Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 2, 2009

Does resilience have a fairy god-mother?

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 2, 2009

Thursday morning, Tim Manning, FEMA Deputy Administrator for National Preparedness, told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Communications, Preparedness, and Response,

Throughout the history of emergency management planning, considerations for individual and community preparedness have been inadequate. Since September 11, 2001 and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the United States has invested tens of billions of dollars in bolstering government’s preparedness, while paying comparatively little attention to personal and community preparedness. Yet we know – and have seen – that personal, family and community preparedness can have a tremendous impact in mitigating the effects of an emergency. Simple steps taken by individuals to provide for the needs of their families and their neighbors in an emergency can dramatically improve the readiness and resiliency of the American people in the face of a disaster.

According to a recently completed survey, many Americans are not taking these simple steps.  The survey asked over sixty emergency preparedness questions.  A question that caught my attention is, “In thinking about preparing yourself for a major disaster, which best represents your preparedness?”


In my experience with surveys the “right answer” is usually a bit inflated and “wrong answers” are under-represented.  But let’s assume the response given is statistically, psychologically and in every other way accurate.

They were asked about a major disaster.  They were given an easy out of “not yet,” but claiming good intentions.  Despite these generous preconditions more than one-quarter of respondents said, “I am not planning to do anything about preparing.”

Yesterday Chris Bellavita wrote, “If something bad does happen, and if I’m not prepared, I’ll take my chances. Together with the other people affected, we’ll make something up.”  

At least 27 percent of Americans apparently agree.  While I value good intentions, I expect another 27 percent of Americans will end up with the same outcome as their purposefully and honestly non-preparing neighbors. 

The survey results leave me feeling very ant-like and outnumbered by crickets.

I acknowledge crickets probably have the odds on their side.  Disaster is unlikely.  Catastrophe is even less likely.  And when the unlikely happens, the ants — contrary to the fable — will help.

My most serious concern is  not with crickets singing while I work.  What worries me more is wicked step-mothers actively undermining our resilience. 

In California and elsewhere, public policy allows an increasing proportion of residential areas to be at high risk of wildfire.  In both hurricane country and inland river bottoms, the high rent district moves right up to the water’s edge.  With fire and flood, local policies are lax partly because federal financial subsidies are expected in a worst case.

Federal transportation and anti-trust policies push concentration of food processing.  Federal agricultural policies encourage production mono-cultures.  Each increase the risk of cascading failure to our food system.

Two weeks ago I was consulting on risk for a major urban area. In the sprawling suburbs we found over 300,000 residents being served by one spanking new water-treatment plant.  It is an amazing single point-of-failure in case of natural, accidental, or intentional threats (all of which abound).

The origin of this sterling example of inter-governmental cooperation?  Federal grant preferences and requirements. 

In another jurisdiction, residential growth has sprawled around pre-existing agro-chemical plants and warehouses.  Huge quantities of toxic and explosive material are still stored as when the nearest school was ten miles away, rather than next door.

But when county fire and health authorities proposed a local ordinance to just inventory and lock-up the bad stuff, federal regulations were used to resist the modest mitigation efforts.

Have you noticed wicked step-mothers are usually beautiful?  In each of these cases, public policy has a beautiful veneer.  The attraction usually relates to near-term pay-offs. So did sending Cinderella to work in the kitchen. 

Resilience is hard-wired into our individual and social selves.  In the face of immediate danger most of us respond cooperatively, courageously, and in the best tradition of fairy tale heroes.  I am not being ironic.

But in most cases the fairy tale hero is challenged by some disguised adversary.

The good and handsome father (the policy-maker)  never marries the wicked step-mother (risk increasing policies) with the purpose of displacing his own children (all of us).  But he is lonely and distracted by her superficial beauty. 

