Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 27, 2011

Risk to — and caused by — the cornucopia

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on May 27, 2011

Graphic provided by The Weather Channel

In the aftermath of Tuscaloosa and Joplin — and recognizing May and June are the peak months for tornados — we have particular cause to consider our preparedness and response policy.

The epic, if reasonably well-controlled,  Mississippi flooding is also part of the policy/strategy landscape. According to the Washington Post, “Since 2005, (FEMA) has borrowed $17.75 billion from the U.S. Treasury to pay flood insurance claims, mostly for victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It is unlikely to repay the debt…”

The Government Accountability Office has found,

Congressional action is needed to increase the financial stability of NFIP and limit taxpayer exposure. GAO previously identified four public policy goals that can provide a framework for crafting or evaluating proposals to reform NFIP. These goals are: (1) charging premium rates that fully reflect risks, (2) limiting costs to taxpayers before and after a disaster, (3) encouraging broad participation in the program, and (4) encouraging private markets to provide flood insurance.

Faced with extraordinary consequences and costs in Alabama, Missouri, along the lower Mississippi and elsewhere, on Tuesday the House Appropriations Committee approved $1 billion in additional disaster relief. If approved by the full Congress, FEMA will use the money through the end of September.

The Congressional Research Service has offered,

Some believe that the Stafford Act is appropriate for natural disasters of limited scope, but suggest that Congress should consider creating a “catastrophic tier” to address events of great magnitude. Such a tier, some have postulated, could include automatic cost-share adjustments and regulatory waivers. Should Congress establish the boundaries of aid in a catastrophic declaration or should this be left to the President’s discretion? Will the National Disaster Recovery Framework address these issues?

With exquisite (excruciating?) care the same CRS report notes, “While some point to what they consider FEMA’s limited role in the post-disaster environment, others note the huge investment FEMA’s programs make.”

Hurricane season begins on June 1.  According to the Tropical Prediction Center at Colorado State University,

The 2011 Atlantic hurricane season will have significantly more activity than the average 1950-2000 season.  We estimate that 2011 will have about 9 hurricanes (average is 5.9), 16 named storms (average is 9.6), 80 named storm days (average is 49.1), 35 hurricane days (average is 24.5), 5 major (Category 3-4-5) hurricanes (average is 2.3) and 10 major hurricane days (average is 5.0).  The probability of U.S. major hurricane landfall is estimated to be about 140 percent of the long-period average.  We expect Atlantic basin Net Tropical Cyclone (NTC) activity in 2011 to be approximately 175 percent of the long-term average.

We could easily continue with discussion of private risk transfer for oil spill disasters, recent FEMA action to reject State applications for federal disaster assistance, and the prospects of catastrophic earthquake, wildfire, or nuclear detonation.  Over 100,000 Japanese continue to depend on congregant emergency shelter.  The policy and strategy issues are very real.

In recent weeks hundreds have died.  Tens of thousands have suffered devastating financial loss. The future of communities and entire regions is at risk.  A presidential election  is underway and control of Congress is at stake.  This is also our reality.   It is not a propitious moment to tackle the complicated conundrums of disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.  I expect such moments seldom arrive and quickly pass.

The policy/strategy issues we face today are classic.  One of the founding documents of emergency management is Tornado at Worcester by Anthony F.C. Wallace.  This is a 1956 National Academy of Sciences report.  Following is a long quote from near its close.

In disaster operations, when materiel and personnel are pouring out of a cornucopia, deluging the impact area, the results in rescue and rehabilitation are almost inevitably impressive.

