Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 17, 2011

Tohoku Quake: Five stages of grief initially observed

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

Stage 1 Hazard: 9.0 earthquake.

Vulnerability: Collapse of structures and infrastructures, killing and injuring the inhabitants and complicating recovery.

Consequence in Tohoku Quake: Remarkable physical resilience as a result of mitigation strategy (zoning, building codes, construction practices, public education, and public exercises).  Most structures and infrastructures survived at least long-enough for inhabitants to relocate.

Stage 2 Hazard (caused by stage 1): tsunami.

Vulnerability: Drowning, further destruction of structures and infrastructures.

Consequence in Tohoku Quake: Extraordinarily successful self-evacuation in roughly 25 minutes immediately following quake.  According to  an analysis completed yesterday by the European Commission-Joint Research Center, over 1.4 million were residing in the area inundated by the tsunami.  While the 10,000 plus dead expected is a horrific toll, the fact that so many escaped in such a short period of time is testimony to the culture of preparedness cultivated in the communities at risk of tsunami.

Stage 3 Hazard (caused by stages 1 and 2): Failure of critical infrastructures and key supply chains.

Vulnerability: Reduced access to water, food, pharmaceuticals, medical care, shelter, power, fuel and other human essentials.

Consequence in the Tohoku Quake: Ongoing.  The nuclear emergency is a very dramatic example.  But over the last six days an even more direct influence has been the reduced supplies of gasoline due to quake-induced fires at large oil refineries and the absence — or precarious condition — of the electrical grid.  Six refineries were shut down after the quake. Two are expected to resume operations within a few days, and another is scheduled to restart by the end of the month.  The loss of roughly 25 percent of electric capacity — including that at the Fukushima plants — will be difficult to restore in the near-term. Further, while the highway and other transportation systems by-in-large did not collapse, they did suffer enough damage to seriously complicate resupply efforts.  As a result, in the Tohoku region most impacted by stages 1 and 2 at least 500,000 evacuees and up to six million survivors have been left largely to whatever happened to be at hand.  One example, as of Wednesday night the Prime Minister’s office was reporting that 483,550 meals have been delivered to the affected areas.  Compare that supply to demand.  At least 1.6 million households are without water. (See related Wall Street Journal report.)

Stage 4 Hazard (complicated but, in my opinion, not entirely caused by Stages 1-3): Inability to surge support and supplies.

Vulnerability: See Stage 3.  Immediate related factors include a significant cold-front that extends from Tokyo north, further straining the electric grid.  Late Thursday in Japan the Prime Minister essentially asked the residents of Tokyo to turn off their heat to avoid a spontaneous black-out.

Consequence in the Tohoku Quake: At this date and from this distance I do not want to claim premature confidence in what I am perceiving. But from what I am being told by people on the ground the strategic capacity for significant additional supplies exist.  But in addition to the quake-and-tsunami related complications, at least three other possible culprits have emerged:

1.  Tuesday the Japanese Department of Social Services actually ordered a “pause” in resupply to the Northeast because the DSS was not sure the supply was going to the right places and it did not have “precise information” or a “holistic picture.”  (I might curse, but have forgotten the nihongo curse words I once knew.)  As a US colleague remarked, “leadership craving better situational awareness is the universal problem.”

2.  For two days I have been hearing rumors that trucks have been held back from going into Tohoku because they don’t have reasonable assurance of being refueled to get out.  While not a trivial problem, there are practical work-arounds available.  Thursday morning the President of the largest Japanese business association is quoted as saying, “Though companies are trying to send relief supplies, they cannot secure fuel for returning,” Yonekura said, stressing that gasoline stations along expressways and supply roads are in need of swift supplies of gasoline.”

3.  Credentialing and perimeter control are, of course, causing problems.  From this distance I don’t know if the credentialing is especially egregious or just standard (if often stupid).  But I do perceive that in a reasonable effort to avoid prospective harm, real harm is being done. The capabilities of suppliers, truckers, and private citizens to contribute to supply and support are being actively suppressed. There are contexts when strategies of command, control, and containment are self-defeating (an assertion needing much more support, perhaps tomorrow).

As a result, millions are thirsty, hungry, and cold. Millions more are increasingly uncertain regarding their own near-term prospects.

Stage 5 Hazard (caused by Stage 4): Shadow evacuation

Vulnerability: Relocation of hundreds-of-thousands — perhaps millions — who might have been supplied at or near their homes is a further threat to critical infrastructure and key supply-chains, essentially extending the geographic scope of Stages 3 and 4.

Consequence in the Tohoku Quake: The nuclear emergency has added at least 180,000 to the evacuee population needing support.   What is now beginning to happen across Fukushima Prefecture and the Kanto region (Metropolitan Tokyo) is an emerging exodus southwest.  The fear of radiation, lack of essential supplies, and doubt that conditions will improve anytime soon is unfolding farther and deeper… physically, socially, psychologically.

Even as we do as much as possible to help the Japanese, I hope we will also be self-critical in learning what we can from this extraordinary event.  In my judgment the Japanese were/are much better prepared than the United States for an event of this magnitude.   In a similar event here, I perceive most of the Japanese problems would be magnified.  While the US would also apply some unique strengths, we have more than our share of unique weaknesses.

March 16, 2011

Ruthless Resilience

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Mark Chubb on March 16, 2011

Some observers have commented that the still unfolding events in northeastern Japan represent a triple-whammy of sorts or the ultimate trifecta of awfulness. It’s nice to think these things come in threes, but just as the nuclear power plant travails continue well after the main event of the M9.0 earthquake and resultant tsunami so too do the economic impacts.

