About Jared Wade

Jared Wade is a freelance writer and former editor of the Risk Management Monitor and senior editor of Risk Management magazine. You can find more of his writing at JaredWade.com.

Despite High-Profile Collapses, More Than 10% of the Nation’s Bridges Remain Structurally Deficient

Last week, an oversized truck traveling on a bridge over the Skagit River north of Seattle in Washington state reportedly hit an overhead girder, causing the bridge to collapse into the rushing waters below. Fortunately, neither the truck driver nor anyone else died in the accident.

But now the locals need to come up with a solution, both temporary and long term, to fix the throughway so that the area can resume commerce and travel as normal. They have a plan for short-term fix, according to Washington Governor  Jay Inslee in a press conference. “We’re going to get this project done as fast as humanly possible,” said Inslee. “There’s no more important issue right now, to the economy, to the state of Washington frankly, than getting this bridge up and running.”

This may not have just been some freak accident, however.

As Pew Stateline points out, the bridge was rates as “functionally obsolete.” And WNYC has repoted that “NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman said the bridge had a history of being hit by oversized loads. Before last week’s collision, the most recent incident happened last October.”

Investigations will continue and Washington will certainly devise a lasting solution to crossing the river.

The bigger issue here is that this is far from the only “obsolete” or “deficient” bridge that commuters and truckers are using every day in the United States. In fact, the number of subpar bridges is staggering, according to a Transportation for America report.

Transportation for America explains its view of the problem.

Despite billions of dollars in federal, state and local funds directed toward the maintenance of existing bridges, 68,842 bridges — 11.5 percent of total highway bridges in the U.S. — are classified as “structurally deficient,” requiring significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement.

Two key problems persist: while Congress has repeatedly declared bridge safety a national priority, existing federal programs don’t ensure that aging bridges actually get fixed; and the current level of investment is nowhere near what is needed to keep up with our rapidly growing backlog of aging bridges.

Of course, it’s not like bridges are collapse across America everyday.

But the recent five-year anniversary of the last deadly, high-profile, catastrophic servers as a reminder of just how disastrous it can become when deficient bridges remain in use. Thirteen were killed and nearly 150 were injured when the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapse in 2008.

It seems like it’s only a matter of time until something similar happens again.

How do you manage that risk?

If you’re the governments across the United States, apparently the main method is crossing fingers.

Source: Transportation for America

After Oklahoma, the Tragedy and Science of Tornadoes

The storm that destroyed large swaths of Oklahoma was unfathomably destructive. It’s vast size was frightening, its energy enormous, its tragedy permanently unforgettable. Even with all the tornadoes to ravage the U.S. landscape in recent years, this one is uniquely disturbing. The images of flattened neighborhoods full of shattered-toothpick homes and mangled cars look make believe.

With at least 24 dead and more than 200 injured, the human toll has been massive.

In this video, Moore, Oklahoma, Mayor Glenn Lewis discusses the devastation.

Though difficult, the future of preparing for tornadoes means looking beyond the immediate recovery and tragedy. It means looking for lessons learned and ways to better understand the threat.

Many media outlets are asking the right questions.

Foreign Policy, for example, asked “Why does the U.S. have so many more tornadoes than other countries?” The short answer: It “stems from a mix of climatological, topographical, and geographic factors.”

Such factors mean that the United States averages more than 1,000 reported tornadoes per year while the next-most-hit nation, Canada, only suffers from around 100 reported tornadoes per year. The Wall Street Journal’s contributing meteorologist, Eric Holthaus, broke down some of the weather-reasons that tornadoes occur.

And here is a graphic, from the May issue of Risk Management, that shows where they occur in the United States. The so-called “Tornado Alley.”

(click for larger map)

While the United States’ predisposition to be stuck by tornadoes isn’t questioned by climatologists, a key word is “reported.” In some ways, our ability to understand tornadoes falls behind other natural disasters (namely hurricanes and earthquakes) due to the fact that we still can’t accurately know exactly when or how many tornadoes occur each year. They can be rapidly forming and dissipating funnels of wind, so unless there is someone nearby to witness them or human-made structures to be affected, some go unreported.

Given the progression of development and technology, that is much less so the case in 2013 than it was in 1950. But it is still a factor in our collective ignorance.

For example, the number of reported tornadoes in the United States has risen rapidly over the past 60 years. Some have tried to tie this increase to weather trends or climate change.

But the fact that more are being reported doesn’t necessarily mean more are occurring.

I wrote on the topic for the May issue of Risk Management.

Even in the United States — by far the world’s most frequent victim of twisters — detailed records only go back to 1950. Since then, there has been an average increase of 14 reported tornadoes per year. But any attempt to tie the rise to the weather would be an exercise in analyzing guesswork. Most experts believe this rise is due to advances in science, technology and observational techniques — not to mention the number of homes and businesses that are hit — rather than any objective trend that proves more tornadoes are occurring.

Really, nobody knows — now or then — how many tornadoes occur each year. “Socio-economic factors provide a better explanation for this trend than meteorological ones,” states a report by Lloyd’s of London.

Those who lost loved ones during 2011, a record-setting year for twisters, are unlikely to take solace in this fact. But “despite the anomalous 2011 season,” says the Lloyd’s report, “there is no trend in the number of strong to violent tornadoes between 1950 and 2012.”

In addition to the challenge of knowing how many tornadoes occur, there is the difficulty of predicting when and where they will occur.

