Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 8, 2011

Considering Catastrophe

Filed under: Catastrophes,Congress and HLS — by Philip J. Palin on July 8, 2011

The Congressional Research Service (specifically the stalwart Bruce R. Lindsay and redoubtable Francis X. McCarthy) has produced a new study entitled: Considerations for a Catastrophic Declaration: Issues and Analysis. It was released to Congress on June 21 and has subsequently been made available to the public by the Federation of American Scientists.

As with most CRS products the report is comprehensive, credible, and cautious. The analysis provides a helpful overview of the current policy landscape. The CRS is not tasked to advise or innovate. The CRS is tasked with even-handed research and reporting to inform members and their staff of options and major issues, usually bounded by the traditional policy frameworks recognizable to their principal audiences.

Some key outputs from the report:

If amended, the Stafford Act might provide a declaration for what might be classified as a “megadisaster” or “catastrophic disaster.” It is unclear, however, what differentiates a disaster from a catastrophe. (Page 4)

A catastrophic declaration may be used to trigger certain mechanisms before, during, and after a catastrophe. Policymakers might also elect to apply a catastrophic declaration to one or more phases of the incident. (Page 5)

Given the number of large-scale disasters occurring in the last 30 years, one might conclude that large-scale disasters are occurring more frequently—which might support an argument for a catastrophic declaration. A counterargument, on the other hand, is that in terms of damage costs, only Hurricane Katrina truly qualifies as a catastrophic event when compared to other, recent incidents. It might be further argued that while many of the most expensive disasters have occurred in recent years, the increased costs associated with such incidents are a function of variables that are not necessarily related to the magnitude of the incidents (such as increased federal expenditures for assistance and recovery projects, the replacement of expensive infrastructure, and the development of previously uninhabited areas). (Page 12)

Upon reviewing the results of the comparative analysis of destructive incidents, it could be argued that highly destructive events occur too rarely to warrant a catastrophic declaration. Using the 90th percentile as a benchmark, only one event in the last 140 years would be catastrophic and only four would qualify if the 80th percentile is used as a benchmark. Similar conclusions might be drawn on the comparative analysis of combined VSL and damage estimate costs—specifically, that high-impact events are too infrequent to merit the addition of a new declaration category—only one incident in the last 100 years meets the 90th percentile threshold. Additionally, the threshold would have to be adjusted to the 20th percentile to include more than one incident. Critics of the additional declaration might further argue that VSL is a poor determinant for a catastrophic declaration because federal assistance is predominately tied to recovery projects rather than victim or survivor compensation. (Page 15)

Depending on its design, certain benefits may be derived from using a catastrophic declaration for large-scale disasters, including:
• accelerated and more robust federal assistance to states prior to an incident,
• the use of specialized response plans and guidelines for the federal response,
• the elimination or reduction of procedures and protocols that might impede response and recovery activities and efforts,
• the elimination or reduction of procedures and protocols that might delay the disbursal of federal assistance, and
• increasing the amount of federal assistance through various mechanisms to help states recovery more quickly and avoid economic hardship.

The potential drawbacks of a catastrophic declaration may include:
• unclear authority and responsibility designations could confuse those responsible for executing the response and recovery,
• increased federal costs for disaster assistance due to increased declaration activity,
• increased federal costs for disaster assistance due to the increased federal costshare provisions included with the declaration, and
• increased federal involvement and responsibility for incident response. (Page 17)

Please do not mistake the summary above as equal in value to the full CRS narrative.


Now for something completely different, as my fourth-cousin Michael has been known to say, you might review the pdf linked below. Where Lindsay and McCarthy are quantitative, the authors of this working draft (including yours truly) are more qualitative. Where CRS is reporting what is known and avoids advocacy, this other document explores admitted unknowns and advocates innovation in catastrophe preparedness far beyond the typical writ of Congress. The CRS report says little about private sector catastrophe preparedness; the other document is full of private sector implications and calls-to-action.  One report is authoritative, the other wants to be provocative.  The CRS report is official.  There is nothing official in the working draft offered below.

The document accessed through the link is nearly 25 megabytes, so don’t give up too soon. If you have concerns or suggestions, this is a working draft and changes and additions will continue to be made through the middle of August.