In most of the stories, the good and handsome father is unwilling to recognize the unintentional harm he has caused.  But in a few fables he is able to do just enough to allow the children to save themselves.  I hope we can craft that happy ending.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 2, 2009 @ 11:02 am

Interesting post. Also interesting that Tim Manning was sacrificial lamb for lack of citizen preparedness when clearly that has been a federal program since 1951. Respectfully disagree that disaster (however) defined is not likely to occur. Not saying that the MORMONS with their two year supply of food and medicines is or should be the ideal. Yet fequency of grid outages is statistically much higher than in the past. Also strong windstorms and tornado frequency up quite a bit. The “heat island” of modern urban areas may be involved. You are completely correct that the feds are often in conflict between the short and long term impacts of programs. Hey so is the private sector! Do we want bees or cell phone towers? Anyhow even when living in a suburb of DC (Arlington) in August 2003 when Hurricane Isabel hit no power for 8 days. In an ice-storm in Maine and in Upstate NY (separate events in years occuring some were without power for a month)! Hey it gets cold up there. Now based on research we know that droughts and heat waves are huge problems. Where does this leave us. I certainly strongly agree that no expectation should ever exist that public services or even emergency workers will show up on large-scale unplanned for even for first 72-96 hours. Also few communities have the ability to generate even life-saving activity for 24/7 after first 30 days! So perhaps the federal role could be designed to deal with the need for first 180 days after the first 30-60 days and after that back on your own. Each federal program should have factored in its impacts on population survivability and resilience. The huge budget distorion for after the event outlays and very very little for preparedness is a disaster in the making. The insurance business of course does not really want to take on risk so they devote their efforts to withdrawal from risk and seeking economic reward through insuring what is economically rewarding.
But the key failure is that FEMA and other mitigation programs have not been staffed with spokesperson who are articulate advocates for mitigation and resilience. Why? Most appointees just don’t know their jobs and are resume polishing to move on to the private sector. Right now there has been no head of the Mitigation Directorate confirmed for a long long time. Does Congress care? Does the Administration care? Does anyone care? Certainly no one will notice if no disasters to focus on for non-performance or failure to meet expectations. Think about it? The USACOE has almost 36,000 employees and pushes development not mitigation with a huge budget. EPA is a regulator and often opposed by regulated entities and development interests. But has almost 12,000 employees. NOAA which is almost 2/3 of the staff of the Department of Commerce has almost NO mitigation authority. There is NO deputy director of OMB for mitigation. There should be an assistant secretary for mitigation and resilience in each federal department and a high ranking official in each independent agency. Each Governor should have an Assistant focused on Mitigation and Resilence. This is more likely when the Governor’s key assistant for crisis management, disaster, and EM is trained and educated and experience in MITIGATION and RESILIENCe. Have a state police person or STARC in charge of EM is not likely to have a person with a mitigation or resilience focus.

On October 12th it will have been 12 years since the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection released its study and recommendations. That report should now have a report card of what has been done for resilence and mitigation of damage to CI and of course that report a landmark in delineating the differences between physical protection of infrastructure and cyber security. Clearly because most physical security is overemphasized to the detriment of cyber security the federal effort is off base. Just in DHS I estimate almost 100,000 folks devoted to physical security and now too late and a dollar short the Secretary is begging the private sector cyber experts to give up their highpaying jobs to become one of the new 1000 recruits she says are needed now for cyber security. This won’t happen. Hey if IRS takes 1/2 of the graduates of all the accounting programs in the nation each year and then spends a year training them, perhaps DHS should consider some similiar effort. Basically, the Civil Service system destroyed by Carter’s Reorganization No. 1 of 1978 (FEMA was Carter’s Reorganization No. 3 of 1978) it needs rebuilding for the 21st Century. Get to work John Berry head of OPM and start getting a system in place to protect our democracy (republic)!

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 2, 2009 @ 11:13 am

What I probably should also have pointed out in the comment on the post above that the key mitigation program in FEMA the NFIP (42 USC 4001 and following) has oversight and authorization by the BANKING Committees in Congress not the Science Committees. This is a major error from any standpoint, whether common sense or policy. Although admittedly science can normally inform but cannot decide. The NFIP mapping programs however are mandated by statute to use the “Best Scientific and Techical” evidence for depicting flood risks. Oddly even though mandated by statute to map other risks, e.g. erosion, flood-related mudslide, etc. the NFIP pays for these risks but does NOT map them. This could easily be corrected by Congress eliminating definition A-2 from the NFIP insurance policy and reinforcing what I believe is already in the statute–No insurance for any risk not mapped. No mapping for levee or dam failure for example yet the NFIP pays out.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 3, 2009 @ 6:26 am

Is disaster likely? The answer depends on the angle(time/space frame) of the observer.

For Bill Cumming and Phil Palin I bet disasters are not just likely, but nearly ongoing. In just the last several days true calamities have unwound across the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Germany is threatened with attacks for voting the wrong way. US security chiefs warn of credible domestic and foreign terrorist threats. Nuclear dangers deepen. Wildfires rage. Floods sweep.

