Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 26, 2010

Katrina: At least we knew she was coming. No notice is even worse. (Several Friday Updates)

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 26, 2010

    Montage of August, 2005 Katrina storm track

Five years ago Sunday the hurricane weakened as it rolled past New Orleans.  What a lucky break. But then one levee broke, then another. Eventually there were 53 breached levees. 

Southern Mississippi was hit harder, but a certain fixation with the city is not inappropriate.  Eighty percent of Americans are concentrated in urban areas.   Our density depends on attenuated networks of infrastructure and supply chains that we seldom see and most barely understand. 

In the Big Easy infrastructure crumbled, the power grid failed, supply chains severed, and life became very hard.  Death came for over 1800.

Yet we knew Katrina was coming.  We saw her swing through Florida heading  our way.  There was a mandatory evacuation. Most escaped.  She ended up a Cat 1 or Cat 2, far from the worst. Still consequences were plenty bad.  The blues were given another deep bend.

Not to diminish the impact or its implications, Katrina was the “last war.”  Whatever was learned ought be used for the even tougher task ahead.  We cannot know precisely when it will happen or where it will hit, but we can be certain it’s heading our way.

The map immediately below projects  potential earthquake impacts in the United States.   The Pacific ring-of-fire we know, even if we are usually in deep denial.  The faults along the middle Mississippi and the South Carolina coast still surprise many.  The possibility of strong quakes without an adjacent fault stacks the odds higher still. 

     USGS earthquake hazard estimates

This is the best notice we will get.

Earthquake is hardly the only no-notice threat. Most natural, accidental, and intentional threats are no notice (or little notice) events.  Lack of notice increases the likelihood a trigger event will cascade toward catastrophe.

We cannot predict, but we can anticipate.  Knowing what we know now, what should we being doing now?  Are we doing it?

For further consideration:

National Earthquake Information Center  (United States Geological Service)

Sustainable Critical Infrastructure Systems (National Research Council)

Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster (Lee Clarke, University of Chicago Press)

Catastrophic Disaster Planning and Response (Clifford Oliver, CRC Press)

Building Resilient Communities (P.H. Longstaff and K. Perrin, Syracuse University)

Resilience: The Grand Strategy (Homeland Security Affairs Journal)

Updated Friday Morning:

Krakatoa Remembered

     2004 eruption of “Child of Krakatoa”

On this date in 1883 the Krakatoa volcano exploded.  It was one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history.

  • The 23km square island of Krakatoa existed at a height of 450m above sea level. The blast leveled most of the island to 250m below sea level.
  • Pyroclastic flows traveled as far as 40km from the island consuming traversing ships in fire and ash.
  • The sound of the final explosion was heard over 4500km away and covered 1/13th of the Earth’s surface.
  • The eruption generated tsunamis 40m high that devastated nearby coastlines.
  • The final death toll from pyroclastic flows, volcanic bombs, and tsunamis was calculated to be a devastating 36,417.

More available at: http://www.earlham.edu/~bubbmi/krakatoa.htm

Thanks to Bill Cumming for the reminder.  I understand President Arthur asked Bill to undertake a close examination of the event in order to generate lessons-learned.

Mount Sinabung erupts, first time in 400 years

Early Sunday, August 29 — Priyadi Kardono from Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency told the BBC that more than 10,000 people were being evacuated from nearby villages. MORE FROM THE BBC

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Comment by William R. Cumming

