September 03, 2005

A parse for the ages

According to an AP story on a news conference today by Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security:

“We were prepared for one catastrophe,” Chertoff said. “The second catastrophe, frankly, added a level of challenge that no one has seen before.”

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo comments: "this is truly a parse for the ages", adding

Clearly, clearly, the hurricane and the flood were part of the same natural disaster. This isn't like a tornado being followed up by an earthquake. The flooding is part of the hurricane.

This is a slightly different spin on the modern notion of parsing as extremely careful examination . In the examples we looked at earlier, "parsing" sometimes involved overly precise or overly literal interpretations, calculated to mislead people ("We obfuscate when we parse the meaning of ‘is’ or ‘name’ to cover our actions rather than illuminate them"), and sometimes meant nothing more than careful analysis ("The blogs were quick out of the box this morning in parsing President Bush's choice of John Roberts to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement").

Instead, Marshall is using parse to mean "divide a phenomenon up into parts". He quotes a post by Jon Cohn

"Chertoff says this was a unique, unpredictable one-two punch -- of a hurricane *and* a flood from a breached levee -- that nobody anticipated."

and comments

I actually thought I heard him parse it into three events. But I was writing as I listened; and press reports bear out Jon's recollection.

This is a pretty common usage in scientific and technical writing, for example:

Why do people parse action streams into discrete events?
I have developed some good SQL and PHP scripts to parse tags into reportable events.
The event server will parse users’ requests into basic events and store them into its event database.
The basic idea is to parse the MIDI file into a list of events which are displayed in a buffer, one line per MIDI event.
parse a base-10 numeric string into a 64-bit numeric value

Some of these may even be literal rather than metaphorical examples of parsing, though it's clear on balance that we linguists have lost the trademark on the word parse -- it's become a generic product, used by all and sundry to refer to any sort of analytic activity at all.

As for what Chertoff actually said, the press conference that the AP was quoting is available from CSPAN, but I haven't seen any transcripts. So as a service to the parsing of parsing, I present some bits of it below, focusing on the "two catastrophe" aspect. (The whole press conference is more than 39 minutes long, so this is just a small part of what was said.)

Let me start by pointing out that the AP's quote is relatively accurate, as journalistic quotations go:

                        We were      prepared for one catastrophe. 

Uh in this case I think we were well prepared for one catastrophe. The second catastrophe, frankly, added a level of challenge that no one has seen before. I think the second catastrophe, frankly, was a- was a- uh it added a level of challenge that no one had seen before.

My own reaction to the press conference is that the key question is not so much how many catastrophes there were, but whether the rapid flooding of New Orleans was what Chertoff calls a "reasonably foreseeable" consequence of a hurricane like Katrina.

At the start of the question period, Chertoff is asked

Uh two quick ones. One is why were military assets not brought in earlier? ((And)) the second question ((to)) follow-on is, given that catastrophic event planning has been a central plank of the federal government since nine eleven, why is something as basic as evacuation plans seem so chaotic?

Chertoff answers

Uh in this case um I- I will tell you that uh the way these catastrophes unfolded is unprecedented any- in anybody's experience. We had *two* catastrophes. We had a- a uh category four hurricane, that was followed the next day by the- really the collapse of a levee. Not merely a breach, though we had a number of breaches, but really the demolition of three hundred uh feet of the levee, which essentially turned uh New Orleans into a lake the day after the hurricane.

Uh I can't think of another incident, even the tsunami, which presented this combination of events. Uh it's as if the tsunami, we had to do the rescue while the water was still there in the tsunami. So under those circumstances, I think we uh have discovered over the last few days that with all the tremendous effort using the existing resources and traditional frameworks of the National Guard, um this- the uh unusual set of challenges of conducting a massive evacuation in the context of- of a still dangerous flood requires us to basically break the traditional model and create a new model, uh one for what you might call uh kind of an ultra-catastrophe. And that's one in which we are using the military, still within the framework of the law, to come in and really uh handle the evacuation, handle all of the associated elements, and that of course frees the National Guard up to do the security mission. So uh this is really one which I think um uh was breathtaking in it- in its surprise.

That comes to your second question. Uh there has been a lot of planning for catastrophes. I will tell you that the um there w- there has been speci- over the last few years some specific planning for the possibility of a uh significant hurricane in New Orleans, with a lot of rainfall, with water rising in the levees, and water overflowing the levees. And that is a uh a very catastrophic scenario, it's probably uh in- in itself it's considered one of the fifteen kind of great um template catastrophes that you plan for. And although the planning was not complete, a lot of work had been done.

