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I was camping eight miles away from the Southern California fires two years ago as they were moving nine miles an hour. The news came over our radio just moments after my friend and I had pitched our tent on the clean white sands of the Laguna Beach shore, finally reaching the ocean promised land after driving cross-country for weeks--a post-college, pre-real world adventure. Our trip, so far, had been very real. Surreal, in fact. We'd hit ice storms in Texas. We'd passed flooded homes floating in the middle of the Mississippi River. These fires weren't much of a surprise to us. Walking toward the small town of Laguna Beach, we joked about what was next. Famine? Pestilence? Plague?

And then we saw the fires. There was a narrow street that ran up a hillside, lined by pastel-trimmed shops, all with signs in their windows that read, "Closed Due to Fire." The fires were not eight miles away. They were on that hillside, three blocks from where we stood, creeping down, so close we could see where the yellow of the flame merged into the orange, where the orange merged into the red. So close that we could hear the crackling of burning wood on trees, on homes. So close that we could feel the smoke caking our throats, stinging our eyes.

It didn't take long to tear down camp, shove everything we had into the back seat of our VW bug, and head north toward a friend's in Irvine. The traffic was as thick as the smoke blanketing it, blowing south from the Laguna Hills, north from San Diego. The original fire, sparked by an abandoned campfire in the Cleveland National Forest, had spread--by the dry Santa Ana winds, by copycat fire starters. There were now 14 fires. Still it wasn't until we caught a newscast that we realized the danger we'd been in. At Laguna Beach alone, 366 homes and almost 17,000 acres had burned. That was when I first felt afraid--not of being so close to the fire, but of the power of the fire, of the raw force that, itself, was totally out of control.

I tell this story--one of my best, I'd thought--to Louise Comfort, a specialist in disasters and an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA), as we stand by the fountain at Point State Park. I'd expected the park to show signs of the disaster that happened there in January when a winter thaw flooded all three Pittsburgh rivers and completely buried the park, and some of Pittsburgh itself, in water. But, today, there is no water puddled on the promenade, no twigs or leaves clumped by the boat docks. The concrete is dry.

"The river is behaving very nicely," says Comfort as she gestures over the Monongahela. "On a day like today when the river is quiet and beautiful, when the sun is shining, it's hard to imagine the wall of water that came crashing down here only months ago."

My story of the California fire has the same effect on Louise Comfort as the park has on me--not much of one. Comfort simply nods. She knows disasters. She's spent 16 years studying them. She's been to Kobe, Japan, and to the crash-site of Flight 427. She's been to earthquakes in California, Latin America, and India. She's been to hurricanes and tornadoes. She's been to fires.

"I lost my house in a California fire," she says quietly. Comfort says everything quietly. "Someone once told me that if you study disasters, sooner or later one will happen to you." Though teaching at Pitt since 1984, Comfort had kept a home in Oakland, California, partly because her children were in school there and partly for research. ("There was a splinter of an earthquake fault running through my backyard," she says. "I'd sit in my study, feel a quake, and watch the cracks rearrange themselves on the dining room walls.") In 1991, just after Comfort had returned to Pitt for the fall semester, the Oakland hills caught fire. Ironically, two years before, Comfort had been asked to evaluate interagency communication/coordination during the Loma Prieta earthquake--a 7.1 hit on the Richter Scale only 60 miles south of Candlestick Park where more than 62,000 fans were watching the third game of the World Series.

"I'd made strong recommendations to improve the communication systems," she says. "It was clear, in the 1991 fires, that nothing I'd suggested had been done. Nothing." Crews from the fire department in nearby Berkeley, for instance, had noticed the Oakland fire and pulled their trucks out of their firehouses, ready for response. Under mutual aid agreements, they couldn't respond without a call from Oakland. The call never came--the telephone poles in Oakland had burned down.

The fire had broken out in a backyard on a Saturday afternoon and was put out by the Oakland fire department. But, due to years of drought, the area's natural ground cover, the wild lands, was tinder dry.

