The God Protocol: In Search of a Common Ethical Approach to Disaster Response

Eric Soucie

Executive Summary

 

Domestic disaster relief in the United States has undergone various changes in terms of public expectations, legal authorities, and operational approaches over the last several decades. Some have argued that this trend has gone too far while others argue it has not gone far enough in placing a particular burden, by way of expectation, on government—especially at the federal level—to gird us for catastrophe. Philosophers, practitioners, politicians, preachers, reporters, and average citizens all have their own views on the subject, informed by their unique circumstances and sources of knowledge. This thesis is an attempt to bring together these various disciplines as common sources of knowledge. My aim is to demonstrate, through this search for a common ethical approach, the dialectic between the physical and the metaphysical, and move all partners toward a more common understanding and a greater consonance of views.

Extant guidance in the U.S. domestic disaster response environment makes only passing mention of ethics or values. There are few examples of easy-to-use, accessible ethical frameworks to approach resource allocation. While these few examples allow communities to adopt ethical frameworks that best adhere to their values, the scarcity of examples also leaves open the possibility that a community may not adopt any ethical framework at all. Without a filter through which to pass values-laden questions, disaster response will be planned through mechanistic and bureaucratic processes. Given the limited time for ethical reflection during a crisis—especially if these frameworks are not developed in advance of a disaster—both elected leaders and public safety officials are exposed to questions about the sufficiency of their actions and the legitimacy of their authority.

This thesis attempts to answer the question: Is it possible to establish a common ethical approach to resource allocation in response to a catastrophic disaster? It does this by providing two primers that build upon the literature review, the first on the philosophical basis for ethics in disaster relief, and the second on the concrete, practical realities, or evils, of disaster relief, which are often in conflict with abstract philosophies. Philosophers, sociologists, and political scientists describe broad phenomena related to human activity, the ways we think, and the ways in which we engage with each other. While disaster response is an inherently action-oriented profession, an understanding of the philosophical basis for domestic disaster relief is critical to setting parameters for any action. The first primer provides an overview of the abstracta related to disaster relief in the United States. These abstracta include not only elements of moral philosophy (ethics) but also elements of the social contract, the implications of America’s federalist system, religion, the bureaucracy, and media and the public sphere. The second primer recognizes, however, that human activity is governed by stricter practical realities, referred to as concreta, such as neuroscience, physics, geography, biology, human physiology, and economics. The interplay of these practical forces creates additional evils that are fundamental to understanding the ethical implications of disaster relief in a real-world context.

A single case study reviewing the Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) provides a focused, threaded scenario to illustrate the interplay of the philosophical and practical issues. This case study is designed to put the reader in the mind of the survivor, as well as in the minds of local, state, and federal emergency management officials. By doing this, it builds a framework around disaster logistics focused on empathy, considering the practical and ethical dilemmas faced during each phase by key stakeholders. The CSZ is named for a nearly 800-mile long area along the coast of the Pacific Northwest. The U.S. Geological Survey notes that earthquakes as recent as 300 years ago show the potential of a “great earthquake” and tsunami along the CSZ.[1] When the CSZ fault line ruptures, the North American plate will actually drop up to 30 feet, producing that earthquake. A full rupture could generate a 9.2-magnitute earthquake, with shaking lasting for up to five minutes, generating a Pacific-wide tsunami with waves ranging from 12 to 80 feet high. Those waves could reach the U.S. and Canadian coast 10 to 30 minutes after the shaking begins. According to modeling data, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) expects roughly 13,000 fatalities, and double that number in injuries, during a disaster of this magnitude.[2] Life-saving missions will take priority in the immediate hours and days following the event, with search and rescue teams and medical teams probing into the hardest hit areas, covering a geographic area of 100,000 square miles.

With media coverage from major national magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic in recent years, the media, with the help of worried government officials, have raised the specter of this great earthquake in the American consciousness. Experts disagree on the exact timing, but generally agree on the looming potential for catastrophe. There seems to be a consensus among experts, best expressed in a report by Oregon’s Secretary of State, that “There is no way to prevent such an event from happening.”[3] With that air of inevitability, CSZ is both a useful thought experiment to illustrate ethical dilemmas and a practical lesson for a likely worst-case disaster.

The case study research and application found that while the social contract creates both rights and expectations, government response cannot be assessed solely on the basis of quantifiable outcomes. The measure of effectiveness for response remains largely socially constructed due to the discursive framing by the various actors involved in disaster response. The media can drive the debate during the response, while citizens, both near and far from the disaster area, can pass judgment on government performance at the ballot box. While a common ethical approach to disaster response may be overly ambitious, this thesis recommends various procedural remedies to achieve greater consonance in ethical approaches. The following general procedural remedies are recommended to move U.S. domestic disaster relief toward a more common ethical approach.

(1)               Rethink Our Preparedness Campaigns

Messaging before a disaster should be reconfigured in a way that is relevant to the specific issues and impacts that a community might face after various types of disasters, and that messaging should be realistic.

(2)               Integrate Design Thinking into Disaster Planning at All Levels

Domestic disaster relief demands that the user perspective from which we design our plans must contain a degree of empathy for each and every individual citizen. This helps reinforce the social contract and provides a unique way to engage citizens.

(3)               Reinvigorate and Redesign the Civil Defense Warden System

Wardens would be trained in risk assessment, to understand the threats and hazards faced by their community, and in the analytical models and information sources that should inform action before, during, and after a disaster. Rather than the artificiality of receiving information of questionable veracity on the internet, through mass media, or by word of mouth, the warden becomes a natural mode of trust for those in his or her ward.

(4)               Consider Making Exceptions to the Rule: The Rules in Catastrophes

Plans need to assume that existing rules, policies, or practices will be waived, exempted, or simply ignored during a crisis. State and local planners could benefit from a similar cataloguing of waivers and exemptions. Plans should reflect more courses of action, or “plays” that have been used successfully in past disasters; the plans should lay out both practical and ethical risks, with a menu of options for policy changes (or, in extreme circumstances, changes to law during the crisis). Through indexing waivers, exemptions, exceptions, and the litany of practical and ethical pitfalls facing specific operational approaches, emergency plans could not only provide officials with broader decision-making authority but also retain guardrails that reflect hard limits on ethical values.

 

 

[1] Laura Zink Torresan, “Cascadia Earthquakes and Tsunami Hazards Studies,” U.S. Geological Survey, July 15, 1998, https://walrus.wr.usgs.gov/earthquakes/cascadia/.

[2] Kathryn Schulz, “The Really Big One,” The New Yorker, July 20, 2015, www.newyorker.com/
magazine/2015/07/20/the-really-big-one.

[3] Dennis Richardson and Kip Memmott, “The State Must Do More to Prepare Oregon for a Catastrophic Disaster” (report 2018-03, January 2018, State of Oregon), 2, http://sos.oregon.gov/audits/
Documents/2018-03.pdf.

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