When Disaster Strikes, the Human Spirit Rises to the Occasion

A new season premieres on Smithsonian Channel on Sunday, March 26, at 9/8c.

Wall of Hope Memorial, Surfside Building Collapse, Miami, Florida
After a condominium building collapsed in Miami in 2021, the community rallied around the victims’ families. Jeff Greenberg / Getty Images

Ten Steps To Disaster has been an eye-opening experience for me as an executive producer. The concept of the series is simple: to explore man-made and natural catastrophes to find the reasons behind them. And in most cases, these events begin small but turn into fatal disasters through a cascade of poor decisions, bad policy and bad luck. However, through even the worst catastrophes, the series from Blink Films reveals personal stories about resiliency and the human spirit.

One of the most intriguing episodes features the tragedy at Waco, now facing its 30th anniversary. Three decades after the fact, the story becomes fresh with the extraordinary footage captured from the siege and with eye-witness accounts from FBI officers and surviving members of the Branch Davidians. It begins as a simple firearms charge against an obscure religious group. It spirals into an armed shootout, then a siege that ends with a deadly conflagration. At each step along the way, decisions are made that amplify tensions rather than decrease them -- which is all the more obvious with 30 years of hindsight. It illustrates one of the central themes of the series: human decisions can turn a problem into a catastrophe.

Ten Steps to Disaster | New Season Premieres 3/26 at 9/8c on Smithsonian Channel

Another case in point is the episode about the Texas blackout of 2021. It begins with a natural disaster this time: a polar vortex that brings blizzard conditions to most of the state. But this natural disaster snowballs – almost literally – into a problem for hundreds of thousands of people as the Texas power grid can’t keep up with demand. The bitter cold leads to widespread blackouts. Roads are shut down, so grocery deliveries are impossible, leading to food shortages throughout the state. The story becomes even more pointed when we discover that similar blizzard conditions had hit Texas only a decade previously… and no measures had been taken to prepare for a similar situation. At one point over 5 million Texans were without power, with temperatures hovering at-or-below zero. And through a twist of unforeseen energy policy, empty downtown office buildings were well-lit and warm, while suburbs and inner city homes were left in the dark without heat. Just watching the footage of this catastrophe made me feel physically cold. And the story makes it clear just how much we all rely on the power grid… and how tenuous that grid can be.

I had similar reactions to other stories in the series: the Surfside condo collapse, the Fukushima tsunami, and even a story about the opioid crisis. These are stories of human decisions and avoidable mistakes that turn a problem into a catastrophe, leading to a massive loss of human life. Each step along the way faces a series of branching decisions that could have made the result turn out quite differently – and each historic choice makes the issue worse. It’s a disturbing look at human error and hubris.

But there’s a bigger story revealed in each episode. We hear from eyewitnesses to these events that describe not only the terror and tragedy, but also reveal what it takes to survive a disaster and come out on the other side. Ten Steps To Disaster is really the story of how people face and overcome some of the worst catastrophes in recent memory. These are tales of survival and even growth, and each one provides a window into the power of human resilience.

Ten Steps To Disaster premieres on March 26, 2023 at 9:00 pm on Smithsonian Channel.

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