"Anyone who knows California wildland fires knows that you don't leave that fire until you're absolutely certain no embers have crept underneath the ground cover," explains Comfort. "I'm certain the new Oakland fire chief did the best he could. He is not a negligent person." But only recently arrived from urban Maryland, the new chief had been trained in structural fires, not wildfire control. He ordered his crew to check back every hour instead of setting up a continuous watch. They checked throughout the night. They checked at 10 the next morning. It was at 10:50 that the hot and dry Santa Ana winds blew in, fanning the embers hidden in the ground cover. When the crew returned at 11 a.m. the fire had exploded across the hillside. They couldn't get near it. An initial decision based on inadequate information caused a backyard fire to swell into a firestorm. 25 people died. Nearly 3,000 homes were destroyed, including Comfort's.

"Because I study disaster, I know that once it's gone, it's gone and what you need to do is look forward," she says. "We've rebuilt our house now. We've made it more seismically safe. It's got every possible bolt and brace I could think of to make it safe." And thus, one finds Comfort in disaster.

There isn't much we can do about natural disasters except be prepared for them. Keep bushes trimmed. Build dams. Move very, very far away from California. Sometimes, if we take precautions, we might actually win a battle against the elements, against these acts of God with sudden, untamed power as fascinating as it is terrifying. Odds are, though, that the earthquake or the tornado or the flood or the hurricane will win. And it's our helplessness during the disaster, our loss in the aftermath, that proves what an unfair fight it had been all along.

So it seems rather absurd that Louise Comfort has focused years of research on disaster management. Yet, when she began her studies in 1980, California was just beginning to address its severe seismic risk. Emergency personnel there desperately needed a better plan of action to prepare their communities to respond to these dangers. Until then, their system was a military one, developed by the Department of Defense. While bomb shelters protected against nuclear attack, they seemed a bit impractical for a quake that lasted 20 seconds and brought 10-story buildings crumbling to the ground.

The theoretical problem, thought Comfort, was decision-making under conditions of uncertainty--a responsibility faced by practicing disaster managers across jurisdictional levels, in public organizations such as fire departments, private ones such as insurance companies, and nonprofit ones such as the Red Cross. The managers, many faced with situations they had never seen before, had to work with people they had never met before, all with different training, all stressed, all with legal liability for life and property.

"You make one bad decision within the first few hours, within the first few minutes--one mistake--and it sets a course of action. That mistake trips another trigger of big mistake after big mistake," says Comfort. After 11 years following disasters, interviewing managers about their responses--good choices and bad--Comfort has created a plan to minimize the risk of making bad ones. She and Pitt computer science professor S. K. Chang have created the Interactive Intelligent Spatial Information System (IISIS), computer software that networks local, regional, and even national decision-makers. In the midst of disaster, emergency managers can exchange new information--simultaneously--as it develops.

"IISIS can get timely, accurate information to the decision-makers at different locations that enables them all to act together, to coordinate their strategies. They're all working against time, and if they each know what the others are doing, what dangers the others are facing, they can adjust their responses as needs change. Then the community can work together."

Comfort compares the communication responses of two recent disasters--the earthquake in Kobe, Japan, on January 17, 1995, and the earthquake in Maharashtra, India, on September 30, 1993. Comfort traveled to both sites. She believes Kobe's response agencies were completely overwhelmed.

"Of course they were prepared," she says. "But they had chosen a technical strategy. They had invested heavily in seismic safety and really believed they had the very best earthquake engineering in the world. They believed their technical construction was virtually earthquake proof. Consequently, they didn't invest in local community preparedness. They had no communication systems other than telephones." The earthquake in Kobe, located in the Hanshin region, Japan's second most populated and industrialized area, struck at 5:46 a.m. Many operations personnel didn't learn of the extent of the earthquake's destruction until they reported to work as usual at 9:30. It wasn't until 11 a.m. that the Osaka gas company decided to shut off the gas. Yet approximately 60 fires ignited within minutes of the quake, ultimately 109 in Kobe, and 294 in the entire region. While the newer, seismically safe buildings remained relatively intact, the old residential buildings not only collapsed but caught fire. All of the urban systems were damaged--water, power, sewage. Kobe went without water for six weeks. The cost has totaled around $200 billion and nearly 5,500 lives.

