Master of Disaster

Earthquakes and hurricanes will always wreak havoc, but risk management expert Robert Bea says the greatest tragedies result from hubris and greed.


Robert Bea has an unusual specialty: He studies disasters. As one of the world’s leading experts in catastrophic risk management, the former Shell Oil Co. executive sifts through the wreckage to unravel the chain of events that triggers accidents. The blunt-spoken civil engineer has spent more than a half-century investigating high-profile engineering failures, from the space shuttle Columbia’s horrific end to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling rig in the Gulf. 

A professor emeritus of civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, Bea’s disaster autopsy methods — such as looking at the organizational breakdowns that lead to calamities — have been widely adopted. Although policymakers and corporate honchos seek his counsel, sometimes they don’t like what he has to say — witness the flak he took from BP during the Deepwater Horizon probe. 

Now in his mid-70s, Bea’s voice is raspier, but his critical faculties are undimmed. On a crisp fall day, he talked with DISCOVER in his comfortable one-story house in Moraga, a leafy suburb east of Berkeley, about what causes catastrophes.