Tuesday 1 September 2015

Monetising misfortune

What is a natural disaster?  Sometimes it is clear that nobody is to blame but the Wrath of God. The only thing we can blame for the Darwinday Storm of 12 Feb last year is the goddamn butterfly that flapped its wings several weeks earlier in Martinique.  That storm made a mess which cost me hours of time and a couple of thousand euros in clean-up costs.  But I just had to suck it up and play the hand the weather dealt me. It actually made me reflect that we are fortunate to live in Ireland where outrageous weather is so rare.  In the case of the Dolgarrog Dam Disaster, the massive and almost unprecedented dump of rainfall in the days before would have passed through and out to sea if the directors of the Aluminium company hadn't built a substandard dam.  Clearly there it was the interaction terms that 'caused' the disaster: if the directors hadn't wanted to increase capacity then that dam would never have been built; if the rainfall had been less, the dam would have held. If anybody thought to hold the company accountable for the death and destruction of 2nd Nov 1925, nobody a) went to jail or b) got paid compensation for their loss.

Fast forward 90 years: you can now find somebody to blame for almost every accident that happens and because of the rise and rise of the insurance "industry", that somebody can be induced to cough up €'000s for your present and future pain, costs and/or humiliation. I'm told that some people make a steady income from slipping on spills in supermarkets. It's often cheaper to pay up than start instructing your legal team. And your legal team may just advise you to pay up aNNyway - witness the Panti "homophobe" shakedown of RTE last year. The Irish Health Service Executive HSE has a default position that their employees can do no wrong, so you have to sue for redress when things go wrong: perinatal anoxia causing cerebral palsy for a multi-million € example. Suing for help to bring up your desperately handicapped child is a grossly inefficient way of readjusting the wealth of the country so that The Least have a certain minimal standard of care. The current process rather enhances the disparity of wealth: successful litigating barristers are the chaps with the mansions. The parents of the handicapped who have no reasonable or even unreasonable grounds for suing the midwife or the surgeon have to make do with their own resources or secure help from the Jack and Jill Foundation: no mansion for them, they're lucky to get a wheel-chair ramp.

On 15th August 1952, a Dolgarrog disaster overwhelmed the village of Lynmouth in North Devon.  The village grew up at the mouth of the River Lyn which rises as several streams up in Lorna Doone country on the wilds of Exmoor and spills prettily out into the sea through a gap in the cliffs. After a wet August had saturated the ground on perennially soggy Exmoor, a monsoon quantity of rain [230mm! the third highest 24hr amount recorded in the UK] fell in 24 hours.  This filled the rills and becks to brimming, eroding the banks and toppling trees and other debris into the water courses. These natural impediments to the water's flow proved but temporary and the 'natural' dam gave way catastrophically when sufficient water had built up behind it. 90 million tons of water came down in a hurry. In the town, the river had, over the course of years, been covered over to improve traffic flow and foot-fall for the businesses along the street.  These culverts were overwhelmed and the swollen river took the shortest path to sea carrying a maelstrom of tree-trunks, boulders and the wrecks of houses. All the boats in the picturesque harbour and several dead bodies were swept out to sea, never to be recovered.  34 people died and more than 400 were rendered homeless.  But nobody looked for a scapegoat to sue. In those days, the UK had a National Health Service and a certain socialist mentality, despite a Conservative government, so the people of Lynmouth weren't thrown entirely on their own resources to rebuild their town.  Looking for someone to blame who would give you a handsome payout was still foreign to our mentality.  It was still foreign 20 years later when negligence and poor engineering killed so many people in Flixborough; nobody thought to ask directly for monetary compensation for the loss of their husband even if he was the breadwinner for the family.

It was, as I say, a wet August, but the BBC's "North Devon experienced 250 times the normal August rainfall in 1952" is not only incredible - in implies that 2 meters of rain fell in the month - it is also wrong!  Each year since 1860, the UK Met Office has produced an annual compendium of weather statistics, which for 1952 is 220 pages of maps, tables and narrative.  That source reports that Exmoor endured 425mm of rain that month, including the 230mm on the 15th.  That's about 4x the long-term average for August.  Don't accept uncritically anything you read on the interweb . . . no not even the BBC.  If you're inclined to question the accuracy of the rest of the BBC's coverage of the disaster, I feel you'd be within your critical thinking rights.

49 years later, during a slow news time [the English Press refer to August as the Silly Season], the BBC came up with a story that had the ring of truthiness: the Lynmouth disaster had been caused by Operation Cumulus a cunning Cold War plan hatched by the Ministry of Defense for selective downpours to bog down the tanks of the Soviets as they swept into Western Europe. Apparently, they had been sending aircraft up above the clouds and seeding them with dry ice, silver iodide or common salt to form precipitation nuclei that would translate into rain. In the intervening years, the truth of Operation Salt-spray of September 1950 had come to light: the USAF threw [mildly] pathogenic bacteria out into the air above San Francisco to see where Red biowarfare agents might finish up. Needless to say, key Top Secret MoD files about Operation Cumulus were 'missing' but eye-witness testimony from a cloud-seeding pilot was dug up which was implied to have caused the downpour; despite the fact that the quotable pilot was operating in Bedfordshire 300km to the East. Meteorologically qualified people say this is nonsensiness.

My point being that if Lynmouth had happened in 2001, the Air Force would have been sued up the wazzoo and/or an endless tribunal of enquiry would have been called. Sometimes, folks, shit happens and you can't blame, let alone sue, anyone.

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