"The earthquake simply caught them by surprise," says Comfort. "The Japanese are very sobered by this event and now are rethinking their disaster plan with communications and coordination their highest priority."

The emergency managers in Maharashtra, India, made very different choices. In this unindustrialized Indian state, there was little money to spend on disaster management, but India did invest in a satellite communications system. The earthquake occurred at 3:56 a.m. Within four minutes, the local police sergeant went to his station, a tin shed, and sent a message on his wireless radio, handmade from tubes and wire, to the district office 30 kilometers away. The district office, monitored by a 24-hour communication service, transmitted messages across the satellite network to the governor's office in Bombay and to the other district offices in the area. Ambulances were dispatched immediately. The satellite system linked the state capital to the district offices, two-way radios linked district offices to the villages, and cellular phones linked officials within the villages.< p> "The response systems in Maharashtra were organized and mobilized within minutes. Japan had no communication for almost the first day. The contrast is amazing, the results of choices on how to invest resources in preparation for disaster. The Indians recognized they would make the best decisions with good communication. The Japanese took a much more controlled strategy. They thought they could control the risk, control the disaster."

But natural disasters are just that--natural. Unrestrainable. And most people living in the communities where natural disasters strike never dream of being able to control them. Earthquakes occur. We know where they occur. People living in earthquake-prone areas expect them. But there's not much they can do to stop them. It's different, though, with technological disasters--oil spills, nuclear explosions, plane crashes.

"Most of us believe that we control technology," says Andy Baum (Arts and Sciences '70), professor of psychiatry and psychology at Pitt, who studies disaster response from another angle--how people recover from them. "To put it quite bluntly, planes aren't supposed to fall out of the sky, nuclear reactors are not supposed to blow up. If we worried about airplanes falling out of the sky, no one would ever fly anywhere. People would never get in cars if they thought about how dangerous they were. People wouldn't even get in elevators. We assume that the world we build is safe."

Baum's research, like Comfort's, has been one disaster after another. I catch him, during a disaster-free period, in his Forbes Avenue office. The day before, Baum's group returned from a week in Oil City, Pennsylvania, where they had been interviewing residents recovering from an explosion last year at a nearby oil refinery. His data on that disaster, so far, is incomplete. However, 16 years' worth of interviews with disaster survivors, particularly during a recent two-year study comparing six natural disasters with six technological ones, have led Baum to a curious conclusion. He found that technological disasters--human-caused disasters, as he calls them--are more stressful on survivors than natural disasters.

There are two kinds of chronic stress, explains Baum. Commuting back and forth to work every day, working for a person you dislike, standing on a crowded bus are the kinds of things that create chronic stress. Though people who face these types of stressors face them every day, they also recover from them quickly. Chronic stress from disasters falls on the other end of the spectrum. While the actual cause of the distress--the sudden explosion, the tornado touching down--is immediate and short term, the stress persists.

With natural disasters, the effects usually last less than a year, says Baum. The tornado comes, your house is destroyed, you rebuild, and you move on. There's a clear low point; survivors can determine when the worst is over.

"At Three Mile Island, the low point was very diffuse," explains Baum, who studied the residents there for 10 years. On March 28, 1979, several equipment failures at Three Mile Island's (TMI) nuclear power station released 400,000 gallons of radioactive water into the reactor building and trapped radioactive gases in the concrete surrounding the reactor. Not only was TMI the country's first serious nuclear accident, but it occurred in a highly residential area, 10 miles from Pennsylvania's state capital and 100 miles from the nation's capital. Baum mentions something he once heard on a radio talk show: "Paul Harvey was talking about the public's fear of atomic energy. He said that people would be very frightened by electricity, too, if their first experience with electricity had been the electric chair." Radiation--the word alone--brought back terrifying memories of Hiroshima, of death and destruction.

