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How Big Institutions Stymie Disaster Response, and What to Do About It

Jeff Schlegelmilch is keeping busy. This year, as the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia Climate School, where he is the director, marks its 20th anniversary, Schlegelmilch is leading the center’s activities and anniversary events, teaching at the Climate School, and releasing a book.

Schlegelmilch co-wrote the new book, Catastrophic Incentives, with Ellen Carlin, research professor at Georgetown University. In it, the authors draw on their experiences confronting health and other disasters to explain why large institutions like government, the private sector, non-profits, and academia, are unprepared for disasters—both natural and human-created—and how their incentives could be realigned. (The book focuses primarily, though not exclusively, on how these institutions operate in the United States). As Catastrophic Incentives hits the shelves, Columbia News caught up with Schlegelmilch to discuss his book, his reading list, and which disaster manager from history he’d most want to invite over for dinner.

How did this book come about? How did you and your co-author decide to write together, and what did you think each of you could bring to it as authors? 

This book started after my co-author, Ellen Carlin, and I wrote an op-ed early on in the COVID-19 pandemic and were then looking at the range of things we could discuss in another piece. We started discussing doing a series of op-eds, and eventually realized a book would be the best vehicle for saying all we wanted to say.

Essentially, we were looking at all of the discussions around the causes and critiques of the responses to the pandemic after each of us had spent years working on public health preparedness. We realized that there were important undercurrents that were not being talked about, and that there were root causes of why the knowledge available was not optimally informing the response, and that this was not isolated to COVID-19, but was pervasive across hazards.

Carlin brings deep knowledge of health policy, and in particular, health security policy. Her time working with Congress, in think tanks, research institutions and in consulting brings important perspectives on how agencies and governments really make decisions versus how it is perceived, as well as how the private sector engages in these issues. My background brings a broader all-hazards approach, working in and outside of the health sector with governments, non-profits and the private sector. And we both have worked within academia in non-traditional roles, and have rich experiences navigating these bureaucracies that incentivize work that may only be partially aligned with the stated goals.

Your book uses 2001 as a turning point in disaster management. The September 11 attacks, of course, happened that year. What else changed in 2001, about how we respond to disasters?

The anthrax attacks—when letters laced with weaponized anthrax spores were sent in the mail, including to several high profile U.S. media outlets and politicians shortly after September 11—are often a secondary mention in discussing September 11, but probably led to much of the health security funding and attention we have to this day. Additionally, the shift in focus to terrorism across sectors, and the re-organizing of government along with a massive influx of spending affected virtually all sectors. This can be seen with the new degree programs in homeland security that popped up in colleges and universities, new businesses created to consult on homeland security issues, as well as new opportunities and challenges for non-profits and their role in disaster response.

Your title, Catastrophic Incentives, suggests that someone’s incentives are misaligned. Whose?

In the book, we do a deep dive on four areas: government, the private sector, the non-profit sector, and academia. There are many more divisions within these sectors and other areas outside of these. But these are where we chose to focus on. Some of the incentives we look at include how reward systems for career advancement, fiscal solvency, and external stakeholder demands all lead us to make decisions a certain way. These incentives often drive shorter-term solutions rather than more effective and longer-term changes that are harder to see and take credit for. Examples can be seen in how it can be challenging to do applied and interdisciplinary work in academic environments that are built on field specific discovery, how the emotions of donors favor response over preparedness, how shareholder needs can take priority over societal needs, and how voters reward certain types of response but are largely apathetic to preparedness.

So many potential disasters have happened in recent years or seem to be on the horizon: pandemics, climate disasters, military or terrorist disasters. Are there any that worry you the most? Conversely, are there any you think society is more prepared for now than it was 20 years ago? 

This may seem off-brand for someone like me, but honestly we are more prepared for all of them. A lot of money and effort has been invested in systems for response, countermeasures, and information analysis that is materially helpful. Despite my criticism of our disaster management approaches, I know we are better today than we were yesterday. The issue is that we are not as prepared as we should be given all that we have invested and all that we know. And we need to look at how we can be more prepared tomorrow than we are today.

What books have you read lately that you would recommend, and why?

Two books I always recommend are The Strategy Paradox by Michael E. Raynor, and Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, edited by Reza Aslan.

The Strategy Paradox looks at the need to manage uncertainty, and how we are often forced to make commitments before we have enough information to do so. It lays out different techniques for framing uncertainty, and ultimately defeating the paradox through creating and sustaining options instead of making commitments prematurely. This is an invaluable skill in disaster management, and I found myself using these approaches throughout the pandemic, professionally and personally.

Tablet and Pen is a translation project, taking poems, short stories and other literary pieces from the Middle East in different eras. Each chapter begins with a brief description of what was happening geopolitically during that era. The rest of each chapter is works written during that time. It is amazing to see the depth of emotion and the types of work written under the auspices of global events, but often not overtly about those events. This approach creates a new perspective of how it may have felt for many during each era through exploring what was funny, tragic, and otherwise relevant. It is an important window into the experience of the past that this book captures in a way that few others have for me.

What’s next on your reading list?

Mostly e-mails, discussion board posts and class assignments. But in my spare time I am reading Cities at War: Global Insecurity and Urban Resistance edited by Mary Kaldor and Saskia Sassen.

What are you teaching this fall?

This fall I am teaching a course called “Climate Change and Disaster Management.” It is part of the MA in Climate and Society program and is the first course in a new area of specialization in Disaster Risk Management for students in that program. The course covers a range of areas related to disasters, and how they come together to shape how we prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.

You’re hosting a dinner party. Which three thinkers, dead or alive, would you invite, and why? Is there anyone from history you think would have deep and helpful insight into disaster preparedness?

I had the privilege of taking a class in my undergraduate degree with the playwright Ntozake Shange. She exposed us to new works and perspectives that really re-shaped my academic trajectory. I would love her take on where we are and where we are going.

The humor columnist Erma Bombeck is someone I know mostly from her quotes as being funny and on point. I would love to hear more and I think she would be insightful with some much-needed humor in the conversation as well.

I don’t know who the third would be, but someone at the head of a large historical catastrophe. Maybe a Baron during the black plague, or Herbert Hoover, who was president during the Great Depression. Not one of these historical figures was praised for their success and leadership. I fear I may end up disappointed by their egos and flaws. But I’d want someone who failed, and could either reflect on it wisely, or double-down and illustrate the leadership red flags in the face of uncertainty that made things worse.

This story originally appeared on Columbia News.


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