Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 15, 2011

Do you know what your MOM is?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Events,Preparedness and Response,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Risk Assessment — by Christopher Bellavita on March 15, 2011

Carl Sagan’s words about science echoed today as I tried unsuccessfully to think about what is going on in Japan.

“We have … arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

If what happened in Japan were a table top exercise, no one would allow the scenario to be used.

“OK, first we’ll do a huge earthquake; bigger than anyone has ever seen before.”

“Right. Then comes the tsunami.”

“Excellent, and we make sure the waves also hit another continent.

“Perfect. And the earthquake is so massive it knocks the earth off its axis.”


“Right. That’s too much. How about this. We blow up a nuclear power plant.

“Outstanding. Make it three power plants and maybe we really have something.”


Quotes from one of the hundreds of news reports:

“People are suppressing hunger with instant noodles or rice balls.”

“Not much was left when search-and-rescue teams finally reached Natori on Monday. There was searching, but not much rescuing. There was, essentially, nobody left to rescue.”

“People are surviving on little food and water. Things are simply not coming.”

“We have repeatedly asked the government to help us, but the government is overwhelmed by the scale of the damage and the enormous demand for food and water.”

“We are getting around just 10 percent of what we have requested.”

“We have requested funeral homes across the nation to send us many body bags and coffins. But we simply don’t have enough.”

“We just did not expect such a thing to happen. It’s just overwhelming.”

“We are patient because everyone in the quake hit areas are suffering.”

“I’m giving up hope.”

“I never imagined we would be in such a situation.”

“I had a good life before. Now we have nothing. No gas, no electricity, no water.”

“All my other relatives are dead. Washed away.”


I was on the US east coast when the earthquake hit. I heard that by 11 AM eastern time, the US west coast would get hit by waves that traveled 500 miles an hour. I live about an hour from the Pacific Ocean. My family will be ok.

But still. How could that be?

Then Sagan’s voice again: “… almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.”


More quotes from news reports:

“…radioactive releases of steam from the crippled plants could go on for weeks or even months…. More steam releases also mean the plume headed across the Pacific could continue to grow. The White House sought to tamp down concerns, saying modeling done by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had concluded “Hawaii, Alaska, the US territories and the US West Coast are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity.”

I am never comforted by passive voice sentences. But it’s the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). They ought to understand this stuff. I certainly don’t.

So I went to the NRC’s website, because people who read blogs go to websites to learn things.

The site is http://www.nrc.gov/. The home page had a picture of 3 men in ties and one woman staring at paper on a desk. Maybe its a stock photo. The caption under the photo says:

“The NRC has been monitoring the Japanese reactor events via its Headquarters Operations Center in Rockville, Md., on a 24-hour-a-day basis. MORE

Click on MORE and you download a one page press release that says toward the end:

“The NRC will not comment on hour-to-hour developments at the Japanese reactors. This is an ongoing crisis for the Japanese who have primary responsibility.”

Good policy decision. For 1955 maybe.

But I want to give the NRC the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure they are busy.

They do offer a link to their “Emergency Preparedness and Response” page:

The vapidity of the prose on that page makes me long for ready.gov (whose main page provides links to information about tsunamis, flooding and the 2011 national level exercise).

I’ll look at that later. Right now I want to know more about how the west coast is “not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity.”


I know water traveled from Japan to Oregon at 500 miles an hour. I know weather travels from west to east. I know something called “radioactive steam” is being released and may continue to be released “for weeks or even months.” I also know first reports are frequently wrong. But I want to do my part as a prepared citizen.

What if the modeling and the passive voice sentences are wrong?

What if some crap in the atmosphere modified by the word “radioactive” makes its way across the Pacific?

I know with almost moral certainty that’s not likely to happen. Just as I know with almost moral certainty terrorists will not attack the elementary school a mile from my house. And the creek in my backyard is not going to flood and sweep my house away. One — a person, a community, a nation — accepts certain low probability, high consequence risks.

“We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces,” Carl Sagan tells me.


The NRC’s “Emergency Preparedness and Response” page seems to be mostly information for people who live near nuclear power plants.

In 2011, does living on the same planet as Japan mean I now live near a nuclear power plant?

No, says the NRC.

I have to be within a 10 mile radius before the page will speak to my concerns.


I do a little more reading on the NRC page and see something about potassium iodide.

