Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 14, 2010

Hard Questions, No Easy Answers

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on July 14, 2010

This week I have been following updates from the Natural Hazards Center‘s annual workshop at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The workshop brings together an interesting mix of academics and practitioners to discuss a wide range of topics related to emergency management. Several of the sessions at this year’s workshop focus on public involvement, social capital, social media, recovery and resilience.

One of the more interesting comments emerging from the stream of updates coming out of the workshop’s dedicated Twitter feed during these sessions has been repeated calls from participants, presumably in the audience at the various sessions, asking for something more practical and less academic that they can put to use when they return home. The comment came up so often over the weekend that I started wondering whether I was witnessing some sort of anti-intellectual backlash in bursts of 140 characters or less. (I have been relegated to following the proceedings on Twitter because neither I nor my agency can afford to pay my way to attend.)

For many years, the emergency management and homeland security fields were plagued by a lack of theories upon which to base our interventions or upon which to evaluate our progress. This has begun to change as the fields have attracted the interests of a diverse array of disciplines seeking to bring their expertise to bear on our peculiar set of problems.

You would think that such interest would be greeted with enthusiasm and gratitude. Not so it seems. Why, you ask?

Any time new researchers come into a field such as ours, they start by scrutinizing and testing the cherished assumptions that constitute the collective’s conventional wisdom. More often than not the established worldview withers in the face of empirical evidence, which tends to present more complex and nuanced picture of an interconnected world than practitioners find useful.

Few areas of homeland security and emergency management have taken a bigger beating than the notion that ordinary citizens cannot handle the truth or be relied upon to act reasonably in emergent situations. Disaster sociologists have collected abundant evidence that people have a peculiar relationship to emergent evidence and behave in ways that are very sensitive to context. To others any individual’s actions might appear irrational. But from the perspective of the person taking action, their behavior often reflects a highly adaptive and often altruistic response to novel and rapidly-changing information accompanied by considerable ambiguity.

One of the most pressing questions confronting practitioners and researchers alike these days asks why so many people insist on staying put in places vulnerable to catastrophic events. The question itself should give us pause to consider our own assumptions. For starters, we might wonder what cause we have to consider this question answerable in the first place. Is it not reasonable to expect that the answers are as numerous as the people who call the place home? We could ask ourselves what grounds we have to even ask where people can or should live, much less how they should live once they choose to inhabit a vulnerable place. But this rarely happens. On occasion we manage to ask ourselves whether people dumb enough to put themselves at such risk deserve our help, but we never seem willing to answer that one and charge to their aid anyway. (Does that make us irrational?) The bigger question our response raises is whether the answers or lack of answers to the first and subsequent questions has (or should have) any bearing on recovery.

As someone with a foot planted firmly in each camp — theory and practice, academia and public safety — I am sympathetic to the calls for praxis. But I am more interested in phronesis (practical knowledge) than sophia (received wisdom). Any bridge between theory and practice must start with a systems perspective and proceed though thoughtful reflection on what works as well as what does not. As we reflect on conditions six months after the earthquake that killed an estimated 225,000 Haitians, we would do well to ask ourselves just these questions. What theories then should guide our assessments?

Rick Weil, a disaster sociologist at Louisiana State University and a Natural Hazards Center workshop presenter, offers some interesting insights from his research on the effects of social capital on survivors’ experiences of Hurricane Katrina (herehere, here and here) that might guide our search for answers. Expressions of community had the most powerful effects — for better and worse — on how people coped with the disaster and how they responded afterwards. Those individuals most deeply embedded in social networks were generally the best prepared, and the most likely to engage community rebuilding efforts afterwards. But they paid a heavy short-term price for this, as they experienced considerably more stress than less engaged individuals in similar situations (see also Wagner 2009). They also recovered faster and more fully afterwards than those less connected to one another and the place they called home (see also Solnit 2009).

Government for its part provides only part of the answer. Government failure was endemic in Haiti before the disaster, and the situation has clearly not improved despite development aid and expert assistance. But if government involvement was to ramp up dramatically, one might reasonably worry whether it threatened to undermine or displace other expressions of social capital thus eroding community cohesion and reducing resilience. The professionalization of emergency management and homeland security in the United States could present just such a moral hazard here at home.

