How Lessons from Major Catastrophies Can Guide Dam Safety Practices

The dam safety community has a vital trust: To guard against dam failure, which has the potential to cause great damage to life and property. A look at three major disasters – Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina – provide valuable lessons about risk of complacency, and the importance of preparation, human competency, and the need for accountability.

By Todd E. Martin

Society entrusts the dam safety community with a critical responsibility. Failure of a dam has the potential to cause greater damage to life and property than failure of perhaps any other civil engineering work. In addition, the loss of drinking and irrigation water and of generating capacity can be equally as serious.

However, as the Dam Safety Coalition lamented during its advocacy for a national dam rehabilitation program in the U.S., “There is still an alarming lack of public support and education about the need for proper maintenance and repair of dams. Unless a dam fails, dam safety is not usually in the public view, although it is an issue that affects the safety of millions of people who could be living and working in the path of a sudden, deadly dam failure.”1

A nation’s security apparatus is faced with a parallel public trust: to protect the nation from external (or internal) aggression. Perhaps the most important function of the national security community is gathering and disseminating intelligence data related to the real or potential intentions and capabilities of its possible opponents. Effective execution of this function can proactively forestall disasters. This is much preferable to falling into a reactive mode once disaster strikes.

Unfortunately, the national security community is no more immune from being lulled into a peacetime-induced state of complacency than is the public or the dam safety community. Such complacency can have dire consequences. Three events – Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina – provide examples of precisely that. In all three cases, had the intelligence data gathered been appropriately disseminated, communicated, interpreted, and acted upon, the calamities could and should have been averted.

During and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans embarked on soul-searching investigations of the causes underlying the failure to avoid this disaster. The final report by the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack was prefaced “in the earnest hope that something constructive may be accomplished that will aid our national defense and preclude a repetition of the disaster of December 7, 1941.”2

Echoing the hopes expressed nearly 60 years before, the 9/11 Commission report was prefaced with the “hope that the terrible losses chronicled in this report can create something positive – an America that is safer, stronger and wiser.”3 The U.S. House of Representatives inquiry into the Hurricane Katrina disaster similarly expressed the hope, in that report’s conclusion, that “our findings will prompt the changes needed to make all levels of government better prepared and better able to respond the next time.”4

The principles and lessons learned from Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina include:

– Danger of complacency;

– Importance of human competency;

– Need for preparation; and

– Importance of assigning and taking responsibility for actions or, more often, failure to act.

These lessons also are relevant to dam safety.

How lessons from past disasters apply to dam safety

A young lawyer named Edward Morgan acted as assistant counsel to the congressional committee investigating the Pearl Harbor incident. As a result of these investigations, Morgan succinctly summed up the lessons learned in 25 principles that focused on failures in the intelligence community before the Pearl Harbor attack.

The congressional committee accepted these principles in their entirety, and they became required study for personnel under the commands of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. In addition, J. Edgar Hoover directed Morgan to lecture to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on these principles.

Parallel lessons taught by the 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina disasters reinforced the validity of these principles. They merit serious study for all involved in dam safety.

Following are discussions of how four of Morgan’s principles were violated during Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina, and how the principles relate to dam safety.

Principle 7. “Complacency and procrastination are out of place where sudden and decisive actions are of the essence.”

Hurricane Katrina is an example of a situation where a calamity could and should have been averted, if the data gathered had been appropriately disseminated, communicated, interpreted, and acted upon. Warnings by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and pleas for remediation of the levees went unheeded.
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In Pearl Harbor – The Verdict of History, the authors noted, “Here Morgan touched upon the most difficult psychological burden of the armed services in peacetime – how to remain mentally and emotionally keen in the midst of a population generally indifferent, even hostile, to such efforts.”5 The dam safety community faces a similar psychological burden, having at all times to be alert, and respond appropriately, to the potential crisis that likely will never occur within any individual’s career. While the onset of complacency is understandable as a fact of human nature, it is not excusable.

As Morgan pointed out, “The Army and the Navy are the watchdogs of the Nation’s security and they must be on the alert at all times, no matter how many the years of peace.” The same can be said of those responsible for dam safety. They are watchdogs of public safety, regardless of how many years of satisfactory performance the dams within their charge have provided. The forces of nature are relentless, forever probing for and very adept at locating and exploiting weak spots within a dam or its foundation.

