Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 17, 2011

Catastrophic preparedness: Here and there, now and then, well… if there’s time

Filed under: Catastrophes,Congress and HLS,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on March 17, 2011

Late this afternoon (Thursday) the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee conducted a hearing entitled Catastrophic Preparedness: How ready is FEMA for the next big disaster.  A video of the hearing is available. I don’t recommend taking time to watch it.

In a process and outcome emblematic of our overall stance on catastrophic preparedness,  several other issues and purposes were mixed into the hearing.   In a nearly two-hour session I perceived about 15 to 20 minutes were committed to what I recognize as catastrophic preparedness.

The situation in Japan was discussed, but mostly in terms of the nuclear emergency.  Senator Lieberman committed one seven-minute round of questions and answers to the implications for the US of  the Japanese experience of preparedness, response, and recovery beyond the nuclear emergency. I am not wanting to discount the potential harm and implications of the nuclear emergency. But it seems to me our (both Japanese and others) preoccupation with the nuclear emergency has discounted the urgent needs of those who survived the first two stages of this crisis.

Available at the hearing website is prepared testimony by each witness.  Below is a long quote from Administrator Fugate’s prepared testimony that does address important issues of catastrophic preparedness. It is worth reading each paragraph and beginning to insert your own footnotes related to the emerging lessons-learned from Japan.


We must view all of the work FEMA does in concert with the rest of the emergency management community as part of a broad plan for addressing the demands and challenges of a catastrophic disaster.

To ensure that our efforts become part of an interconnected plan of action, we are focused on our “Whole Community” initiative. This initiative will continue to leverage the capabilities that both governmental and non-governmental entities play in preparing for a catastrophic disaster.

We cannot effectively respond to a catastrophic disaster alone. Our planning and preparedness scenarios require all parties to pitch in, including FEMA and its partners at the federal level; state, local and tribal governments; non-governmental organizations in the non-profit, faith-based and private sector communities; and most importantly, diverse individuals, families, and communities, who continue to be our most important assets and allies in our ability to respond to and recover from a major disaster.

As the name of the initiative indicates, it is truly the whole community that must be prepared to respond in ways that extend beyond the normal paradigms in which we have traditionally operated. As a result, when we at FEMA address our own preparedness and response capabilities, we now do it through the “Whole Community” framework…

“Whole Community” uses planning assumptions for catastrophic disasters that are based on the worst case scenarios. These scenarios are designed to challenge preparedness at all levels of government and force innovative, non-traditional solutions as part of the response strategy to such events.

To begin this change in national preparedness practice and doctrine, we are enlisting the active participation of the whole community, partnering with emergency management, public health, security, law enforcement, critical infrastructure and medical organizations to plan, train, organize and heighten awareness as a team.

The “Whole Community” initiative identifies the highest priority tasks necessary to save and sustain lives and stabilize a community or region during the crucial first 72 hours after a catastrophe. This initiative also addresses the fundamental pillars of the entire emergency management spectrum. While the initial 72-hour period after an incident is the most critical in saving and sustaining lives, the Whole Community approach spans not only response operations following a disaster, but also recovery, prevention, protection, and mitigation activities that occur before, during and after a catastrophic event.

FEMA’s mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure we work together as a nation to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards. Too often we have overlooked our role as supporting citizens and first responders. The “Whole Community” initiative recognizes that FEMA is not the nation’s emergency management team – FEMA is just part of the team.

FEMA continues to play an integral role as part of the emergency management community. However, we know that we cannot and should not do it alone. We know of the capabilities of federal agencies, which can be leveraged in the event of a disaster to provide a robust federal response. We know of the importance of effective coordination with state, local and tribal governments, who provide direct, on the ground experience, and who usually have initial and primary responsibility for disaster response. We know that non-governmental organizations, like faith-based and non-profit groups, and private sector entities, possess knowledge, assets and services that government simply cannot provide. An effective disaster response involves tapping into all of these resources.

Finally, and most importantly, we know of the great capacity of individuals to care for their families, friends, neighbors and fellow community members, making our citizens force multipliers rather than liabilities. Together, we make up the whole community, and we all have an important role to play. We must engage all of our societal capacity, both within and beyond FEMA, to work together as a team.

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Pingback by U.S. Readiness for a Catastrophic Event — not too certain « Recovery Diva

March 18, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

[…] was quite disappointed in the quality and utility of the discussion, as he noted in his posting on Homeland Security Watch yesterday. I suggest you spend 5 minutes reading Phil’s comments and skip the couple of hours […]

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 18, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

Clearly this is just a guestimate but as many as 10M Japanese may be impacted directly by earthquake, Tsunami, and nuclear power stations accidents. I would appreciate if anyone sees numbers suggested elsewhere in MSM or otherwise.

If I am correct except for Bangladesh and Pakistan this would fall into the very large event category based on population impacts and that I recommend someone smarter than me develop an appropriate scale.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 18, 2011 @ 12:58 pm


Two inputs:

From the most recent OCHA summary:

The six most affected prefectures have a total population of about 16.9 million people. To date,
approximately 430,000 have been evacuated from these areas and are currently living in temporary shelters
across seven prefectures.

These are also the prefectures where power outages continue to be most widely experienced and the supply chain has been most seriously disrupted.

My own rough estimate is at least six million have been impacted directly. I have no reason to doubt your estimate of 10 million could be correct. Some helpful background is available from the European Commission Joint Research Centre and GDACS.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 19, 2011 @ 12:18 am

Thanks Phil! I also notice that impact on the world’s financial picture is now starting to “interest” economists in the Japanese situation. We may be about to witness the tight supply coupling of the Japanese manufacturing sector to world manufacturing activity.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 19, 2011 @ 12:22 am

I think it might be useful to note on the record that the US Congress has NEVER held a hearing devoted specifically to FEMA’s radiological preparedness program or activities.
Personally I thought the elimination of the RADEF program under President Clinton and Director Witt would draw a hearing when the HILL learned it was done over the objections of the NSC staff but that did not happen.
FEMA has few health physicists on its staff and most were employed during my time out of discipline. The Health Physics Society of American has continued to do important readiness and preparedness work throughout its existence. Its proceedings are the bible on the impact of radiation on the human body.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 19, 2011 @ 12:26 am

If I could have planted a single question in the hearing with a Senator it would be the following:

What is the relationship of the PRICE-ANDERSON ACT and its system of compensation to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act?

Until this question is answered dispositively there is and will be no adequate radiological preparedness effort in the USA! All US citizens assume some fiancial protection should they be impacted by an incident/event! Perhaps not and perhaps they will also not be eligible for disaster relief either.

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