Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 9, 2012

What does MOM deserve?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on March 9, 2012

A phone call once a week or dinner out instead?

A card or a card and flowers ?

Are you going home for the holidays or inviting Mom to join you on a cruise?

What does Maximum Of Maximums (MOM) deserve?

According to the 2011 FEMA strategic plan, a MOM could involve:

  • Emergency medical care for 265,000 casualties,
  • Moving and distributing supplies to meet the needs of 1.5 million disaster survivors within 72 hours,
  • Restoring and sustaining basic services for an affected area of seven million people within 60 days,
  • Recovering the communities of 1.5 million disaster survivors within 5 years of the event.

When MOM visited Northeastern Japan on March 11 last year that’s close to what she left behind.   Casualties were lower, but otherwise the FEMA benchmarks are on target or a bit below actual outcomes.

What else does the Japanese experience tell us about MOM?

  • Catastrophes cascade into complexity becoming fundamentally different than emergencies or disasters.
  • Response will only be as good as mitigation, resilience, and readiness.  Recovery is mostly a function of the same.
  • MOM is beyond controlling.  She may be absorbed or if given enough space she may dissipate, but she will not be contained.

Despite the consequences in Japan and similar recent calamities, many resist embracing or even acknowledging MOM.

Among the minority who give attention to something like MOM there is a dangerous presumption she can be understood.   She cannot, not fully.

Nature affects to be sedate
Upon occasion, grand
But let our observation shut
Her practices extend

To Necromancy and the Trades
Remote to understand
Behold our spacious Citizen
Unto a Juggler turned — (Emily Dickinson)

Her juggling, her dancing, her sudden leaps and skidding stops are beyond accurate prediction.  With MOM we can only be sure of uncertainty.

To give MOM her due, regular attention is required.  Three suggestions for state and local jurisdictions and the private sector:

1.  At least 10% of planning resources should be committed to MOM.

2. At least 20% of training and exercise resources should be committed to MOM.

3.  Regular investment in mitigation especially on resilience of critical infrastructure and key resources.  I don’t think a percentage can capture this commitment.  It needs to be a strategic priority.  Zoning, building codes, public health funding, infrastructure development,  insurance decisions, licensing and regulations… all need to assume a level of catastrophic risk. Incremental yet persistent investment in mitigation is needed.

By the way, I perceive Japan met — and probably exceeded — each and all of these minimums.   The consequences were still horrific.


For more on lessons learned from the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear emergency please see:

Fukushima in review: A complex disaster, a disastrous response, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (March 6, 2012)

This is the most recent of several excellent examinations of (mostly) the nuclear emergency.  There has been considerably less high-level attention to the the earthquake-and-tsunami.  In my judgment the best single source for issues beyond the nuclear emergency is:

EERI Tohoku Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Clearinghouse

To examine fundamental issues of mass care as well as supply chain resilience and recovery, I recommend:

Disasters in Tohoku, Japan: Preliminary Findings Concerning Postdisaster Humanitarian Logistics Response, Transportation Research Board (January 2012)

The Asahi Shimbun — sometimes called Japan’s New York Times — has aggregated its coverage of response, recovery, and related at:

Special Section: 3/11 Disaster

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Comment by William R. Cumming

March 9, 2012 @ 3:14 am

Starting in 1986 I suggested to FEMA leadership that a planning basis be provided for the then mandated catastrophic disaster response plan mandated by the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977, as amended, that had not yet been produced. It was finalized in 1987 and unlike FEMA’s other response plans was published full text as a notice in the FEDERAL REGISTER. That plan became warped into the Natural Hazards Response Plan in 1990 and then in May 1992 the FRP [Federal Response Plan] reissued with many revisions in 1999 and then superseded by the National Response Plan in 2004 [the NRP] then in turned superseded by the NRF [National Response Framework]!
None of these efforts ever indicated what I call their PLANNING BASIS meaning a level of assured capability that can be expanded, surged, mobilized during a MOM.

