Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 7, 2010

What if FEMA threw a party and no one showed up?

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,State and Local HLS — by Arnold Bogis on October 7, 2010

Did you know that September was “National Preparedness Month?”  Well, considering the readership of this blog I am sure you did.  But more importantly, did the general public?  I’ll go out on a limb and guess that the answer is no.

Building off of Mark’s earlier post, I would like to take the discussion of preparedness in a slightly different direction.  As someone speaking from the perspective of a citizen rather than an emergency management official, I have to say that current efforts to engage the public are failing.  I do not know personally anyone that realized it was “National Preparedness Month,” or took it upon themselves in the last month to get a kit, make a plan, or become informed about any threat.

This despite the fact that I live in Boston, Massachusetts and our summer was bookended by events that presented teachable moments that seemed perfect for promoting preparedness.  Yet unfortunately these opportunities were wasted by officials.

The first was what became known as the “Aquapocalypse:” on an unseasonably warm May afternoon there was a sudden break in a water pipe supplying water to Boston and much of eastern Massachusetts.  As Governor Deval Patrick described it, “a catastrophic disaster” leading to a “boil water” order that meant that two million affected residents would have to either boil their tap water for drinking and cooking, or use bottled water.  The reaction was predictable, a mad dash across the region to buy water.  Police were needed to restore order at several stores.  What might have been different if more people had several days of water already stockpiled in their homes?

The second was Hurricane Earl, roaring up the waters off the East Coast threatening to be the first hurricane to make landfall in New England in almost two decades.  Fortunately for the residents of the Cape and Islands, this unwanted Labor Day weekend guest weakened and drifted eastward.  Unfortunately for the residents of Massachusetts, this is the second missed opportunity this year to promote a message of preparedness for future disasters.

Why wasn’t there a vigorous campaign by public officials to promote disaster preparedness in the wake of both the “Aquapocalypse” and Hurricane Earl?

Disaster preparedness can have a cascading effect.  Using the Aquapocalypse for example, as the number of people scrambling for bottled water decreases, it provides opportunity for less fortunate members of the community.  For every individual with a middle class and higher lifestyle that bought up water, there were those less privileged and unable to engage in consumer combat, such as the elderly and sick, that were at greater risk of going without clean water.  Those that can prepare should, not only for their loved ones but the farther reaching affects on those in their communities who have a much harder time dealing with catastrophe.

As it gets further from both events, it is understandable yet still troubling that officials missed the opportunities to use these events as teachable moments.  Obviously the first priority for officials during these types of events is immediate public safety. When the backup water supply’s safety was unknown, it was prudent to call for boiling tap water or using the bottled variety.  In the case of Earl, the potential for landfall required the vigorous preparations made by local, state, and federal agencies.  Officials at all levels reacted correctly to both events.  At least in regards to the short term issues.

I cannot be certain, but I would guess that such reactions are more common than not across this country.  If so, what kind of steps can be taken to move preparedness forward?

First, don’t let near-disasters pass without taking advantage of them.  For example, immediately following Aquapocalypse officials should have stressed that the water bought by the public should be saved as part of a disaster kit instead of being consumed, and those who strictly boiled tap water should have been encouraged to go out and buy a three day supply of water for themselves.

Second, preparedness activities should leverage community resources, contacts, and interactions.  Direct messages from the government at every level to citizens have met with mixed, at best, success.  Instead, neighborhood meetings concerning crime or business matters can also include reminders about preparedness.  Religious and secular groups should be engaged so that they reach out to their members with preparedness messages.

Third, government officials must include the private sector in this outreach.  For example, Harvard University provides information regarding criminal activities near campus.  Why not include regular preparedness messages?  Another option would be for large educational institutions and businesses to offer discounts on disaster kits as they currently do for computers and other items.

Increasing preparedness is a long term goal and one that will not be visible until the next catastrophe.  Yet teachable moments should not be wasted and preparedness messages not concentrated within one month a year.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 7, 2010 @ 6:40 am

Well Arnold good but not great post. The basic reason is for failure is that the public really does not pay attention to the PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT background noise. The National Flood Insurance Program long had authority to conduct a paid advertising campaign and it even paid the insurance companies participating in the WYO program to do that advertising and it was one of the reasons they were allowed back into the NFIP in 1983 after being “fired” for raking off too many expenses in their conduct of the program from 1969-1978. It took a female, the first and only female General Counsel or Chief Counsel of FEMA Patricia Gormley to finally write an opinion that said yes a paid advertising campaign could be conducted. The fact that she was a George W. Bush appointee and the campaign did not start until the Clinton Administration makes no different. Averaging $50M over every 5 years it expanded the policies in force to close to 5 million at last count. Remember every federal flood insurance policy bought even if subsidized reduces federal disaster outlays. That stated perhaps some kind of compliance effort is needed.

