?  Well, based on the information provided by the  US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration Technical Manual for Design and Construction of Road Tunnels, the  tunnel is a bad idea.  In fact, according to the manual, it faces the potential for catastrophic failure.  A significant section of the tunnel will be built in ground that studies show is likely to undergo liquefaction and ground failure.  According to the DOT manual:  “the greatest risk to tunnel structures is the potential for large ground movements as a result of unstable ground conditions (e.g., liquefaction and landslides) or fault displacements. In general, it is not feasible to design a tunnel structure to withstand large ground displacements.”

Large scale ground displacement?  That is exactly what is expected to occur in most of the soils the tunnel will be built through.  That is why we need to get rid of the Viaduct and seawall.  Remember this video?

Looking at geotechnical documents from the path of the tunnel (and we can, because there are available in an online database )  you see that most of the ground is exactly the type of ground is very clearly ground that readily liquefies in quakes.  This isn’t surprising, it is the type of ground one expects in an area that was once sand flats—sandy, watery—ready to liquefy when shaken.  (Don’t know what liquefaction is?  UW does a good job explaining).  What can ground that liquefies do? Here’s a video of ground in Japan liquefying during an earthquake:

When reading the WSDOT reports, there seems to be a contradiction between their emphasis of the role liquefaction will play in an earthquake for the viaduct and seawall (complete with video) and insisting that it won’t play any role on the tunnel. We had liquefaction in that area during Nisqually, we will have it on a much larger scale during larger earthquakes.

Ironically enough, the best report I’ve found confirming that over half of the proposed tunnel route is on ground prone to liquefaction is a WSDOT document evaluating the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

The report details past liquefaction and water main breaks along the tunnel route from the 1949 and 1964 earthquakes, they clarify that even though the worst problems will be where fill is located, there is also expected to be ground failure problems in areas without fill.

The conclusion of the report states:

  • Widespread liquefaction is expected to occur in a design-level ground motion…Significant liquefaction is likely even if the motion is considerably less intense than the design-level earthquake motion.
  • Liquefaction hazards extend throughout the waterfront fill. Major damage to Alaskan Way, the sea wall, piers, and lifelines along the Seattle waterfront could occur in a design-level ground motion.

and: “Widespread liquefaction is also expected to cause lateral movement of the waterfront fill toward Elliot Bay. The amount of movement will be strongly influenced by the seismic performance of the sea wall. Sea walls retaining similar liquefiable soils have failed with large lateral movements in past earthquakes. These lateral soil movements would occur in an irregular pattern and could induce large differential movements of the viaduct’s foundations. These lateral foundation movements could cause multiple sections of the viaduct to collapse.’

“The amount of lateral movement of the seawall is difficult to predict. Rough calculations for a particular section with a particular wall type indicate that lateral movements will be on the order of 3 to 4 feet.”

I suspect that the Federal Highway Administration would consider having a large part of the water front pushed 3 to 4 feet: “large ground displacement”

A local civic engineer said that liquefaction won’t be a problem, because the tunnel will be dug under areas most likely to liquefy in a quake–to be dug in soil that is highly compacted because of the weight of past glaciers.  That doesn’t fit though, since there is a  report by the Multi-disciplenary Center for Earthquake Engineering discussing how different soil types may cause damage to tunnels depending on the soil types. It is interesting because they in that report, they assume that the tunnel that face damage are  situations where they are built through rock with a layer of liquefiable soils on top. According to their findings, Tunnels through rock face a high risk of damage from ground displacement above the rock layer.

Our tunnel isn’t going to be built through rock with liquefiable soils above it.  In our area, we aren’t sitting on a layer of rock, we are, instead sitting in a large sediment filled basin .    If a tunnel built through rock faces damage if the soil above it liquefies, imagine how a tunnel though just compacted soil is going to do?  The key message of the report is that tunnels and soils that are prone to fail really shouldn’t be mixed:

“Ground failure can include different types of ground instability. These can include faulting, liquefaction, and tectonic uplift and subsidence. Faulting occurs when an increase in stress causes rocks to break. Liquefaction is a phenomenon in which the strength and stiffness of a soil is reduced by earthquake shaking or other rapid loading. … These phenomena have been responsible for tremendous amounts of damage in historical earthquakes around the world. Each of these hazards could possibly be detrimental to tunnel structures (Merritt, et al. 1985).”