Japan’s stock traders, as reflected by the Nikkei average, have expressed worry that these events will cripple any hope of recovery from a decade of stagnant growth. The U.S. and other world markets have likewise responded with pessimism suggesting they too fear that these events will undermine the embryonic economic recovery from the Global Financial Crisis some thought we were finally seeing. By some estimates as much as $1 trillion has been wiped off corporate balance sheets in the trading sessions since the earthquake and tsunami struck five days ago, an amount almost as great as that lost after Lehman Brothers collapsed near the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008.

These worries seem understandable if not completely reasonable in light of the images of devastation and hopelessness we see coming from the disaster area. But do they accurately reflect the long-term prospects of these countries or their economies?

Of all human inventions, economies and their ability to facilitate the exchange of goods and services among individuals, groups and societies may be the most resilient of all. But this illustrates one of the issues with which advocates of resilience must wrestle: all recoveries take time, some take much longer than others and the results often do not turn out the way we expected.

It took Japan less than two decades to recover from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which nearly destroyed Tokyo. Peter Hadfield credited this event, in part, with precipitating the rise of nationalism that led Japan to invade China and ultimately launch a war that ultimately spanned the Pacific and led to the far more catastrophic consequences that resulted from the United States unleashing the first nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the bloodshed of World War II.

Governments intervene in (some would say interfere with) markets or the economy to address what we blithely call market failures. In most cases, these failures reflect the inability of markets to produce what we want when we want it, rather than their inability to adapt over time to the resource constraints and expectations of market participants. In other words, our tendency to expect more than we can get quickly lead us to both boom and bust conditions that although they may ultimately correct themselves often result in other undesirable social, political or technical consequences or discontinuities that we experience as negative externalities.

The Great Tohoku Earthquake of 2011 illustrates the capacity of these discontinuities alone to disrupt economic recovery, but only in the short term. All of us would agree that the economy and  the underlying structural conditions affecting recovery in employment and GDP growth did not trigger the earthquake and tsunami. Some might try to suggest that the nuclear power plant accident is somehow related, but this would be a stretch and remains to be proved. By the same token, the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident cannot rightly be considered the cause of the underlying economic problems affecting Japan and the rest of the industrialized world despite the shockwaves now reverberating through the markets. Stronger economies have absorbed these shocks or managed to take them more or less in their strides.

In the short run, the significant price tag accompanying the damage and devastation will suppress economic growth in Japan. But over the long term, rebuilding, especially if it is approached from a strategic perspective may well increase economic output beyond what it would have been had these disasters not occurred.

What does this mean for other world markets? It may well create an opening for others, especially China and the Asian tiger economies, to fill the void created by a diversion of capital from export sectors to meeting Japan’s internal needs. This could, help the United States as well, by creating opportunities for us to capitalize on the President’s strategy of out-educating, out-innovating and out-building the rest of the world.

Call me a pie-eyed optimist, but something good might well come of all of this terrible destruction. But we might just have to wait awhile and accept that it won’t look the way we might like when it gets here, or more likely, when we arrive where it takes us.

March 15, 2011

Your help requested regarding information on Japanese domestic supply chain

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on March 15, 2011

The picture above was taken earlier today (March 16) in Otuchi, Japan. A recovery team is extracting a body from the rubble in a snowfall. Over 400,000 — perhaps more than 500,000 — are in emergency shelters.  Lack of electricity means lack of heat for most of the Sendai coast.

There are increasing reports of insufficient water and food supplies getting into the Northeast.

If HLSwatch readers see/hear updates on the Japanese domestic supply chain, I would appreciate your help in capturing these reports.  Please use the comment function. Several reports suggest more delay than I would have anticipated.  Just one report from yesterday (and I do not want to make too much of it):

The Japanese Department of Social Services has requested a pause in immediate food distribution until the mechanism for coordination can be established to prevent duplication and the marginalization of smaller communities. “Getting precise information and the holistic picture of the damages on the ground still remains a challenge…”

In the current situation getting “precise information” and a “holistic picture” is beyond anyone’s capability.  This includes our ability at this distance to access the information that would help us help… and help us learn how to help ourselves. Any help you can provide would be appreciated.

I continue to be impressed with what Kyodo News Agency is producing.

ReliefWeb is hitting its as usual impressive stride.  Access its special section on the situation in Japan.

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.

March 14, 2011

Japan at 72 hours inside the crisis; US at (how many?) hours out

Filed under: Catastrophes,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on March 14, 2011

This is the third day after the 9.0 earthquake hit off Sendai, Japan.  As of Monday evening (Japan time):

Confirmed deaths: 1597; Confirmed missing: 1481 ( At least 2000 more dead have been found, but identities are not yet confirmed.  There are thousands more whose status remains unclear.)   More than 10,000 dead continues to be the consensus projection

Number of Evacuees: Approximately 450,000.  At least 300,000 are in public shelters where water, food, and fuel are an increasing challenge.

Rough damage estimates: 63,000 buildings seriously damaged or destroyed.  Very preliminary projections suggest insurance claims of more than$35 billion.  Some sources are speaking in terms of “tens of billions” of dollars. Some reports suggest many losses were not insured.

Continuing consequences:  Rolling electrical black-outs are expected to continue through the end of April. Electricity remains unavailable to at least 1 million households nationwide.  There is a continuing nuclear emergency at the Fukushima plant.  Gasoline and other fuel supplies are falling short of demand. While well beyond the hardest-hit area,  the transportation grid in metropolitan Tokyo is operating far below capacity as a result of uncertain power supplies. Monday at its close the Tokyo Stock Exchange  fell 7.5 percent.  Disruption of power and transportation is having a ripple (ripping?) effect across wide swaths of economic life.   Late afternoon on Monday, Kyodo News Service opened it summary story with, “Confusion caused by the catastrophic earthquake and massive tsunamis spread in Japan on Monday…”   This hard hit on the world’s third largest economy is already having a significant impact on the global supply chain.

