Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 21, 2012

Core characteristics of catastrophe: Complexity, cascades, and culture

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on June 21, 2012

The Deluge IV by David Bates

Three core characteristics of catastrophe:

1.  Catastrophes are complex and can become chaotic.

2.  Catastrophes cascade over time and space.

3.  Catastrophes are cultural phenomena.


More on Complexity: Catastrophes can often be anticipated, but cannot be predicted.  A general pattern may be observable, even measurable.  But precise projections of time, place, power, speed, and other outputs are innately difficult, perhaps impossible.  This reflects a wide range of underlying, sometimes hidden,  interdependencies. The scope of cause-and-effect relationships is such that prior experience with more predictable events can potentially mislead as often as help.  Misplaced efforts to contain an emerging catastrophe may actually increase volatility.

Example: The 1960 tsunami benchmark selected by the Japanese resulted in siting and protection decisions that in some cases amplified the impact of the 2011 tsunami.

Implications for homeland security: Catastrophe planning and preparedness should focus on strategic capacity and capability rather than tactical response.   Leadership in a catastrophe is a courageous, creative process of probing and acting more than a management function of analyzing and responding.


More on Cascades: Interdependent systems — whether natural or constructed, physical or social — generally facilitate cascading effects.   Changes in one system can influence many other systems simultaneously or successively.  Networks of nodes and links characterize a wide-array of ecological, technological, economic, and cultural systems.  The more connections between nodes and the more convergent each node, the more likely — and powerful — a cascading effect involving all nodes.  Synergies are amoral.  Connections that breed health and wealth can also contaminate.

(We tend to think of cascades as quick and they can be.  As interesting are slower cascades that emerge from, for example, drought.  In my own research, I perceive that cultural confirmation of catastrophe is most likely when the event persists over significant time or is regularly repeated over time.  What humans perceive as single events are seldom catastrophic.)

Example: The Eurozone comes immediately to mind.  More relevant to many readers might be wildfires, power grids, and telecom carrier hotels.  (Hmm, mix those three together for a catastrophic scenario?)

Implications for homeland security: Dense hubs of multiple connections — such as an Emergency Operations Center — are great for propagating efficiencies and catastrophes.  Mitigation is a function of reducing both the overall density of connections and the concentration of connections at any single node.


More on Culture: Well… over the last two weeks, here and here, we have probably written enough about culture.   But this characteristic of catastrophe is often overlooked.   Major earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, pandemics and even nuclear-capable terrorists will occasionally grab our attention.   There are a few thoughtleaders giving sustained attention to cascades, self organized criticality, and other aspects of complexity.  The cultural inputs and outputs of catastrophic events are not, typically, topics for homeland security conferences.

Over the last two weeks we have suggested that from a cultural perspective not all catastrophic outcomes are necessarily bad.  The decisive factor in differentiating good from bad may be the self-critical self-discovery of the survivors.

Example: In prior posts we have given particular attention to literary examples,  but we have also pointed to the judgment of many that the “catastrophic” outcome of horrific plague in 14th Century Europe was the Renaissance.   We might also point to how survivors reacted to the San Francisco earthquake and fire or the Great Chicago Fire.

Implications for homeland security: Whole community anyone?  How about private and civic engagement in prevention, preparedness, and mitigation?   How about private and civic leadership in prevention, preparedness, and mitigation?  How about the following comment by a long-time emergency management professional? (I will not name who said it, he still needs his career.) “With the best intentions we have become major contributors to the infantilization of the American people.”


This is part of a series of posts that is examining possible connections between catastrophes, resilience, and civil liberties and the implications for homeland security.   Reader comments are welcome and have already influenced the direction of the series.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

June 21, 2012 @ 2:00 am

INTERESTING POST! Unfortunately I have concluded after a lifetime in the field that the minority benefits one way or another from making sure that the majority stays ignorant and uninformed. Yes the snake oil salesmen rule. And we have set up institutions to ensure that the slicky boys can continue to operate with little fear of sanction. Who is the real beneficiary of the failure to adopt or enforce adequate building codes for example? Or to abandon In Loco Parentis paradigms for K-12? Or preventing knowledge and research into who benefits from exploiting the commons but ensuring the costs of that exploitation is born by the general citizenry? Or the exact nature of tax expenditures and who is the recipient of tax expenditures? And who benefits from the general lack of preparedness in the USA? I know the fool can ask more questions than the wise man can answer!

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 21, 2012 @ 2:10 am

And which is better for the USA? Leadership that says I know the problems but “they” won’t let me do it! Or a leadership that just does NOT know after a lifetime as a largely professional politician.

It looks to me like the price of loyalty to the political class is destruction of the culture and that is the catastrophe for the USA. Do Mega-Churches that provide cradle to grave social services really involve religion of something else? Why is over 10% of the GDP controlled by organizations with non profit status–mostly tax exempt?

And from my question on a prior post what was the import of the 9/11/01 event if NOTHING fundamentally changed in the USA? If nothing fundamentally changed can the event really have been important in the short long run or was it just another of the outrages Christians, Jews, and Muslims have imposed on the innocents of the “others” since their inception?

