Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 29, 2010

ca·tas·tro·phe [kuh-tas-truh-fee] noun

Filed under: Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on April 29, 2010

A great, often sudden calamity.

A complete failure; a fiasco: The food was cold, the guests quarreled—the whole dinner was a catastrophe.

The concluding action of a drama, especially a classical tragedy, following the climax and containing a resolution of the plot.

A sudden violent change in the earth’s surface; a cataclysm.

Origin in English: 1540, “reversal of what is expected” (especially a fatal turning point in a drama), from Gk. katastrephein “to overturn,” from kata “down” + strephein “turn” (see strophe). Extension to “sudden disaster” is first recorded 1748.

(See more at dictionary.com)

Catastrophe is not a synonym for disaster. Nor is it just a really bad disaster. Catastrophe is measured less in lives lost or financial cost and much more in a consensus that the survivors’ future direction has been fundamentally altered.

By objective measure the death, injury, and destruction involved can be little out of the ordinary. But something in the time, place, or means of the event creates a shared sense of profound discontinuity. In a true catastrophe this discontinuity is confirmed by subsequent events.

In his analysis of tragedy, Aristotle explains that katastrophe (often translated as reversal of fortune), “is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite… Thus in the Oedipus, the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he is, he produces the opposite effect.” (Aristotle, Poetics XI)

Edmund Spenser adapted the Greek into English. For the contemporary of Shakespeare, poet, and critic, catastrophe is a final ending, a closing, and an explanation of what went on before. The theater of Spenser’s period often featured a sudden plot twist (the Greek strophe means to twist, turn, or plait). Spenser’s catastrophe explains the sudden shift. Today we would more likely use denouement – a French loan-word – for this purpose.

In 1755 Samuel Johnson explained in his Dictionary that, “catastrophe is the change or revolution which produces the final event of a dramatick piece, a final event, generally unhappy.” Notice the evolution. Catastrophe is no longer the explanation of the change, but the change itself. A change worthy of catastrophe is significant, unexpected, even revolutionary.

More recently Judge Richard Posner has written a catastrophe is, “an event that is believed to have a very low probability of materializing but that if it does materialize will produce harm so great and sudden as to seem discontinuous with the flow of events that preceded it.” (Catastrophe: Risk and Response). While less than elegant, Posner’s definition is helpful in highlighting how catastrophe is different from disaster:

  • “low probability of materializing” and therefore unexpected, most of our disasters are not only expected, but seasonal.
  • “harm so great and sudden” retrieves the ancient aspect of not just unexpected, but being precipitous and dramatic, and as a result having particular shock value.
  • “as to seem discontinuous with the flow of events that preceded” is especially important in highlighting the key aspect of how the meaning of the event is perceived. Aristotle might ask, “Is the event understood as beginning, middle, or end?”

The National Response Framework defines catastrophe as, “any natural or manmade incident, including terrorism, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the population, infrastructure, environment, economy, national morale, and/or government functions.

The NRF definition has preserved some of the dramatic elements of catastrophe in pointing to extraordinary and severe outcomes. The shock value may be embedded in concern for “national morale.” But the NRF’s authors have neglected the role of surprise and the key role of a sudden shift in story-line, the reversal of what has been expected.

My own definition: A catastrophe is an event that involves an unusual scale of death, injury and destruction; experienced – directly or indirectly – across a broad scope of territory and/or by a substantial population; involving wide-spread secondary effects that amplify the original scope and scale of the event; perceived by most as a complete surprise; and which transforms the society’s sense of self (generally unhappy, but I am personally interested in how such reversal-of-fortune might also be for the good).

To engage the risk of catastrophe it is necessary to deal effectively with each of these issues: scale, scope, secondary effects, surprise, and the social definition of the event’s meaning. In scanning many so-called catastrophes, it seems to me that surprise and society’s perception of the event have the greatest influence. The less surprise, the more confident the society’s response; the more confident the society’s response, the less catastrophic the perceived results. The less catastrophic the perception, the more complete – and even improved – the recovery.

For further consideration:

Earthly Powers: Disasters are about People and Planning (The Economist, April 24, 2010)

Worst-Case Scenarios by Cass Sunstein

Catastrophe Theory by Vladimir I. Arnold

Reading List for a graduate course in catastrophe offered by The London Consortium.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

April 29, 2010 @ 5:40 am

The National Response Framework (NRF) tracks the statutory definition contained in section 601 of Title VI-National Emergency Managementan of Public Law 109-296, October 4, 2006.

I have a simpler definition and note that FEMA was barred from planning for catastrophe by President James Earl Carter’s Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1978. I complement the Bush Administration for trying to put catastrophic planning and preparedness back on the table. Whether that has been successful or not is in the eye of the beholder I guess. The test of course will come from the audit of real world events.