Most of the foregoing was pieced together from NHK and Kyodo News Agency reports.  See prior posts, below, for more details.


Last Wednesday I had an intense exchange with a senior government official — and friend — who argued preparing for catastrophe is a practical impossibility.  I have not heard from him since the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.

What I heard my friend arguing is that because catastrophic impacts are statistically improbable and thereby beyond prediction, effective preparedness is not possible.  “It’s about as helpful as earnestly preparing to win the lottery,” he said, implying it is a complete waste of time and energy, even misleading.

There are aspects of Friday’s disaster that my friend could use to reinforce his argument.  Japan has focused significant attention on preparing for a major quake elsewhere, southwest of Tokyo. Friday’s quake epicenter was off a much less populated coast about 230 miles northeast.  Further, many aspects of Japanese preparedness — from tsunami barriers to redundant nuclear systems — did not work as planned.

But I know my friend too well.  He will not be so narrow-minded.

On the day of the quake, TIME magazine stated, “Japan is arguably the world leader in readiness.”  What we are seeing in Japan is how long-term investments in well-planned, carefully engineered, and consistently exercised preparedness for catastrophe will absolutely save lives and property and will, at the same time, never be sufficient.  It is in the nature of catastrophe to surprise and to overwhelm.  But we can makes choices to reduce the scope of our surprise and the scale by which we are overwhelmed.

Catastrophe will come to the United States. Whether it will come as earthquake, hurricane, wildfire, pandemic, terrorist attack, or some other means no one knows.  But we can be sure it will come.

When the New Madrid fault shifts — and it will — the last 72 hours along the Japanese coast will seem calm and controlled in contrast.

Compared to the US, Japan has a paradoxical advantage related to catastrophe preparedness, it suffers more than its share of major disasters.  From the 1923 earthquake and urban conflagration (perhaps 150,000 fatalities), to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (perhaps 250,000 deaths), and now the March 11 triple-header, the Japanese expect to be hit hard.  Over one forty-eight year period studied, Japan experienced fourteen earthquakes measuring 7.5 and above.

A big problem for New Madrid preparedness is the 200 years since the last major shift. (It is considered past-due by most seismologists.)

Historically the US has been more fortunate, even in its worst cases. But as our population becomes more densely concentrated, our supply chains become more attenuated, and, especially, as we relocate population and productive capacity into hurricane alley, active seismic zones, and natural deserts we are self-selecting to increase our risks.

In Saturday’s Washington Post Joel Achenbach wrote an especially thoughtful piece on the Japanese earthquake.    A few excerpts with commentary:

They have long been ready for the Big One in Japan. But when it arrived Friday, it was still surprising, still utterly devastating, and it left scientists around the world humbled at how unpredictable the heaving and lurching earth can be.

The United States is not nearly as ready — not even in California — and, as a result, we have even greater cause for humility.

Quakes aren’t predictable in time, space or intensity. Hazard maps give a good sense of where something is most likely to happen… But there is an element of chaos in the way the stresses of the earth relieve themselves. And an earthquake in one place can increase strain on a fault some distance away.

The same basic notion of complexity can — and should —  be applied to a whole range of potentially catastrophic hazards.

“We do tend to focus on the expected events. We’re going to get blindsided by unusual events. . . . But uncommon events happen,” Hough said. “The analog that’s worrisome is Boston. Put a 6.1 under Boston. You have all that un-reinforced masonry.” Robert Geller, a geologist at the University of Tokyo, said by email: “The bottom line is that it’s not possible to identify in detail which specific areas are particularly dangerous. Also, quakes are not in any sense periodic. Unfortunately some earth scientists, including some government officials in both Japan and the U.S., persist in making highly area-specific risk forecasts and also using models based on periodicity of quakes.”

Apply an all-hazards frame to the quotes, the principles will still apply.  Catastrophic events are not in “any sense periodic” or “area-specific.”  Potential catastrophes are of a very different species from most emergencies or disasters.

The conversation — debate? — with my friend was cut-off prematurely.  He had to respond to an emergency. I was unable to check  a sense that  my friend’s skepticism regarding preparedness for catastrophe is directly related to his profound expertise in emergency response.   My guess is he intuitively — and correctly — perceives catastrophes are beyond effective response, and therefore beyond any typical approach to response planning, resourcing, and training.  I agree.

Catastrophic risks require a fundamentally different operational approach and especially a different strategic stance from our typical disaster management paradigm. Where emergencies and typical disasters can benefit from containment and control, this alone will only amplify the complexity of a potential catastrophe.

What we can do is:

  • Consistently work to mitigate inherited vulnerabilities;
  • Incrementally increase the  resilience of our physical, economic, political, and social environment; and
  • Encourage individuals, organizations, neighborhoods and other social webs to actively anticipate their worst cases.

More than three bullets are needed.  I will expand on these suggestions in my next regular Friday post.  My friend — I hope he is still my friend after reading this — is not alone in tending to deny what is unlikely and outside our control.  But the unlikely happens and, unless we take action in advance, it will be even more out of control than necessary.

March 13, 2011

Japan at the 48 hour threshold

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on March 13, 2011

Today —  Sunday afternoon in Japan — the crisis will pass through the much discussed 48 hour mark.

There have been more than 250 aftershocks, including 29 exceeding 6.0 on the Richter scale.  The original earthquake has now been recalculated at 9.0 on the Richter.

The death toll is still unclear, but over 10,000 has emerged as a consensus estimate.  According to Nikkei, “”We have no choice but to deal with the situation on the premise that it (the death toll) will undoubtedly be numbered in the ten thousands,” Naoto Takeuchi, head of the Miyagi prefectural police.”

