CFS Press

This article appeared in the October-November 2000 issue
of Advanced Rescue Technology

A Flood is a Weapon of Mass Destruction 

by Slim Ray

We have all heard much about the threat of terrorism. Groups with bombs. Groups with guns. And with worse. "A lone madman or nest of fanatics with a bottle of chemicals, a batch of plague-inducing bacteria," said Secretary of Defense William Cohen,"...can threaten to kill tens of thousands." Chemical or biological agents, "inexpensive to produce, yet powerful enough to murder thousands of people—perhaps millions" are being produced right now. Cohen even went so far to call it "the greatest threat that the world has ever known." The question, he said, was not "if" it would happen, but "when."


Thus far, the numbers have not been impressive. According to US State Department, just under 10,000 people (9255) were killed by terrorist groups worldwide between 1980 and the end of 1999, or an average of about 465 people a year. Between 1994 and 1999 sixty-four American citizens died abroad in terrorist attacks. To date there has been only one chemical attack, in Japan, which killed 12 people and injured over a thousand.

The worst terrorist attack in the US during that period was the Oklahoma City bombing, where 168 people died. Other bombing incidents included the World Trade Center bombing (five dead) and the Unabomber attacks, which killed 3 people and wounded 23 over a 17-year period.

All this has generated a lot of attention—and money. The total anti-terrorism budget is now estimated to be over six and a half billion dollars. There are the usual squabbles about who gets which piece of the pie, and how big a slice. It's a big pie, so food fights are common.

Terrorism thrives on the threat rather than the reality. Sun Tzu, the Chinese military philosopher, put it best: "kill one, terrify ten thousand." He would no doubt be impressed with modern terrorists, who, with the help of the international mass media, terrify millions while killing hundreds.

Anti-terror advocates like to worst-case their scenarios. Ted Koppel recently hosted a five part scarefest on Nightline in which a terrorist group released anthrax spores in a subway, killing some 50,000 people in a major U.S. city. Official counteraction was assumed to be pretty much ineffective. However, the only recorded case of bioterrorism, in 1984, was somewhat of a bust. Some followers of a new age guru, in an attempt to swing an election, spread salmonella bacteria on a salad bar in Oregon, sickening some 750 people (there were no deaths).

The reality is that "weapons of mass destruction" usually run up against the same limitation—delivery. Regardless of the deadliness of the chemical or biological agent, the problem is getting enough of it spread around in the right place to do an effective job. Typically most of it is wasted, and terrorist groups lack the means to effectively deliver an agent over a wide area. The attack on the Tokyo subway was a good example. In spite of the coordinated release of nerve gas in the crowded Tokyo subway, only twelve people—not hundreds or thousands—died. Aum Shinrikyo, a doomsday cult, was not a small group of deranged individuals. Its membership was over ten thousand, its net worth was valued in the billions, and they could presumably afford the best.

The reaction to floods, however, is quite different. "Act of God" is what you hear a lot, along with "we did everything we could." Yet floods are a major killer around the world, accounting the deaths of more people than any other type of natural disaster and, in most years, manmade disasters like wars as well. The very fact that flooding is so common, especially compared to terrorist attacks, probably accounts for much of its low media profile.

In strong contrast to the various terrorism programs, there is no national flood rescue program. State and federal programs concentrate instead on protecting property with mitigation and relief programs rather than on saving lives. Yet an estimated 2-300 Americans—and three professional rescuers—die every year in floods. This is far more Americans than are killed in terrorist incidents in this country or abroad, and almost as many as the total number of people killed in terrorist incidents worldwide.

Okay, but the argument is that by using weapons of mass destruction—chemical and biological weapons—terrorists could kill far more than that, maybe tens of thousands in a single incident.

Floods do this all the time. Let?s look at some examples:

We?ll start in the good old days: the Galveston hurricane of 1900 left 6-10,000 dead. It is still the worst American natural disaster. Then there was the flood at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in May of 1889, which killed over 2200 people. The great Mississippi flood of 1927 (to which the "great flood" of 1993 cannot be compared) took a toll variously estimated from 300 to over a thousand.

