Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 28, 2013

On catastrophe’s eve

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on March 28, 2013

In my religious tradition today is Maundy Thursday.  This is when many Christian churches remember the celebration of Passover by Jesus and his disciples.

I “do” catastrophe preparedness, this has become my principal role in homeland security. In this context the Maundy Thursday narrative has some resonance.

The perennial story begins with a long celebratory dinner recalling liberation and forty years in the wilderness. After dinner, recognizing he is on the edge of an agonizing choice, Jesus asks his best friends to help him. But they keep falling asleep. Later that evening he is betrayed by a long-time friend. As a very dark night unfolds religious hypocrisy and political expediency conspire toward profound injustice. Trusted followers flee and deny any relationship with their one-time hero. Expectations are shattered. Hopes are dashed. The most cynical outcomes are — with wonderful exceptions — confirmed.

Friday is even worse.

The consequences are catastrophic. At least in the Euro-American context, this death and what happened next was until recently (still, in some quarters) widely understood as precipitating a fundamental shift in ultimate reality.

My own strategy for “managing” catastrophe involves individual, family, neighborhood, organizational, regional, and national resilience. I’m all in favor of prevention (up to a point, at some point many efforts at prevention become as bad or worse than the threat). But prevention will fail. There will be another seriously successful terrorist attack on the United States. I don’t know when or where, but it will come. Much worse than any terrorist attack will be when earthquake or pandemic or epic flooding or you name it de-link a major urban area’s supply chains for several weeks.

Mitigation, response, and recovery are, for me, all important components of resilience. But resilience starts, I increasingly perceive, with the stories we tell each other over meals together. Such as Passover when the story is told again and again of courage and cowardice, loyalty and betrayal, victory and defeat.

There’s a new book out called “The Secrets of Happy Families.” It’s another example of delving into social science research to reclaim common sense that was widely accepted until distracted by earlier versions of social science research. According to the author:

Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative… and those narratives take one of three shapes.

First, the ascending family narrative: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. …”

Second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”

“The most healthful narrative… is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”

Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

For the last sixty years or so the Ascending narrative has dominated the American imagination.  In the last six or seven years the Descending narrative has exerted amazing power.  But as with most families, our national narrative is more complicated.

Reality oscillates. Catastrophes come. Seventy-two hours later or 40 days-and-nights (or years) later, even 1900 years later reality may take another turn. There are no guarantees of “success”. There are resilient and non-resilient choices.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

March 28, 2013 @ 1:19 am

The Best of Times and the Worst of Times? Not all just eye of the beholder.

Some of US may be doing a far far better thing than WE have ever done before?

We in the USA still live in a country that utilizes 25% of the earth’s total resources available annually each year! That statistic alone is worth pondering this Maunday Thursday.

We are all stewards for someone’s future!

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 28, 2013 @ 1:21 am

A new POPE and a new CIA Director. Both weild world wide power. For better or worse?

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 28, 2013 @ 9:06 am

This date in 1979 the TMI Unit 2 core-melt accident began. No Presidential disaster declaration was forthcoming but spontaneous evacuation by the population around TMI did occur. I was asked to and did defend the new FEMA position in fall 1979 that DRF [disaster relief funds] had been expended in preparing for a declaration and supporting Pennsylvania’s cost absent such a declaration. No special legislation was enacted. President Carter however announced that FEMA was being give a new assignment and that was off-site safety of all nuclear power plants in the USA. This was done by Press Release. For the basis of the recommendation to give FEMA the assignment see the reports of the so-called Rogovin Report [later at the CIA] and the Kemeny Commission Report [President of Dartmouth College]!

Comment by JCOMISKEY

March 28, 2013 @ 10:17 am


I thought I would share an e-mail I received today from an undergraduate student that was in my introduction to HLS class. The student is bright and enthusiastic. He is thinking about a career in HLS.

His thoughts (less his name and name of his friend):

X and I were thinking of possibly starting a club that deals with preperation in case of natural disasters or any event that cause the infrastructure or communications, etc to go down. It would be a preperation of what to do and how to act in these type of situations. Please let me know what you think of this idea

I sense, in Bill’s words, that this someone is someone’s steward.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 28, 2013 @ 11:05 am

Believing as I do that disaster preparedness is a bottom up process, a mere Googling of the term reveals much on individual preparedness and preparation has been written.

Unfortunately the best prepared individuals and families at some point cannot be totally self-sufficent for all circumstances. One can however find out what the existing system in place consists of and its capabilities and deficiencies. Then work to enhance those capabilities. Full or part time.

And to the extent possible since not all contingencies are foreseeable, it is important to know the exact planning basis of official plans. For example, are government plans prepared to operate on a 24/7 basis staffing wise for lengthy periods.The young and healthy can often go almost 5 days without sleep but then adrenaline wears off and the body and mind need rest and repair. Good luck to your students.

Comment by CLambiase

March 28, 2013 @ 12:49 pm

Personally in my view preparedness is key. While reducing vulnerability to disasters of all kinds is important, there will be that one time that something does happen. I think that those situations should be thought out. What will people do? Where will people go if forced to leave? How will people survive? These may be very big what if’s; however, it’s best to be prepared for the worst so we can be at our best.

Comment by claire rubin

March 28, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

A recent article in the Reform Judaism magazine notes that the Passover holiday as it is know today originated many years after the Last Supper event.

We can chat offline and I can give you the exact citation.

Comment by Christopher Tingus

April 2, 2013 @ 5:35 pm

Let us begin by better local community preparedness and a federal government affording more federal monies to local first responders for training….all is just so political, so partisan in ways and quality leadership so evidently void from the executive WH branch to State to DHS that We here on “Main Street USA” see little restraint in wasteful spending and truly making any and all line items and budgets with clarity….We are our own catastrophe..a train wreck in the making!

Christopher Tingus
Harwich, MA 02645

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