How does the location of the tunnel relate to that?  Well, we’ve pretty much got it all.  Liquefaction, and expected uplife and subsidence at that spot.  The heights of West Seattle is an example of previous uplift nearby.  I used Google Earth to overlay the locations of liquefaction mentioned in the report and the map of the liquefaction areas caused by Nisqually from PEER map The red dots are areas that experienced liquefaction, the yellow line at the bottom of the picture is one of the identified strands of the Seattle Fault.

There is a very good chance the tunnel will actually cross an active fault strand. The fault’s fracturing of the surface created an magnetic anomalies that created a pretty clear picture of its location. In areas with less development, it has been possible to do trenching and confirm strand locations, but in downtown Seattle there has been so much development for so many years it is almost impossible to hope to find an area where digging trenches will lead to exposing evidence of the fault. If you look at the image of the anomaly, you can see that it appears to go right over the proposed entrance of the tunnel (The image below is from here but I believe the original this report .)

Reading local media, the only real discussion of tunnels and earthquakes is a mention that during the last earthquake in San Francisco, the tunnels did OK. Yet, the literature on tunnels in earthquakes is clear, the fact is, there is a long history of tunnels being damaged in earthquakes, and the analysis is that the most likely conditions for severe damage is proximity to faults (0.97 miles from identified fault strand), ground displacement, and moving from different soil types (part of a tunnel being held securely by one type of ground, while another part of the tunnel is pulled and twisted)-all inevitable conditions of this tunnel.

And of course, if the liquefiable soils, and the proximity to an active crustal fault was not enough, the entrance of the tunnel is in the area where a tsunami has happened before.

Tsunami Map of Elliot Bay
Tsunami Inundation Map of Elliott Bay

So far I’ve read about the risks of cost overruns with this tunnel, but just about no talk about actual physical risk, ‘catastrophic risk’ as the DOT says.  When are we going to start talking about that?

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Flood Safety Week, Depiction Webinar

 In honor of Flood Safety Week in 2010, I accepted Depiction software’s invitation to do a webinar.  The full webinar is at: 

The actual presentation is below (without enough text to really make it clear why it has a mad scientist, why the brain…)

View more presentations from Carol Dunn.

Here is a workbook that I created last fall for the city of Bellevue to help Bellevue employees located in areas that flood reduce their risks.

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Intensely moved by Haiti? Pause.

The situation continues to be heart crushing. A lot of people are on the verge of making life changing decisions to commit to adopting a Haitian child, to using their savings to move heaven and earth to help, to devote their life to the allieviation of suffering.  I predict that in upwards of 90% of the cases in people who aren’t already active and trained in emergency response,  that decision is going to turn out to be a mistake.

We often don’t understand our basic selves

In my previous post I wrote about typical behaviors people who, in real time, witness excruciating suffering of others. When people are in a calm state and then suddenly focus on the real time intense suffering of others, the most likely response will be for our systems to trigger a stress response that floods our bodies  with naturally produced chemicals that strongly incline us to adopt behaviors that have been proven to trigger actions increase the chance of survival in species aroung the globe for eons. We humans have other built in behaviors that lead us to reject that we have automatic responses, to trust that our thinking brains are the bosses and can outsmart our subconscious mind if we are tough enough or talented enough. This, because this misunderstanding has caused a lot of people to interpret their natural and automatic reaction as being proof of internal weakness and failure–creating fuel for long term revisions of expectations and suffering. It sucks, because it has been proven to be incorrect , the recent PBS Series This Emotional Life had a Stanford Neurologist who explained that there are literally millions of pathways from our subconscious brain to our conscious brains, a mega super highway, but there are no direct pathways back. They’ve recently been able to use Neuroimaging technology to prove that our subconscious minds signal what decision we are about to make as much as 10 seconds before we think we have made our decision.