The 350,000-450,000 evacuees (reports disagree on the number) generated by the earthquake and tsunami have been joined by at least 180,000 displaced by the threat of nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima plants. NHK has learned that over 313,000 people were taking refuge at around 1,850 evacuation centers as of 8 PM Sunday.  Last night the temperature was below freezing across northeastern Japan, similar night-time temperatures are forecast for the remainder of the week.  A new cool front with rain, sometimes heavy, and snow showers is also forecast for tonight.

According to Yomiuri on Sunday, “the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said that water supply was cut off in at least 1.4 million households in 16 prefectures.”

According to TEPCO, “about 270,000 households in the Ibaraki, Tochigi and Chiba areas were without power on Sunday, down from some 4 million immediately after the quake.”  Other reports indicate that as of Sunday morning (Japan time) 1.4 million households nationwide are without electricity.

According to some estimates electric power generation capacity in Honshu (the principal Japanese island) is about 60 percent of normal. Planned brown-outs for a wide area — including Tokyo — are being announced for Monday, in an effort to avoid a more serious uncontrolled blackout.  According to NHK, “Trade and industry minister Banri Kaieda says TEPCO’s current capacity is 31 million kilowatts per day, which is 10 million kilowatts short of the (typical) daily demand of 41 million kilowatts.”

Communications outages include 475,400 fiber-optic lines, 879,500 subscribed phone lines, and  11,400 cell towers and other base stations.  In some cases the outage totals are climbing as telecoms get a better handle on the situation.

Fuel capacity has been cut by at least 20 percent.  Several refineries have been closed or have cut-back on operations.  For example, according to Reuters, “JX Holdings has declared force majeure on its refined product supplies as its stocks were depleted and distributions were disrupted. The company said it was working to boost output at its refineries that were still operating and diverting products to domestic use instead of exports to meet a supply shortfall.”  Demand for fuel oil — especially Low Sulfur Fuel Oil (LSFO), used by power plants — is expected to surge to replace power capacity lost because of nuclear power shutdowns.  Most East Asian LSFO is sourced from Brazil’s Petrobras, but some additional capacity may be possible from Indonesia.

Transportation into the impact zone continues to be seriously complicated by the earthquake/tsunami destruction of roads, bridges, ports ,and air fields.

Several news reports indicate surging demand for bottled water, food, and other essential supplies even in Tokyo and other cities outside the principal impact zone.   Some of this reflects anxiety related to possible after-shocks and thereby on supply chain disruptions (see one story from the Wall Street Journal). This hoarding effect is disrupting some local supply capabilities.  But so far food shortages are anecdotal and no systemic impact on capacity is anticipated.  In an especially promising sign, late Sunday a large supermarket in Sendai, closest to the epicenter, reopened.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake all Japanese ports were closed to assess damage and mitigate consequences.  Reports are mixed on when port operations will resume and at what capacity.  According to the Wall Street Journal, “In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, some manufacturers and analysts have worried about the short-term drying up of orders from Japan as it wrestles with failed communications networks and the scope of the catastrophe. As plants across Japan slowed or shuttered operations, worry over supply-chain disruptions have also mounted. In the longer term, orders could increase as Japan ramps up imports related to rebuilding efforts.”

In an unprecedented step, 100,000 members of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces have joined the rescue effort.

March 12, 2011

Earthquake, tsunami, nuclear emergency: “We never anticipated all three happening in succession.”

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on March 12, 2011

According to NHK, at 2014 hours (local Japan Time) on March 12,”The prefectural government of Fukushima has expanded the evacuation area around Fukushima Number 1 Power Station from an earlier established 10-kilometer radius to a 20-kilometer radius. (10km = 6.21 miles)

The decision was made at the instruction of the prime minister’s office shortly before 6:30 PM, local time, at a nuclear disaster task force meeting on Saturday… It is maintaining an evacuation instruction for a 10-kilometer radius around the Number 2 Power Station.


The status of the Fukushima plant is treacherous.  This is fast breaking news.  A reasonable summary of the context and issues is available from the Daily Yomiuri online. Early Sunday morning Japan time, Nikkei is reporting, “The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) said… the explosion at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant could only have been caused by a meltdown of the reactor core. Tokyo Electric Power Co, which runs the plant, began to flood the damaged reactor with seawater to cool it down, resorting to measures that could rust the reactor and force the utility to scrap it.”  At about 1330 hours Eastern The Guardian posted a comprehensive update on the nuclear emergency.

By Saturday mid-afternoon US Eastern time — very early Sunday in Japan — news reports on the status of the nuclear emergency are mixed.  Several mainstream outlets, including the The Guardian and New York Times, seem to suggest the nuclear core is being successfully cooled and the threat is likely to recede.

SUNDAY MORNING UPDATE: Emergency operations continue at Fukushima 1 and 2 and at other Japanese nuclear power stations. Reporters with The Economist, blogging from Tokyo write, “Overnight, the cooling system at the third reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant failed, and on March 13th Kyodo news agency cited the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), as saying that three metres of a Mox nuclear-fuel rod had been left above the water level. That raises the risk of a meltdown of the core reactor, which could lead to a nuclear catastrophe.”

Late Sunday night in Japan, NHK is reporting, “Cooling system problems continue to plague two nuclear plants in earthquake-hit Fukushima Prefecture. The level of coolant water in the Number Three reactor at the Fukushima Number One power plant dropped on Sunday, leaving the fuel rods exposed by two meters. The situation continued for at least until 3pm, possibly causing a partial melting of the rods. As a result, masses of hydrogen gas have accumulated in the inside top of the reactor building. The gas may cause an explosion similar to that which occurred at the Number One reactor on Saturday.”


According to the Wall Street Journal, posting at 0750 Eastern on March 12,  “Friday’s giant earthquake and tsunami have caused hardship for many Japanese in the past few days. Those who live and work near the star-crossed Fukushima nuclear power facility have borne an even greater burden.

