Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 1, 2012

Preparedness: Preconditions for a vigorous response and reasonable recovery

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 1, 2012

Above: Governor Christie, President Obama, Administrator Fugate

For many years the emergency manager’s mantra has included, “Emergency management will never win an election, but it can certainly result in losing one.”  This is usually recited by the EM priesthood within ear-shot of mayors or governors.   (In the Vedic traditions a mantra is a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is capable of causing transformation.)

The truism, even the Truth, at the heart of the traditional mantra is that the effectiveness and more broadly the vigor of a disaster response — good, bad, or whatever — is usually personified in the leader of the time.  Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush emerged from 9/11 as heroes to many.  Ray Nagin and George W. Bush never recovered from Katrina.

It will be interesting how post-Sandy — combined with post-9/11 and post-Katrina — may amend the mantra.

At least in the short-term, vigor has usually seemed more important than effectiveness.  Effective or not, the response to 9/11 was energetic, active, forceful, intense.   It was the perception of inactivity in the immediate aftermath of Katrina that indicted those then at the helm.  The photo of President Bush doing a flyover of New Orleans in Air Force One took its totemic meaning from a preexisting sense of passive detachment.  He did a flyover of Ground Zero too.  That’s not what we remember.

In the context of a major disaster a leader is vicariously vigorous  (or not).  The leader is acclaimed or blamed largely for the vigor or non-vigor of others.  Giuliani was undoubtedly vigorous, but his was also a dramatic personification of heroism demonstrated by thousands of others.  Some have argued President Bush was very engaged in Katrina operations and unfairly tarred by the less-than-vigorous performance of others.   Others offer the President suffered the karma caused by his neglect (or worse) of FEMA.

Partly due to the mysterious alchemy of perceived vigor, one of the results of Sandy may be increased attention to preparedness.  The “big ones” — that seem to be unfolding with increasing frequency — are beyond the capacity of the most robust response.  As evidence, consider Breezy Point or the Battery Brooklyn Tunnel.   Serious and sustained attention to mitigation is becoming a precondition for any response that hopes to appear vigorous, even more so if effectiveness is a goal.


Ommm… Mitigation is preparedness for response.

Ommm… Mitigation accelerates recovery.

Ommm… Mitigation is the path to enlightenment (and re-election).  OMMMMM…

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Comment by Dan OConnor

November 1, 2012 @ 12:45 am

While it breaks my heart for my friends and family that lived in Breezy Point from a preparedness and mitigation perspective no one should be surprised. Dubbed Cois Farraige, Irish for “By The Sea” by its still almost all Irish New Yorkers, Breezy Point was an accident waiting to happen. With its sea level geography and limited ingress and egress routes any storm that moved up the east coast would have had some impact.

Much like Broad Channel, Breezy Point used to be simple summer bungalow’s, but over time a community arose and that growth and closely clustered set of houses had accrued what amounted to self organized criticality. Once the extensive flooding took place and eliminated response all it took was one fire to have the cascading failure and a community ceased to exist.

I visited there regularly until I left New York some 30 years ago and only several weeks ago took my oldest daughter there and to Coney Island to see where her great grandparents recreated and help build a nation.

The devastation is heartbreaking. Sometimes I think it’s human nature to assume we can out think, outwit, and outplay nature and physics. Unfortunately in this game of survivor, nature won, again, and I imagine we will attempt to go back and tempt fate again. Just some thoughts…

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 1, 2012 @ 3:24 am

The term MITIGATION entered the US CODE in the DISASTER RELIEF ACT OF 1974 [Public Law 93-288]! Barebones regulations did not enter the CFR until after FEMA formed in 1979!
Statewide mitigation plans were made mandatory for all STATES in the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000. Delayed in implementation several times by
FEMA there is no doubt that FEMA’s heart and culture is not really in mitigation since the departure of the Clinton Administration and perhaps not even then.
While a National Mitigation Strategy and a Pre-Disaster Mitigation were produced during James Lee Witt’s time at FEMA an implementation plan was never adopted.
For the 1990’s era strategies go to

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 1, 2012 @ 3:29 am

The corrected link in the comment above is as follows:

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

November 1, 2012 @ 5:39 am

I am worried about the long-term recovery issues and the limited capabilities to help 10 states and more than 250 disaster field offices provide recovery guidance and funding support to state and local officials

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 1, 2012 @ 8:04 am

Claire, For what it’s worth: I have some personal familiarity with NYC and NJ long term recovery planning and have been impressed. Certainly Joe Bruno and his colleagues at NYC Office of Emergency Management have recognized that something like Sandy would happen sooner or later. They have done substantial research, thinking, and planning around the key issues.

I would say the biggest challenge may be that despite all the havoc done by Sandy, there will be a significant tendency to “just recover” the status quo ante. This was very, very bad. But it was not so bad as to clearly require a strategic shift.

Much will depend on how the consequences and implications are framed between now and the end-of-the-year. If the Mayor and Governor and property owners and the Times focus only on recovery, then the next Sandy will hit as hard or harder. But if this crisis is claimed as an opportunity to not just recover but reformulate how downtown and the ocean facing boroughs are conceived, then greater resilience and more may emerge.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 1, 2012 @ 2:45 pm

Perhaps in all this discussion it is important to note that NO, repeat NO, FEMA official or employee has legal authority to direct a STATE or LOCAL offical in the form of an order to perform some official action. All is discretionary with the STATES and their local governments. Obedience to a published regulation when involving financial assistance can even be of some doubt.

Comment by Dan OConnor

November 1, 2012 @ 10:57 pm

Here is an interesting article that captures some of the comments and thoughts in the post and comments.


Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 2, 2012 @ 4:18 am

Dan, great piece. Thanks. For what it’s worth I don’t consider resiliency and redundancy to be the same, though there are certainly overlaps. The distinction made between sustainability and resilience is interesting, as is the place of efficiency in all this.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 2, 2012 @ 5:38 am

Claire: I did not notice until this morning that the Governor, Mayor, and the Times have become to frame the consequences and implications in a manner that goes considerably beyond “just recovery”: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/opinion/worrying-beyond-hurricane-sandy.html?ref=nyregion

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 2, 2012 @ 7:07 am

Expect MITIGATION outlays in Sandy Recovery to set new records.

Comment by Dan OConnor

November 2, 2012 @ 12:07 pm


Nore do I. Redundancy and resilience while mutually enhancing are different in a variety of ways.

Comment by Donald Quixote

November 7, 2012 @ 3:44 pm

Stop Talking About the Weather and Do Something: Three Ways to Finance Sustainable Cities


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