The 5 Biggest Backfires in the History of Disaster Relief
The nice thing about natural disasters is that you always know who to blame them on: your god, your god's greatest mortal enemy or a kraken. Unfortunately, we don't have the same luxury when it comes to catastrophes brought on by man -- especially when all of man's bright ideas for fixing them just keep making them worse.
Fixing an Oil Spill With Napalm
It's probably hard to believe now, but BP hasn't always enjoyed the stellar reputation it does today. Back in 1967, British Petroleum chartered an oil tanker named the Torrey Canyon to deliver a mess of crude oil to a refinery in Wales. This wasn't just any run-of-the mill tanker; it was the world's first supertanker, capable of hauling 120,000 tons of oil at a time. And unfortunately, its huge capacity for oil-carrying was just about all that was "super" about the Torrey Canyon, because if that tanker had had the power of flight, it would be in a totally different article right now.
"6 Harbingers of the Apocalypse and FLEE -- FLEE FOR YOUR LIVES."
So you can probably see where this is heading.
The Torrey Canyon's problems started with Capt. Pastrengo Rugiati, who, like most Italian oiler tanker captains, had a few bad habits. One was that he liked shortcuts, presumably so he could get home to perpetuate some Italian stereotypes, like eating spaghetti and extorting bribes. Another was that he kept forgetting whether his ship was set to "automatic" or "manual," which is semi-important when you need to make some tricky maneuvers in a hugeass supertanker. And finally, he appointed the ship's cook as his helmsman.
"The captain is on the starboard side, and I'm drunk on the port."
Shockingly, all of this coagulated into a blitzkrieg of stupid that landed the Torrey Canyon smack dab in the middle of the Seven Stones, a ridiculously famous reef off the coast of Cornwall.
And ... crash.
How They Made It Worse:
Deadly chemicals and napalm.
By nightfall, it was crystal clear that the Torrey Canyon was going down, which was probably why all 31 million gallons of oil on board got sentient and decided to abandon ship. Within 12 hours of the spill, the British navy decided the best option was to unleash an assault of "detergents" on the six-mile slick, since detergents had worked all right on cleaning up minor coastal spills in the past. And what do you know, British Petroleum manufactured those exact detergents! Talk about lucky!
Oh, BP. You guys have the solution to everything!
Except these "detergents" weren't detergents at all -- they were cleaning solvents meant to be used on engine rooms, not oceans. One reporter said that using the detergents to mop up oil was "like trying to pick up quicksilver with boxing gloves." The chemicals not only made it harder to capture the oil but also made it easier for marine animals to capture it. In their mouths. So now birds and fish weren't ingesting just oil -- they were ingesting oil and toxic chemicals.
So that didn't work. On to Plan B: BOMBING THE SINKING SHIP WITH NAPALM. The idea was to ignite the oil and burn it off, hopefully before it did much more damage. Which probably would have been awesome, had the navy not missed a quarter of its targets. Or if the oil had actually ignited, which it didn't, even after aviation fuel was dumped on top of it. Then, in a baffling display of shortsighted thinking, frustrated residents began collecting the blobs of oil showing up on the coast and dumping it into a quarry -- that was once a German bomb dump. So now, on account of the bombs, this stinking pit of Texas tea is completely inaccessible to anyone who wants to clean up this mess once and for all.
The BBC recommends this hell-pit for days out. The BBC is hard-core.
But hey, at least Britain got about $3.1 million out of the deal. We're sure that went a long way in buying new beaches.
Healing Ocean Reefs With Millions of Old Tires
By the 1970s, the hippies had thoroughly indoctrinated the rest of us into believing that maybe we hadn't done the best job of taking care of the planet. One of the places this was most apparent was the ocean, which also went by the name "Liquid Trash Can" at the time. This led to the destruction of coral reefs, among other problems.
"Ridin' the can" never caught on.
Our clear hatred of our own planet was also obvious at our landfills, where millions of tires were accumulating year in and year out. While most people saw these two ecological disasters as unrelated problems, Broward Artificial Reef Inc. saw a solution so crazy it just might work.
How They Made It Worse:
"We prefer the term 'fish playground.' "
In 1974, Broward County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers teamed up to pair the two most unlikely partners this side of Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker: tires and ocean. More specifically, to use the tires to create an artificial reef that would entice new game fish and encourage marine life to attach itself, as it would to a natural coral reef.
The artificial reef part wasn't so crazy; artificial reefs are totally a legitimate thing that reasonable people are successfully using all over the world. Some are made of sunken ships, others are constructed out of outdated subway cars, and most of them are actually doing all right. The difference between those projects and the Osborne Reef, however, was that the other artificial reefs were made of heavy things that tend not to move at the slightest wave. Not so with tires, it turns out.
Who would have thought tires were bad for wildlife?
The tires were anchored to the ocean floor with steel clips and nylon, which you'll recognize as a problem if you remember the concept of rust or the degradability of nylon. Or that there are hurricanes in Florida.