In 2001, the director of Louisiana State University’s hurricane center spoke of the hurricane threat to New Orleans. He said, “To some extent, I think we’ve been lulled to sleep.” History dialed in yet another wakeup call on August 30, 2005.

Far from being anunthinkable event, Hurricane Katrina’s effects on New Orleans had been foreseen, as had a Japanese carrier strike against Pearl Harbor and suicideattacks using hijacked airplanes. In fact, exercises to defend against or respond to these three calamities were undertaken by those responsible for defense and first response. However, in all three cases it appeared that an “It won’t happen on my watch” attitude contributed to the complacency. This being a situation endemic to the human condition, perhaps the only defense is the constant acknowledgment that it exists, the recognition that its consequences can be lethal, and the periodic dispassionate review so often required to dispel the fog of complacency. That proactive approach must surely be preferable to the unforgettable post-Katrina sight of helicopters dropping sandbags into breached dikes.

Principle 8. “The coordination and proper evaluation of intelligence in times of stress must be insured by continuity of service and centralization of responsibility in competent officials.”

This point led, in part, to the formation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) within the National Security Act of 1947. The U.S. was determined that never again would branches of intelligence work in ignorance of or at cross-purposes to one another. Morgan also criticized the tendency of the armed forces to sneer upon members engaged in intelligence work. He said, “The professional character of intelligence work does not appear to have been appreciated in either the War or Navy departments.” The dam safety community cannot afford to adopt a similarly condescending attitude toward dam surveillance personnel.

The report of the joint congressional committee2 went on to note that Pearl Harbor portrayed “the imperative necessity 1) for selection of men for intelligence work who possess the background, capacity, and penchant for such work; 2) for maintaining them in the work over an extended period of time in order that they may become steeped in the ramifications and refinements of their field and employ this reservoir of knowledge in evaluating data received; and 3) for the centralization of responsibility for handling intelligence to avoid all the pitfalls of divided responsibility which experience has made so abundantly apparent.” The dam safety community faces similar imperatives in its recruitment, training, and retention practices.

Another report promoted “surveillance specialists who are recruited, trained, rewarded, and retained to ensure the development of an institutional culture imbued with a deep expertise in intelligence and national security.” This recommendation could have come from the Pearl Harbor investigations, but instead featured prominently in the executive summary of the 9/11 Commission report.3

The attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, showed that the lessons learned after Pearl Harbor were not adequately integrated into the functioning of the U.S. intelligence community. This event should be used to take away lessons that will prevent another serious incident.
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One of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission was “unifying the intelligence community with a new National Intelligence Director” and “a National Counterterrorism Center that borrows the joint, unified command concept adopted in the 1980s by the American military.” Calls for heads to roll at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the wake of Hurricane Katrina suggest yet more recommendations for organizational change may be in the works.

Those in the dam safety community lulled into a false sense of security at the thought of a well-crafted organizational structure would be advised to remember that any structure can only be as effective as the personnel within it. No such structure is immune from the human element.

Principle 18. “Failure can be avoided in the long run only by preparation for any eventuality.”

This was the problem of enemy intentions versus capabilities, or probabilities versus possibilities. Morgan wrote that the “result was to look for the probable move and to take little or no effective precautions to guard against the contingency of the possible action.”

In early 1999, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Civil Aviation Security intelligence office considered the scenario of a “suicide hijacking operation” by al Qaeda. FAA analysts judged such a scenario unlikely (the probability versus possibility conundrum) because “It does not offer an opportunity for dialogue to achieve the goal of obtaining key captive extremists.” As noted in the 9/11 Commission report, intelligence analysts working the al Qaeda file could have quickly enlightened the FAA as to what kind of “opportunity for dialogue” al Qaeda members harbored: none whatsoever.

The applicability of this principle to the Hurricane Katrina disaster – which had been foretold for so many years that perhaps a “cry wolf” attitude developed – is obvious. Those responsible for dam safety cannot afford to make the same mistake, neither in dam surveillance nor in emergency response planning and capabilities. When the consequences of failure are extreme, possibilities cannot be shunted aside in favor of probabilities. By definition, the unexpected can only happen when it is unexpected. In the face of finite resources, the challenges associated with appropriate prioritization of probabilities and possibilities is clear. However, as Morgan put it, “No consideration should be permitted as excuse to perform a fundamental task.”

