Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 7, 2012

One day in February: Natural, accidental, and intentional threats

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on February 7, 2012

On February 7, 1812 President Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson:

“The re-iterations of the Earthquakes continue to be reported from various quarters. They have slightly reached the State of N. Y. and been severely felt W. & S. Westwardly. There was one here [Washington, D. C.] this morning at 5 or 6 minutes after 4 OC. It was rather stronger than any preceding one, & lasted several minutes, with sensible tho very slight repetitions throughout the succeeding hour.”

According to a good piece recently published in the Washington Post,

The New Madrid quakes started nine days before Christmas in 1811 and culminated in a massive shock on Feb. 7, 1812, which some experts believe was one of the largest quakes ever to strike the center of a continent.

In the then thinly populated mid-Mississippi Valley it seemed the end-of-the-world had arrived.  The ground split open, geysers of sand covered forests, the Mississippi river reversed course.  After-shocks continued for months.

A few years ago a friend was named head of strategic planning for a major healthcare system with most of its hospitals in St. Louis and nearby.  After he had been there awhile I asked about the status of their earthquake plans.  He was not from the region and had never heard about the New Madrid fault.  After my question, he asked about pre-existing plans.  There were none.

On this day in 1904 a great fire engulfed Baltimore, then the sixth largest American city.  It started at mid-morning on a Sunday. The cause has never been confirmed, but is assumed to have been accidental.  Over the next thirty hours the fire consumed over 1500 buildings and most of the central business district. There are several online resources, I especially recommend: The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904.

Three of many lessons learned:

Interoperability – Since at least the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 many had encouraged standardization of fire equipment, and especially hose couplings.  Despite the recognized vulnerability very little progress had been made.  As a result, when firefighters and their equipment arrived in Baltimore from Washington, Philadelphia, Wilmington, New York and elsewhere their effectiveness was seriously undermined.  For more see: Major U.S. Cities Using National Standard Fire Hydrants, One Century After the Great Baltimore Fire (National Institute of Standards and Technology)

Mutual Aid –  Twenty-one cities and over 1000 firefighters provided mutual aid as Baltimore burned, most arriving Sunday afternoon.   The speed of this response was made possible by the B&O railway providing special trains at no cost.  The first reinforcements arrived from Washington D.C. only 38 minutes after the request was made (!). The U.S. Navy, Maryland State Militia, and police from several cities, especially Philadelphia and New York, also responded.   But the mutual aid — both private and public — so generously and quickly extended was often under-utilized through lack of technical and strategic preparedness.

Recovery –  A few years after the fire a survivor wrote, “The boldness with which Baltimore in the very moment of its devastation, planned and put into execution a great scheme of public improvements, seemed to act as a charm to dissolve the spell of ultra-conservatism, and to inspire the people with confidence in themselves and in the future of the city.”  Throughout the late 19th Century there had been many efforts to re-conceive the old port as a modern metropolis.  The fire opened the space that provided the opportunity to implement those plans. (An early example of Advance Recovery Planning.) Within two years Baltimore newspapers were claiming the city had been reborn much better than before.

The Facebook motto — “Done is better than perfect” — may be a fair summary of how Baltimore was rebuilt so quickly.   From this distance it’s tough to say what may have been lost along the way, but for the first time a sewer system was laid, parks were created, streets were substantially widened, and electrical and telephone lines were put underground.  Personally, I’m infatuated with much of the post-fire architecture that still graces Baltimore.

The survivor quoted above, longtime insurance executive C.C. Hall, also wrote, “A splendid audacity, resting upon a basis of intelligent comprehension, replaced the old-time hesitancy with which large projects had been received. To create rather than be created became the dominant impulse of the community.”

On February 7, 1995 Pakistani and U.S. authorities captured Ramzi Yousef. He was later found guilty for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  During his U.S. trial Yousef told the court, “Yes, I am a terrorist, and proud of it as long as it is against the U.S. government and against Israel, because you are more than terrorists; you are the one who invented terrorism and using it every day. You are butchers, liars and hypocrites.”  When arrested in Islamabad Youself was in possession of Delta and United airline tickets and was in the process of converting children’s toys into bombs.  He is currently serving a 240 year term in a federal penitentiary.

“What’s past is prologue,” is from Act 2, Scene 1 of The Tempest.  Shakespeare continues, “what to come, in yours and my discharge.”

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3 Comments »

Comment by Michael Brady

February 7, 2012 @ 7:35 am

“‘What’s past is prologue,’ is from Act 2, Scene 1 of The Tempest. Shakespeare continues, ‘what to come, in yours and my discharge.'”

Shakespeare on All Hazards emergency preparedness. I like it. Have a fine day Philip.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 7, 2012 @ 10:28 am

Nice history Phil! Only two states have mandatory statewide uniform standards for couplings for fire service vehicles. Florida and New York. Go figure!

Comment by John

February 12, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

I was a volunteer fireman in a district north of Wilmington DE for many years. Part of New Castle County is served by the City of Wilmington’s Water Department, the remainder of the county by two corporate water systems (National Standard thread). As a result, we had to carry several sets of Wilmington thread adapters on every piece of apparatus.

Apparatus drivers got pretty good at knowing the serving boundaries and which adapters to use on the hydrants.

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