So when normal Florida weather started stirring up trouble, naturally the tires started coming loose from their constraints and walloping natural coral reefs and marine life. And when extraordinary Florida weather started stirring up major trouble, thousands of tires went rogue, showing up off the coast of North Carolina after Hurricane Bonnie.
Like college students at spring break.
Within about five minutes of the dumping of the tires into the ocean, it was clear that Florida had invented a full-on ecological disaster for itself, as if God didn't already hate it enough. They are now in the process of slowly and carefully fishing the 2 million freaking tires out of the ocean. The only bright spot in this self-administered affliction is that the U.S. Army Dive Co. is using the reef as a way to train divers, since, you know, there's a shitload of diving to do.
"This is not the underwater carnival Disney told me to expect."
Fighting Rats With Hordes of Opossums
Frank Sinatra once said about New York City, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere. ... If I watch out for the rats, because they'll definitely eat my face off."
New York. The city that never sleeps ... without banging all the bedbugs out of the mattress first and peeling rats off its scalp.
New York has always had a rat problem, but recently New York City's rats have gotten so bad that they've been seen sashaying through Taco Bells and subway trains like they were the mayor(s) or something. In Washington Heights, 20 percent of the buildings inspected by health officials showed signs of rat infestation. And those were just the ones they could see. So you'd think someone would have come up with an elegant and simple solution by now.
Not that they haven't tried. Over the years, New York has tried poison, traps, a whole league of professional rat killers and digitally mapping rat populations, but the rat problem persists. In 2005, they even instituted a Rodent Control Academy to educate pest controllers, landlords and restaurant workers about smart rat-avoidance practices. Yet none of these solutions can compare to that one time New Yorkers tried to solve their rodent problem with bigger rodents.
Rat infestation? Opossums. Fire kindling? Opossums. Rhetorical question? Opossums.
How They Made It Worse:
Honestly, does the "fight an epidemic of pests by introducing bigger, meaner pests" technique ever work? Ever?
So, what could be worse than a rat epidemic? Try a raging opossum epidemic.
This one isn't raging; it's just yawning. It's hard to tell the difference.
The idea was as simple as it was stupid: buy some opossums, then release them in the streets of Brooklyn so they would eat/kill/maim all the rats. Easy, right? And of course the opossums would die off themselves after they ate all the rats, because what would be left for them to eat? Taxis? Tourists? No way. Bada-bing bada-boom. Problem solved.
Never mind that opossums have a mouthful of 50 dagger-sharp teeth, or that they're omnivores, meaning they can survive off of any food they find lying around, including the exact same trash that rats live off of. Or that rats are faster than opossums by a factor of a million, so it's not like the marsupials would ever catch them in the first place. Or that rats breed up to five litters a year, and each litter can consist of up to 14 baby rats, so the opossums would never have been able to keep up with the rat-making. Forget all that! What did Brooklynites have to lose?
No, really. They live in Brooklyn. They have nothing to lose.
Peace of mind and living space, apparently. Because not only did the opossums thrive alongside the rats they were supposed to eradicate, at least one brought some rabies with him, just in case his knife teeth weren't horrifying enough. By 2010, Brooklyn gardeners, dogs and teenage girls were all living in terror of their opossum tormentors. And it didn't help that the oversized rodents are really into sightseeing. They were initially released under the Coney Island boardwalk but have been seen in Manhattan and the Bronx as well.
As for the rats the opossums were supposed to kill off, they're doing great, thanks for asking. Budget cuts forced city officials to eliminate dozens of pest-control positions, so cat-size rats are having the time of their lives right now.
Word is they're teaming up against Godzilla, because it's a terrible film.
Saving an Endangered Trout (With Poison)
The thing that's most interesting about fishers/hunters/outdoorsy sportsman types is how much they have in common with die-hard environmentalists, even though they rarely vote the same way. Both groups are really into keeping the outdoors as pristine as possible, and both freak out when a species disappears. Which is exactly what happened when the westslope cutthroat trout vanished from Cherry Creek, Montana.
Pictured: The cutthroat trout. All fish look the same anyway, especially when battered.
The westslope cutthroat trout, in addition to having the most badass fish name ever, is the state fish of Montana and the only fish indigenous to the area. Unfortunately, overfishing, logging and general habitat destruction have wiped out many of the trout, and since the slutty westslope cutthroat likes to do it with other species of trout, they are hybridizing themselves out of existence.
The solution seemed simple: Why not eliminate the usurping fish and restock the waters with their rightful inhabitants? What could go wrong?
Assuming you've been paying attention, the answer is "everything."
How They Made It Worse:
Poison. Poison was how they made it worse.
Beginning in 2004, Montana Fish and Wildlife authorities began dosing a 60-mile stretch of Cherry Creek with a fish poison called rotenone to kill off the hybrids and non-native brook trout that destroyed their beloved westslope cutthroat. The idea was controversial from the get-go, especially since it was mostly funded by Ted Turner, who happened to own property around the creek and happened to be a fishing enthusiast, and happens to be hated by everyone who lives near his property.