The planning basis I suggested was derived from various FEMA studies of disasters and catastrophes and therefor as an agency lawyer available to me. This never happened and perhaps the new MOM planning basis is more accurately derived from new FEMA analysis.

So just for the record here was my recommendation for a planning basis:
1. 5-10 million homeless, and in need of mass care including first aid, feeding, and housing.
2. 10-50,000 deaths.
3. 500,000 casualties including those contaminated by the event.
4. The event occurs in the fourth quarter of a fiscal year of the Federal Government.
5. Critical infrastructure disrupted up to 5 years.
6. Multiple geographic areas impacted.
7. 1st year of any new administration.
8. DoD assets compromised by international deployments.
9. Governmental response capability within 550 kilometers of event disrupted or destroyed.
10. Widespread contamination up to 550 kilometers of event.

Well of course FEMA is premised on the full capability of any state and local government, or other federal agencies with assigned missions being able to accomplish their jobs. As I have ofter stated on the comments by me on this blog and elsewhere FEMA IS NOT THE SAFETY NET but merely a coordination and collaboration agency that relatively inefficiently and ineffectively distributes money and information to those who can do the technical response of issuing protective action recommendations, responding to contamination, determining re-entry and access to contaminated areas, and facility decontamination.

President James Earl Carter and his NSC adviser were flying over Mount Saint Helens when Carter turned to ZHIB and asked what the impact of the “Big One” in S. CA would be on US national security. Naturally the reponse was “I don’t know”! So Carter assigned the NSC to study the issue. This resulted in both a classified study and unclassified study and an extract of the unclassified study issued by FEMA under the numeric identifier M&A 20 if memory serves. This all took place during 1980.

These studies had some impact on the REAGAN ADMINISTRATION which issued the first all-hazards document concerning MOBILIZATION specifically NSDD-47 (1982) superseded in part by a NSDD in 1985. NSDD-47 has been declassified in its entirety.

So there is my MOM gift. Last year I helped to edit a book to be published this year on Civil Planning and Preparedness from 2001-2010 and some of this is discussed in that effort. Publication perhaps early fall.

I also commend reviewing the department and agency assignments contained in the largely ignored amended Executive Order 12656 issued originally in November 1988 at the end of the REAGAN ADMINISTRATION.

And just for the record, Japan studied the USA REPP [Radiological Emergency Preparedness Program] mandated by President Carter and rejected that approach to a nuclear power core melt accident. FRANCE also rejected such a program.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 9, 2012 @ 8:58 am

Correction: I believe the report mentioned was M&R 20!

Also while FEMA defended guidance at the Shoreham and Seabrook Nuclear power plants of transportation dependent populations of unknown size but an evacuation effort of 80% of the population in any contaminated or possibly contaminated area [principally the 10 mile EPZ based on the EPA PAGs] it is now clear that the transportation dependent population in the USA grows daily and will probably accelerate as POV access declines due to several factors not least of which is lifestyle choice, cost of POVs, and costs of petrol.

FEMA should be monitoring and reporting to OMB and Congress almost daily on the status, staffing, funding, and capabilities of OFAs and key NGO’s like the ARC. They have always had authority to do so but have not. And FEMA assessments of STATE and Local capabilities are often paper audits with the metrics provided by those levels of government.

Again Congress has provided little or no oversight of Preparedness since WWII. Oddly the Joint Committee on Defense Production that terminated in 1977 did the best. There should be a Joint Committee on Emergency Planning, Preparedness, Protection, Prevention, Response, Recovery, and Resilience. Perhaps in the 113th Congress that begins this coming January?

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

March 9, 2012 @ 9:04 am

Thanks for the information and the additional resources.

I was unable to access the TRB report – it seems one has to have an account, but no provision for obtaining one is offered.

Claire B. Rubin

Comment by hgrattan

March 9, 2012 @ 9:58 am


I mostly agree with the MOM-imperatives. IMHO, policy makers perceive MOMs as the lowest of the low-probability high consequence events and not worth more than a nominal nod and a MOM-plan they can cite. William’s “planning basis” might serve as the core of the above “nominal plan.”