Tend or Befriend

The automatic stress response that we need to examine today is the mixture of brain chemicals that flow through our bodies pushing us to ‘Tend or Befriend”. Something scary happens, all of us, but women far more, are flooded with chemicals that prompt us to go rescue our objects of care (children/older adults) Let’s let mama kitty demonstrate (40 seconds in):


Cats are like people, they are also sure that they are totally separate and superior to other animals, they aren’t as social as we are. Ants are social creatures, in a crisis what would ants do?

Social creatures are compelled to rush to help, rush to share in the suffering. And thank goodness. This behavior is integral to our survival, crucial. But it can also be bad.

How can it be bad that we rush to help?

Let me count the ways:

1. Feeling the intense compulsion to rush to help indicates a traumatic stress reaction Our biology is built around the idea that we have short term bursts of intense stress, but then we go back to normal. The stress response is very bad for us though. It causes our immune system to shut down, it inspires us to sacrifice our long term plans, it makes it hard to focus on immediate needs, even family and jobs (part of ‘sacrificing long term plans’) It disrupts sleep, frequently sparks depression, a loss of faith in the rest of the community, feelings of social isolation and anxiety.

2. We have become just smart enough to realize that you can get people to do things that help you if you can trigger their automatic responses, but not smart enough to realize that this is harmful. so in modern life we have organizations of all sort working to nurture and extend the continued production of the brain chemicals to keep the stress response going. As long as we do we will ‘keep watching’ ‘keep giving’, etc. Since we are so out of touch with how our brain works, these organizations most likely don’t even realize they are doing it. Since they are advocating the same behaviors that the stress response is pushing you to take, it feels entirely normal, and even very important to keep doing it.

3. It leads to messed up priorities and bad decisions Our brains work in a way that lets our subconscious have the primary vote in almost every thing we do. It tells us how we feel about things, and unless we are careful, we will go rushing off doing things that ‘feel logical’ but actually aren’t. We feel great doing them to! ‘Tend and befriend’ leads us to strongly desire to reach out and help. That’s why you get so many people donating totally inappropriate junk and feeling so good about it. The stress response also inspires a state of hyper-vigilance–that’s why it felt so logical the first thing we needed to do in Haiti was to get camera crews there. That’s why so much of our efforts haven’t been directly improve the situation on the ground, but to improve our ability to visualize it. Map it, photograph it, read about it. That feels great, too bad that still now, the only Americans hundreds of thousands of Haitians have seen have been carrying cameras and not aid. Why we succeeded in getting all of our anchors on the ground, lots and lots of PIOs and public officials–but didn’t succeed in getting almost half of the Search and Rescue teams there–they couldn’t fly in, the airport was too full of the planes carrying all the cameras.

This poor 71 year old woman, here she is talking to an American telling about how she is less than a mile from the airport but is starving to death. The American face she saw was getting to help us, to feed into the story, it wasn’t to help her. Oh, but you have to tell the story to get people to donate. Which, is another way of saying, you must tell the story to trigger the traumatic stress response that will trigger the flood of donations. Currently, the vast majority of our efforts are to restore the funding of our non profit organizations, we feel so good about it, we haven’t even stopped to ask if the organizations actually do the functions we are imagining they do. Organizations do specific things, they do not make up what they do to fit the need of each crisis. This is a good thing, it means they can focus on being very good at the functions they perform, but there seems to be a disconnect on understanding that. The non profits need to work a lot harder to explain exactly what they won’t be doing, what the limits to their capacity and skill base it–since backlash definitely does happen once the disconnect is noticed. I haven’t really seen that. Lots of effort to keep the shower of donations (ie stress response) not a lot to clarify expectations. I can imagine why it would be so hard to provide information that might slow down the flow of funds at a time when the funds are so dearly needed. But it would be better for all of us if they did.