Many evacuees left their homes for a refugee center located in a seaside town in the shadow of the two plants, known as Fukushima No. 1 and Fukushima No. 2.

But then, as the reactor struggled to contain damage from the tsunami, the local government urged them to another facility 10 kilometers away from the plant. Later that evening, after an explosion at the plant, the central government asked them to relocate again—this time 20 kilometers away.

A contingent of about a dozen or so senior town officials stayed behind at the makeshift facility in Tomiokamachi, which had run out of food and water earlier in the day. After watching a group of mostly younger officials prepare to depart, they grimly donned bright yellow protective body suits with air intake hoods at about 3:15pm local time.

Two of these officials spoke with The Wall Street Journal, whose reporters left with the last group of evacuees, mostly lower-level municipal employees.

“What else is there to say?” said Hideo Sato, department head of general affairs for the town. “You had better leave now.”

The town had been overwhelmed by a record 8.9-magnitude earthquake, followed by a seven-meter tsunami 30 minutes later, and then evacuated due to unspecified problems at the nuclear plant.

“This was way beyond our contingency efforts,” said Shiro Tanaka, head of the town’s planning department. “We never anticipated all three happening in succession.” (MORE from the Wall Street Journal)


The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), owner/operator of the Fukushima nuclear power plant is releasing a fair amount  information to its website.  At least in the case of my browser (Google Chrome), you can prompt a Google translation that is not so bad.  See: http://www.tepco.co.jp/nu/f1-np/press_f1/2010/2010-j.html

In addition to the problems at the Fukushima nuclear power stations, TEPCO has also taken five thermal plants off-line due to damage from the earthquake and secondary effects.  Currently over 5.7 million households are without electric power.  The period of time needed to restore power is uncertain, but TEPCO is predicting to restore about half of the lost power capacity by the middle of next week.

March 11, 2011

SitRep for Japan: Earthquake, tsunami, nuclear plant problems

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on March 11, 2011

The earthquake hit hard, the hardest in Japan’s recorded history some say.  The tsunami amplified the hurt.  A wide range of secondary-effects includes damage to the Fukushiima nuclear plant.  At least 3000 have been evacuated from around the plant as a precaution.

It is this cascade of effects that often differentiates catastrophe from disaster.

Earlier today I watched NHK, available to many US cable subscribers.  There is extensive video coverage available at http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/

When I lived in Japan, my principal source of English language news coverage was the Japan Times, see http://www.japantimes.co.jp/

The Kyodo News Agency is a great source of ongoing updates: http://english.kyodonews.jp/

The English language version of Yomiuri Shimbun is another source, see http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/

Whether this generation of Japanese treats March 11 as a catastrophe may depend on their recollection or imagining of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. (Estimated at 7.9 on the Richter, compared with today’s measuring at 8.9 on the logarithmic scale.)  That quake — and the following firestorm —  killed 100,000 to 150,000 people.  While we still don’t have complete information, we are certainly looking at casualties that are a fraction of that total.  As of Friday evening the number of confirmed dead is still under 400.   About 6000 died in the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

Many scientists perceive the United States is “past-due” for major earthquakes above 7.0 in California, in the middle Mississippi valley, and in South Carolina.


More than 1200 dead or unaccounted for (Kyodo/Nikkei)  As of 0500 Eastern, mortality reports differ significantly.  Depending on the outlet (or perhaps on time of reporting) I have seen numbers ranging from under 1000 to over 1600.  Large numbers are being reported missing — including entire trains and towns — but it is too early to draw conclusions as to the status of the missing.  Early Sunday morning, Japan time, Kyodo News Service is reporting a total of at least 1800 dead or missing.

More than 215,000 evacuees are in emergency shelters, 1.4 million households have no water, and at least  three million households are without electricity. (The Guardian correspondent blogging from Tokyo)

At least 20 aftershocks, with magnitudes ranging from 5 to 6.8, rocked Japan’s east coast Saturday, a day after an 8.9-magnitude earthquake devastated the country, causing mass destruction. (Economic Times)

Nuclear disaster feared after power plant ‘explosion’. Japan is battling to avoid a nuclear disaster after an explosion at a power plant in the aftermath of the country’s biggest earthquake and a devastating tsunami. (Telegraph)

High level of radiation reported at nuclear plant (NHK)

Meltdown may be in progress at Fukushima (Nikkei)

Radioactive Material Leak Confirmed At Quake-Hit Fukushima Plant (Nikkei)

Quake disrupts key supply chains (Wall Street Journal)

The area of Northern Japan most impacted is still in winter weather.  The temperature on Saturday night/Sunday morning is 35 degrees Fahrenheit along the coast and colder inland. (See weather underground, where Sendai airport is not reporting.)

The Guardian has a helpful visual overview of the unfolding situation in Japan at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2011/mar/11/japan-earthquake-map-interactive

Googling Disaster – Google Crisis Response

Filed under: Catastrophes,Technology for HLS — by Arnold Bogis on March 11, 2011

Google operates a website, Google Crisis Response, that is designed to provided a wide range of news, information, and other helpful online tools in the wake of a disaster.  Among the services it provides:

  • Organizing emergency alerts, news updates and donation opportunities, and making this information visible through our web properties
  • Building engineering tools that enable better communication and collaboration among crisis responders and among victims such as Person Finder and Resource Finder
  • Providing updated satellite imagery and maps of affected areas to illustrate infrastructure damage and help relief organizations navigate disaster zones
  • Supporting the rebuilding of network infrastructure where it has been damaged to enable access to the Internet
  • Donating to charitable organizations that are providing direct relief on-the-ground

This strikes me not only as a powerful example of the potential impact of such an aggregator on disaster response and recovery, but it also could serve as a potential model of a sort for future collaboration across all facets of homeland security.