Catastrophe: Definitions, Characteristics, and Proposed Principles of Good Practice (Working Draft)

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Comment by William R. Cumming

July 8, 2011 @ 1:33 am

Congratulations to Bruce for receiving his earned Doctorate in Philosophy over the winter. Hoping his thesis is widely made available as relevant to HS and EM!

Comment by John Comiskey

July 8, 2011 @ 6:50 am

Considering senior summers, catastrophe, and self-reliance

So I am writing an undergraduate syllabus for Principles of Emergency Management. I will be teaching it to undergraduates for the first time this Fall. Truth be told, my law enforcement and military background means that I will probably be doing as much learning as teaching.

But I have been there –to some big ones -ground zero, NOLA, and others. And I have been there as both a fed and a local. My observations are that the bureaucracy is big and sometimes dysfunctional and there are many abuses.
Senior summers

My son is a preparing for college with a senior summer –trips to Florida, Great Adventure, and sleeping in. My wife and I made a deal with him. He will read a number of books and keep a journal and he keeps his allowance. In May a relative offered him a job for three weeks at a festival in upstate NY. Last night the relative called to confirm. I relayed the message to my son (who is still in Florida) via text.

He replied:

“idk I’ll think about it on the plane home. I don’t need the money.”

I perceive that he believes he doesn’t need the money because his parents give him too big an allowance –his needs are met without personal effort. Unbeknownst to him that situation may change in real-time. I hope he enjoys his flight home.


Catastrophes are by definition really bad situations where lives are lost, people injured, property damaged to all ends AND individuals, communities, and governments are overwhelmed.

Some people are more aware then others that catastrophe can happen and do something about –they plan, organize, and mitigate against threats and vulnerabilities. Others are hopeful that it won’t happen to them and others are in denial. Many of the others assume that if the unlikely catastrophe does happen other others will come to their rescue.
Volunteer Fire Departments often ask residents to pay a fee to supplement expenses. Some volunteer departments maintain a list of contributors and will let a non-contributor’s house burn should a fire occur.

See http://hotair.com/archives/2010/10/04/video-firefighters-let-home-burn-to-the-ground-because-owner-didnt-pay-annual-75-fee/

There is a lesson here –pay the fee or don’t complain when the fire department lets your house burn down. Personally, I would pay the fee. Full disclosure. I live in NYC and my taxes include fire service.

Our Constitution mostly leaves public safety in the hands of State and local governments. The Disaster Act of 1974 began codified federal intervention in catastrophes. The Stafford Act of 1988 responded to a number of high profile disasters that demonstrated that more could be done to prevent, mitigate, and recover from disasters and the federal government should help. Since then, the Stafford Act has been amended to harmonize federal response to local catastrophes and does so mostly with categorical aid.
There have been some success stories and (IMHO) mostly in regards to mitigation initiatives.
My observations are mostly that States and locals mostly see the Feds as a partner with a checkbook.
Like my airborne son, local governments know that the political climate leaves the federal government little choice other than to open their check books.
Self-Reliance & Mega-Disasters
Full Transparency: I only glanced at the Catastrophe working draft. It is now in a folder called “things I’d like to read but probably won’t because there aren’t enough hours in the day.”
Readers of this blog might recall my Emersonian self-reliance advocacy. People, communities, and governments have a civic responsibility to care for themselves. They can and should ask others for help only after doing what they themselves can do. Otherwise the expectation lends itself to asking and expecting the others to do most things for you.
In the case of the Catastrophe working draft, the section of Nuclear Detonation Response is a good example of a mega catastrophe that would warrant exceptional and long term assistance.
I’m all for helping my neighbor and especially the neighbor who helps himself and is willing to help me in my time of need.

BTW, thanks to all those who helped NYC after 9/11.

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 8, 2011 @ 7:23 pm

John! Most count the start of permanent disaster legislation for federal involvement from the enactment of Public Law 875 of the 81st Congress (1950)!

Comment by John Comiskey

July 9, 2011 @ 6:10 am


Thanks. I’ll assume that most refers to emergency managers. If not please correct me as other assumptions I have made have proven to be not so accurate. That said, my research for the EM class continues and I will at least google PL 875.

Thanks again.

