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Black Swan Events Require Expanded Thinking, Planning

“Black swan events” are those that exist in the realm of possibility, but are totally unexpected — an aberration of our expectations.

Lance Cpl. Ethan Johnson/U.S. Marine Corps
An aerial view of Minato, Japan, a week after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the area. Photo courtesy of Lance Cpl. Ethan Johnson/U.S. Marine Corps.
Lance Cpl. Ethan Johnson/U.S. Marine Corps
The world has been experiencing a series of extreme events — political, technological and natural. In the realm of disasters, in a little more than a year, we have experienced significant earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, New Zealand and Japan. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is yet another reminder of how devastating and widespread a technological disaster can become.

Japan was hit by a triple whammy: an earthquake, followed by a tsunami and then a partial meltdown of nuclear reactors. This natural disaster led to cascading events, including the deaths of tens of thousands, the evacuation of hundreds of thousands and electrical power shortages that will continue for months. While Haiti’s damages were difficult to watch, they were expected given its status as a poor country with few resources. Because of Japan’s history of disaster preparedness, however, the images that filled our TV screens seemed improbable for an industrialized, modern country.

“Black swan events” are those that are possible, but are totally unexpected. The definition by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb includes: “First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”

While science may point to the potential for future cataclysmic events, human nature is to discount those as not occurring in our lifetimes. Given recent events, however, it’s easy to predict more black swan events that will range from natural to technological disasters and terrorist events.

Emergency managers and their partner organizations must expand their thinking, planning and response capabilities to encompass the “maximum of maximums.” As we plan for the future, we need to envision catastrophes so large that the response and recovery will go far beyond what we have experienced.

In May, FEMA conducted such an event. The National Level Exercise commemorated the 200th anniversary of a New Madrid fault zone earthquake that impacted a multistate region. Superimpose the existing population and the “as built” infrastructure of today over this geographic area and you can imagine how such an earthquake could change the course of rivers and conceivably the history of the impacted region.

As we look for lessons learned from recent disasters, it is critical that we communicate the risks as forcefully as possible to the people who are in positions to make wise decisions on the allocation of resources toward building resiliency in communities. If there’s one thing that we should learn from black swan events, it’s that they are hard to prevent. Their size and scope may overwhelm our feeble attempts to respond. In the long term, it will only be the resiliency of the people, organizations and systems that will change the course of history and the disaster’s impact. Most of the time we can’t change what happens to us, but we do control how we respond and recover.

The editors and staff at Emergency Management magazine pledge our best effort at bringing information to you that can help make a difference when disaster strikes. Visit us online and at our new Facebook page,, and tell us what you are doing. Help us help you by sharing your best practices and lessons learned. We’ll do the rest.

Eric Holdeman is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.