You can learn about obtaining potassium iodine, which reduces the absorption of radioactive iodide, by contacting your State or local government’s emergency organization (see FEMA’s State Offices and Agencies of Emergency Management ). Potassium iodide can also be purchased from local pharmacies. You can learn more about the Use of Potassium Iodide on NRC website.

“Reduces the absorption of radioactive iodide.” OK. That’s got to be a good thing.

So I follow that link and read:

If taken properly, potassium iodide (KI) will help reduce the dose of radiation to the thyroid gland from radioactive iodines, and reduce the risk of thyroid cancer. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued guidance on the dosage and effectiveness of potassium iodide.

The NRC provides this link to a PDF document on the FDA website.

Click on that link and this is what you see:

Page Not Found

Our apologies. The link or location you used does not exist or was moved.

Clicking on the other NRC links does not immediately provide any more useful information — whether from federal resources or from my state.

I know as this “event” continues to evolve, the national knowledge construction machine will triangulate a coherent story about any radiation threat and what to do — if anything — about it.

But I want to do something now.  See something, do something.


I’m not panicking. But I am being ignorant — in (I hope) a good way. I lack knowledge about the potential effects of radioactive stuff mixing with the Oregon rain and falling on my children.

Probably never going to happen. Not in a million years. But still, I do like to be prepared. Just in case.

One of the mantras from my special event days came back to me: “It’s better to have something and not need it, than to need it and not have it.”

I’ve done enough research for today. Time to get some potassium iodide.


I know I’m never going to need it, but the NRC site did say “Potassium iodide can also be purchased from local pharmacies.”

I went to the health food store first. Then one pharmacy. Then another. Then a third.

All out.

Seems there may have been a small run on potassium iodide.

“We have more coming in tomorrow,” one guy told me. “I’ll call you when we get it in.”

A pharmacist at a national chain store stuttered when I asked.

“People have been asking about that. It must be for that…. that thing”

She couldn’t think of the word. Or maybe she didn’t want to say it. I didn’t say anything either.

Then — like the first time you go through a back scatter device at a TSA checkpoint — I surrendered.

“That ‘radiation’ thing?”

“Yeah,” she agreed. “That radiation thing. We don’t carry it. You want me to call the store manager?”

“No thanks,” I said, wondering why she asked me that.

I checked its availability on Amazon.

Crooks! Gouging!” shouted one (somewhat factually inaccurate) reviewer published on Monday. “This is OBSCENE! These pills go for 5 dollars per pack. Even l0 would be too much. Just this morning they jacked it from 9 to 49 and 10 minutes later… jacked it up to l00 dollars. They jacked it up twice in less than an hour.”

Interesting.  An internet panic?

Am I contributing to prudent preparedness or ignorant panic?


Since last autumn, FEMA has been talking about changing planning assumptions from whatever they are now (I think all hazards) to something called “whole community” and “maximum of maximums.” For an example, see http://blog.fema.gov/2010/12/70-earthquake-in-midwest-planning-for.html

The slightly Freudian acronym for “maximum of maximum” is MOM. Perhaps MOM was meant to be somewhat comforting. Or disturbing.  Or confusing.

The National Level Exercise in May will use a maximum of maximum assumption to simulate a major earthquake along the New Madrid fault.

FEMA’s whole community strategy “is built upon a foundation of a meta-scenario consisting of the maximum of maximum challenges across a range of scenarios.”

Maximum of maximums (or maximax) is also a decision science term, referring to a “strategy … that prefers the alternative with the chance of the best possible outcome, even if its expected outcome and its worst possible outcome are worse than other alternatives.”

That definition takes a bit of unpacking before meaning emerges.

FEMA is less abstract about MOM. They are talking about an event that

- Affects about 7 million people

- Covers 25,000 square miles

- Affects several states and FEMA regions

- 190,000 fatalities in initial hours

- 265,000 citizens require emergency medical attention

- Severe damage to critical infrastructure

- Severe damage to essential transportation infrastructure

- Ingress/egress options limited.


I went to a conference last week where FEMA leaders talked about their new strategy. I think they are waiting for President Obama to sign a new national preparedness directive before they make a really big deal about this change.

There were a few dozen experienced emergency management and homeland security professionals in the room when the FEMA representatives talked about “whole community” and “maximum of maximum.”

My sense was some people did not understand it. Some people understood it and liked it. Other people understood it but were concerned that now states and cities would have to change their planning assumptions (again).

I’m not sure I understood all of it. But today, FEMA’s definition of MOM does not go far enough for me.