The page dedicated to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami can be found here:


Japanese earthquake and tsunami

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Arnold Bogis on March 11, 2011

It will take several days to fully grasp the full consequences of the enormous 8.9 earthquake that struck Japan earlier today.  For updates, videos, and other information the following links may be of some help. If you know of others I have not listed, please note them in the comment section.

BBC is updating information regularly as well as providing general information on earthquakes and tsunamis:


Yahoo! News has compiled a large selection of video footage:


News sites are tracking developments:





The Atlantic Monthly has posted, and is updating, a web page of photographs:


They also have done a much better job of listing websites where one can follow earthquake-related developments:


Tsunami ETA Hawaii @ 3:00-3:30 AM local (8:00-8:30 AM Eastern)

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on March 11, 2011

See more from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

March 10, 2011

Inquiring about (radicalizing) Islam: Answering authentic questions?

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Radicalization — by Philip J. Palin on March 10, 2011

I expect Chairman King well understands the stakes.  He is an experienced, wily, and — at times — even a wise man.

There is great value in the authentic question — no matter how awkward — because an authentic question is open to new understanding.

The method of Socrates had no script.  It was a high wire act. The wisest of all could still stumble over preconceived notions, private prejudices, and Plato’s own purposes imposed post-hoc.

An authentic question need not be innocent, but it does require a spacious susceptibility to honest answers and (especially) to being surprised.

Each of us who listened today will likely judge Chairman King, the committee’s other members, and each witness in light of our own intent, our own innocence, our own authenticity… or in the dimness and darkness thereof.

I have lost my taste for the politics of these events.  Many others are offering their thoughts on that (linked below).

See if you share my sense of hearing an interesting answer to the committee’s questions (and comments) in these words written seventy years ago:

Now more than ever, when torches and snare-drum
Excite the squat women of the saurian brain
Till a milling mob of fears
Breaks in insultingly on anywhere, when in our dreams
Pigs play on the organs and the blue sky runs shrieking
As the Crack of Doom appears,

Are the good ghosts needed with the white magic
Of their subtle loves. War has no ambiguities
Like a marriage; the result
Required of its affaire fatale is simple and sad.
The physical removal of all human objects
That conceal the Difficult.

Then remember me that I may remember
The test we have to learn to shudder for is not
An historical event,
That neither the low democracy of a nightmare nor
An army’s primitive tidiness may deceive me
About our predicament,

That catastrophic situation which neither
Victory nor defeat can annul; to be
Deaf yet determined to sing,
To be lame and blind yet burning for the Great Good Place,
To be radically corrupt yet mournfully attracted
By the Real Distinguished Thing…

Into this city from the shining lowlands
Blows a wind that whispers of uncovered skulls
And fresh ruins under the moon.
Of hopes that will not survive the secousse of this spring
Of blood and flames, of the terror that walks by night and
The sickness that strikes at noon.

From By the Grave of Henry James by W. H. Auden.

Less poetic consideration of Thursday’s House Homeland Security Committee hearings:

Committee’s website with prepared testimony

Peter King’s Obsession (New York Times, editorial)

Homegrown Islamic Radicalization: Worth Studying (Washington Post, editorial)

Islamic Radicalization: The questions that Rep. Peter King is right to ask (Ruth Marcus, opinion)

The terrorist threat is real (Peter King, opinion)

Peter King defiant at tense Muslim hearing (Politico, news)

Witnesses at King hearing say US “failing” to confront radical Islam (FoxNews)

Islam show-trial opens in US Congress (Telegraph, news)

House hearing worries US Muslims (Al Jazerra, news)

Congressman defends panel on US Muslim community amid national uproar (Haaretz, news)

Republicans and Democrats disagree on Muslim hearings (Gallup, survey results)

Friday morning update:

The homegrown terror hearings (Wall Street Journal, opinion)

King: Next hearing is on Muslims in prison (AP, news)

Tears, fears at hearing on Muslims (The Hill, news)

Local Muslims slam hearings as unfair, unbalanced (Detroit Free Press, news)

Cries of McCarthyism over US Muslim hearing (Independent, news)

Spectre of McCarthy hangs over hearing into radicalization of American Muslims (The Australian, news)

Muslim hearings in US Congress dismissed as equivalent of reality TV (The Guardian, news)

March 9, 2011

Resilient Citizenship

Filed under: Organizational Issues — by Mark Chubb on March 9, 2011

Fellow New Zealander and political scientist Bronwyn Hayward of the University of Canterbury recently shared this video presentation prepared for the Gibson Group and the RESOLVE Center at the University of Surrey. Both groups are interested in the effects of policy decisions in liberal democracies on the development of notions of citizenship among youth.

Resilient Citizenship & the Christchurch EQ (Dr Bronwyn Hayward)

As Dr Hayward notes, resilient citizenship describes the ability of youth to develop and define themselves as efficacious advocates of their own needs and the common good. She identifies three seed principles essential to the development of capable young citizens:

  1. Social agency: the ability to organize and collaborate for the common good;
  2. Ecological education: a deep understand of the natural world and their place in it, particularly the forces that shape the future; and
  3. Embedded citizenship: a sense of the importance of individual action, personal responsibility and fairness.

The recent example of the University of Canterbury Student Association’s Volunteer Army, which mobilized 24,000 students through Facebook to help clear hundreds of thousands of tons of silt brought to the surface through the forces of liquefaction, illustrates these principles.

The UCSAmobilization demonstrated not just the efficiency of social media, but the importance of using it to leverage existing relationships among real people with common ties to a particular place. The willingness of the students to get involved rather than sit back and blame seismologists, geologists, civil engineers or political leaders for not preparing them for the effects of liquefaction or for clearing the residue quickly without their assistance reflected a keen understanding of the natural processes at work in the event. Finally, the way in which students identified the focus of their work and initiated action to complement the efforts of public officials by supporting the neediest residents and those least able to take care of themselves demonstrated a sound understanding of equity in action.