The older I get and the more time I spend pondering what I have seen and learned, the more interesting I find questions than answers. Figuring out which questions are worth asking is harder than finding so-called right answers. Looking at Haiti now and hoping to find answers is a fool’s errand. On the other hand, observing the trials and triumphs of ordinary Haitians might well provide us with the opportunity to learn which questions to ask ourselves if we truly wish to avoid taking our own hard knocks in the future.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

July 14, 2010 @ 8:56 am

IMO [In My Opinion] and probably wrong people don’t stay put after conducting personal risk analysis but stay where there are jobs and contacts and friends.

Could be wrong of course. But if jobs are key then the location of business activity is crucial. What is of interest is how little business does in the way of risk analysis when locating. 300 Walmarts went down in Katrina.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

July 14, 2010 @ 9:20 am

I attended the workshop and did not get the impression noted above. I have to say that 140 characters are not enough to convey much info — the twitter feeds are not a good indicator in my view. Perhaps reading some of the posted talks will fill in the gaps.

Comment by Mark Chubb

July 14, 2010 @ 10:35 am

Claire, my observation about the tweets was not intended as a criticism of either the conference of commentators, but rather as a jumping off point for some reflections of my own on some of the topics being discussed. Clearly, I cannot get an accurate picture of the proceedings without participating more fully in the workshop. But the stream did encourage me to take a closer look at some of the work being done by presenters such as Rick Weil.

Bill, I think you’re probably right to a point. People and institutions display their own kinds of inertia. Path dependency, uncertainty, resistance to change and a tendency to underestimate losses and overestimate gains may contribute as you observe.

People may be well advised to value the gains of family, friends and familiarity more highly than the uncertainty of disaster losses, especially if these social connections increase their coping capacity. Whether they consciously choose one course over the other may well be bigger question than why they value one more than the other.

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 14, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

Does the Maslov Heirarcy of Needs control locational decisions?

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

July 14, 2010 @ 4:35 pm

Kathleen Tierney gave a notable closing summation of the conference. I hope the full text becomes available for public viewing.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 14, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

The majority, if not all, of the conference papers and presentations should be public. I realize that there is a small profit motive in putting on such events, but by restricting access to the materials in question the hosts just shoot themselves in the foot and deny possibly helpful information to all of those who could not attend for one reason or another.

While perhaps profit and exclusivity are sufficient driving forces in other industries, considering the topic of this conference I would argue that not making everything public is beyond a simple disservice to the public.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

July 14, 2010 @ 6:12 pm

I believe some of the materials are now posted online; see

Comment by John Comiskey

July 14, 2010 @ 11:33 pm

The society of scientists, the community of scientists, has this advantage, that from the moment we enter it, we all know that fifty years from now, most of the things we learned here will turn out not to have been achieved without enormous personal dramas. It will be achieved by giving due honor to the people who take the steps, the steps that turn out to be wrong as well as the steps that turn out to be right.

-Jacob Bronowski, 1967


Agreed, “government for its part provides only part of the answer.” You and the Natural Hazards Center captured the key issues of other-than-government homeland security and emergency management: public involvement, social capital, social media, recovery, and resiliency.

Social Media is very much a part of the incarnation of 21st century homeland security and emergency management praxis and that role will likely increase exponentially. In March of this year, I accepted an invasion to join a twitter group from Naval Post Graduate School alumni. The group is a loosely-knit group of federal, state, and local homeland security practitioners and fledgling academics. Its use on May 1, 2010 inspired “if:” http://www.hlswatch.com/2010/05/03/if/#comments

The group hasn’t identified any rules –it works sometimes and when it doesn’t we improvise: 3-5consecutive bullet like tweets or references to websites, blogs, or off-line e-mails. Claire’s posting of the website exemplifies this phenomenon.

Our twitter group represents practitioner-scholars’ connectivity and research tempered by real life experience –one of our group was detailed to Haiti and another is currently in NOLA working on the spill and they tweeted away while deployed.