August 26, 2010 @ 5:35 am

I have argued that in Mississippi and Alabama Hurricane Katrina was largely a natural disaster. Impacting areas previously not impacted by any natural event in anyone’s memory still alive. NOLA was quite different. There floodwalls built on subsiding soils and lack of a comprehensive flood protection system set the stage for the disaster. The USACOE has openly admitted to 50 years of conflicts of interests as the principal technical adviser to the federal, state, and local governments. There current $15B effort will again fail for a number of reasons but their widely spread announcement as to the level of protection, specifically a hurricane of a category 3 level on the Saffir-Simpson Scale, will not be reached in my lifetime (I am 68)and both Hurricane Andrew and Katrina were both Cat 5’s at different points and a probably hit from that level event will cause US to stop worrying about NOLA since there will not be a NOLA. The national interest in Southern Louisiana is not tourism and gambling but energy and Mississippi shipping. This should be the focus of federal efforts. Oh and the fifteen bright shiny new casinos on the State of Mississippi Gulf Coast are not like to survive a Camille level event either.
I think serious discussion of permanent relocation for S. Louisiana except for functionally dependent usage of that sensitive coast needs consideration.
And I use (and it is challenged) the figure of $250B US dollars for the reconstruction of KOBE, Japan after the 1995 Earthquake, the most expensive recovery effort ever {it is Japan’s largest port] but even that effort has not restored that port to pre-1995 levels of traffic. Perhaps while the economics profession fails to reach agreement on long-term economic impacts of disasters the memories alone deter mankind after the fact for at least the life time of those who experienced the event. There is no question that NOLA declined after the 1927 floods as a principal financial center for the US although perhaps oil rather than hurricanes is the basis of the transfer to DALLAS and HOUSTON of NOLA’s pre-1927 prosperity. And pretty well documented that despite advertising that the 1906 Earthquake was a “fire” [and certainly fire consumed the city after earthquake disrupted the water mains] that city also declined as the Queen of the West Coast economy. Of course its replacements of LA and Seattle will pay their dues to Mother Nature sometime in the future. Hoping not while I am alive. Pakistan apparently paying its dues to belonging to Mother Nature right now.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 26, 2010 @ 5:44 am

Addedum: Preparedness for the fast-breaking event is almost geometrically different than the arithmitic of slow-moving events. What is dangerous is how seldom we seem to note the distinctly different difficulties where no mobilization time is involved and it is largely a “come as you are War” as DOD used to say before two decade long mobilization efforts after that term was banned as unrealistic and not like to happen or be necessary. NSDD-47 and EO 12656 should be combined into an all-hazards preparedness assignment document including a chain of command for fast breaking incidents perhaps patterend on the National System for Emergency Coordination (NSEC) promulgated in January 1988 by the Reagan Administration. What do we know about the Russian EM/HS system since in the past we always compared the US civil defense system to the Soviet? And when analyzing the Soviet System always included their coop/cog efforts while excluding ours from the comparison! What would be the ranking of countries by the analysis of their resilience to various kinds of fast breaking events?

Comment by ~

August 26, 2010 @ 7:04 am

Beef up structures with carbon fiber. Put up bells for signals intelligence. If the bells get real loud, you’ll know. I hear the train a mile way. That’s overkill.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 26, 2010 @ 7:13 am

I think it was a Dartmouth team that characterized preparedness for fast-breaking and hard-hitting events as “planning to have no plans.” Good thinking that, in my judgment. There is, however, an ongoing challenge — as seems to have been the case on the Deepwater Horizon — of missing the “alarm bells.” As the list of recent headlines — and our daily experience — suggests, when one alarm after another is ringing we tend to ignore all of them (no matter how close the train)… unless, perhaps, we have adopted Mark Chubb’s seven-fold path… or some other source of disciplined attention that will cut through the noise.

Comment by Art Botterell

August 26, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

There’s also a large category of “short-fused” warning scenarios on a continuum between the long lead-time hurricane and the self-notifying earthquake.

These include tornados and most other severe storms, volcanos and most terrorist scenarios. Warnings frequently are available, but the lead-times are measured in hours or even minutes, which means we have to pay a lot more attention to the science of warning effectiveness.

(There are also “negative lead-time” scenarios such as hazmat incidents, infrastructure failures (e.g., the NOLA levees), some terrorist scenarios and most health alerts, where the event has already occurred but not everyone knows about them. Some folks call these “notification” scenarios to differentiate them from “warning” situations, but there’s no consistency in that usage.)

In any event, good emergency planning talks more about how we’re going to do things than precisely what we’re going to do. Good plans are frameworks for improvisation and adaptation, not detailed workplans. Only amateurs try to specify the details in advance. Alas, there are a lot of amateurs working in this field these days.

Comment by ~

August 26, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

You need to Skidaddle

It’s that time, so goodbye and buy good.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 27, 2010 @ 6:32 am

On August 27th today’s date in 1888 Krakatoa went off. Several great books out there about this “big one”!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 27, 2010 @ 7:19 am

Bill, Thanks for the reminder regarding Krakatoa. The BBC has a 10 minute audio interview with Simon Winchester the author of Krakatoa: The day the world exploded.


