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Alerts and catastrophes : The case of the 1999 storm in France, a treacherous risk - F. Dedieu

François Dedieu,
Centre de sociologie des organisations, 19, rue Amélie, 75018 Paris, France

Available online 23 July 2010 on ScienceDirect

How is it that catastrophes always seem predictable ex post but never ex ante ? The paradox is recurrent. Our study of the warnings issued prior to one of the last major natural disasters in France – the tempest of December 27, 1999 – focuses on the organizational factors accounting for the surprise effect of the catastrophe, to try and understand why, though the phenomenon had been predicted and announced by the French weather bureau, the protagonists of Civil Defense said the magnitude of the event took them by surprise. A multi-level, qualitative analysis of the inter-organizational meteorological alert system shows that a combination of factors pertaining to structure, context and individuals transformed the warnings into routine messages. The case of the 1999 storm allows us to introduce a particular, ideal-type of risk, the treacherous risk, which, though clearly announced, was disregarded because seemingly so familiar.

Keywords : Natural catastrophes ; Storms ; Warning systems ; Organizational routines ; Risk ; Treacherous risk ; Expertise ; Cognition ; Normalcy ; France

Article Outline

  • 1. Structural reasons : are meteorological alerts truly warnings ?
    • 1.1. The semantic battle to define alert and vigilance
    • 1.2. The technical limits of the analogical models of Météo-France calculations
    • 1.3. Vigilance and organizational routines
  • 2. Contextual reasons : a threat diluted by normal appearances
    • 2.1. Context interferes with the oral transmission of the alert
    • 2.2. Receiving the alert : a familiar threat
  • 3. Interactionist reasons : how can one believe the prophets of doom ?
    • 3.1. Cognitive sources of alarm
    • 3.2. The transmission of the face-to-face alert : testing subjective expertise
  • 4. Conclusion
  • Acknowledgements
  • References

Sociologie du Travail
Volume 52, Supplement 1, August 2010, Pages e1-e21
Translation : Gabrielle Varro.