So my definition is simple: A catastrophic event is one in which an unplanned for event takes place triggering governmental response or where that governmental response is itself compromised by the event.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 29, 2010 @ 5:59 am

Many have wondered why I keep questioning the citation of Reorg. Plan No. 3 of 1978 in many FEMA/DHS documents as well as its budget submission. My position has been made clear on this blog and elsewhere that the Homeland Security Act of 2002 entirely replaced that Reorganization Plan as having any force and effect of law. Nor do the transition and savings clauses in the Homeland Security Act of 2002 save that plan from having statutory significance or legal significance. Well part of my reasoning is based on the language set forth below:

“Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1978 Extract

House Document No. 95-356
June 19, 1978
From first full paragraph on page 3:

Third, whenever possible, emergency responsibilities should be extensions of the regular missions of Federal agencies. The primary task of the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be to coordinate and plan for the emergency deployment of resources that have other routine uses. There is no need to develop a separate set of Federal skills and capabilities for those rare occasions when catastrophe occurs.
[emphasis supplied]

Does this exonerate FEMA for past misteps? NO! Because it was always the responsibility of FEMA to design capability including systems and procedures and processes that could be scaled up for large-scale unplanned events. This included accessing increased personnel assets, trained and competent hopefully, logistics and supply, equipment etc and other things. And of course all in a collaborative cooperative context maximizing the use of the assets of other federal departments and agencies to the extent possible but being prepared if they could not handle their assigned functions–i.e. the federal safety net.

And of course on that topic of “catstrophe” as an aside, the Obama declaration to increase exploration for offshore drilling for petroleum may end up as one of his worst political blunders as the oil slick moves towards shore, the size begins to look far in excess of Exxon Valdez and of course then President George H.W. Bush refused to declare a federal disaster on the basis that other statutory schemes controlled and where that was the case the STAFFORD ACT should NOT be used. Well I have discussed that decision elsewhere as some readers of this blog know.

Good luck Mr. President. Between Haiti and the oil rig explosion it appears that the “good but not lucky” aphorism may soon be triggered for good in the public mindset.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 29, 2010 @ 6:14 am

This week I am participating in a national workshop on catastrophic planning. It is a good event, much better than most such meetings. Everyone here has strategic and/or operational and/or tactical responsibility for some aspect of preparing for, mitigating, or responding to catastrophe

Yesterday there was a session on defining catastrophe. Neither Bill Cumming’s definition (offered in essence by another participant) nor mine was well-received. Each was, however, given a respectful listen, so who knows where the discussion may yet lead us.

There was a strong inclination to quantify the definition. There was reluctance to deal with the “intangibles” of social interpretation. One participant offered that, “Catastrophe is what Anderson Cooper says it is.” (If only that were true I would schedule a long discussion with Anderson.)

The role of surprise – and our ability to mitigate surprise – was a bridge too-far for most, or so it seemed to me.

I will not be surprised by a massive cyber-attack, a nuclear detonation, a deadly biological event, a super-cell hitting a major city, a CAT-5 hurricane, a 7.7 earthquake, a city-consuming wildfire. I will not be surprised by a terrorist takeover of a rural elementary school or IEDs in multiple suburban malls (at Christmas time). It would, I suggest, be very helpful if the vast majority of our citizens were also expecting such eventualities. Our response to both the event and its aftermath will be more competent when we are expecting it.

I am pretty sure we cannot “plan” for every eventuality, especially every low-likelihood, high-consequence risk. But I perceive we can prepare ourselves for a range of risks. I can expect to be surprised… and in this expectation I can prepare to respond with less surprise, more competence, and more confidence.

Tactical and operational plans are very helpful in practically preparing us to be surprised, even though the details of the plans very seldom survive the first hour of the event. An effective strategy always expects to be surprised and is conceived and executed to give us advantage, even when surprised.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 29, 2010 @ 7:04 am

Good luck with your endeavor. Yes, surprise is an element in catastrophe but usually the secondary, tertiary etc impacts and fallout.

As you point out much that would not surprise you (and probably me) would definitely surprise man others.

Perhaps only the location is the big surprise. Such as where will the “big one” hit as it inevitably will.

Hoping you tell us more about your week after it has ended.

Comment by Shawn Fenn

April 29, 2010 @ 8:15 am

Terrific post–and a much-needed discussion.

FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute has posted draft materials for an upper-division/graduate course entitled “Catastrophe Readiness and Response” at http://training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/edu/crr.asp. Session 1 focuses on defining catastrophes and describing what sets them apart from “routine” disasters. This discussion includes mention of the evocative term “hypercomplex emergency” as used in some overseas disaster risk management communities; perhaps more germane to this discussion, though, is the overview of Quarantelli’s six criteria for characterizing a catastrophe:

• In catastrophes most or all of a community built structure is impacted, including facilities of emergency response organizations.
• Local response personnel are unable to assume normal roles due to losses of personnel and/or facilities & equipment.
• Help from nearby or even regional communities is not available because all are affected by the same event.
• Most, if not all, of the everyday community functions are sharply and concurrently interrupted.
• News coverage is more likely to be provided by national organizations over a longer period of time.
• National government and very top officials become directly involved.