It says nothing about the earth moving off its axis.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

March 15, 2011 @ 2:56 am

Well Chris nice post as always but apparently you have not been reading my comments since HLSwatch.com started up. First none repeat none of the 15 catastrophic scenarios developed under the Bush Administration [authors still unknown--General Lawlor? Richard Falkenrather] involve regulated systems and processes like the nuclear power industry. Second, the RADEF program was eliminated by Director James Lee Witt over the objections of the NSC staff. An absent and ignorant Bill Clinton let it happen so almost no dosimetery out there nationally as revealed again in a decrepit public health system in a report released yesterday.

But the biggest one! No President has ever repeat ever created a domestic crisis response and management system and chain of command. WOW! Same for Japan apparently.

So don’t ask for whom the bell tolls? Obviously this comment could have run for days with specifics but suggest you just read my comments since the inception of HLSWatch.

But hey we were prepared for executivon of the Soviet SIOP were’nt we? Oh thats right our doctrine and the Soviets was MAD still the doctrine.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 15, 2011 @ 2:59 am

Oh and Chris! Did I mention the Japanese fire ballon bombing of the US in WWII? Perhaps it tells US something. Did I mention that Chenyobl event shut down the Seattle phone system? Are you aware of the SEVESO Convention?

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 15, 2011 @ 3:01 am

OH and Chris did I mention the over 20 atomospheric modeling systems used by the US government and their applicability to various events? And who in the White House is the WH meterologist?

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 15, 2011 @ 3:03 am

Oh and Chris! Did I mention that NRC regulations assume a nuclear core melt accident [the so-called Rasmussen Report-rejected for it probabilities but not for its analysis of consequences--better known as WASH 1100]? So NRC does plan for an accident at a single reactor not just this accident now in Japan.

Comment by Tom Russo

March 15, 2011 @ 7:44 am


It may not be too late to register for the CDC conference “Bridging the Gaps: Public Health and Radiation Emergency Preparedness” March 21-24, 2011 in Atlanta!

Comment by anthonycarizona

March 15, 2011 @ 9:11 am

For times like these I recommend the other MOM…Milk of Magnesia

Comment by John G. Comiskey

March 15, 2011 @ 12:57 pm


I am a parent and am aware that you are too. Parents are familiar with the earth falling off its axis.

On a personal note the events in Japan ….oh yeah in the Middle East too have stirred my personal axis. Here’s how:

I am a US Coast Guard Reservist and was notified on Sunday that my unit would be requesting volunteers and would likely select and direct (draft) many others. I have been down this road before and am packing my bags. I have phoned my superiors and told them I am on board. I phoned my subordinates and suggested that they pack and make the necessary arrangements.

I want to go. I want to help. I just started a new job. Actually, I just started three new jobs as an adjunct professor. I don’t know how an activation will bode for my academic future. I have been told that the activation would be for 60 days pursuant to Title 14. I am not sure about that. Last year I was activated for the Gulf Oil Crisis for 60 days pursuant to Title 14. My current understanding of Title 14 is that it pertains to domestic emergencies. My current understanding is the situation in Japan is not domestic On the other hand the west coast of the US is very much domestic. In the interim, I have requested that I be placed in the second wave that would deploy in June and would hopefully be back for the Fall semester. I am keeping my fingers crossed. On the off chance, I won’t even be activated. In the near time, I am considering retiring from the Coast Guard. My civilian employer (s) are not as likely [or statutorily required] to sympathize with my reserve status as was my former government employer.

Back to the personal front. My wife doesn’t want me to go to Japan. After twenty-one years she has (to her credit) grown attached to me.

My eighteen year old son might be happy to not have me around supervising him this summer. Recently, I happened upon his 10 speed anew from some magical bike shop that illegally motorized his bicycle. Much to his displeasure the bike found its way into the dumpster. Right or wrong my actions are the HLS paradigm -prevention. On another note, my son is enlisting in the Coast Guard Reserve and might be in boot camp this summer. After that, he might join me in Japan. My 15 (going on thirty )year old daughter’s schedule is replete with everything except sleep. The next parent teacher meeting at her high school is March 25, I hope to attend.

Recently, a former subordinate was prompted and asked me for guidance in his new position. I told him not to sweat the small stuff and most of it is small stuff. Japan’s current situation being the noted exception to that rule.