Street Justice

Filed under: Budgets and Spending — by Mark Chubb on March 9, 2011

Have the parallels between the street protests in the Arab Middle East and those occurring in the state capitols of Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and a growing number of other states struck you as chilling? On one had I am struck by the similarities while at the same time being taken aback by what distinguishes them from one another. In either event, the juxtaposition of these events has given me pause and no small cause for concern.

On one hand, a long-oppressed proletariat is marching for the overthrow of corrupt dictators who have systematically plundered their nations’ capital and resources with the aid and comfort of a powerful patron interested in maintaining the stability of the status quo ante for its own peculiar interests. On the other hand, we have the same thing but with different classes of people playing the parts assigned to others someplace else.

It is no small coincidence that the politicians here at home claiming to act for an oppressed public who are now turning on public servants no longer fear the financial clout of unions. The Citizens United decision allowed the sums of money available to candidates from corporations to leave union fundraising efforts in their dust. Unhappy simply being able to compete with unions that traditionally favor their Democratic opponents, some Republican governors and legislators now want to corner the market by stripping public employees of their bargaining rights.

The fecklessness of these politicians and their supporters comes as no surprise, but strikes me as practically unnecessary and particularly vindictive. I say this because it has been my observation in recent years that many public employees had already become the kinds of fiscal conservatives (and often also social conservatives) of the kind that typically vote Republican. As such, many local union members, particularly those working in public safety, were often finding themselves at odds with the political dispositions of their parent unions.

For awhile, once ardent trade unionist friends of mine who had of late taken up the Tea Party banner with the zeal of the newly converted were left wondering what happened when the dog they were walking turned, growled and showed its teeth. Now they are realizing that the dog was walking them, not the other way around, and they are coming around to the view that no one in elected office of either party can be trusted.

Many commentators have noted that public sector union membership now exceeds that of unions representing private sector workers. This has come about not through the growth of public employees’ unions, but rather as a result of the decimation of the American manufacturing sector and export sectors.

Others have noted that the authority to bargain collectively explains very little about the nature of public sector remuneration much less the stressed fiscal situations of particular state and localities. In fact, several industrial economists have noted that public employees are generally paid less than their private sector counterparts when you control for education and experience. At the same time, they generally enjoy better benefits whether or not they bargain collectively. In most instances, these benefits represent nothing more than what we once agreed should be available to all workers when it comes to health care and income security in one’s senior years.

In the Middle East, we have seen desperate dictators turn to violence to defend their positions and hold onto power. Is it any less violent for our elected leaders to act under color of law to humiliate their opponents and strip them of their rights?

I am well aware that unions have in many cases overstepped and bargained for conditions that now seem particularly generous in light of the country’s parlous financial condition. At the same time, these concessions came about when those on the other side of the table were all too willing to go along simply to get along rather than protecting the interests of the public they and their employees both served.

I can easily understand the dismay of unemployed workers who seeing their unemployment benefits and job prospects dry up see public officials holding onto much of what they have. At the same time, I am convinced that too many on both sides fail to appreciate the conditions facing the other. (My wife, for instance, was laid off from her public sector job as a city planner in June 2009, and has had exactly three interviews with prospective employers in the public or privat sectors since then despite having a graduate degree and 25 years of experience.)

At the same time, I am all too well aware that much of what has given the unions the power politicians now fear most did not come to them through the collective bargaining process, but rather through the ballot box. As such, the effort now underway to deny them the protection of collective bargaining rights previously granted by legislative fiat is nothing less than an effort to strip a group of citizens of the political power now readily accessible to every corporation in the country.

When I wrote about the remarkable resilience of the revolutionary movements springing up in the Middle East a few weeks ago, I noted how five metatrends I labeled local, simple, varied, open and connected contributed to the power of these movements. Here at home, the willingness of the Right to sharpen its message and distill the essence of its objectives down to a single-syllable rallying cry — CUT! — has made it possible to craft a similarly strong coalition of the willing among people of vastly different ideological persuasions. (Contrast this with the Obama’s retorts to change, hope and progress during the 2008 campaign. These required far more thought and assumed a complex set of shared ideals while still leaving room for varying applications and interpretations.)

The inability of the Left to craft a similarly pithy response and put their differences aside to defend their ideals makes it easy for opponents to suggest their opposition arises from self-interest alone. (Never mind that the Right usually sees self-interest not only as virtuous, but more importantly equates it with liberty.)

If politicians and the public are truly concerned about the future, we should be asking ourselves not only what we should cut, but also how we should spend what we have to maximize benefit to all. This would, of course, require us to decide where we would get the resources we need to make the investments in the future we want for ourselves and future generations. This means not only reprioritizing and reallocating what we already have, but also deciding how we will grow our economy and our revenues to get what we want. This clearly requires the kind of discourse that involves words with more than one syllable.

Pitting one group of public employees — or for that matter citizens — against another and suggesting that this will solve our problems is beyond cynical. If there’s any justice — and polls that suggesting the public thinks more highly of public servants than elected officials suggest this may be the case — those making the cuts will be the ones ultimately paying the price when their patrons realize we do need government.

March 8, 2011

From kits to sustainment — reframing preparedness expectations and guidance

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on March 8, 2011

Nancy Dragani is the Executive Director of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency.  I read something she wrote about preparedness and (with her permission) am posting an edited version of part of her work.

I think she makes a simple but profound suggestion.:


The standard message about emergency preparedness involves only three steps; “Get a kit, Make a plan, Be informed.”

