Review of Robert Muir-Wood's "The Cure for Catastrophe"

Catastrophic earthquakes, flooding and hurricanes are tragic, unpredictable and uncontrollable. Donations flow in quickly to help the rebuilding of communities after major natural disasters, but has the cycle of tragedy and loss of life conditioned society into accepting that such disasters are inevitable? We can’t do much to stop the ground shaking or the wind blowing, but the means to significantly reduce the resulting destruction and loss of life through pre-emptive action to create more resilience to such events, are tantalisingly close.

In The Cure for Catastrophe published this month, Robert Muir-Wood helps us look beyond the dust and the debris to reveal that much of the major loss of life and property from historic natural catastrophes was not as inevitable as we might assume. Even if the events were not preventable the scale of disaster was.

Robert is, to borrow from the world of software development, a ‘full stack’ scientist. He has first-hand experience of the aftermath of many of the major disasters in the last 40 years and a deep knowledge gained from research into events from the last millennium. He has built tools to estimate financial losses to building damage and advised governments on risk mitigation.

Since gaining his PhD in Earth Sciences at Cambridge University Robert has become one of the leading experts in the forensics of disasters. For over 20 years he has built and overseen the development of catastrophe models, the essential software tools to help price wind, flood and earthquake insurance for over 50 countries.

Catastrophe modellers extract the key information in reports from thousands of damaged buildings. They match it to data from anemometers, satellites and seismographs. They create the algorithms to embed in the code to run the models that help determine the correct insurance rate. Do that for a few years and it’s hard not to pick up a strong sense of how to make buildings less prone to failure during catastrophes.

Robert is now expanding his activities to help build societies that place a stronger emphasis on creating resilience to disasters. In the first 12 chapters of The Cure for Catastrophe he takes us around the world, from medieval Europe to modern day Japan. We visit the disasters we know well (1906 San Francisco Earthquake, Tohoku Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina). We learn about the lesser known but often more devastating, such as Messina in Italy in 1908 when only one building in fifty was left without damage and more than half the population, around 100,000 people, died.

The pace is relentless, but The Cure for Catastrophe is no voyeur’s guide to ‘disaster tourism’. The historic precedents are presented in order to validate the case for the proposed solutions laid out in the final chapter; “The Remedies of Dr. Resilience”. 

Prevention is not simply a case of designing better code. Often the code exists but it’s not implemented. In cities such as Cairo, buildings are so poorly constructed they collapse even when there are no earthquakes– almost 400 in the 12 month period when the authorities first started counting in 2012. Even where the codes do exist and are followed, political and commercial pressures often mean that the code itself is far less rigorously structured than it should be.  

Robert is a master story teller. His writing and lectures have gripped audiences as diverse as school children, reinsurance underwriters and senior government policy makers. Eagerly anticipated by those of us who have heard him talk, The Cure for Catastrophe does not disappoint. The style of writing echoes the curiosity and humour of Bill Bryson, but avoids Bryson’s folksy and occasionally bemused observations of the world around him.

Over the years Robert has amassed an extensive collection of stories about natural disasters. Many are unique, based on personal experience, conversations and research from original source material. He takes us with him down into trenches in the mountains of Algeria to trace the fault lines of displaced limestone. We walk together across whole neighbourhoods of prime ‘slab’, the concrete foundations that stretch six blocks back along the Mississippi coast, wiped clean of houses by Hurricane Katrina.

As Stalin said, borrowing from Rousseau “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic”. The Cure for Catastrophe is successful because we learn not only about the grand scale of disasters, but we see them through the eyes of individuals caught up in events, and those influential in bringing about change afterwards. It’s this personal involvement in the subject that allows Robert to bring to life the tragi-drama that has surrounded the understanding, assessment and often denial of catastrophic hazard. The political and commercial forces that until the middle of the last century were still trying to if not deny, at least downplay, the existence of earthquakes in California continues to be reprised again and again around the world. For over 50 years efforts in the US to properly measure and report on the scale and frequency of earthquake tremors across the country were continually foiled, lest prospective property buyers and wealthy tax payers were scared away by the realisation that they were living in earthquake country.

Sometimes it has been simply impossible to get it right. A slow moving, real life version of the game of stone, scissors, paper has played out in countries such as Japan and the Caribbean Islands as their inhabitants have, over the centuries, tried to build houses that could survive the triple whammy of wind, fire and earthquake. The tendency to respond to the most recent disaster, all too often creates more vulnerability to the next. Wooden buildings are cheap to build but catch fire and get blown down in hurricanes. Build buildings out of brick to resist fire and they fall down in earthquakes.

In the US, regulation keeps insurance rates below the true ‘technical rate’, State sponsored pools for flood cover have rates often set independently of the risk and the government is pressurised to dig into its pocket to pay after a disaster. Where then is the incentive to build the more expensive and often less attractive houses that will remain intact after the next strong wind or storm surge?

The Cure for Catastrophe is a page turner, but it’s not dumbed down into ‘popular science’. It will serve the specialists in this field well, but no prior knowledge is required, just a curiosity for the topic of natural disasters and why things break. Robert sees things differently than many of us. We may have considered the story of the three little pigs and their houses of straw, wood and brick as just a Victorian nursery story. To Robert it’s an early example of product placement for the expensive but fireproof (but not earthquake resistant) brick. He returns later to update the story to modern times with concrete and steel replacing straw, wood and bricks. The pigs that use the concrete in their houses, without the critical reinforcing steel or the right ‘detailing’, get crushed after little more than a gentle shake by the evil wolf.

Like the best detective novels, the reveal for The Cure for Catastrophe comes in the final chapter. The Netherlands has become one of the wealthiest countries in Europe despite most of the country being below sea level. Building and maintaining expensive dykes and increasingly complex flooding precautions has for a long time been a national and local priority. The 175 casualties from the Christchurch earthquake in 2011 came from the collapse of only two buildings, yet over 200,000 died in Haiti the year before from an earthquake of the same magnitude. In Bangladesh the new network of raised community storm surge shelters meant that the death toll dropped from 300,000 in the cyclone in 1970 to just over 3,000 in 2007. Artificially raised grazing mounds and the switch by poultry farmers to ducks (which float) from chickens (which drown) led to less loss of livestock. Chile, with its snake like boundary that wraps around one of the most active earthquake fault zones in the world, has probably done more than anywhere else in the world to protect its building and citizens. The 8.8 magnitude earthquake of 2010, at the time the fifth largest ever recorded, led to virtually no building failures and hundreds, not millions of deaths.

Finally, in the last section “What will a disaster look like in 2030” Robert goes beyond simply revealing ‘who did it’ but projects himself 14 years into the future so he can look back and reveal how, through new technology and global collaboration, catastrophes are starting to be cured. Every aspiring entrepreneur should read these final four pages carefully. I counted at least 17 proposed products and businesses, each playing a critical role in reducing catastrophic loss, that are waiting to be launched. Fertile ground for the new class of “#Catastrotech”?

I have had the pleasure of working with Robert for 25 years, sat in on hundreds of his presentations and spent countless hours on the road hearing his stories, yet I’d only scratched the surface of his knowledge. As a structural engineering student 30 years ago, I was introduced to J E Gordon's classic book “Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down and have re-read it multiple times since. The Cure for Catastrophe is a natural companion to Gordon’s book and I wouldn’t be surprised if it too makes its way onto the reading list of engineers, geographers and earth scientist before long.