But there were two problems here. First of all, um it's as if someone took that plan and dropped an atomic bomb simply to make it more difficult. We didn't merely have the overflow, we actually had the break in the wall. And I will- I will tell you that really- that ca- that perfect storm of combination of catastrophes um exceeded the foresight of the planners, um and maybe anybody's foresight.

To make matters worse, the storm itself um was uh unusual in its course. It began as a comparatively low power storm, it crossed Florida, it wasn't until comparatively late uh shortly before- a day, maybe a day and a half before landfall, that it became clear that this was be- gonna be a category four or five hurricane headed for the New Orleans area. Um in advance of that, recognizing the danger, the president um moved forward and declared uh states of emergency, which is a very unusual thing, in those states in the gulf. We began to preposition and move assets um as early as possible when we realized that that hurricane was coming in.

But with all that, um the body- the kind of- the knock-out punch that Mother Nature gave us was that breakdown of the levee and the swamping of New Orleans. And I have to tell you, I've now spent a fair amount of time talking to people who do this and nobody can come up in living memory with a pair of disasters like this. ((And)) by the way, on top of which we have the obliteration of a- of significant parts of the Mississippi gulf coast and a whole lot of associated uh problems with respect to infrastructure, ((of)) course the surrounding parishes in- of- of New Orleans are also under water Uh this um perhaps reminds us that with all of our planning and our modern technology and our- our confidence in our ability to master nature, when Mother Nature really wants to strike at us um she is a very very tough opponent.

So, a little long winded but I think that answers your questions.

A minute or so later, he is asked

Uh Secretary, stepping back, given that the system doesn't seem to have been able to respond adequately to um uh an event that has been hypothesized and planned for, what confidence can the administration give the public that um DHS or the government is ready for a terrorist strike or a WMD strike that it cannot uh predict?

and answers

Well I- first of all I- I don't know that I agree ((uh is)) that it can't- we haven't responded to something that was hypothesized and planned for, I think the problem is we had two events that have been hypothesized that occurred simultaneously. Um and I guess that does- uh you know indicate that at some level, with all the planning and all the resources if a truly catastrophic event, if an ultra-catastrophe occurs, there's going to be some harmful fallout.

Um what we wanted to do is do the best we can to respond um to mitigate and to recover. Um we'd ideally like to do it perfectly, we'd ideally like to be able to do it instantly, um but uh what we need to do is get closer and closer to that ideal.

Uh in this case I think we were well prepared for one catastrophe. I think the second catastrophe, frankly, was a- was a- uh it added a level of challenge that no one had seen before. But I have to say I think that with that, um everybody has been for- performed magnificently in stepping up to this increased challenge uh reaching out for more assets improvising additinal measures that allows us to deal with what nature has dealt to us.

A couple of minutes later, he's asked

Why- why should you not have anticipated both events coming ((and seen it ??))?

and answers

You know, if we had an atomic bomb on top of this, and you know I mean we could pile on catastrophes, um whenever you do a planning process, you have to deal with what is reasonably foreseeable.

It is true that you can sometimes have a combination of things that- that are reasonably foreseeable, but that combination is unreasonably foreseeable. You know, that's why they wrote- someone wrote a book called "The Perfect Storm".

Um the answer is that uh the planning that was done I think was- was although not completed was a very good plan for what was reasonably foreseeable. I think that- that this major breach, not merely an- an- an overflow but this major breach of the levee, um while something itself that might have been anticipated, coming together, I think was outside of the scope of what people reasonably foresaw.

I'm not even close to being in the disaster management business, but I certainly knew that a rapid and complete flooding of New Orleans as a result of a hurricane strike was a central feature of many published scenarios over the years, including this 2001 Scientific American article, which gave me the willies when I read it four years ago. That article doesn't discuss the exact mechanisms whereby a storm surge would flood the city, but it certainly predicts that it will happen. And while Katrina was heading across the gulf, I was riveted by dire predictions about how bad it was going to be, including predictions that the city would be rapidly and completely flooded by the storm surge. I don't know for sure whether anyone specifically predicted that levees would fail rather than merely being overtopped, but I expect that any competent civil engineer, if asked about the situation, would suggest this as a strong possibility, given that we're talking about concrete floodwalls whose foundations rest on dewatered soil.

And once we start getting into discussions about whether anyone "anticipated" that the levees would be "breached" -- and whether this matters or not to the stages of the flooding seen so far -- we're talking about another kind of parsing, one that involves making fine distinctions about the exact meaning of words.

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 3, 2005 07:55 PM