IMHO, a real-world MOM would generate much of the needed government and public will to do what must be done. Afterwards, a litany of post mortems will list much of what we knew and ignored and what we should do for the next MOM.

I agree that the perception of FEMA as a safety net is widespread. IMHO, that perception is emblematic of an America’s ever growing cradle-to-the grave entitlement mentality.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 9, 2012 @ 11:22 am


At least on my screen there is a page-advance button above the left side of the first page of the text. This allows for reading online. Does this show on your screen? Log-in is required to download anything. On my screen there is a create an account button in the gray toolbar along the top.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 9, 2012 @ 11:56 am

I should probably state also for the record that without a planning basis none can know what really capabilities exist. Thus existing plans and frameworks are largely unfunded mandates and MOUs and IAA that are NOT locked in capabilities.

That is why each framework and plan must have on the record who prepared it, who cleared it, and what signature level signed off and are those who did still in the government. If not and at the start of each new administration there should be ratification and if necessary re-execution of the governmental entity involved and each General Counsel operation should forward an opinion to the DHS GC explaining why the person who signed had authority to do so with a copy to DoJ/OLC who should also be reviewing and approving these documents as legally sufficient.

According to my best current information, NONE in any governmental level know exactly who will show up in a MOM, what legal authority they will have, what their funding is, what training, logistics, and staffing they will have and exactly how they will be collaborating or orchestrating the governmental effort including how the INCIDENT COMMAND will work [mandated by Director level written decision in 1995 for all plans and responses in which FEMA is involved].

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 9, 2012 @ 11:59 am

And of course what is truly alarming is that federal existing dedicated resources to a MOM are completely unknown with no civil emergency response system detailed for all-hazards [like a Fukishima] and no domestic civil crisis management chain of command.

And virtually no interest in these tough issues in the Congress in any committee.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 9, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

Mr. Cumming and Mr. Grattan: In my judgment FEMA is very serious about MOM and is endeavoring to encourage greater attention at state and local level. If I am tracking your shared call for engaging MOM with a rigorous “planning basis”, I think many senior FEMA leaders agree with you. So would DHS, HHS, National Security Staff and other senior federal officials. I view PPD-8 as especially focused on developing this planning basis. This does not mean everyone shares these priorities or these priorities have — yet — been fully integrated into all grant-making and operations. But I think the intention is there and even more important, there is evidence of consistent attention to translate intention into practical results. This claim deserves citing more evidence. I think that could be done, but I don’t have the time today.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 9, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

One of many things that DoD personnel might have brought to DHS and FEMA is what is called requirements analysis. That might have added some rigor to the melee of preparedness planning.
Often the NOT-INVENTED-HERE syndrome seemed to plague progressive change possibility in FEMA. Oddly I blame the fact that most of FEMA’s heirarchy not having special expertise themselves feared or disdained the expertise of others. Thus, few economists, statisticians, political scientists, seismologists, meterologists, vulcanologist, anthropologists, respect for other countries efforts in EM and other disciplines even geologists or health physics.
FEMA long has authority to give out fellowships and academic support and conduct research admittedly with emphasison applied research rather than basic research but has chosen not to do so since the Mitigation & Research Directorate was terminated in September 1981. Fear of the National Academy of Sciences or the other related research arms also was a plague on what should have been a largely science driven organization. Of course my vision was that FEMA should prevent and mitigate disasters, not provide incentives for erroneous decision making by STATE and local and private officials and citizens.
But hey I took a shot. Even the FIRE SERVICE seems to abhor research.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 9, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

Well Phil why not a post on what your readers think would happen if a NUDET occurred anywhere in the US in a major metropolitan area? Given DHS/FEMA articulation of a MOM that might seem to qualify yet how, where, when, and who does FEMA/DHS and the WH think the federal response would flow/bump?

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