Principle 25. “In a well-balanced organization, there is close correlation of responsibility and authority.”

Many of the Pearl Harbor inquiry witnesses testified that while they had significant responsibilities, they lacked the authority to properly discharge those responsibilities. In Washington and Hawaii, no one, “except the highest ranking officers, possessed any real authority to act in order to decisively discharge their responsibilities.”6

Within the National Security Act of 1947, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) was charged with centralizing and directing intelligence work. But, as that act specifically stipulated, the DCI lacked the authority to implement this responsibility.

On December 4, 1998, DCI director George Tenet issued a directive to several CIA officials and the deputy DCI for intelligence community management. In specific reference to al Qaeda, he stated, “We are at war. I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside CIA or the Community.”3 However, this memorandum was wholly futile in mobilizing the CIA or the intelligence community, and 9/11 illuminated the consequences of the imbalance between responsibility and authority deliberately enshrined within the National Security Act.

Equally futile, it appears, were the warnings issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding the state of the New Orleans levee system, as well as pleas for resources to remediate it. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the September 21, 2005, issue of the New York Times provided telling quotes from W.F. Marcuson III, president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and former director of the Waterways Experiment Station for the Corps. Marcuson stated, “I don’t think it was culturally in the system for the Corps to say this is crazy. The Corps works for Congress, and when the boss says design for a Category 3 storm, culturally the Corps is not going to go back and say this is wrong.”

The lesson for the dam safety community is that those with direct responsibility for surveillance and maintenance of dams must have a seat at the table when resources for maintenance of those dams are requested, distributed, and expended. The disconnect between dam safety needs and dam safety resources and execution must be bridged.

Warnings that went unheeded

On March 31, 1941, General F. Martin and Rear Admiral Patrick N.L. Bellinger, both stationed on Oahu, submitted a report on Hawaii’s air defenses. This document became famous in the Pearl Harbor post-mortems as the “Martin-Bellinger Report.”7 The report conjectured that “A successful sudden raid against our ships and naval installations on Oahu might prevent effective offensive actions by our forces in the western Pacific for a long period.” This was precisely as the Japanese hoped and precisely as happened. The report recommended that the Oahu military establishment “run daily patrols as far as possible to seaward to reduce the probabilities of surface or air surprise. This would be desirable but can only be effectively maintained with present personnel and material for a very short period and as a practicable measure cannot, therefore, be undertaken unless other intelligence indicates that a surface raid is probable within rather narrow time limits.” In these latter two sentences, the report authors unwittingly and eerily foretold the essence of the looming disaster.

The attacks on Pearl Harbor, although sudden, were not unanticipated. Previous reports had foreseen the possibility of these events, but recommendations to avoid the disaster were not incorporated.
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In August 1941, Colonel William E. Farthing submitted a report on the readiness, or lack thereof, of the military forces in Hawaii.8 The Army Pearl Harbor Board deemed this report “prophetic in its accuracy and uncanny in its analysis of the enemy’s intention.” Farthing scored a bullseye in his recommended countermeasures to deal with the threat, going well beyond Martin-Bellinger and cutting right to the chase: “It is believed that a force of 180 aircraft with 36 long-range torpedo airplanes is a small force when compared with the importance of this outpost. This force can be provided at less cost to the government than the cost of one modern battleship. It is further believed that this force should be made available as soon as possible even at the expense of other units on the mainland. We must ferret out the enemy and destroy him before he can take action to destroy us.”

The premonitory irony in this statement is striking, given that five battleships were sunk in the Pearl Harbor attack. A comparison between the costs required to upgrade the New Orleans levees pre-Hurricane Katrina and the costs of emergency relief and rebuilding of the levees post-Hurricane Katrina is similarly striking.

Despite the insights within the Martin-Bellinger and Farthing reports, there was no aerial reconnaissance around the Hawaiian islands to detect an approaching carrier strike force. History records the severity of the price paid for this neglect.

