Bob Bea, the nation's foremost forensic engineer, is the guy to call when levees break or oil rigs explode.
Credit: Photograph by Robyn Twomey

Robert Bea's large, beige, seemingly bland office in the engineering building at the University of California at Berkeley is revealed, upon close inspection, to be a cabinet of wonders. Perched on top of neat filing cabinets and tucked into corners are mysterious artifacts from around the world: a massive drill bit, a chunk of rusted metal, a model of an oil platform, a cluster of giant barnacles, strands of Mardi Gras beads, a beer bottle, and other totems. Each of them has a story to tell. That drill bit? It came from an oil rig that sank off the coast of Australia, causing a $1 billion disaster. The rusted metal? It's a piece of an oil tanker that supposedly "could not rust." The clutch of barnacles? From the Arctic seabed, where the oil industry once claimed, "There is no life." Bea (pronounced "bee") keeps these mementos as teaching aids and to prompt discussion about the role of human fallibility in mishaps – a subject rarely discussed in engineering circles, yet one that he believes is just as important as mechanical failure or software glitches.

"Never let a good disaster go to waste" is Bea's mantra. "I'm in the prevention business," he says. "And you can't prevent what you don't understand."

Bea has compiled a database of more than 600 engineering failures – from perforated submarine hulls to crumpled airplanes, fallen bridges, exploded pipelines, and upended oil rigs. But he also studies why things go right and how high-reliability organizations – such as pediatric emergency teams and aircraft-carrier crews – work successfully under pressure.

A bald, saber-thin 76-year-old, with an erect bearing, a silver mustache, and a direct manner, Bea is co-founder of the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, a nonprofit group based at Berkeley, and a pioneer in the emerging field of forensic engineering. When catastrophe strikes, it is usually Bea who is called in to make sense of the twisted wreckage and smoldering remains. Over the past few decades, he has appeared, Gump-like, at nearly every high-profile calamity – from the sinking of the Exxon Valdez in 1989 to the 2003 Columbia space-shuttle explosion to the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon in 2010.

Today, Bea's grim expertise is central to two of the biggest lawsuits in U.S. history: a class-action suit alleging that the federal government failed to protect New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people in 2005; and another suit charging that BP and its partners in the Deepwater Horizon were responsible for the explosion that sank the drill rig, killing 11 and causing the largest oil spill in U.S. history. In November, BP, at least in part because of Bea's pointed testimony, settled, admitting to criminal liability for the spill and agreeing to pay a penalty of $4.5 billion.

Bea's ability to explain complex data in layman's terms and his willingness to point out mistakes have made him a hero to disaster victims and a scourge to the targets of his criticism. He is unapologetic for his unvarnished opinions: "If we don't learn from our mistakes, then we are doomed to make them again and again," he says. "Unfortunately, that's what we've been doing."

The week after superstorm Sandy devastated New York, New Jersey, and the nation's most populous coastline, Bea has a ready example of lessons that have gone unlearned. "It's a sad tale of complacency," he says, "by all measures a true 'predictable surprise.'" He wonders what was done to prepare infrastructure or why hospitals weren't prepared with generator systems, particularly after what happened at New Orleans' Memorial Medical Center during Katrina, but he also sees our weakness as a product of good fortune. "I think a key part of our challenge is our generally bountiful blessings. Many of us have a lot of things that give us pleasure and comfort. Thinking about complex issues like global climate change and our out-of-date, decayed infrastructure systems is hard to do. It is much easier to 'hope' someone is taking care of us so that we can return to the enjoyments of our lives. Hope is no strategy for success."