The world has been spinning off its access at least as long as I can remember. Humanity has its work cut out for itself. If asked/directed I will do my part. Many others will and some wont. Sometimes it will be organized and sometimes it will just be people helping people when no one is looking

Does the UN have a FEMA?

Comment by Dan O'Connor

March 15, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

I wish I were able to post a picture about now…you know the one; the guy with his head buried in the sand.

This is where Taleb’s Ludic fallacy just jumps out of our policy. Unfortunately, we act and plan as if we are in possession of all the information; all the solutions and answers. It is impossible to be in possession of all the information!

I do not like to make such broad statements laced with hyperbole. However, our hubris, in my very humble opinion may not have only caught up with us but surrounds us.

Case in point; The fiscal year is nearly half over, but lawmakers are still shooting spitballs, glares, and press conferences at one another over chump change in lieu of exercising executive leadership and fund the government six months ago.

Dysfunctional does not even capture the issue.

Quite frankly we are also mystified at the layers and layers of bureaucracy and complexity we have created in order to ineffectively run the government.

If they are unable to tackle this, how should we expect them to set a course for future obligations and opportunities?

Game theory, decision theory, complexity theory, planning theory, chaos theory… how about make a decision and lead theory?

A week ago, we were debating the pro’s and cons of establishing a no fly zone with a terrorist on the ropes… we demure and opine about the feasibility… and now, it appears that the tide has turned. We shall see.

Also, it’s not even listed in the top 20 news events, but that’s to be expected.

Now the blame game in Japan starts. Stories and headlines are starting to flow; the reactor design was bad; they knew since ’72; its General Electric’s fault…

Let’s embrace ambiguity, do hard things, learn to exercise through discomfort, and demand excellence.

Our comeuppance lurks. The Middle East conflagrations, the devastation in Japan, the state of the world’s economy, and what appears to be a reluctance to learn will deliver a blow that will have potentially permanent impact on this Nation.

Not hyperbole this time, but simply observing the trends…today’s current events are tomorrow’s trends.
Who’s doing the trend analysis now?

Comment by bellavita

March 15, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

Bill — I (almost) always read your comments. You are the baseline for what it means to be prolific. You and I continue to disagree (I think) about a focus on planning v. intelligent improvisation. I envision a Ven diagram with one circle representing planning and another circle representing making stuff up as you go along. I fully support the need to create structures, procedures, protocols and everything else that goes into the planning circle. I think — to our detriment — our doctrine and inquiry pay substantially less attention to how we get better at making stuff up during an event. I recognize the planning and improvising circles overlap. I acknowledge your attention to the planning part. My experience directs my attention to improvising.

Tom — If you do attend “Bridging the Gaps: Public Health and Radiation Emergency Preparedness,” please take good notes. Maybe there is a homeland security watch post in what you learn?

Arizona Anthony — It’s interesting to me to see how internet consensus gets formed around what to “know” about evolving events. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20249-japans-nuclear-crisis-the-story-so-far.html and http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/03/14/japan.radiation.sickness/index.html are just two of the “what you should know” stories that help me expand what I know about this issue (or rather what I think I know).

John — good point about what kids do for planetary spin. Fitting, as today Neil Postman would have been 80; he wrote, “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” If you are deployed, please consider posting here what you come across. Maybe that will include starting the UN equivalent of FEMA?

Comment by Arnold Bogis

March 15, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

Here is one physicist’s view of the nuclear events and potential consequences so far:


Note that he does not address the issue of the condition of the spent fuel pools, which pose a potentially much greater contamination threat than the reactors themselves.

Chris, of particular interest to you in terms of tracking down potassium iodide is this section (the short answer is don’t bother getting gouged for the stuff, since its only good to block the body’s uptake of radioactive iodine):

“The radioactivity produces two basic problems – Radioactive iodine and longer term problems.

(1) Iodine can fall to the ground and be eaten by cows where it concentrates in the milk and babies drink the milk and concentrate in the thyroid. This has been realized for 60 years, and at the Windscale accident in the UK in 1957 the government impounded and bought all milk for a couple of months. (Curiously, the cows produced twice as much as usual, although this increase is not usually attributed to radiation!)

No one knows exactly how much was eaten at Chernobyl but a lot. 2000 children got thyroid cancer of whom 20 have died. None need have gotten thyroid cancer if it were not for secrecy. There are anecdotes (which I believe) that a school teacher in Hohnichi (Belarus) and an Army general in eastern Ukraine were reprimanded by the KGB for advising children not to drink milk for a month (the half life of the iodine is 10 days or so) and thereby causing a panic. This would not happen in an open society in Japan.