The Red Cross has a surge of volunteers with every disaster, one of their greatest frustration is that the majority of them never come back and volunteer in their community. Those volunteers made a decision to devote their life to helping during the stress response, but when it ended, for most of them, that devotion ended as well. That’s OK, that is totally and completely natural. This is why it is important for anyone who suddenly wants to adopt an orphan (or for anyone who wants the US to adopt a country) to wait until they are sure the effects of the stress results are past. You can discontinue your volunteer activities if it turns out the fit wasn’t right, it is far more harmful to realize you want to discontinue your parental activities. If you didn’t want to adopt a Haitian child before this event, probably around 85% of people will realize they didn’t want to again once it is past.

4. It can lead to neglecting our communities The rush to help is a part of an intense stress response that has bad long term repercussions on our health and psyche. We are pushed to sacrifice long term plans to meet short term needs–that means paying less attention to the parts of your life that really need your attention, when the stress response is triggered because of something in your community, directly affecting your life, this is a really good thing, it means that your community can be vastly improved. Through the wonders of technology, it can now be triggered by something that is very far away, and that is also happening with hundreds of millions of people around the planet, it means that you have hundreds of millions of people sacrificing in small and large ways, the interest of their immediate family and community to help far away, in a place they hopefully can’t get to, since if they did, it would turn out to matter that they don’t have the skill sets, resources or psychological training to do any good in. If every person who feel desperately driven to get to Haiti could, the number of people needing help go up to include 99% of them. In the mean time, a teenager’s decision to reveal what’s been bothering them wasn’t even noticed as the parent shush’s them to continue to think intensely about what they can do… It feels logical not to get that project done, work will understand. So we end up making sure that the people who really can’t afford to create earthquake safe buildings have them built for them, while not noticing that most US cities where earthquakes happen have huge swaths of buildings occupied by the people with the fewest resources, that have a good chance of failure in quakes. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to teach ourselves to feel that need to rush to prevent suffering until we have our ‘help’ responses triggered by the group suffering.

5. It can lead to the creation of more heartless people Stress responses have an emotional and physical toll on our bodies and our lives. They mean that it is really hard to focus on meeting the needs of daily life. People who need to function often over react by teaching themselves not to care about suffering. The easiest way to do this is to dehumanize or belittle the harm that is happening to others. If you don’t care, you won’t have these emotional responses and you will be able to continue to get things done and think rationally. The better that organizations get at triggering stress responses to get help and donations, the more they will find that ‘compassion fatigue’ sets in–the higher the number of people who will adopt thick protections against feeling anything due to other people’s suffering. This is not because people are bastards, people become bastards as a way not to have to stop functioning to feel. OK, some people are born bastards. Just are.

What can we do?

I’m not expecting this post to be read by many, and I suspect it won’t be forwarded much. I’m not a good enough writer to explain things well enough for this post to be retweeted- and the post is telling anyone in a stress response that they aren’t acting of their own free will, and worse, that maybe they are making a mistake. How can helping be a mistake? This post is the equivalent of one tiny person standing in front of a flash flood of subconscious driven emotion. But here’s what I think we need to do:

Teach yourself to tell the difference between innate responses and actual needs We can feel good about taking action, so we miss that the action we took didn’t actually meet the needs of the situation. This is tricky because chances are, if it becomes obvious, the ‘doer’ can end up wanting to withdraw, losing hope, or feeling frustrated. What is needed is to be able to recognize the common reactions, and be careful to compare what actions you are taking vs. the larger picture, and adjust our thinking to match.