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 9, 2011 @ 7:34 am

Modst academics use 1950 as the start point. With the 81st Congress the architecture of federal response and recovery and military civil relationships was largely created by enactment of the Disaster Relief Act of 1950, the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950 (Public Law 920 of the 81st Congress), the Defense Production Act of 1950, and of course the activation of all elements of the National Security Act of 1947. Together with the enactment of the Federal Communications Act of 1934 the primary architecture of the National Security State that now rules America was created. Several of these acts are not uncomplicated but all must be studied in detail to understand the current dominance of DOD and the NSC and secrecy generally in the lives of Americans. The ignorance of recent President’s of military civil relationships will be documented by future historians as the reason that democracy failed in the USA IMO of course. We continue to elect President’s almost totally ignorant of international affairs and relationships and then watch as they struggle to explain domestic problems in the USA as not being derivative of USA foreign relations ignorance. Globalization was designed to benefit the Rentier Class internationally not the common man or woman. Study 1848 carefully because its subtext of revolution in Europe and its failure led to the events of the 20th Century when the West committed suicide in WWI. mesaentoa

Comment by John Comiskey

July 9, 2011 @ 4:51 pm

I agree that the emergence of EM and HLS stem in part from NSA 1947. I perceive that the US wants to preserve its share of global hegemony. The US all too often tells others to do as we say and not necessarily as we do. So why blame so many for discerning our self-interests and hypocrisy.

I still believe the US is the greatest country simply because we do less of the above then most (all maintain a similar posture).

I am not so sure that Globalization is a product of Rentier interest. Many forces are emerging a global world that may empower the weak as much as the strong. TBD.

Final point, as I said, this is my first go around in teaching EM and my learning curve is significant.

BTW, thanks.

Comment by Our UnPreparedness and Catastrophe Which Abounds

July 10, 2011 @ 7:59 am

As far as the “locals” and their budgets, where is the transparency?

Here in New England, many of these towns and cities waste taxpayers monies and their financing committees don’t have a damn idea how to balance their own checkbooks and when they need to increase the tax rolls, it is always the intimidation tactic to use public safety by attaching public safety budgets to for instance a request for more monies by the school or library committes w/the same ‘ol cronies on these committees for the most part turning other interested citizens away filling any vacant poosts with all those who support their agenda…

Gents, we have unfortuantaly been unwilling to be responsible and the reality which abounds in every sector, We have lost the game and this continued premise that we are still the greatest country, well the bar has been lowered and lowered to the extent that as citizen retraints against government erode and more and more government dictates here and globally, I don’t know if there will be any place on earth where one will live peacefully with respect for dignity and Rights of the individual duly protected by those “entrusted” to serve the public and not their own personal arrogant agenda….

….Look at Tehran, they are willing to spill rich Persian blood of a brave young woman standing in protest, no weapon in hand, just the truth and murdered in cold blood….What thugs these “Brutes of Tehran” and the Syrians who met with James Carter, citizen behind closed doors, aman who once knew the “code” and upon my asking, hush..hush…no one including Congress knows to this day what James Carter spoke about to the Syrians…these thugs as well…Jamea carter so outspoken about the Hebrew, a people with special covenant with the Lord…our Creator. I met Carter twice on the streets of Athens and Cairo in the same week many years ago and let’s just say the entourage escorting him around, less than desireable….at least I wouldn’t be hanging around the same folks….

From We the lay folks here on Main Street USA, we have already taken our numbers to the soup lines soon to form along Main Street USA and to those like Mr. Barney and Hank Paulsen et al, who could care less other than stroking their pals, yes, you have toppled our proud Republic and yes when the real tragedy in earthquake and other grasp horrific CNN coverage of despair, We are quite aware of the limitatios of preparedness for any substantial disaster, the diorganization from executive branch down and We shall pray w/our Bible in hand to what once was a Judeo-Christian value inherent within and replaced by those w/self-agenda and partisan pliticians lusting foor power and control much like the Persians (the Brutes of Tehran) and Islamic fundamentalists and the Vatican all in their quest to control, lusting in their power, all seeking to control Jerusalem – w/none ever to control Jerusalem and the same here where those from local school committee to the top tier of government have lowered the boom! Store your blankets, your water, your meals ready to eat, your emergency supplies for We are so bankrupt from our federal and state accounts representing such ineptness, indifference to the once innovative….

“Considering Catastrope” it is upon us self-invoked and without those willing to repent, We as a nation and those oppressed globally….