Assumptions are normal ….they allow us to do most everything we do without the burden of explaining minutia and things that are generally understood and actually work most of the time. Socrates and his methods are worthy of praise but they have their place and that typically is not in the battle space where things actually get done. New researchers come along [myself included] and challenge the status quo and its inherent assumptions and that’s good so long as we acknowledge that academia and its logical methods will be tested in the battle space and not the classroom. For the record: I’m for logic.

Tweeters and bloggers alike empower themselves and inform institutions about what they like, don’t like, and want. Usually it’s something like KISS (keep it simple stupid) and JTF (just the facts).

Jack Nicholson [A Few Good Men] was wrong: people can handle the truth ….most of them anyway. “Just Tell Them!” ….it is noted that that mantra didn’t work out for anti-drug campaigns i.e. Just say no to drugs!

Looking at Haiti is not a fool’s errand –like Katrina and near every other disaster you will find heroism, resiliency, and post-traumatic growth –probably not as much as we would like.

Comment by hard questions, no easy answers

July 15, 2010 @ 6:21 am

What I found out about people after many decades and in particular – standing 1,491 hours in a one-man crusade for three years – standing with protest sign in hand on behalf of fellow neighbor and first responders in the midst of nor’easters (snowstorms), rain, wind, cold and hot…out of a local population which knew that the closing of a local fire station closed because of supposed lack of funding where entrusted local officials were politicizing instead of defibrillating the local, what I found out standing at the stairs of Town Hall, out of 26,000 local residents who yes, signed my thousands of petitions gathered as a result of my commitment and presented to reopen the station to prove that I was correct in my assertion that this was all politics – politics willing and knowingly able to even sacrifuce the Life of resident and/or first responder…

What I learned standing as sleet bounced off my face as I stood on behalf of fellow citizen (see: http://www.bigdiglifevest.com), not one fellow resident came out to stand with me, to relieve me to enable me to get wet clothes changed and return and while the station is today the busiest station in (Milton, MA), residents – what I learned about most fellow citizens and neighbirs and what every politician knows, more iften than not, folks are dysfunctional, disinterested if they themselves must get off their bottom to exert themselves and the professional politicians take advantage of this indifference –
this apathy and unfortunately for you as a result, the Life you believed and hoped for has been dashed by your disregard for fellow neighbor and allowing politicians to hold positiosn for lengthy terms becoming far too familiar –

Let me say that we as citizenry cannot rely on Barry in Washington nor your local community’s politicians as once elected a sense of entitlement, a prowess in power and elitist attitude prevails –

I am very involved in Haiti and in the Gulf oil spill and the outrage from citizens is minimal given teh seriousness of 1.5 million Haitians – women, children living in tents abused by heavy rains and soon, heavy winds causing more despair.

Interestingly what is really absurd to me is the fact that Barry S. has an administration with every member tied to Goldman Sachs in every way and that it is the those at GS that are enslaving everyone and not even one protest and CNN/Fox news story about these relationships which I believe are a National Security issue – Goldman Sachs and elected leaders vs citizens – see: The Real Story w/Daniel Happnie – While I was just referred to this site, if in fact this gentleman is really telling the truth, there is no way we can rely on government, however there is no way that in the event of disaster, there will be enough super heros to attend the afflicted – the numbers will be too great and the resources to help fellow neighbors far too little –

My suggestion – in November – boot out every incumbent no matter trhe party – no more professional politicians – limit terms from local to state to national – no more Kennedy and John Kerry idoltry!

These guys could given a damn and you can see by the results of today’s challenges what their work resulted in – the unacceptable downfall of this great Republic and let no one doubt that the good ‘ol fellas across both aisles with their self-accolades and connections to the Goldman Sachs fellas have ruined this nation and yes, a few heros and some resilience may be seen, however for the most part, it will be us standing in the rain and maybe protected by a plastic tarp or tent, not the entrusted politicians who talk a good talk, but hey, they will not walk the walk for there are no leaders as today it is ineptness in leadership and we dear nation, good fellow neighbors, we are in real peril and unless you do come and stand, your house has fallen – and it is not Taliban or AQ, but your government and those who with much influence have willingly and knowingly placed all of us in much peril, with War and strife, anguish the next step in the process as we have seen in history….