But for better or worse, this is not a typical angle on reality.

For the vast majority of people I expect Chris Bellavita is correct when he writes, “… most American’s already have an effective resilience strategy. It is to continue to pursue happiness in whatever form they conceive it, within the opportunities and constraints afforded to them by the nation’s always evolving meaning of liberty. It is to continue to live inside the belief that a bad thing will not happen today… Will there be an earthquake, a flood, a fire, a terrorist attack today? Probably not. And if so, the odds are it won’t affect me.”

Both observations are true, depending on the angle of observation.

Which angle is more helpful? Which angle is more prudentiary? Which angle is more wise?

On such questions we are, so far, unable to agree.

Comment by Pat Longstaff

October 3, 2009 @ 8:06 am

Let us consider the ants. They toil today because they don’t know what surprises tomorrow will bring. Some of them will help the crickets if something bad happens – but only if they can. They will take care of themselves and their families first.
I have been an advocate of ants but I also value crickets. They will bring creativity to adversity because they must. And in doing so they may be able to help the ants. Ants are people who have taken some steps to be able to deal with whatever is thrown at them – they may have to “make something up” to deal with surprises but they will have more tools to do it with.
In many communities we have less resilience capacity because we don’t know our neighbor ants and crickets. Many things have moved us apart – primarily transportation and communications networks. They give us the illusion of being close (even as they become vulnerable targets). But my Internet “community” of friends all over the world and my far-flung family are not going to be much help when flood waters start pouring into my living room. We will not put those genies back in the bottle because these networks have made us very efficient.

The wicked step-mother of resilience is often efficiency. It is beautiful because we get the most output for the least input. I hope we are finally ready to acknowledge the tradeoffs that must be made when we make it our queen. This queen requires that we give up things like redundant systems that sit around doing nothing until they help us when the main system goes down. I am glad that airplanes have many of them – even if it increases the cost of my ticket. Having one water source is very efficient. Having one parts supplier is very efficient. Growing one crop is very efficient.

Having both ants and crickets is inevitable because people perceive risks differently. And it is ultimately good for resilient communities. Diversity, not uniformity, is the ultimate resilience tool when you don’t know what surprises tomorrow will bring.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 3, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

You and I perceive the same wicked step-mother and efficiency is her beauty. It is, however, a very narrow efficiency. It is a beguiling, but ultimately deceiving beauty. I hope we can cultivate an appreciation for a more sustainable beauty.

I had not considered the strategic value of crickets’ creative spontaneity. I wonder if this is some of what we are seeing in the surprising resilience of New Orleans.

Across my life this “ant” has been an absolute sucker for “crickets.” The more spontaneous, outrageous, and less concerned for the future, the more I am attracted, like an ant to honey. There would be a satisfying symmetry if the god-mother of resilience turns out to be a kind of cricket.

Comment by christopher tingus

October 6, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

At another time and another place, I would concur, however inherent with self-agenda and fewer and fewer who will reach out, the life jackets will save few for the 21st century of technological development affording such global communications will surely be our demise instead of counting our Blessings and truly reaching out to neighbors with respect and compassion. The ants are less tolerant of the others in the group today as never before.

The impoverishment of America started long ago and as the dollar takes its fall and interest rates rise, you will see far more tolerance of “entrusted” public servants who turn their cheek to protecting this beloved nation and its most charitable people not from afar, but from within…..

Will the ants stop to help the crickets survive, not this go around….It is apparent that the resilience of even the ant to date will no longer be able to overcome the unchartered course before us! It is a pity. Mankind has forgotten to repent! The devalued
buck has meant far too much to most….

As I partner of with – proven expertise – in addressing wastewater and quality water challenges and sharing solutions globally, as I pursue substantial funding to finance all these many project initiatives whether in Ghana, Rwana, Sri Lanka, Manila, Pakistan, and many other places, I am appalled at the number of folks without a good, clean glass of water in the 21st century, yet we can play with so many guns and place the ants and crickets in so much peril! What a shame!

Where is the civil defense plan for citizens presented with clarity, in an organized, community-oriented manner where in the event of the inevitable as a result of mankind’s continued inability to address one another with dignity and respect, this nation is prepared! We are not!

Christopher Tingus

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