Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 14, 2009

Choosing the cusp of chaos

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on August 14, 2009

pacific-earthquakes   The graphic shows measurable seismic events in the Pacific Rim.

“Eastern Japan has been hit by a third strong earthquake in less than a week, prompting speculation that the recent underground activity may be the precursor to a massive — and overdue — tremor in the Tokai region,” Julian Ryall tells us in the Telegraph’s Thursday report.

This week I am working in California, where another “big one” is past due.   As in Japan, California will soon enough be hit with a quake measuring above 8.0 on the Richter Scale.  Similar catastrophic events are certain for the Cascadia fault (Washington and Oregon Coast) and the New Madrid fault (Mississippi River valley, and that’s Mad-rid as in the magazine not the Spanish capital for all you high-falluttin coastal dwellers.)

Thursday morning’s quake was “centred 170 kilometres (105 miles) from the Japanese capital — the world’s largest urban area with 35 million people,” reports Harumi Ozawa with AFP. “The quake, which US seismologists measured at 6.4, was only ‘a rehearsal for us in preparing for a bigger, real disaster’, said one resident, fisheries official Masaki Yamada, in the port of Yaizu near the offshore epicentre. The experts agree. The Earthquake Research Committee warns of an 87 percent chance that a magnitude-eight earthquake — 100 times more powerful than this week’s tremor — will strike the same region within the next 30 years.”

Some experts expect a major shift in either the San Andreas or Tokai faults to be preceded by a series of magnitude-five quakes.  Japan’s Earthquake Assessment Committee does not, however, believe this week’s first two quakes  are precursors. As I write this, no word yet on Thursday morning’s prophetic potential. (See more from Atsushi Miyazaki and Kiyohikio Yoneyama in the Yomiuri Shimbun.)

While there have been some successful efforts at earthquake prediction, Thursday’s quake in Japan apparently did not activate an extensive network of Japanese seismometers until the actual event.  In any case, a warning is likely to provide no more than 20 to 30 seconds for preparation.

More valuable — at least to my way of thinking — is what living with the prospect of certain catastrophe does for the mindset of preparedness.  The risk readiness and counterterrorism work  I do in California always starts at a much higher level than anywhere else I have (so far) worked.

In the Golden State “first responders” accept catastrophe as fundamental to their condition.  And I am not making a political comment, despite Sacramento’s perpetual budget battles.

Like a good Buddhist (“Life is suffering“), Stoic, (“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Epictetus), Existentialist, or careful reader of Job and Ecclesiastes, California cops, firefighters, public health, and other public safety professionals assume that, if not today, then tomorrow will bring the great quake, city-sweeping wildfire, or population-pummeling plague.  It’s not a question of if, but when.

Discussions with these particular Californians tend to start at a very different place than with people who do not live quite so close to the edge, both literally and figuratively.  It is certainly not difficult to find Californians laughing and dancing to the precipice, but the public safety community is characterized mostly by caring and competent realists.

We all live on the cusp of chaos, whether we admit it or not.  In California it is just harder to deny it.  As a result, California is doing more to prepare for and mitigate catastrophe.  Sure, even more needs to be done.  But compare California’s readiness for an 8.0 earthquake to, say, Memphis or St. Louis — both likely to be hit hard by the next shift in the New Madrid fault — and we are back to comparing apples to orange seeds.

Cass Sunstein concludes his Worst-Case Scenarios with, “For most of us, worst-case scenarios rarely deserve sustained attention.  Life is short, and we might as well enjoy it.  But if we are alert, on occasion, to the worst that might happen, we should be able to enjoy life a lot longer.”

With the rare exception, my California public safety colleagues laugh alot, eat well,  know their Napa from their Sonoma wines, love their families, and live large.  They are not lively despite their understanding of risk, rather they are more fully engaged in life because they — better than most of us — know well the loose  seams and ragged edges of living.  This is, it seems to me, the foundation of true resilience.

“Difficulties are things that show a person what they are.” Epictetus (again)

A few resources on catastrophic possibilities:

Latest earthquakes: Last seven days (US Geological Survey)

Yellowstone Supervolcano (National Geographic Magazine)

National Hurricane Center (National Weather Service)

Study finds big storms on a 1000 year rise (New York Times and Nature)

Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (US Department of State)

Managing the Atom Program (Belfer Center, Harvard University)

Emergency Preparedness and Response Site (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Center for Biosecurity (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center)

Near-Earth Object Program (NASA)

Deadly Skies: Tracking Near-Earth Objects (PBS)

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Comment by William R. Cumming

August 14, 2009 @ 8:07 am

It is interesting that it was the Science Committees in the House and Senate that took the earthquake peril seriously and enacted the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977. Signed into law, that statute had as its premise that Earthquake Prediction science was about to allow such predictions. It did not happen. But one good thing came out of that statute (actually many good things–FEMA had lead from 1980 taking over from OSTP until Congress transferred the leadership to NIST in 2004) and that was the statutory mandate for a FEDERAL RESPONSE PLAN TO A CATASTROPHIC EARTHQUAKE! That plan was coordinated in draft and published in the Federal Register in final in 1987. It then morphed into the Natural Disaster Reponse Plan and then in May 1992 the Federal Response Plan. Reissued in 1999 the FRP morphed into the National Response Plan issued officially in April 2005, not December 2004 as some think) and of course Hurricane Katrina hit before it had been fully trained on and implemented. Now the NRP has morphed into the NATIONAL RESPONSE FRAMEWORK (NRF) which still is the over-arching planning document despite issuance of various other types of planning guidance, such as CPG-101 (August 2008), the TCL, the National Preparedness Guidance [Guidelines] (Sept. 2007); NIMS [December 2008]; and the Integrated Planning System [December 2007]. Okay so who actually knows and understands all these documents, more than most would think. But none of them answer the question of who from the federal government will show up, how they will be trained and equipped, funded and staffed in any particular event or incident. Is this important? You bet as the saying goes you don’t want to be handing out business cards in the event of a crisis or disaster!

Comment by J.

August 17, 2009 @ 12:38 pm

Why is it so hard for people to remember the “h” in Pittsburgh??? It’s the University of Pittsburgh, not Pittsburg. Show some respect to the city hosting the nation’s six-time Super Bowl champs!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 17, 2009 @ 4:52 pm


Thanks for the catch. I apologize for the sloppy spelling. I have to admit, I am not a football fan. But being a Andy Warhol fan I have no excuse. Correction made on the front page.


Comment by William R. Cumming

August 19, 2009 @ 11:28 am

J. Only six–wow where is Art Rooney when needed?

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