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Juliette Kayyem is the Robert and Renee Belfer Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she is faculty director of the Homeland Security Project and the Security and Global Health Project. Her latest book is The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning to Live in an Age of Disasters, from which this essay is partly adapted.

It will soon be a year since a wildfire destroyed the village of Lytton in British Columbia. The tragedy is still so raw, the recovery way too slow. The flames that tore through the town during that summer’s western North America heat wave left little in their wake. There was much devastation, but few bodies. Two residents perished in a fire that destroyed 90 per cent of that town. Or “only” two. To say “only” can seem cruel. But the reality also raises the question: How did so few people die from a fire that harmed so much?

This is our global challenge in an era when the consequences of our neglect and the rise of extreme weather events are undeniable and unstoppable: How does a society measure success? Do we say “two died” or “only two died?” This unanswerable, but necessary, question reflects significant changes that are occurring in the field of crisis management as it adapts to a world where disaster, after disaster, after disaster occurs. It is a world where the devil never sleeps.

Those of us who study or work in disaster management are simple people in many respects. Generally, we can divide the world into two time periods: before and after the boom. “Left of boom” reflects the preventative and protective measures that are employed to stop the bad thing from happening, such as mitigating climate change. But, the crisis will happen, the “boom” in our parlance, agnostic as to what the harm might be: a fire, flood, terror attack or pandemic. “Right of boom” represents the response and recovery efforts that occur when people need help and places need to be rebuilt.

As a society, we tend to define success as whether we can stay on “left of boom” and keep the harm at bay. We act surprised, angry or powerless in the face of the disaster, wondering why it has come to pass. In this sense, we remain captive to the genesis of the word “disaster” itself. A disaster is often defined as a sudden, destructive event that brings with it great damage and loss. Its original meaning, from Middle French and Old Italian, comes from the Latin prefix dis, signifying a negative force, and astro for star. Stars were blamed because of the belief that their alignment was responsible for the fate and future of humans. It was thought that when something bad happened on Earth, it was a reflection of some ill-fated star pattern, like star-crossed lovers.

But with this definition, disaster is too often viewed through the lens of luck; the word catastrophe also shares the astro explanation. These meanings put humankind in a passive position, at the mercy of forces we cannot control, always surprised by what the constellations may bring.

Disasters, especially climate ones, should not be a surprise. In studying all kinds of disasters of the past centuries, I came to believe that the word itself had set us on a course of amnesia, supporting our shock and awe, as if we had no agency to manage these disruptive occurrences in a way that made the harm that would inevitably occur less consequential, that made “only two” deaths a sign of success. We so often focus on the past and future, but not the moment of the boom. We debate how best to prevent climate change that causes fires. We seek long-term resiliency in response to those fires. As for our agency to succeed on the day of the fire, well, that’s so often up to the stars.

And in studying disasters of the past centuries, it also is clear that there really isn’t that much new to learn about how to minimize the consequences at that moment when the disruption occurs. It isn’t that you can manage a disaster so that no harm will occur, it is only that there is in fact a connective tissue linking them.

Essentially, we can learn to fail, more safely. And the measure of success will be whether things were, in very technical terms, “less bad” because we prepared for their eventuality.

On April 15, 2013, Boston held its famous marathon. It was the target of a terror attack. I had been Massachusetts’ homeland security adviser in the years before the attack. We tend to remember that day as when two brothers successfully placed two bombs at the finish line, killing three spectators immediately. A tragedy and horror without a question. But there are other numbers: 281 people were injured and taken to area hospitals, many with severe injuries that required amputations.

There were no in-hospital deaths. In other words, if a victim made it to a hospital alive, they survived. Success? Consider the alternative. It was a victory of sorts, certainly “less bad,” and none of it was luck. Preparation, planning and testing the systems of response were a consistent part of marathon planning; the idea of a bomb at the finish line was thought through and practised for. Yes, in an ideal world, early hints of the Tsarnaev brothers’ plans would have been taken more seriously. But we don’t plan for the ideal.

The reasons for our failure to prepare for what we know is coming have many explanations: bad leadership, bad information, bad motivation. But even with the best of intentions, planning for the moment of the boom is still difficult because it bumps up against a phenomenon in disaster management called “the preparedness paradox.”

The paradox of preparation refers to how successful efforts to minimize harm can intuitively seem like a waste of time. If we are prepared, then the harm won’t be so bad, making others wonder why we were all so worked up in the first place. The more successful they are, the benefits of preparing for the “boom” are hard to see and therefore justify. This phenomenon took centre stage for most of us in 1999 because of fears that our computers would not recognize the year 2000 at the end of Dec. 31. In shorthand, it was called Y2K. The fears of what could go wrong captured our global imagination.

Governments and companies went to work and spent billions of dollars to avoid the catastrophe, which threatened every computer network in transportation, financial and critical infrastructure. Then, at midnight in the new century, nothing of consequence occurred. Barely a blip. And almost immediately a new narrative formed: That whole Y2K thing was much ado about nothing. Why did people freak out so much? The fear and relief turned into derision, a bit of a punchline, because the warnings appeared unnecessary. It is, for those in disaster management, a consistent and frustrating irony.

The way to overcome this paradox is to no longer see the disruption as a surprise moment, but as a persistent likelihood. And we have learned a lot from disasters past that can help us for their return, if only we accepted that they will return, again and again. To study disasters is to come to a basic understanding that nothing is terribly new about what works to minimize harm. These include lessons such as the need to have strong situational awareness; to create unity of effort across different disciplines, levels of government and the public and private sector; and to avoid structuring a response on a “last line of defence” since it too will often fail, and instead build layered responses to stop losses as they cascade.

For the fires that will surely sweep through Canada in the future, the best defence is preparing to live when the fires come – not to hope they do not. In any disaster response, the goal is often to try to extend the runway. The phrase describes how longer distances to take off and land a plane provide a safety buffer for pilots. Essentially, we try to buy ourselves some time to avoid greater harm. Homes built with materials to ward off fire spread, the approach now being used in Lytton, B.C.; clutter removed from areas of residence so it doesn’t serve as fuel; early warning and evacuation notifications; roadways built wide enough so that idle cars do not block single lanes; deforestation so that fire ladders do not form between trees – all these approaches are about buying time so that the result is less bad.

We must recognize that success isn’t solely about whether we could stop the bad thing from happening. The Lytton fire vanished the village a year ago, and yet “only” two people died – a tragedy and a success, simultaneously.

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