“When the Krakatoa volcano exploded it created four giant tsunami that devastated the coast of what is now Indonesia. About 40,000 people were killed.”

Also look for some great related links at the bottom of the spawned screen.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 27, 2010 @ 8:32 am

Phil! Thanks for the post and Simon Winchester’s book is well written.

A deceased friend Tom Simkin, lead vulcanologist for the Smithsonian Instution published the definitive vulcanology study of the event. The combination of books gives US a good picture.

By the way vulcanology, seismology and physical geographical study appear to be withing being dominated by physics within the next decade as deep earth soundings reveal the magma flows underlying volcanic events. Yosemite and MONO lake could areas to be studied. The San Andreas fault is the most heavily instrumented geological fault in the world.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 30, 2010 @ 4:32 am

The Ring of Fire looks quite active these days and weeks and months. Question? How recently have each of the 6 active volcanoes in the Cascades erupted? Okay a hint–Mt. St. Helens major blast in 1980 and some activity since. Mt. Baker? Mt. Rainer? Etc?


August 30, 2010 @ 10:51 am

“At no time should you endanger yourself or others, take any unnecessary risks or infringe any laws.” BBC

Go ahead and endanger yourself. An utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.
—— Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

They say, “The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.”. Some guy in a cubicle someplace edits web comments so it’s safe. I have some unnecessary risks to take, called driving with media crazed phone junkies, down the road. A fighter jet just went by. It’s safer up there, with less traffic. Have they dispatched the drones to fly into the ash and smoke yet to shoot pictures?

“There are no manifestations of the forces of Nature more calculated to
inspire us with feelings of awe and admiration than volcanic eruptions
preceded or accompanied, as they generally are, by earthquake shocks.
Few agents have been so destructive in their effects; and to the real
dangers which follow such terrestrial convulsions are to be added the
feelings of uncertainty and revulsion which arise from the fact that the
earth upon which we tread, and which we have been accustomed to regard
as the emblem of stability, may become at any moment the agent of our
destruction.” http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31627/31627.txt

Good reading. The earth may destroy us before we succeed in destroying the earth. Odds are we’ll destroy the media before it destroys us. It’s already the emblem of instability. A paradox is that hell is below, but when the end comes it comes from above. I’m sure the Air Force is busy with something dangerous. I’ll send you leaked launch codes after lunch. We can have a nuclear war and not worry about dinner. I was going to have nothing and chips. Just had bacon and nothing for breakfast. Looks like boiled stone soup for lunch.


August 30, 2010 @ 11:17 am

“The account of the first recorded eruption of Vesuvius has been
graphically related by the younger Pliny in his two letters to Tacitus,
to which I shall have occasion to refer further on.[5] These bring down
the references to volcanic phenomena amongst ancient authors to the
commencement of the Christian era; from all of which we may infer that
the more enlightened philosophers of antiquity had a general idea that
eruptions had their origin in a central fire within the interior of the
earth, that volcanic mountains were liable to become dormant for long
periods, and afterwards to break out into renewed activity, that there
existed a connection between volcanic action and earthquakes, and that
volcanoes are safety-valves for the regions around.

It is unnecessary that I should pursue the historical sketch further.” http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31627/31627.txt

The safety-valve blew. Now the media will pursue the sketch further, revealing how little they know about sooo much. This will be followed by endless tweets, facebook postings and instant messages claiming it’s unsafe near the safety-valve and the girlfriend wants to go to Hawaii now. That is going to get expensive. I’m trying to get to “did the earth move for you? She was coming.” It keeps getting worse. Love is a battlefield.


September 4, 2010 @ 9:08 am

YARMOUTH, Mass. – In the end, Hurricane Earl wasn’t even as bad as some of the no-name nor’easters that pound New England from time to time. AP reports.

Didn’t even raise much hell in Carolina. Now it’s off to Canada. There are many shapes of mystery. Past hope and fear. The baby needs changed agin. All these votes and all I got is this crappy diaper. The DIA is busy per the terror of Earl. Have a cold one.

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