Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 26, 2011

Hurricanes, earthquakes, and more: Infrequent is better than improbable

Filed under: Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on August 26, 2011

Probability map for a >5.0 earthquake within 50 km of Washington DC

In June a colleague used a US Geological Survey Earthquake probability tool to explore the likelihood of a  5.0 or stronger quake  occurring within 50 km of Washington D.C.   Maybe once in 5000 years is what he decided.

How time flies.

Of course, that’s not exactly how probability works.   But however you treat it, Tuesday’s 5.8 tremor was a rare event along the east coast. Statistically it was “improbable.”

When speaking of events that have the potential to seriously disrupt society and  kill lots of people, we should stop using the word “improbable.”  Somehow in ordinary English improbable implies “safe to ignore.”

There are some eventualities of which we can be certain, but are beyond our ability to situate in time and space.   We can confidently anticipate these events, but precise prediction is beyond our current capability… and potentially impossible.

We can anticipate the general characteristics of Hurricane Irene.  We cannot be sure if she will visit Times Square, Montauk, or the Delaware Water Gap.  We have a better sense of when rather than where she will arrive.  Wherever she washes up, Irene will be an unwelcome guest.

Hurricanes entering New York harbor are infrequent.  Earthquakes strong enough to crack the capitol dome are infrequent.  Major dam failures are infrequent.  Terrorist attacks are infrequent.  Will they happen?  Almost certainly.

Somehow, I am much more likely to give some sustained attention to that which I know is infrequent,  than to what I perceive is improbable.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

August 26, 2011 @ 3:10 am

It will be interesting to watch any lessons learned from this event. The aftershock woke me up where I live at the mouth of the Potomac River.

Perhaps stories of Washington Monumemt damage will dominate but there are many important stories beneath the surface. Early dismissal of the federal government is one of the very bad choices made.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 26, 2011 @ 5:56 am

Bill, The National Capital Region’s knee jerk tendency to evacuate is a serious threat in itself. As you know, in many risk scenarios evacuation actually increases the chance of injury and death.

The wisest words about a no-notice NCR full-scale evacuation I have seen or read were these quoted by the Washington Post:

“Not only can it not be done, we should not try it,” said Ron Kirby, transportation planning coordinator for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

As tens-of-thousands demonstrated on Tuesday, this is a tough message to communicate. You would think that after the January snowstorm’s gridlock DC’s commuters might have chosen to enjoy the glorious weather a bit longer rather than cram onto the roadways all at once. But from my observations, by 3PM the
federal workforce (and others) were behaving as we were once taught lemmings behave, but we now know even tiny rodents know better.

OPM policy changes would help. But this issue requires a serious process of preparedness well before the event.

The best news I heard from Tuesday emerged from a neighborhood north of the White House that has done some ongoing Shelter-in-Place training. They never dealt with an earthquake per se. But this training has emphasized the need for individuals to make reasonable decisions that reflect their particular situation and their best assessment of the external environment. In this case, several folks went back to work about 3:00 and left about 5:30. “Easiest commute home I’ve had in months,” one reported. “And I enjoyed the hour out in the sun talking with my colleagues. Great for morale.”

A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Comment by Donald Quixote

August 26, 2011 @ 9:53 am

The recent earthquake, pending hurricane and other natural threats\events\disasters divert the conversation one more time to probability, impact, consequence, funding and empires. If the event or incident did not happen in the past five to ten years, do we really need to plan for it? If there are no significant grants or lucrative contracts, do we really need to plan for it? As the ever-contrarian for these discussions, preparedness for “terrorism” pays much better right now. Is it politically possible to evaluate the immediate and intermediate impact and costs of domestic terrorist incidents (conventional and non-WMD) as compared to domestic natural or other man-made disasters over the past ten, twenty, fifty or one hundred years? For this discussion, the costs do not include the tremendous follow-on costs of new agencies and empires, but the most important, immediate costs in lives and property. Probably not since the emotions and appropriated funds are too high. I continue to spark interesting discussions and frustrated looks when I am crazy enough to initiate this conversation of the larger and more significant possible threats to our homeland as compared to what just happened in our short-attention span, homeland security theater.

All-hazards planning is the answer, but it is much easier said than done.

Comment by AGH

October 10, 2012 @ 4:52 pm

The technical problem is measuring criticality in some meaningful way so that we understand where the risks really are and protective mitigations can be taken. This deals with risk, resilience, and the effective allocation of limited resources.

The political problem is that the “criticality metrics” are being used to allocate grant money between the states. DHS/IP wants there to be not too many and not too few critical facilities (or systems) identified by the methodology — especially as compared to other infrastructure sectors. Having too many or too few critical entities causes them political problems in that it shows that they don’t have a defensible methodology for allocating their grant money. They don’t see the technical problem at all or the convolution with the political problem. They only see the political problem. And they wonder why you (scientists – PhDs) won’t just fix it for them.

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