Moreover the iodine was released at Chernobyl from an explosion after five seconds and burning graphite for a week. There was no water around. If there is water, as at TMI and Japan, the iodine will interact with the water and produce water soluble hydrogen iodide.

Very little iodine was released at TMI. Therefore no problem is likely from that scare.”

Comment by Christopher Bellavita

March 15, 2011 @ 5:20 pm

Thanks for that update, Arnold. I agree with what the science seems to be suggesting. It was interesting to see a report today about comments from the U.S. Surgeon General: (http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/Surgeon-General-Buying-Iodine-Appropriate-118031559.html)

Surgeon General: Buying Iodine a “Precaution”
Conflicting messages appear in the effort to buy iodide tablets

The fear that a nuclear cloud could float from the shores of Japan to the shores of California has some people making a run on iodine tablets. Pharmacists across California report being flooded with requests.
State and county officials spent much of Tuesday trying to keep people calm by saying that getting the pills wasn’t necessary, but then the United States surgeon general supported the idea as a worthy “precaution.”
U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin is in the Bay Area touring a peninsula hospital. NBC Bay Area reporter Damian Trujillo asked her about the run on tablets and Dr. Benjamin said although she wasn’t aware of people stocking up, she did not think that would be an overreaction. She said it was right to be prepared.
On the other side of the issue is Kelly Huston of the California Emergency Management Agency. Huston said state officials, along with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the California Energy Commission, were monitoring the situation and said people don’t need to buy the pills….

Either way, the pills are hard to get. eBay prices have skyrocketed.

Looks like a good preparedness case study in the making….

Comment by Jim Garrow

March 15, 2011 @ 8:47 pm

I really appreciated this post and summed it up for my readers here: http://jgarrow.posterous.com/via-homeland-security-watch-do-you-know-what

I hope that I captured at least some of the thrust of your post.

Keep up the great work.

Comment by J.

March 16, 2011 @ 11:54 am

I see your MOM, but who’s your DADDIE?

Daily Activities Demanding Direct Involvement by Experts.

That’s what’s keeping us all occupied.

Comment by Christopher Bellavita

March 16, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

J. re: DADDIE — I take your point. Thanks for what the moms and daddies do while the commentariat comments.

Comment by Christopher Bellavita

March 16, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

Forwarded to me from a friend in Southern California:

Yesterday the County Health Department convened a conference call for law enforcement, fire and EMS agencies to discuss the risk of local contamination by radiation from Japan. Here is a synopsis of what was said …:

1. The likelihood of radiation from Japan reaching the US is extremely remote. There is no indication that prevailing winds will carry any airborne material from Japan to LA. The most likely route is over Alaska and north of Canada. The least likely route would take it only as far south as Oregon.

2. There are sensors being monitored in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Oregon. It takes 3 to 6 days to reach Alaska and twice that long to reach California IF the winds came this far south (very unlikely). There is plenty of time to react if sensors in Hawaii detect radiation.

3. The radiation being released now (2 REM/hour) in Japan is significantly lower than at its peak (40 REM/hour). We are normally exposed to about 10 microREM/hour from background radiation. The radiation will stay in Japan. Rains predicted for Japan will cause airborne radioactive particles to fall into the ocean.

4. Taking potassium iodide (KI) is not helpful to people in the US, because there is no radioactive iodine present. The radioactive isotopes of iodine and cesium that KI pills are intended to block are too heavy to travel this far. Other isotopes that could be carried further by the wind cannot be blocked with KI pills.

5. KI pills are only effective for 24 hours. Taking KI before radioactive iodine is present will not prevent internal contamination and may be harmful. Read the CDC information athttp://www.bt.cdc.gov/radiation/ki.asp.

6. If KI pills are needed, the public health officer will notify the public. Distant sensors will provide early detection, so there will be plenty of time to inform the public and distribute medications.

7. The best way to prevent ingestion of airborne contaminants is to stay indoors. N95 masks MAY be effective against airborne radioactive particles, but they are not approved by OSHA for that purpose.

8. Again, there is NO indication of any threat to the US from radiation released in Japan.

Comment by Christopher Bellavita

March 16, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

By the way, http://www.bt.cdc.gov/radiation/ki.asp (from CDC) is the best thing I’ve read so far on KI (my 9th grade science teacher would be proud how quickly I fall into the jargon).