He was also married to Jane Fonda. These facts are unrelated.
Here was how the plan was supposed to work: Part 1 -- Authorities would construct a barrier at the mouth of the stream so no more non-natives could live in Westslopia. Part 2 -- Authorities would poison the crap out of the foreigners who had the audacity to think they could start a new life in a place where they were clearly not wanted. Part 3 -- Authorities would restock Cherry Creek with genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout once the hybrids and uninvited were removed.
The brook trout were also told to sit in designated places on the bus and stop complaining.
Shockingly, things haven't exactly gone according to plan. In 2010, six years after the pisciciding of Cherry Creek began, something went terribly wrong. Namely, that something was rotenone, and it went wrong by traveling 13 miles past its intended target and killing 100 percent of the fish it came in contact with.
After a lengthy investigation into what happened, the Fish and Wildlife fellas just kind of shrugged their shoulders and said they'd probably never know what went wrong. Which is stunning, considering A) one of the possibilities was that the poison entered the groundwater before showing up 13 miles away, and B) the accident didn't deter future dosing in any way at all, because three more rotenone-dosing projects are in the works.
And then we'll just start throwing dynamite into the water, because fish are too fat and lazy nowadays.
Fighting Water Contamination With Orange Juice
As any water treatment worker will tell you, water treatmenting is hard work. Sometimes the pipes all look alike; sometimes you've got to read or ask for help to know which is which. And sometimes you just have to take a wild guess at which pipe to pour your toxic chemicals into. Which is exactly what happened on July 6, 1988, in the British town of Camelford, when a substitute tanker driver showed up at the Lowermoor Water Treatment Works to deliver some aluminum sulphate.
His instructions were simple: "once inside the gate, the aluminum sulphate tank is on the left." What wasn't so simple was which tank on the left. Because there were several, and his key fit all of them. Also not so simple: the act of picking up a phone and double-checking, apparently, because instead of making sure he had the right tank, he decided to just dump 20 tons of aluminum sulphate into what we later learned was the town's goddamned drinking water.
Well, he couldn't just leave it lying around. It's toxic, you know.
So that was problem No. 1, which was a pretty hefty problem, considering that the sulphate turned acidic within hours of the mistake. One man reported that milk in his coffee curdled once it hit the acid in the water. Others complained of hair turning green and toenails falling out. And this was just in the days after the contamination.
Problems No. 2 through infinity got rolling in the aftermath.
How They Made It Worse:
After getting 900 complaints about the water's taste, the water company advised residents to cover up the water's acidity by diluting it with orange juice. What they didn't tell anyone was that the orange juice was actually making the acid worse. What they also didn't tell anyone was that they had confirmed exactly what was wrong with the water by July 12, when the original driver was summoned back to the treatment center. Yet they waited 10 whole days before putting a teeny-tiny notice in the sports section of the paper to let residents know what was up. So let's recap:
July 6 -- Driver pollutes the water.
July 12 -- After a week of calls and complaints, treatment center confirms poisoning.
July 22 -- The chairman of the water authority lets the public in on the little goof-up, via the sports section of the paper.
"So the score is 96 for 6 at the second over and whoops we've poisoned you our bad."
By now the acid running through the pipes of the city had stripped them of zinc and lead, so residents were literally bathing in a poison cocktail. So the next big piece of advice was to simply boil the water, hopefully so the metals would get burned and leave town in a huff. Unfortunately, toxic chemicals are not the same thing as bacteria, and boiling the water actually made them even more concentrated.
And even though the authorities were flushing out the pipes, it wasn't doing much good because the main tank hadn't been cleaned in three years. That's three years -- when they were supposed to clean it six times a month.
"That green stuff? It's, um ... herbs. Health herbs."
Needless to say, after a poisoning of this level the drinkers of poison water in Camelford don't get a happy ending. Some have died of cancer, others of a way-early onset of Alzheimer's and dementia. The residents who didn't straight-up die still report loss of brain function, premature aging and decreased cognitive abilities. One victim had to get a bone biopsy, and the doctor found a ring of aluminum in his bones, like the rings of a tree.
Like Wolverine, but your only power is to wrap sandwiches efficiently.
So you'd think Camelford's residents would end up with a billion-dollar settlement out of this disaster, right? Try 500,000 pounds total, among about 650 claims, with the highest claim hitting 10,000 pounds, or a little over $16,000. The judge in the settlement said they were "extraordinarily well advised to accept the offer," because he didn't think they'd get anything if they pursued more. So they didn't.
We hope you learned your lesson, Lowermoor Water Treatment Works.
"Let's all raise a glass to criminal negligence and -- oh, no ... wait."
Centerfuge has his own web-comic at centerfuge.yolasite.com
See how we just keep tripping over our dicks in 6 Natural Disasters That Were Caused by Human Stupidity and 6 Man-Made Natural Disasters Just Waiting to Happen.