The 9/11 disaster bore striking resemblance to Pearl Harbor in that, as DCI director Tenet told the 9/11 Commission, “The system was blinking red” in terms of intelligence pointing to a major al Qaeda operation during the months before the 9/11 disaster. Two FBI field offices, working independently, raised concerns about al Qaeda operatives at flight schools in the U.S. Some years before, the FAA had issued warnings about suicide aircraft hijackings. Unfortunately, as stated in the 9/11 Commission report, “No one working on these late leads in the summer of 2001 connected the case in his or her in-box to the threat reports agitating senior officials and being briefed to the President. Thus, these individual cases did not become national priorities. As the CIA supervisor ‘John’ told us, no one looked at the bigger picture; no analytic work foresaw the lightning that could connect the thundercloud to the ground.” In so many ways, it sounded like Pearl Harbor all over again.

Ironically, in early 2001, FEMA concluded that two of the three most likely disasters facing the U.S. was a terrorist attack in New York City (eight months later came 9/11) and a hurricane strike on New Orleans (4.5 years later came Hurricane Katrina).

There were no illusions that the New Orleans levee system could handle a “direct hit” from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. Two months before the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana displayed a computer model of a Category 4 hurricane flooding the city under 18 feet of water. Testifying before congress in 2004, Louisiana Congressman Billy Tauzin prophetically stated “We’ll be faced one day with thousands of our citizens drowned and killed, people drowned like rats in the city of New Orleans.” In a pleading tone, he continued, “You’ve been watching the 9/11 commission hearings, people… saying if only, if only we had talked to one another…if only…because we could have acted in time but we didn’t. Please don’t let’s have a commission where all of us, red-faced, say we saw it coming and didn’t do anything. Please don’t let that happen.” Unfortunately, happen it did.

Those to whom these warnings and pleas were directed have no excuse in terms of their own responsibility except, perhaps: “safety in numbers;” a lack of direct, personal accountability; and the public’s generally low view of politicians.

Those in charge of the safety of dams within which deficiencies and vulnerabilities have been identified cannot similarly evade their responsibilities. What the public may accept from politicians it will not accept from those responsible for dam safety. Not after Hurricane Katrina.


It is axiomatic that those who forget history’s lessons are doomed to repeat them. As a teacher, history is experienced and patient but at the same time stern and merciless, willing and able to repeat lessons its students forget, no matter how brutal. Morgan’s principles notwithstanding, perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina is that all three calamities were visited upon a nation endowed with a greater capability and more resources to prevent them than any other nation on earth. In that sense, neither Pearl Harbor nor 9/11 can be dismissed simply as failures of the U.S. security establishment. The roots of these failures run far deeper than national borders and the governmental and military structures established within those borders. They reach into weaknesses endemic to the human condition, to which the dam safety community has no immunity.

The 9/11 Commission report was prefaced with the “hope our report will encourage our fellow citizens to study, reflect and act.” This article has a parallel objective in terms of the dam safety community. In the U.S., this hope is particularly apropos because now, in spirit as well as in law, the dam safety community must consider itself part of the broader national security community. Therefore, it is incumbent upon those responsible for dam safety to study, apply, and constantly remind themselves of the lessons for which their national security colleagues have three times paid so high and bitter a price. The consequences of failure are too serious to do otherwise. As Morgan expressed it, “No consideration should be considered as excuse for failure to perform a fundamental task.”

Mr. Martin may be reached at AMEC Earth & Environmental, 2227 Douglas Road, Burnaby, British Columbia V5C 5A9 Canada; (1) 604-473-5302; E-mail:


  1. The Need for a National Dam Rehabilitation Program, Dam Safety Coalition, Washington, D.C., 2005.
  2. Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1946.
  3. Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Against the United States, 9/11 Commission, 2004.
  4. A Failure of Initiative, Final Report of the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 2006.
  5. Prange, G.W., D.M. Goldstein, and K.V. Dillon, Pearl Harbor – the Verdict of History, McGraw-Hill, Columbus, Ohio, 1986.
  6. Prange, G.W., At Dawn We Slept – The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor, McGraw-Hill, Columbus, Ohio, 1981.
  7. Martin, F.L., and P.N.L. Bellinger, The Martin-Bellinger Report, 1941.
  8. Farthing, W.E., Plan for the Bombardment Aviation in the Defense of Oahu, 1941.

Todd Martin, P.Eng., is a principal geotechnical engineer with AMEC Earth & Environmental, which provides infrastructure design, delivery, and support services for a variety of fields, including power and utilities.

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