But as the previous comment notes: “Taking potassium iodide (KI) is not helpful to people in the US, because there is no radioactive iodine present.”

But a few points later, the notes also suggest “If KI pills are needed, the public health officer will notify the public.”

It’s good to know KI is not needed until it’s needed. I wonder who my public health officer is.

Comment by Jim Garrow

March 16, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

Thanks for stopping by the blog, Chris. Your comment is well taken and properly calls me out on my flip attitude.

In cases like this, I feel that the answer is not always the purchase of some new system or a blue ribbon advisory panel or even new legislation (beyond the means to steer funding). Too often our solutions are meant for the emergency managers, when sometimes the answer is just better public education and public communication.

You snarkily ask who your public health officer is, and I wonder why that’s not common knowledge. I wonder why people’s first reaction to the threat of radiologic disasters is KI, when that countermeasure is only useful for ONE isotope that COULD be released from a power generating station to combat ONE type of cancer (and there’s no solid evidence that it even does anything for adults).

The problem isn’t that we don’t have the ability to teach the public about these things, look at how much preparedness is integrated into the lives of Israelis, it’s that we don’t have the desire or drive to. Instead we look to pharmaceutical companies to come up with a silver bullet and your “public health officer” to get it to you. Preparedness and planning for disasters should be part of being an American.

It’s not flashy and Boeing won’t bid on it, but it’ll sure look good on that “resilience” scale.

Thanks, as always,

Comment by Christopher Bellavita

March 16, 2011 @ 6:50 pm

Jim — I think one of the downsides of text communication between strangers is one does not always read the affective dimension of the message correctly. I did not perceive your comment — “This is something that can be fixed. And … it can be done cheaply. All that’s need is the desire. So, where is it?” — to be flip.

Nor was my “I wonder who my public health officer is.” meant to be sarcastic. I know my mayor, congressman, senator, police chief, etc., but not my public health officer. Or at least I didn’t until I checked.

In that search, I stumbled across my state’s public health site (http://www.public.health.oregon.gov/Preparedness/CurrentHazards/Pages/index.aspx) that had very current information about the “no public health risk from radiation” threat.

I found it interesting that when I searched for information yesterday, I thought homeland security, then emergency management, then nuclear regulatory commission. I neglected to think of public health. Shame on me. Turns out that CDC and my state’s public health sites had really good information. So I may need to take a refresher course to reaccredit my “homeland security professional” credentials. Forgetting about public health is like letting a ground ball go through your legs (or some other appropriate sports metaphor).

I think the KI story is going to make a great case study in communication and learning, especially as I think about your question “why people’s first reaction to the threat of radiologic disasters is KI.” I had never heard about KI before yesterday, and saw it on the NRC site; so for me it was a case of waiting for the sharpest needle in the information haystack, but grabbing the first needle I came across. (See something, do something). But I’m learning more about this each day — ready, fire, aim is sometimes not a bad learning strategy.

I’m not sure why (other than proof by vigorous assertion) “preparedness and planning for disasters should be part of being an American.” The ground truth as I experience it (and I understand your milage may vary) is preparedness is not a huge part of what it means to be an American. In addition to getting people to develop new systems and programs and flashy things to make it easier to be prepared, I hope there is room to expand the kind of real-time learning that is now going on along the west coast and pacific territories about the nature of the “no public health risk from radiation” threat.

For us — not for the people affected by the earthquake and tsunami — this is a (potentially) slowly moving disaster. Maybe the “fix” for something like this — in the context you described — is different for an event that can strike without warning.

Comment by Tsunami: Eastern Seaboard

March 16, 2011 @ 8:26 pm

Hearing only whispers of a story few are told, some 3,000 miles away are the western Canary Islands which pose a threat to many Americans, yet few fellow citizens, few DHA and FEMA employees, first responders and in genral most of the public in general have no idea that a tsunami could well strike the eastern seaboard when a volcanic landslide causes such….additionally, not to far off the coast of North Carolina coast lie soome cracks under the surface which culd result in devastaion for North Carolina and Virgina….