Quarantelli discusses these criteria in detail in his 2006 essay “Catastrophes are Different from Disasters: Some Implications for Crisis Planning and Managing Drawn from Katrina” (available at http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Quarantelli/). If we boil the criteria down, the most operationally significant distinguishing factor seems to be a crippling breakdown of the established vertical and horizontal command/control and coordination/cooperation structures necessary for incident management that extends beyond the area of impact. That sets the definitional bar pretty high, but conceptualizing catastrophe in such a way points us toward a useful set of assumptions that can help identify catastrophe response capability gaps and thus guide catastrophe preparedness efforts.

Comment by Mark Chubb

April 29, 2010 @ 10:56 am

Phil, I find the notion of surprise an interesting one to contemplate. Surprise can be either a joyful or dreadful experience, which provokes very different cognitive and biological responses among individuals.

When confronted with dread, our focus narrows and we tend to approach things in ways that seek to minimize loss rather then seize opportunities. Joy on the other hand opens us to possibilities, encourages positive thinking, creativity, and even playfulness. (Is this why black humor seems to come so easily to seasoned responders during crisis situations?)

To the extent that a genuine catastrophe overwhelms our expectations, habits of mind and action, we need more of the latter and less of the former. Opening ourselves to possibilities, finding opportunities to reinforce a sense of self-efficacy and control seem vital to advancing any successful response and recovery even when these actions produce results that seem out of scale or scope with the disruption and devastation we experience.

Indeed, our ability to overcome the disorientation that accompanies disaster depends on the ability to see new possibilities.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 29, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

Iunderstand President Obama has decided to declare oil rig explosion and spill in Gulf an event of National Significance.

Surprise surprise.

He finally got the correct briefing on implications of this “surprise” event.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 30, 2010 @ 6:45 am

Appears “Event of National Significance” may have been used by WH or DHS Secretary in error since term does NOT appear in any statute or guidance document now. Perhaps all the way back to HSPD-5 which has yet to be completely or partially revised by Obama Administration.

Comment by Citizen Joe

April 30, 2010 @ 8:17 am

The oil leak is Not a national event and guidlelines should not be so manipulated. Isn’t it interesting how such an oil leak changes this administration’s perspective when only two weeks ago or less, the President announced oil exploration….Wet behind the ears, you bet with no backbone to be found among Democrats or Republicans! What an utter disgrace and you think we trust you Now never mind to address an event leaving us bloodied and gasping for Life?

Listen, this is No surpise. Oil spills and oil leaks are often disastrous and like all else, lack of transparency, irresponsibility and a void in truly making good decision-making not only in the grid-locked beltway on both sides of the aisle, but as we see in Europe and a global preoccupation with arrogance in greed in pursuit of the almighty buck/euro/yuan!

In Somalia, if you look the wrong way, you’ll be killed in an instant with no regard for the Creator’s human creation, the craetion of individual and the dignity of another, the Right to Life! Unfortunately, the same is true in so many other places with corrupt and evil doer who may not care or be concerned, yet God is witness to all and until we clean up our act, we will be cleaning up not only oil spills, but more Persian blood as we saw willingly spilled on the streets of Tehran by the “Brutes of Tehran” now being allowed by western civilization to mount its attack not only on other Islamic factions its detests, but bringing all into a global conflict.

With all your “credentials” and with your self-stroking accolades of one another, what real portrayal of incompetence, actually, intentional indifference in turning one’s cheek to what is Right and Wrong….All about the buck, the euro, the yuan which will all be devalued as a result of your lust for power, enslaving others who will be taxed to death!

You Mr. President have only accomplished one thing of consequence, increasing debt as no President has done in such a short term in office….Kudos to you for assuring that our beloved Republic is compromised in every way i.e, telling those that seek to behead us that we will not respond even with limited nuclear retaliation even as our citizen lay crippled or twiching from bio-chem attack…since when do we let our Islamic enemies know what we will do or not…What a hoax..

We here on Main Street USA will Not be surpised by catastrophe for we have opened our doors in every way to embrace it – you have failed to uphold the Constitution you and your peers do your utmost to decipher to your preferance….

A nation $12trillion times in debt and growing every moment with an oil leak gushing oil to kill the environment and wildlife and an economy gushing and both sides of the aisle along with “Mr. Barney” and “Smug-smiled Pelosi” having no idea, none whatsoever, to stop either….

Indeed a catastrophe in the making….

God Bless America!

Joe Citizen
Main Street USA

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Crafting catastrophe, choosing resilience

September 23, 2010 @ 12:17 am

[...] previous posts I have offered a — very pedantic – definition of catastrophe.  The term originates in ancient Greek drama and signals a reversal of fortune and a sudden shift [...]

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