Alan Dershowitz [sic] in one of his books poses the question “Can You Be Moral Without Being Religious”?

Can you be prepared when you lack basic information as to risks?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 21, 2012 @ 3:11 am

Bill, There are benefits to a minority if the majority stays ignorant and uninformed (In the kingdom of the blind…”).

There are structural impediments to some becoming informed. There are systems that perpetuate ignorance. We should not underestimate these influences.

But neither, it seems to me, can we absolve individuals from a primary responsibility for being informed, for thinking about what is known, for making judgments and taking responsible action.

In terms of catastrophic risk, total ignorance is usually not the problem. People know about the threat of earthquake, wildfire, hurricane and more. But even among those who are well-informed, we are often dealing with a stubborn lack of attention and a strong tendency for denial.

Which, it seems, brings us back to culture.

Pingback by Core characteristics of catastrophe: Complexity, cascades, and culture | #UASI

June 21, 2012 @ 4:27 am

[…] Read more @ hslwatch.com […]

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 21, 2012 @ 6:28 am

From your comment:
“There are structural impediments to some becoming informed. There are systems that perpetuate ignorance. We should not underestimate these influences.”

My point is that many of the above structural impediments and systems are the way they are by design.

So why so little analysis of how this design function has been captured by those who hold in thrall the majority and then blame that majority for their ignorance.

Perhaps the new HBO series “Newsroom” gives indication of what might happen although I have not seen its first episodes.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 21, 2012 @ 8:38 am

An interesting document has been produced by the DHS policy shop entitled “The 2012 Strategic Environment” that might be of interest to readers, posters, and commentators on this blog.

Comment by Michael Brady

June 21, 2012 @ 11:06 am


Dense hubs of multiple connections — such as an Emergency Operations Center — are great for propagating efficiencies and catastrophes.

Interesting. A mesh is more resilient than a hub in failure mode, but a mesh requires more and different hardware and is harder to train in and drill to. A mesh also creates/requires decentralization of power (knowledge) and authority (control of knowledge) which does not appeal to the middle and upper level administrators of hierarchical command and control structures.

I’m really enjoying this thread. I wish more people would join in.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 21, 2012 @ 11:48 am

Michael: And… meshes, such as fishing nets, will continue to be more-or-less effective even with several gaps, even significant gaps. Are there ways to make our networks of hubs-and-links much more mesh-like? Are there ways to distribute the efficiencies of hubs across a much more mesh-like system?

Comment by John F. Morton

June 21, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

Example: The Eurozone comes immediately to mind. More relevant to many readers might be wildfires, power grids, and telecom carrier hotels. (Hmm, mix those three together for a catastrophic scenario?)

At the macro level, add escalation in Syria, Iranian provocation in the Strait of Hormuz, descent into chaos in Egypt and the Fed somehow applying taxpayer dollars to shore up banks, the BIS and other financial institutions enmeshed in the eurozone crisis. Complexity abounds.

With great respect, I say to Ashton Carter, this Washington concept of a federal-centric security, resilience, sustainability and competitiveness governance perpetuates a single point-of-failure.

Network theory indeed supports decentralization to nodes that are driven bottom-up. Prior to the pre-WW I Preparedness Movement and through the constructs of the War Industries Board, New Deal, OSRD, the National Security Act of 1947, Goldwater-Nichols and the establishment of DHS, we have only addressed top-down approaches that reflect the maturing of the Industrial Age. We are now in the Information Age, very different. New governance must reflect this and can only do so by revisiting American governance to reflect the founding constitutional verities of our federal republic.

We can do this, folks, and proper restructuring of the Homeland Security Enterprise or National Preparedess System is the place to start.

Take the Hurricane Katrina recovery. What was the boom? The hurricane itself. Take Detroit and regional planning. What was the boom here? My point is that both regions are dealing with the same sustainability and competitiveness issues central to governance. The same issues the Sendai region of Japan faces after its third-order disaster. Putting that right cannot be down in Tokyo or Washington by command and control. It can only be done by something analogous to a Continental Congress that is decentralized and regional where trade-offs can be made by co-equal federal, state, local, private sector and NGO partners participating in planning collaboratively.

Required is a new governance brought to life by statute to enable such a network-federal structure and process to eliminate the single point-of-failure into networked regional nodes having ten loci of power resides. I refer all to Katie Fox’s 2010 Preparedness Task Force Report to Congress and what that FEMA-facilitated body had to say about preparedness and networks.

When are folks going to wake up to see that tinkering alone with the federal interagency space is a fool’s errand. The solutions for homeland security can only come by putting right the intergovernmental axis of governance.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 21, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

John, In my experience there are lots of people who have awakened to the reality you describe. They see what you see and their take-aways are similar. But actually operating in this new reality is another issue. There are institutional, regulatory, legal, and political legacies that complicate adaptation to the emerging axis. As problematic — perhaps more — are the skills needed. This is a brokering, venturing, partnering, collaborative, environment. Centralization of Command-and-Control can sometimes seem — like the Soviet Union — to be an old enemy who we prefer to the new opportunities.

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