….Lucifer lurks everywhere and once again, the dusfunctional ways of mankind, its greed, its lust, its prowess in power subjecting thse of us on Main Street USA to even worse than we saw only seventy years ago in WWII – shock and awe, the blood of our youth is on thehands of those in Tehran, the “Brutes of Tehran” more than sufficent fact that Congressional “Act of War” could easily be heard from its chambers, however we lack the Will and We and the good people all around the world will once again be subject to the decay, the sickness as best conveyed by our “entrusted” who take photos of their crotch and send via the internet or a President who believes he can sneek a younger woman into the White House, or a Governor whose pledge to his S.C. constituents and embarks in the night to hold the hand of lover and stroll the streets far from his family and his responsibility…com’on folks…he’s walking the streets of S. America and not even Homeland Security notified of his vacancy…and we’re prepared…. Our public servants are a hoax…
As a professional gambler, the odds against the house are all in favor and in Lucifer’s hand, our dreams and aspirations for America have been nixed by this every intrusive local, state and federal government….

God Bless America, the Republic we Love and so, so many have willingly given their precious Life to enable us the freedoms of individuality with the reponsiblity to stand tall and against any foe whether the “Brutes of Tehran” or the “beltway bandits!”

Winston Churchill died. No one to date has stood and has been able to stand tall against such outlandish and dysfunctional behavior as portrayed by governments who fail to read their Bibles, Daniel chapter 11, verse 40-44 and so on….Every form of – man-made – governmnet no matter form since Babylon has failed and ya know why, just look at those on the local committees to the executive branch…quite apparent indeed!

“Considering catastrophe” – just remember the call, the campaign promises, Deval’s and Barry Obama’s pledge – “change” – “jobs, jobs, jobs” – ya right, here we are what two and a half years later, the President if you choose to call this community and the Governor(s) and their – change – promised, the budget deficit increased into the heavens and unemployment at 9.2% and back room negotiations w/the Iranians failed as Iran is well positioned to step into Iraq as soon as we wave good by holding the white flag in total defeat f ill-conceived policy making by those under 50 who don’t have an idea what its like to shovel coal into the furnace to keep warm or wait to see the iceman to keep the milk cold…or have any idea the stench from dcaying horses and cattle, human body parts and the moans of the wounded as our America heros hearts were ripped open by the same bad folks as they dug in deeper despite death all around tjem and marched against Luceifer in the forests and towns from France thrughout Europe – Cathlic nuns trying to pull a wounded soldier from the small town French village and a Nazi taking his rifle and shooting the nun who was simply trying to save a Life – the stories are many, the savages, the inhumanity, the tears wept, the rapes and the hoodlums the same today and We are so damn unaware, so weak….so unwilling to stand against foe and fellow citzien who abuse their power whether legislator, the MA/DOR and its “uniqueness” and intentional abuse of citizen despite the factbthat every State Constitution pledges to protect its citizen, ah, com’on we lost fellas, the stock market on the verge of substantial decline and even the golden boys on Wall Street to get a real taste of reality…not just so, so many kids who ahve been thrown out of their homes and parents now divorced as a result of foreclosure, banker’s abusive tactics and Mr. Barney and pals knowing full well at Feddie Mac?Fanny, what the game was and still is all about, themselves and only themselves!

Pary that no 9.0 earthquake hits middle America for we are already suffering so from the greed of corporate America with their coffers overflowing now, yes at this very moment w/so many “fiat” feederal reserve notes – Congressional and Presidents allowing corporations to “outsource” America w/no penalty, no taxation, to hand the keys away to the Chinese who sit with me at the casino daily and have oodles – no not noodles – oodles of cash as they and their Pacific Rim collaborative have now stored precious metal, food, everthing imaginable to care for its aging population for the next many decades, while we stand in soup lines and who knows, there may not be enough soup to address the needs of a growing and desperate populace so proud of America, though far too trusting of politician….

Considering catastrope…nothing can be more catastrophic that our present circumstances and broken promises with little valued solution to afford any prosperity, only certainty of further eroding of principles and values….War and despair loom ahead in the near term and we will all unfortunately be ver so unprepared for our generations today have little underatanding as to the circumstances of not standing and being counted and as a gambling man, my bet is that Lucifer in his (her) clever ways takes all!

God Bless this beloved Republic for which it once stood!

Christopher Tingus
Main Street USA
PO Box 1612
Harwich (Cape Cod), MA 02645

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