But Did You Plan for the Drunk Bears?

There is a story that gets passed on to architecture students, though it is largely thought to be untrue: An architect commissioned to design a library built an outstanding beauty, just to have it sink because he hadn’t taken into account the weight of the books. The message is clear: Pay attention to the little details, and make sure you have taken all factors into account. However, working in emergency management, we are taught that you can’t plan for everything. You can plan for most things, but inevitably there is going to be something you didn’t take into account, or could have never anticipated. We take into account the weight of the books, but we just can’t predict the madness of nature and disaster.

Winter in Glacier National Park is probably the last place you want to have an emergency. However, with hundreds of miles of train tracks running through remote terrain, they are bound to happen. In the winter of 1988, a Burlington Northern Railroad train jumped the tracks in a remote part of the National Park. The crash dumped piles of grain corn down a hillside, accumulating at its base. Twice more that winter, conditions caused trains to crash in that same stretch of track, adding to the accumulating piles of grain corn. Burlington wasn’t about to send cleanup crews out into deep winter to recover the corn, so they decided to wait until spring – once the snows and cold began to lighten up, they planned to start the cleanup.

Spring sprung and the crews were ready to collect the corn. But spring isn’t just the season of cleaning. With the spring days came bears – waking from a long winter’s hibernation. What could be better to a hungry bear then piles of free corn? By the time Burlington Northern crews made their way to the corn, bears were already swarming it. Grizzly bears were hanging out with black bears, feasting their little hearts out.  One bear was so happy with his lot, that he languidly lay down in the pile of food, using a paw to push piles of corn into his mouth, napping whenever the exertion got to be too much.

Burlington Northern stood there with a two year clean up plan, without one line on the possibility of bears. Not only was their corn a bear feeding ground, but these bears were coming from miles away, crossing the nearby train tracks. Bears were frequently hit and killed by passing trains. The Forest Service was pressuring the railway to clean up the corn, and as fast as they could, to protect the bears. Unfortunately, those same bears made it too dangerous for clean up crews to start removing the corn.

As spring became early summer, tourists came to the National Park. A road that ran close to the grain corn heap soon became a popular stop. Families, excited to get so close to the wildlife, starting setting up picnics in the meadow hosting the corn heap–spending afternoons taking pictures with the bears and snacking. The sheriff’s office upped patrols on the remote highway, giving parking tickets and ushering people back to their cars. They passed the bill for these extra man hours along to Burlington Northern.

As the summer heat strengthened, the corn began to ferment. Crews working on the clean up were worried about the possibility of drunk bears, as had happened after a similar corn spill in 1985. Burlington Northern hired armed guards for the clean-up crews to protect them from bears.

Reality doesn’t care about assumptions, laws, rules, or time. It clobbers the best laid plans. Every plan Burlington Northern made was waylaid by elements they couldn’t anticipate. Finally, unable to keep the bears safe, the tourists safe, and their own crews safe, they built a large electrified fence around the corn to give them time to make a clean up plan. It worked well — there were a few places where the fence was broken into by bears, but they had cleared the area pretty effectively. Their saga was over.

Except… bears live a long time, and have an incredible memory for food–especially a haul like this one. Even long after the corn was gone, bears would return to the spot in the spring, putting themselves at risk of passing trains, and drawing tourists yet again. Burlington Northern continued to put enormous resources into protecting the bears for years.

They tell us this story in lectures on cyber security or resilience planning. It fits any topic in emergency management because it teaches us our most basic tenet: You can expect the unexpected, but rarely will reality match your emergency plan. The best you can do is anticipate the need for flexibility and be ready to think on your feet. You might account for the books, but you can’t account for the bears.

Megan works in emergency management, which means she ruins all natural disaster movies for everyone. Because, seriously, it wouldn’t happen like that. 



  1. I think I might possibly use that phrase— “But, did you plan for drunken bears”— every time my husband says I worry about stuff too much or complain about how much I plan for things. I really like your last sentence especially… because you are right, you can’t plan for everything. And, often I try to plan for those crazy unseen things and drive myself (and my family) a little bit insane.

    1. I truly love the idea of “Did you think of the drunken bears” as being some sort of code for “You’re over-thinking this; you can’t plan for everything.”

      So my husband should perhaps start saying that to me on a daily basis.

  2. My mom does emergency management too, and you couldn’t be more right! Your best asset is to prepare your resources and above all–be prepared to think on your feet!

  3. […] speeches and debates so far have been issues outside of the President’s span of control (btw, nerd alert using emergency management terms in everything I do). We get angry about spending cuts, the lack of a budget, our downgraded credit rating, and we […]

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