Take a good look at every one of Barry’s White House administration and you will find Goldman Sachs – they have duped you and unfortunately their list for power and control in subjecting all to enslavement…well, even they will lose for the impoverishment of mankind, taking the hope and will from him, denying him the essentials result in despair and not a double dip, but a depression forthcoming and War!

Hard questions, no easy answers…I am afraid that unfortunately in this Judeo-Christian nation, I see no Bibles and the answers abound as each page is turned, yet no matter the “hard question” – unlesswe adhere to the simplicity that our Creator gave to us and asked us to follow, just as in history since Babylon, every government and for of government has failed for the questions should never have been difficult and the simplicity of Life and its richness in human dignity and achievement shoudl of assured a Life’s fullness, yet the greed, the self-agenda and the indifference towards another has brought us to the precipice of War once again and this time, within 100 years of the last war and ths time, with onlythe intervention of our Creator as we have not read the Bible nor cared to followed scripture which clearly spells out the simplistic answers of Life.

God Bless you and this wonderful blog which keeps us informed of the calamities which abound here and far yonder as earthquake, oil spills and fallen economies will shatter Peace in every way – unfortunately without leadership and in the midst of the “Brutes of Tehran” – there promises no simplicity of Life, unfortunately just tragedy as there are no power rangers among us….this is reality – see: Roubini!

Keep your eyes on Turkey, on Egypt, listen as you hear more and more rumblings among Arab nations and an Iranian leadership whose sights are set in causing much disruption and death throughout the Middle East and Saudi and UAE as well as others pointing to Tehran and the malice which the “Brutes of Tehran” hold for even fellow Arab nations – never mind the Hebrew.

To the “Brutes of Tehran” I say, your narrow perspective will be your demise and it will not be the overstated virgin, but hell which will greet you for you and the clerics who use the preciousness in words and meaning of the Koran written to encourage humanity in such derogatory manner and send innocents and kill innocents in cold blood, it will be you who will never see the warmth and truly white light, for yours will be thrown to the depths of hell and oblivion….this too we have seen in history. A histiry which stands without your intentional and manipulation in amending the facts.

To my fellow citizens, the hard questions and no easy answers, I say this is not true – Look at the present administration and do your homework as every administration particpant at the White House boardroom table has some connection to Goldman Sachs and you are being duped – enslaved with the bankers again taking care of themselves and yoju and your family being raped of your assets and Life!

The answer is simple and make it resounding in November! The clock is ticking and unfortunately your apathy, your dysfunctional ways have allowed outright corruption to usurp power and gridlock Washington with inept and devious self-agenda among those you entrusted….

Christopher Tingus
CEO & Managing Director
Bibles With Love
PO Box 1612
Harwich, MA 02645 USA


Joe Citizen
Main Street USA

Comment by Mark Chubb

July 15, 2010 @ 11:18 am

Bill, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs may help explain some of the behavior we see people exhibit when it comes to choosing whether to stay or go, but I don’t think it controls anything. People tend to make decisions for very complex reasons, which they often don’t elucidate fully even to themselves.

Lower-level needs like security and belonging probably do inform decisions, especially when the opportunity costs of changing location seem high to the person making the decision. But these needs themselves are not singular conceptions of one’s relationship to the situation. (I need many different things to feel secure or accepted, some of which may be present or available in different quantities or with different costs at different times.)

The lower-level needs inform the higher-level ones. I can’t be fully self-actualized unless I feel secure and accepted, but once these needs are met how they are fulfilled has a powerful influence on how people perceive themselves (this goes above and beyond how they perceive their situation).

When time-pressure or high-stales (life or death) accompany decisions about whether to stay or go we can be pretty sure that people will not engage sophisticated analytic processes to make their decisions. Under such conditions they are more likely than not to make no distinction between the question itself (should I stay/should I go) and the answer (time to go/no way, I’m staying).

I would not assume a priori that someone who’s self-actualized will decide to stay and some one who lacks security or acceptance will go. If I am really self-actualized, I might have little difficulty seeing myself comfortably situated anywhere. If I am insecure here, I may fear subjecting myself to even greater insecurity or vulnerability of I go elsewhere.

Is this more evidence that the questions are harder to define than the answers are to find? I think so …

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