"The residents of TMI didn't really have a low point because there was never a time when the community assumed the worst was over, at least not during the first few years," explains Baum. "They were still worrying about things to come--cancer, birth defects in their children, in their children's children--worrying about 10 years into the future, 20 years. They didn't have a clear beginning of recovery."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) called Baum for input on their proposal to decontaminate the plant. Baum knew that the presence of radioactive substances had caused great amounts of stress and anxiety for the Harrisburg residents. His recommendation: "Whatever you do, do it quickly." The NRC's plan to release all the radioactive gas at one time frightened people. They decided instead to release small, controlled bursts into the atmosphere over 10 days. If they evaporated the water, as they had planned, a thick haze may have lingered over the city for a few days. Even if the haze wasn't radioactive, Baum advised, the residents would think it was. Instead, the water was trucked out. While the gases were being released and while the trucks were driving out of town, many residents showed high levels of stress--high blood pressure, increased breathing and heart rates, anxiety, insomnia, depression. After those events, about a third of the residents never again exhibited evidence of stress. But another third continued to show stress that Baum recorded on subsequent visits to TMI--about once a year from 1980 to 1989.

Many in the community faced constant physical reminders of the accident, even after the plant had been decontaminated. Those who lived within five miles of the area could see the massive, ominous, conical stacks protruding from the landscape. Others lived so close they could hear the loudspeakers on TMI and, like Vietnam vets reacting to typewriters as if they were machine-gun fire, they would remember the accident. "They couldn't get it out of their minds, they couldn't escape it. All they had to do was look out the window, and they would immediately remember what had happened to them. The effects lasted much longer than we had ever expected them to."

I couldn't help but wonder how studying disasters must affect Baum himself. Is it painful, I ask him, to travel to places of such tragedy, to talk with people in the midst of such suffering?

"I'm removed from it," he answers. "As a researcher, I have to be. But it can be very disturbing. I can't tell you that I slept very well for some days after the crash of Flight 427." On September 8, 1994, USAir Flight 427 crashed nose first in a forest only six miles from the Pittsburgh International Airport. A different kind of technological disaster--one without hope. All 132 passengers and crew on board were killed.

"This crash was very hard for people to deal with, even for people just living in Pittsburgh," Baum says. "It was a trauma for the whole city, the kind of thing that is difficult for humans to process and to understand. What does it mean about the world? Humans try and fight the notion that things are random. We don't want to believe that and that makes our lives very difficult to live. What could possibly have caused a tragedy like this? Was it God? And if it was God, why would he do this to these innocent people?"

For the past year and a half, Baum has been studying how the Flight 427 tragedy affected the rescue workers at the site. Though emergency and medical personnel experience chronic stress as a regular part of their lives, those involved in the aftermath of this crash were confronted with unimaginable horrors. Baum is interested in how much above their normal level of distress such an event pushes them. Many of the workers are still responding, even two years later. Some still have nightmares. Some are afraid to fly. Some remember the crash each time they look at their children.

As for me, several days after the California fires had teemed and been tamed, my friend and I drove back to Laguna Beach. The Laguna hills were barren now. Charred. Coated by thick black ash that rustled each time a breeze blew in off the ocean. We felt like voyeurs, gaping at the hills, at the row of homes on the cliff of the hillside--three burned to their foundations, one untouched and pristine, two more burned. We took pictures anyway. And then we saw the golf course, saved from the flames, standing out in the center of this grim, apocalyptic scene like a shiny trophy, spared somehow, by a diligent groundskeeper who had kept the fairway moist, I thought. Bright green. Lush. Ordered.

Disasters don't discriminate. They don't judge. They don't punish. They have no reason or conscience. They don't make choices. They just happen. No matter what we do. No matter if we're prepared for them, or prepared to survive them. Their power is unbridled and mighty. But our readiness can harness a piece of that power, a sense of it when we feel powerless. Control in the face of the uncontrollable. And there, in the hopeless, we can find hope.

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