In fact, the worst natural disasters in U.S. history have been floods. The greatest loss of life, the greatest property loss, the most frequent presidentially-declared disasters—have all been for floods.

How about elsewhere in the world?

A cyclone in Bangaladesh in 1970 drowned nearly a half-million people; and again in 1998 floods from cyclones in Bangaladesh and India killed an estimated 15,000. By contrast the nasty civil war in Sri Lanka is estimated to have killed ?only? 40,000 in twenty years.

Okay, that?s halfway around the world. Let?s look closer to home, like Central America in 1997. Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras and Nicaragua in October 1998. Although wind damage was minimal, the huge storm brought massive flooding in its wake. The dead were estimated at least at 11,000, with an equal number missing.

In 1999 the Serbs began brutally expelling the Albanians from Kosovo, an act that eventually prompted international intervention. Some 10,000 Albanians died in the pogrom. In contrast the floods in Venezuela in December of the same year (which were not hurricane-related), left an estimated 50,000 dead. The exact total will never been known. As a friend of mine who was there remarked, "they stopped counting at 35,000." Overall, nearly 100,000 people world wide are estimated to have died in floods in 1998 in places like China, Vietnam, Mexico, and Pakistan.

Nor was the U.S. spared. Fueled by El Nino-La Nina cycle, hurricanes pounded the Carolinas. Hurricane Fran in 1996 killed 34 people, 21 of them in North Carolina. The real corker, however, was Hurricane Floyd in September 1999. Like Mitch two years before, the storm caused little wind damage but produced record flooding, killing 52 people in North Carolina and 90 on the east coast. One wonders what the reaction would have been to a terrorist attack that killed that many people in this country.

Keep in mind that these are not worst case scenarios from late night TV, or plots lifted from the latest thriller. These events really happened, and will happen again.

The danger of flooding, both in loss of life and property, needs to be taken more seriously and made a national and international priority. The fact of the matter is that time and again, local, regional, and national authorities are totally unprepared to deal with the problems of flood rescue. There is no plan, little equipment, and no training. While billions are spent training and equipping teams to deal with bioterrorism, it is still common to see firefighters on TV news doing flood rescues in their turnouts. Unfortunately, FEMAs Project Impact, which is a good program as far as it goes, deals only with property losses, ignoring loss of life and the problems with flood rescue.

There is even a serious problem with basic flood awareness. "It can?t happen here," is a common sentiment—until it does. Another refrain is "we don?t have any swiftwater here". The plain truth is that if you put enough water into any terrain that is not entirely flat, gravity will make the water flow to the lowest point—swiftly. If you have never dealt with this unfamiliar and dangerous environment, and if you are equipped for it, you are at grave risk. Ten percent of the Hurricane Floyd fatalities were rescue workers.

Because there is no national policy, there is little sharing of lessons learned. For instance, Hurricane Mitch in Central America was very similar to Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina, but the lessons of heavy inland flooding went unheeded. Evacuation gridlock and the need to open both lanes to outgoing traffic is another lesson that has had to be relearned several times.

Meanwhile, extraordinary measures against terrorists continue. After the Oklahoma City bombing, federal court houses and buildings began to resemble fortresses, as did American embassies overseas. Ambitious government surveillance proposals have caused civil libertarians serious concerns about the erosion of civil liberties. The government began organizing and funding heavy structural collapse (USAR) teams, at staggering cost. Yet, although these teams are frequently deployed to floods, proposals to give them even basic personal protective equipment for flood rescue have languished.

I am not saying that the terrorism threat is negligible or nonexistent. What should be obvious, however, is that the emphasis and especially the funding bears little resemblance to the number of lives and amounts of property actually lost.

It?s time to reassess our priorities and treat floods for what they are—weapons of mass destruction.

© Slim Ray 2000 All rights reserved

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