This is what happened at Worcester. The impact area was blanketed with protective agencies: hundreds of police, firemen, National Guards, public works people, CD volunteers, and miscellaneous helpers invaded it during the rescue period; hospitals had more blood donors than they could handle; the Red Cross mobilized hundreds of nurses; equipment and supplies of all kinds were funneled into Worcester from all over the northeast, and four hundred twenty -five trailers came from Missouri. While the results of this sort of provision are so good that post-mortem studies have little to criticize except relatively minor matters and little to recommend except more efficient utilization of what was already available, they take for granted the fact that the cornucopia principle’s successful application at Worcester depended on the fortunate (and not at all inevitable) co-existence of two conditions: a complete lack of damage to Worcester’s own protective agencies and to those of any other source of regional aid; and the absence of any competition from anywhere nearer than Ohio for emergency supplies and personnel…

The cornucopia theory thus rests on the two assumptions that any given disaster will not destroy the cornucopia itself, and that any given disaster or combination of disasters will be unable to exhaust the cornucopia before adequate relief and rehabilitation can be provided. I have the feeling that this theory is widely held if rarely formally stated…

Now pointing out the potential inadequacy of the cornucopia does not imply that there is anything wrong with having a cornucopia. The questions which I should like to raise, however, are: (1) Does the faith in the cornucopia, as experienced in natural disasters, produce a tendency to think in terms of repair rather than prevention? (2) Does the faith in the cornucopia tend to produce organizations which are better adapted to excess supply than to inadequate supply? In other words, there is a basic question whether the type of organization and planning which gets results where there is more than enough of personnel and supply will be most effective when everything is short.

These continue to be good questions. A half-century later we probably do have a better sense of how to answer the questions. But we are not yet ready to fully engage the implications of our answers.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 27, 2011 @ 7:05 am

A fundamental choice is implicit in Phil’s post! Should an agency designed to prevent disasters and improve resilience house the funding of disaster response and recovery? I think not but it would be interesting to see the opinions of others! My shouting to the rooftops while in FEMA that is primary focus was decreasing disaster outlays not increase them was often met with mirth!

Comment by John Comiskey

May 27, 2011 @ 7:34 am

Risk management is darn expensive. Recently, my wife and I added our 18 year old son to our auto insurance. The cost of the policy more than doubled. We looked at our overall finances and particularly our insurance: home, life, health, and auto. We’ll manage, albeit less money in the vacation fund.

Preparedness and homeland security et al are eating our vacation money and that’s not fun.

I perceive that post-UBL HLS will move more towards an all-hazards model. IMHO, it already was. Our current economic crisis and budget cuts have cut much of the fat and challenged our resolve. Doing more with less sometimes means doing without.

While paying for prevention and mitigation up front will likely save money in the long run, it means “stayvations” in the near-term. I perceive that many of us prefer vacation and will gamble against the low-probability high-consequence events even if those events are becoming more probable.

Preparedness is just a hard sell and most people don’t read CRS, GAO, and RAND reports.
Back on my education stump; the 2010 National Security Strategy lamented our failure to prioritize education, amongst other things. Shouldn’t K-12 education include grade-appropriate PDD-8 –CRS-GAO-RAND-like concepts? Wouldn’t that facilitate an “all-of-Nation: capabilities-based approach to preparedness?

Perhaps, we can still go on vacation.

Happy Memorial Day. Thank You to all who serve.

I will fly my flag and B-Q ….at home.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 28, 2011 @ 6:11 am

Ron Paul will abolish FEMA if President as a moral hazard. Guess survivors of Joplin will be voting for someone else. President Obama before election said he would remove FEMA from DHS! Not going to happen! So I guess FEMA positions of candidates are not worth the time of day!

Comment by Christopher Tingus

May 28, 2011 @ 7:59 am

Happy Memorial Day Weeekend and from all of us who dearly Love ur beloved nation, thank you to all who have served….and to those who serve us 24×7! Gd Bless you! I am sorry that so many entrusted to serve as politicians must find self serving agenda versus the best interests of the majority as this great nation is in such peril!

We have n vacation funds fr we are bankrupted $14+trillion times…and We the people here on Main Street USA have seen “change” stripped from the few coins we had remaining….

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