Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 29, 2011

Have we cultivated a culture of preparedness?

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on August 29, 2011

Today’s post is by John Comiskey a frequent contributor to HLSWatch.  A long-time recently retired NYPD officer and member of the US Coast Guard Reserve, John is on the faculty of homeland security programs at Monmouth University and Pace University. He sent this Sunday night and,  as you will read, he has been busy. We especially appreciate John going above and beyond the call of duty to share this perspective.


Saturday 27 August 2011 Hurricane Irene struck New York City.

Tempered by terrorist attacks, storms, and an earthquake just this week, New York City prepared itself for Hurricane Irene.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg marshaled his forces, closed subways, mandated evacuations of low-lying areas, and asked for the public’s cooperation.   Mr. Bloomberg called the governor’s office and the White House asking for assistance.  Governor Cuomo and President Obama were “on it.”

New York City and parts of the East Coast experienced a 5.8 earthquake on Tuesday, August 23.  The quake startled some office dwellers who knew only that their building was shaking.  Two weeks out from the 10th anniversary of Tuesday September 11, 2001, shaking buildings are apt to alarm most New Yorkers.   But we are New Yorkers, and as Governor Cuomo said, we like to think of ourselves as tough.  We shook the earthquake off.

Then came the news— Hurricane Irene had moved north and would impact the City.  We thought earthquakes were mostly a California thing and Hurricanes mostly a Gulf State thing.  Just the same we, were “on it.”

Plans that had been recently updated were reviewed and questions were raised:  Would we and could we do what we planned to do?  Yes, we would!

Events were rescheduled or cancelled, including the US Open, the Yankees, and Jets (I know the Jets are in NJ, but I mostly watch them on TV and like to remember when they played at Shea). The subways would be closed and ferries would stop running before the storm.   Bridges would close if the winds dictated so.

Victoria’s Secret in Bayside, NY boarded up their windows.  Without lighting, do you need lingerie?

Home Depot emptied their shelves as plywood, pumps, generators, and cure-all duct tape found their way into and on top of cars.  Sometimes the duct tape was used to secure the goods on top of those vehicles.  Maybe all you really need in an emergency is duct-tape.

Supermarkets answered the call.  Truck after truck unloaded as shoppers filled their carts with water, dry goods, flashlights, batteries, and videos.   The store manager at Waldbaum’s in Bay Terrace was drill sergeant-like only more polite.  Still my favorite was the recommendation to freeze the water bottles and use as ice to keep your beer cold in the event of a blackout.

Gas stations operated in military fashion too with store employees acting like traffic cops and still more polite.

I was prepared as I was going to be and decided to get in a last run before the storm.  I ran my usual five mile course alongside Little Neck Bay in Bayside. I ran into several of my hard core running friends, the same runners who are out here when it is 10 degrees.  We said to each other stay safe and stay dry.   During my run an unauthorized SUV honked loudly, sped up behind me, and made a b-line to the marina where the driver reversed into the launch to retrieve his boat that someone else was steering towards the launch.  A line of boat trailers followed and one by one retrieved their boats and made b-lines out of there.

My run finished, I walked towards the parking lot and ran into Kevin, an NYPD officer I have known for years on his way to Fort Totten for Hurricane Irene.   As I leant into his black SUV, I noticed his “go-bag” replete with no less than 5 packs of Camel cigarettes.  I don’t think that’s what we mean when we say be prepared.  Smokes notwithstanding, I wished Kevin a safe tour.

The 5:00 PM mass at Our Lady of Blessed Sacrament in Bayside Queens was packed with parishioners fulfilling their Sunday obligation with the evening mass.  Father Bob welcomed us to Noah’s Ark and commented on the level of cooperation we are experiencing during our emergency.  He also predicted that shortly after the hurricane subsides, politics will default to acrimonious debate and politicians telling voters what they want to hear and not necessarily what they need to hear.

Mario Puzzo’s Don Corleone offered similar commentary:  most people teach their children about a world that they want. I teach my children the world as it is. Terrorism, crime, natural disasters, accidents are the new normalcy.  Perhaps we are simply more aware of them due to the www and emerging social media.  Politicians tempered by after action reports replete with lessons not learned and citizens and journalists that will hold authority figures accountable, now do more and sometimes more than some of us want them to do.

Retirement and the “big ones”

On Sunday October 23, 2011, I will mark my first year of retirement from the NYPD.   It’s hard to watch from the sidelines your first year out.  When Irene’s New York visit was first announced, I envisioned what would happen and my role had I remained.  I was aware that the US Open first day of events was scheduled for Saturday August 27 and what this would mean for the three week-long event.  Another would fill my shoes.

Still I had the US Coast Guard Reserve and NY State Naval Militia.  I was put on alert and packed my USCG “go bag.”  The NY State Naval Militia alerted me too and recalled me to active duty.  I report tonight.

In case you’re wondering, the NY State Naval Militia is a NY State organization comprised of Marine, Navy, and Coast Guard reservists who volunteer for State activation in time of State emergency.  They retain their rank in their primary organization.  That’s tomorrow and we’ll see what develops. For now, I have been monitoring the radio, face book, and twitter.  I have lost power in half of my house and have no internet connection.  I am driving to a friend’s house with this document on a pin drive.

I have been texting and tweeting all day.  I spoke to Bruce, a fire service colleague from California whose Incident Management Team was requested by Greg a NY State Colleague.    The request was approved notwithstanding a requirement that the team acquire their own transportation.  The Team made a cold call to US Coast Guard District 11 who approved the request and flew the team to New York in a C-130. The Team made it and is operational in NYC’s OEM as I type.  Would this have level of cooperation have been imaginable pre-9/11?

Reports of at least 15 –Hurricane Irene fatalities are less than might have been.  It’s always hard to talk about people in quantitative terms.  I prayed for them and their families last night and will do so again.

It seems that all is well all around me and the news from the East Coast is much better than expected.  Still we have road closures and power to restore.  Good news is that recovery has begun.  Already some have said that we overreacted.  I disagree.  We acted prudently.

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 29, 2011 @ 5:21 am

John, In the immediate after-actions from the earthquake one of my DC colleagues wrote, “People seem a lot friendlier after an earthquake.”

As your comments regarding politeness may suggest, I don’t think this is a throw-away. There are positive human characteristics — especially social characteristics — that an imminent or just experienced threat can retrieve.

Seems to me this persistent — admittedly not universal — pattern is something we don’t do enough to build into our preparedness, response, and recovery thinking.

Worth mentioning that Irene hit the Northeast on the anniversary of Katrina reaching her peak strength. (Six years ago today Katrina made landfall in Louisiana.) You mentioned collaborative preparedness improvements since 9/11 and I agree. I think the process was accelerated and became much more authentically all-hazards in the aftermath of Katrina.

You and I perceive prudent preparedness. For once we seem to be in the majority. An articulate alternative perspective is offered by Toby Harnden the Daily Telegraph’s US Editor in his commentary entitled: Perfect Storm of Hype: Politicians, the media and the Hurricane Irene apocalypse that never was Another nuanced but skeptical take is offered by Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal: Misjudging Irene.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 1, 2011 @ 3:20 am

Ah the “Theraputic Community” a contribution of Professor Emeritus Dennis Militi, PhD Sociology and expert on Warning made long ago to the preparedness dialectic.

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