The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has become one of the most trusted organizations in the wake of both national tragedies and lesser known transportation incidents. The fact-focused agency investigates transportation-related incidents to uncover root causes and offer recommendations to industry and policymakers to hopefully prevent future accidents from occurring.

Calls for a similar organization for natural disasters seem to be rising. A so called National Disaster Safety Board (NDSB) or even “natural disaster safety board” with a mission to conduct thorough, fact-based, objective investigations into natural disasters would mimic the best of the NTSB while training its eyes on weather, climate, and environmental incidents.

The first and most obvious difference would be in treatment of proximate causes. The NTSB’s work focuses on transportation incidents. These are mainly aviation, but also rail, trucking, pipeline, and related man-made transportation issues. Departing from man-made machines and accidents may create challenges for defining the scope of an investigation. There is a major difference between What caused the hurricane? and What caused/contributed to/prolonged/exacerbated the impact from the hurricane?

Thinking through the prudence of such a national investigative body, there are a number of considerations to reflect upon and certain guiding principles to prioritize. Even then, it is not clear such an organization would succeed or fail.

If such an organization is formed, it should prioritize several issues:

  1. It must not be political.

    • The strength of the NTSB is in its nonpartisan approach and fact-based analysis. The NTSB focuses on hiring credible experts, conducting in-depth investigations, and letting the evidence lead to their conclusions. They are also restrained in their recommendations. For instance, the safety agency has never issued a general recommendation on train crew size and instead focused on the root cause of specific train accidents. This is somewhat like the Supreme Court ruling on the parties before it and not issuing advisory opinions.
  2. It must focus on infrastructure. 

    • Natural disasters are intimately related to infrastructure. When a hurricane hits, it is the quality of seawalls and levees that help prevent and mitigate flooding, along with drainage conduits and even road design. The impact a natural disaster has is often dependent on the type and quality of infrastructure, whether the impact is measured in lives lost, economic harm, or area affected. The same storm intensity from 100 years ago striking an undeveloped coast will lead to a far greater impact today in a populated area simply due to the presence of people, businesses, and buildings. These are other factors should be explored.
  3. It must have a clear definition of resilience. 

    • If infrastructure is rebuilt to prior standards, it will fail again in a future incident. Where root causes are identified and recommendations are presented, there must be clear definitions about whether the recommendation would withstand a similar event.
  4. It must focus on the cause of the particular incident, not macro factors that may or may not explain it.

    • If the issue is a wildfire, the root cause should be the spark and what created the blaze, not abstract and inconclusive generalizations like “climate change created the conditions.” It may nevertheless be true that there are abstract or global influences at play, but the agency would need narrow focus to keep grounded to locally and regionally specific facts.
  5. It must assess the impact separate from the cause. 

    • If a wildfire or hurricane occurs, the findings must explain the root causes differentiated from one another. For instance, the cause of a fire may be a lightning strike or an electric utility line exploding. These would be the causes of the fire. However, the cause of the damage may be a separate or unrelated cause, like failure to properly utilize water resources in a timely manner to mitigate or stop the spread. Private sector or government (in)action may also exacerbate an ongoing natural disaster, impacting the overall harm caused. With a hurricane, the cause may be nebulous, as it is a weather event, but failed levees or seawalls are a separate cause for the extent of damage. Evacuations ordered or warning systems may be part of the impact, the difference between greater or lesser death tolls, for instance.


Even with these priorities, it is unlikely to be successful. The reasons may be unfair and unfortunate, but current political realities are not well suited to this type of entity. The NTSB has a decades-long record of trust and neutrality, but a new agency arising without such a record would likely be met with skepticism from all sides, which is a difficult environment to establish itself. Because natural disasters very often implicate or derive from some climatic conditions, there are those who would outright dismiss any findings that point to climate change, while findings that skirt around or do not forcefully center on climate change will be decried by environmental activists.

It may be a worthwhile idea to pursue, but if it does gain traction, execution and guiding philosophy will be everything. It also may be a terrible idea or simply one that cannot be executed today. Many will likely say it is simply unnecessary, given the glut of consulting firms, law firms, investigative bodies, local governments, state governments, academic institutions, nonprofits, think tanks, journalists, scientists, and others eager and capable of conducting such investigations as they arise. It may not be a central entity exploring every incident, but the decentralized model may lend itself to better regional analysis and with less taxpayer money involved.

At the end of the day, a national investigative body tasked with identifying the root causes and detailing the impacts of natural disasters is interesting. If it can match the reputation and results of the NTSB, it may change the way we build and maintain our infrastructure so that we can adapt and improve our resilience to disasters. That is needed whether a new agency is formed or not.


Written by Benjamin Dierker, Executive Director


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.