Countless websites, brochures, books and presentations have been devoted to educating the American public on how, when and why they should prepare. Yet according to Joe Becker, a senior vice president at the American Red Cross, “we are barely moving the needle on the percent of those who are prepared.” After decades of communications and countless state and local public awareness campaigns on the importance of personal preparedness, most Americans are still unprepared for disaster.

The research on individual preparedness is extensive.  An internet search with the term “individual and family preparedness” returned more than 2.5 million hits, “personal preparedness” returned 4.3 million and “personal preparedness challenges” 2.5 million.

From the Government Accounting Office, to Columbia University to the Centers for Disease Control, the desire to foster a stronger, more prepared public is clear.

Equally clear is government’s apparent inability to make this happen.  Government officials at all levels decry the public’s lack of preparedness, citing a combination of self-delusion, apathy and sheer stubbornness.

Whether it is called civil defense, a culture of preparedness or the latest catch phrase, “resiliency,” personal preparedness remains an elusive goal for emergency management officials across the nation.


But what if the problem lies not with the receiver of the message, but rather with the message itself?

Are we asking the American public to take actions they consider reasonable — based on personal responsibility; sustainable — based on income and lifestyle; and realistic — based on perceived risk?

In 2007, one emergency management agency held a staff “preparedness contest” in conjunction with National Preparedness Month. Each staff member was challenged to bring in their family preparedness kit and their family plan. Several staff prepared a kit based on the “suggestions” identified by the American Red Cross and FEMA.

The kit was costly; one person spent more than $200 putting a kit together. A number of people who participated in the contest noted they stored the finished kits in their basements or attics, and in many cases, have not updated them since the contest.


The challenge before us today is to move the needle on the percent to those who are prepared.

Recent surveys are beginning to ask more questions focused on individual, cultural and intellectual barriers to preparedness. We need to continue that effort and delve deeper into the barriers that prevent our various publics from adequately preparing. We need to better understand what expectations these publics have of government: from a professional household in an urban environment to a single mom in rural Texas, and from a family of Somali immigrants in the Midwest to an elderly couple in Florida.

We need to reframe expectations. A disaster kit, prepackaged and stored away only to be used in a disaster is not practical for many Americans. It is costly and takes time, attention and desire to maintain.


If we reframed the questions preparedness surveys ask, we might see a higher percentage of emergency preparedness.

In a survey conducted at Ohio EMA, several questions focused on disaster supply kits. The first question of that series asked, “Do you have an emergency preparedness kit with pre-identified food, water and emergency supplies to be used only in the event of a disaster?”

Only one-third (31 percent) responded affirmatively.

However, when asked a follow up question, “If you answered no on the previous question, do you have enough food, water and supplies to sustain yourself and your family for 72 hours?” the number of positive responses rose to 83 percent.

Reframing the requirement away from a disaster kit to one that focuses on the ability to sustain self and family for 72 hours with supplies currently on hand is far more achievable for most Americans.

The concept of a set-aside storage kit used only during an emergency is neither sustainable nor practical for many Americans. A pantry stocked with canned goods and daily supplies that can be opened and eaten cold if necessary may be a better option than a packaged emergency supply kit loaded with Spam and cans of tuna.


We need to design preparedness messages that are appropriate to the threats and risks of the community. One size does not fit all and one message is not sufficient.

We must educate the public about the risks they actually face, have an honest discussion with them about what they expect government to do, what they can do and, more to the point, what they must do. Then we need to ask how we can help them be better prepared.

But not through another revised 72 hour preparedness campaign with the same messages we are promoting today.

We need to ask what makes sense for Americans in today’s world. If we cannot get those who are able — financially and physically — to have a plan and make a kit, why are we expecting those who cannot to do so?

More to the point, if we have not moved the needle, there is more amiss than the willingness to comply. If we continue to promote the same message while expecting a different result, we are fulfilling Einstein’s definition of insanity and the needle will not move.

March 6, 2011

Dealing with Dirty Bombs

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on March 6, 2011

Forgive the shameless self-promotion, but I have a short opinion piece on dirty bombs up at the “Power & Policy” blog.  Basically, it argues that there has been too much focus on preventing a dirty bomb attack through detection efforts.

While useful as part of an overarching strategy, detectors are likely to fail as the primary means in preventing a dirty bomb attack.  Sensors at the border are useless against radioactive materials acquired inside the U.S.  Detectors deployed along highways and other transportation routes are similarly ineffective against radiation sources stolen within the target city.  Technology currently deployed will register false alarms caused by shipments of bananas, kitty litter, and other naturally radioactive substances.  In recent years, both a retired police officer in New Hampshire and a cat in Washington State caused radiation detectors to alarm on highways due to medical treatments they received.  Needless to say, neither “radioactive” patient was a terrorist.

So what is a viable alternative strategy?

If a dirty bomb cannot be prevented, what should be done about the threat?  First, the worst radioactive ingredients should be secured.  Second, to avoid the fear that will cause the real damage of a dirty bomb, steps should be taken to prepare for an attack.  Third, decontamination plans should be developed now.


The Departments of Homeland Security and Energy have been working toward this goal. However, stricter regulations for using radioactive sources must be enacted to support this effort.


An educated and prepared public will be less likely to panic in the aftermath of a dirty bomb attack, and this will be reinforced by a well-managed reaction by first responders and elected officials.

Cleaning up:

Weeks and months after an attack, the long-term effects of radiation will need to be addressed.  Advanced decontamination techniques and technologies that can reduce the radiation levels in city neighborhoods must be developed.

It’s a strategy of deterrence where if terrorists do not achieve the desired effects by using a dirty bomb, why bother?

Taken together, these steps will prevent widespread panic and significant economic damage.  After the first dirty bomb attack fails, terrorists are unlikely to try again.

You can read the whole thing here: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/power/2011/03/04/a-better-way-to-deal-with-dirty-bomb-threats/

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