We need to recognize that ‘capturing the story’ does more harm than good. It feeds our ravenous hyper-vigilance needs, not the needs of the situation. We need to recognize that ‘telling the story’ of our actions ends up flooding the information stream with pictures of us doing good works–the survivors don’t have PIOs, so there are no pictures of them. It also implies that we are having a much greater effect than we are having. If focus was on the fact that international aid hasn’t been able to make it to very many places, than chances are there would be a lot of good ideas coming in on how to do better. A lot of disaster response turns out not to be very good because our we easily mistake feeling good about doing something our subconscious wants (hyper-vigilance) it becomes hard to recognize the real situation.

This is because those that hold the cameras are create the historic record.  The people with the cameras create a false version of history.  Particularly when every photograph taken is calculated to ‘tell the story’, it becomes necessary for the donation receivers to portray themselves as heroes to justify the donations.   History then, records  the situation being that the group most affected by the disaster were saved by the outsiders who took so many pictures of that happening.  The people who have endured the absolute brunt of the disaster don’t have time, experience or equipent to calculate ways to tell their story.  For days upon days, actual international assistance didn’t get further than a few blocks—a couple of hundred, maybe even a couple of thousand people.Very important for the people reached, but barely anything when compared to the sea of suffering: 2 million people needing help. The rest of the rescues, the rest of the heroic acts-those weren’t photographed, so they disappear as if they never happen.

Put pressure on organization and people to never using the suffering as a marketing tool It seems like this would be obvious, but the problem is that it is so effective in generating what people need: donations, income, attention, good PR, hyper-vigilance, narrative creation. It needs to stop though, it is harmful. Having the ability to do something to help, like giving donations, is an important part of the recovery process from grief and traumatic stress-it helps the community bond and start the slow process of neutralizing the negative stress chemicals that were pumped into our system with positive ones. The current way it is done, though, needs to stop, cultivating our stress responses. After a shared emotional scar, we will be donating. We need to be able to start the process of recovering from the injury, not to have it purposefully kept raw so we can keep donating. From this point on, only donate to organizations who solicit donations by telling what they will be doing, and how they think they will succeed in doing it. Donate to those that say: ‘you donate this, we will combine it with X more and ‘charter a boat’, ‘pay for shipping’, etc. If this was the standard, it would become very clear who can actually do something and who can’t, which will help our ability to be sure our donations actually get where we want them to, actually do the things we want them to. I don’t know how to get the media to recognize the harm they have caused by flying in all of their media personalities to get good footage of them rescuing people. Gosh, that really got great ratings, too bad about the airport bottleneck.

Focus your feelings towards alleviating suffering in your community by reducing the causes of suffering. Teach yourself to recognize this. The big international events literally have hundreds of millions of people hoping to help. If you weren’ t already active in that community, or already trained in response, you will probably have the greatest positive effect if you channel your drive to help the community you live in.

Ready to radically change your life? Let’s hold off for a bit. You may suddenly realize that you need to change your life to help others. This is a wonderful thing, but there is a good chance your feelings are a result of the natural reaction you are experiencing to so much suffering. If you radically change your life now, there is a good chance that you will find yourself either regretting your decision, finding it has caused massive distress within the relationships that you already have. Often, when the stress chemicals finally start to neutralize, you will work to keep them going so that you can continue to feel the fire, but doing so will have a negative long term impact on your life. Take 6 weeks to stop this stress response and restore your homeostatic chemical balance in your brain–then decide. You very well may still choose your new path, and when you do, you will be able to make the massive life transition more deftly, and with much greater effect. The better the quality of your decision, the better you can help others.

Find your way back to feeling normal

If your emotions are strong enough that you feel as if you are losing faith in the community or yourself, please reach out and talk to someone who has devoted their life to this field, and who is recognized by a larger body to be qualified to help. A good first step is to call a mental health hotline. It can feel very difficult to call on your own behalf, directing thoughts inward can lead to feelings that you are putting at risk all your ability to keep it together-but once you get started, it turns out you can talk about concern for yourself without losing control’. In the Seattle area the number for Crisis Clinic is 1-866-427-4747. In many communities in the US you can dial 2-1-1 to get a list of social resources that may have a list of providers.

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