How about each local FIRE Department visiting each housing unit or business and handing out materials on what is needed with a brief description of the threats? This could also be done in conjuction with enforcing the FIRE CODES!

Well there probably are many ways to get the attention of the public but note that these efforts largely fail when they are not backed by some substantive effort beyond press releases and PSA [Public Service Announcements]! Hey with 50M retires and 40M unemployed how about using that untapped man and woman power? And maybe turn some of them from victimhood to helpers in the next disaster.


By the way should anything be stockpiled by the 90,000 units of local government?


October 7, 2010 @ 8:31 am

Zipper was perfected in 1913. It took 20 years before it was came unto widespread use. That baby was a sleeper. Cracking the woman’s dress market took time. The zipper had to disappear into the dress. Bourbon may be required to make the dress disappear. It’s a widespread problem. Throwing down and going up. Beats throwing up.

Buy Velcro!


October 7, 2010 @ 9:20 am

TSA needs to adopt a dress alert system DAS
White dress-No credible threat
Orange dress-Elevated
Black dress-Chance of funerals
Red dress-Throw a party
Green dress-Call in USMC
Blue dress-Let interns worry about it

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 7, 2010 @ 9:36 am


First, welcome to the front page of Homeland Security Watch. You have long been a thoughtful contributor to the real action here in the comments, but it is great to have you starting-the-conversation on the front page.

Last night I had drinks with a long-time emergency management official. While still nursing his first drink he offered, “With the best of intentions — but worst of results — our current emergency management mentality systematically breeds dependence. We are our own worst enemy.” (Or something similar, I was drinking too.)

As the alcohol continued to flow, we were unable to confidently find a way to change this mentality… or its outcomes. The good practices you recommend are one way to begin chipping away at the problem because they begin to shift attention from government capability to community readiness.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

October 7, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

Until you have millions of new thinkers and innovators the dependence and lure of the “Gov” very little will change. The battle is to get those thinkers and new idea people in place while battling the misconception that we should all depend on someone else for our “salvation”….


October 7, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

The force is in you America and History Detective is now retired. Now it’s on to the future. Keep hands on your time and tools. Poor societies have people with too much time on their hands.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

October 7, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

Thanks for all the comments.

Bill, thank you for the criticism. I always learn more from disagreement, though in this case I don’t think we actually disagree–I just need to write more clearly. I’m not a fan of a focus on the PSA tool either. My point about teachable moments was that these near misses are opportunities to push a preparedness message because the public is paying attention for a fleeting moment. During the water emergency, the entire Boston area was focused on the event. Yet I never heard any official at any level talk about the importance of making an emergency kit. Long after the event such advice falls back to the level of background noise as you suggest. And your Fire service suggestion is a great one.

Philip, thanks for the kind words and I am in agreement with your alcohol-aided conclusions. It is a tough problem that will require long-term “chipping” process to tackle. In the vein of shameless self-promotion, here is a short piece that sketches some general ideas concerning the medical subset of the resilience issue: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/20358/supply_and_demand.html?breadcrumb=%2Fexperts%2F39%2Farnold_bogis


October 7, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

I’ll try to contribute some alcohol-aided conclusions. We’re going to need to do double overtime on this and double shots. I’m into some old Mexican spirits from back in the day. OR night. Might get creative with the blender and see what sort of frozen stuff I can invent before the liver is shot down in flames. Keep it blue.


October 7, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

P.S. Bottle has handy recipe for TNT. This could get crazy and we can eat the worm.


October 7, 2010 @ 8:45 pm

Legislating health is like legislating morality. All you got in your pocket is change. Already dealt with a bullheaded doctor. Watch for bears in the air. I’m bearheaded myself. Washington is a China shop full of bull and everybody gets covered. Pathetic at best and total bust at worst possible moment. What frauds. You can bullfight, just don’t stick the public with the medical bills when you get gored by a bull.


October 7, 2010 @ 9:14 pm

No one showed up. The hospital closed. Bullheads can go home and sit on bad mortgages and hospital can sit empty. Turn it into a jail you pricks.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Still Crazy

October 20, 2010 @ 12:02 am

[…] couple of weeks ago, in a comment prompted by Arnold Bogis’ inaugural weekly post to this website, Phil Palin recounted a conversation with an unnamed colleague whom he quoted as […]

Pingback by Still Crazy « R4 Resilience

October 20, 2010 @ 2:27 am

[…] couple of weeks ago, in a comment prompted by Arnold Bogis’ inaugural weekly post to this website, Phil Palin recounted a conversation with an unnamed colleague whom he quoted as […]

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