The Washington Post‘s Wonkblog, is asking “Why are tornadoes so hard to predict?”

The short answer, from Carbin of the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center:

“There are so many mild adjustments, slight adjustments that can make a huge difference in whether you end up getting the formation of storms. The sensitivity the atmosphere has to ingredients in the formation of tornados and magnifying that slight change in something we can’t even observe can have a dramatic impact on the forecast.”

Still, despite the limitations, things are improving.

It may not sound like significant progress, but even minutes saves lives.

Just 16 minutes before a gigantic twister first developed near Oklahoma City on Monday, the National Weather Service put out a tornado warning.

The tornado warning issued for the region south of Oklahoma City on Monday, May 20, at 2:46 p.m. (Via Mike Smith)

That doesn’t sound like very much time to get out of the way. For many, it wasn’t: At least 24 people died when the tornado ripped a mile-wide path through the city of Moore, Okla.

But those 16 minutes actually represent an enormous advance for weather science. Back in the 1980s, the average tornado lead time was a scant five minutes. Today, it’s about 13 minutes.

What’s more, meteorologists are now able to issue alerts and storm forecasts even earlier, thanks to powerful computers that allow them to run detailed weather simulations. The Oklahoma City area had been identified as an at-risk area days before the twister actually struck. And the National Weather Service’s Rick Smith issued an eerily prescient forecast at 11:30 a.m. Monday, alerting people to the threat of tornadoes that very afternoon.

Just how much more improvement is possible?

Carbin told the Washington Post that “we might be able to get, say, an hour lead-time on a tornado.”

That time frame, as a goal, sounds depressing. It’s certainly going to make tornadoes forever more difficult to prepare for than, say, hurricanes. But then again, it is a lot better than, say, earthquakes, which generally give zero seconds of notice.

As discussed on Wonk Blog, the world has also gotten better at understanding tornado behavior once a storm forms and is detected. This also adds time for those who might be in a twister’s path in a half an hour as opposed to those who reside near its formation.

A journalist from Arkansas I spoke with yesterday also noted another benefit of being able to better predict where a tornado is headed. Historically, throughout many areas of the South and Midwest, tornado sirens and warnings would be issued for very-large areas. Two whole counties perhaps.

This makes sense. Precaution is obviously the best strategy.

But it also has breed complacency. Some locations face many tornado warnings every year, and if multiple “DEFCON Ones” are declared that never present real threats, people naturally start to take safety for granted. The Boy Who Cried Wolf and all.

With better projections on trajectory and more-precise warning systems, however, sirens only have to be sounded for those who are actually at direct risk of the threat. Those who are likely to remain safe for the next two hours may not have to be told to hunker down in their basements. And in time this should lead to a population who comes to have better respect for the warnings of authorities.

Ultimately, this is all still very difficult science.

The truth is that as tragic as this tornado in Oklahoma has been, there will be more. 2011 was a historic year for twisters and the folks in Joplin, Mississippi, certainly share Moore’s pain. Even past residents of Moore feel the current residents of Moore’s anguish, as another devastating tornado ripped through the same community in 1999.

The hope, however, is that through knowledge, science, preparedness and resiliency, all citizens, municipalities and businesses will be more ready tomorrow than they are today for when the next tornado hits.

Hopefully, the next tragedy can be less tragic.

infographic via @Nightline

The First Step to Retaining Top Talent: Don’t Annoy Your Employees

One of the biggest business risks of the coming years and decades will be hiring and — more importantly — retaining top talent. Legions of Baby Boomers are heading out to pasture every day, taking an untold wealth of knowledge with them, so those companies that can get the best of the best from the younger generations will be poised to leapfrog the laggards in their industries.

While most consultants tell organizations to focus on the perks, policies, benefits and workplace atmosphere that will attract the brightest, what about the negative side? What are the aspects of a company’s workplace that deter employees from sticking around?

When it comes to the big issues, my guess is that pay, horrible bosses, uninspiring environments and too much work must rank high on most people’s lists. The people I know anyway.

What about the little things though?

The Institute of Leadership and Management in London took a scientific approach to find out, polling nearly 2,200 managers to determine the most-common annoyances of office workers.

Jargon, poor time management and employees coming to work sick (so-called “presenteeism”) rate highly. And as expected, workers being tardy to work and meetings came in as the number-one irritant of managers.

Guilty as charged on that one, I’m afraid. Sorry co-workers.

Another thing many people hate is a hate I share, however: Trying to use email for everything.

Now, look, I hate talking on the phone, too. It’s the worst. If you’re trying to call me to ask me what time I can meet you for coffee, that’s annoying. And please don’t leave me a voicemail unless your house is on fire. Text or send and email, please. I have things to do, and your accent is not as charming as you think, Ms. South Carolina.

But if you need to discuss the start of a new project, particularly if it’s not some old-hat procedure that we’re both familiar with, then, yeah, pick up the phone. Better yet: If we work in the same office, would you please just walk over to my desk for a chat? It’s really not that far. And it’s just so much more useful. Not everything can be done by email.

That said, this is what makes managing a workforce so difficult.

Some people care deeply about certain issues while others don’t even notice them. Then those not-noticing people have annoyances that don’t rank with person C. And so forth and so on forever.

All this illustrates the incredible difficulty of managing the modern employee.

It’s hard to make everyone happy.

But there is great risk in not even trying. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, they say, but as the race for talent becomes increasingly competitive, companies should be attempting to keep as many of them as happy as possible.

If you don’t, your competitor will.