With the Tsunami Pacifi systen begun by the US back ariiund 1960 after a tsunami hit Hawaii, it may serve the eastern seaboard public of the US to have some deep sea buoys off the Canary Islands foor if there were a significant volcanic landslide, not an earthquake, but a hugh falling in of volcanic rock, a very substantial wave would begin rolling twoards the west and much devastation would result –

Yes, maybe the odds are slight, yet even the remotest possibility exists and the public must be educated — in fact, few in responsible governing positions are even aware of any such scenario. The resulting wave of a tsunami runs in general about 30 ft., however far higher, in fact much higher caused by a landslide –

Let’s get the fiat dollars printed to situate some deep water tsunami warning buoys off the Canary Islands for what’s another $100 million monthly as this administration and both sides of Congress approve every month in printing all these monies…at least we could help forewarn the people and maybe begin to educate government and the public that there are at least two possible scenarios which could lead to a major eastern seaboard catastrophe and w/some of these states the bluest of bluest, I wouldn’t be surpised if a giant wave inundates the coastal plain and more….

Get enlightened and stop the political haggling between you, time is wasting and few underatnd the ramifications of unpreparedness! We are so unprepared and so dysfunctional in our political and economic perspectives that maybe a nor’easter’s splash or two might wake up a few up, yet the Canary Islands and its well documented volcanic activity could have far reaching and devastating affects —

It is time to establish a warning buoy or two off the coast of the Canary Islands and with urgency….

Christopher Tingus
PO Box 1612
Harwich, MA 02645 USA

Comment by Jim Garrow

March 16, 2011 @ 9:00 pm


As a testament to how difficult it is to convey context via text, the only thing you should take from my comment is how excited I am to be talking about you on this subject. My reading of your response made me think yo were responding to an annoyed comment. In reality, I thought you made a great point and well, I kind of bragged that Chris Bellavita stopped by my blog. =)

In your latest comment, you raise and hint at some really intriguing ideas, including some that I’ve discussed with colleagues, but first I want to address your point about preparedness not being a part of our national identity. I think you’re right, of course, and mention it only as a goal to strive for. I don’t believe there is anything special, or different about Israelis, or Japanese for that matter. Their country and culture has just accepted that regular people are first responders and that buildings should be made to exacting standards, respectively. Always got to shoot for something, right?

The next point is much more subtle and something that I’ve not entirely worked out. In my region, it is, and has been, difficult for public health and EMAs to work together. And not for lack of trying, either. There just seems to be a disconnect at some basic level that puts us on different planes. And I’ve heard similar from other parts of the country, so I don’t think it’s a personality thing.

The best that I can come up with has to do with your point about slow moving disasters. It’s very rare for a public health emergency to have a scene, a flashpoint, be completely without warning. Our stuff kind of builds over time, and I think that’s difficult for traditional EMAs to understand. At a recent tabletop based around a food-borne outbreak, our colleagues were much more quick to pull the emergency bell than the public health folks and were actually surprised when public health noted that, essentially, we do this stuff all the time. Then at some point that the EMAs don’t understand, it becomes an emergency.

There’s another difference. A huge part of public health’s core functions is communication, especially risk communication. This is what’s happening, this is why it’s bad, and this is what you can do about it. While my disease investigators might disagree, I believe that proper risk comm can avoid the problem altogether, or at least mitigate against it. Traditional EMAs and responders, from my perspective, tend to throw systems and apparatus’ and manpower at problems. The move toward more inclusive public information is brand new and something I’m very excited to see. Hopefully it can help bridge the gap between our disparate response mechanisms.

Great talking with you, Chris, and I apologize again for getting our signals crossed.


Comment by Christopher Bellavita

March 16, 2011 @ 10:16 pm

Jim — I had not heard your observation before about the working relationship between public health and EMA. That’s something I’ll start paying attention to. Thanks for the heads up.

I enjoyed the exchange.

Comment by Christopher Bellavita

March 16, 2011 @ 10:18 pm

And in other news, the New York Times reports the following and provides an animated map that lets you see POSSIBLE radiation dispersion patterns (with lots of caveats) — http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/03/16/science/plume-graphic.html?ref=science

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization shows how weather patterns this week might disperse radiation from a continuous source in Fukushima, Japan. The forecast does not show actual levels of radiation, but it does allow the organization to estimate when different monitoring stations, marked with small dots, might be able to detect extremely low levels of radiation.

And (because I already received a “Yikes!” email: “The forecast does not show actual levels of radiation” it’s a model, not a real.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 17, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

Note for the record that of the over 20 atmospheric models used by the US government no single one appears yet to be consistently in use to determine domestic US hazards from the Japanese event. Perhaps the lack of agreement on a model is helping drive KI sales.

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