Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 12, 2013

Homeland Security Notes: bits and pieces

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on June 12, 2013

It goes without saying that there are several important homeland security-related stories currently playing out in the news.  The following are just a sampling of smaller stories/ideas that I’ve come across in the past few weeks that haven’t garnered similar attention – but that I think are interesting.

First off, a few followup stories on the Moore, Oklahoma tornado:

“Walking the Path of a Tornado”

John Sutter, a columnist for CNN, walked the entire path of the tornado that devastated Moore, Oklahoma from start to finish, tweeting as he went.  Along the way he ran into some amazing stories of individuals helping their neighbors:

In the Braum’s parking lot, I chatted with a couple of for-real volunteers. Judging by Blake and Drew Thompson, selflessness and access to heavy equipment seem to be two valued traits in times like these. The brothers heard on the radio that volunteers were needed and took off work to come. Blake, 28, wore a shirt dedicated to Oklahoma City’s beloved local celebrity, meteorologist Gary England. (Other cities have dozens of famous people to gawk at. OKC has The Thunder, its NBA team; the Flaming Lips, the indie band; and Gary England. People freaking love him. There’s even a Gary England Drinking Game). The brothers brought a chainsaw and wheelbarrow, hoping to help clear rubble. Ready to do whatever was needed to assist strangers.

And the kindness of individuals moved by others’ acts of courage:

Waynel Mayes made news after she sang with her first-grade students to drown out the storm as it pummeled the school. “I told them to sing as loud as they could and if they got scared, they could scream,” she said in an interview with CNN. “She was singing ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ and she was playing instruments with them to keep them entertained – and that really hit me,” said the young man in orange. Barry Chalifoux, 18, told me he sold off many of his electronics – a DVR, satellite dish and cell phone – to come to Oklahoma to meet that teacher, who he’d seen on CNN. He traveled here from Slave Lake, Alberta, a place that was hit by a major May 2011 wildfire, which Chalifoux said he lived through. “I just want to say I thank her for keeping those kids occupied that way,” he said, earnestly. “I know if that was me, I would appreciate it all my life.” He also felt compelled to volunteer to help people in Moore.

I strongly encourage you to go to CNN’s webpage and read the entire piece.  It’s not only moving, but also includes pictures and tweets that Sutter took/posted along the way, embedded within the story.  A very good example of taking advantage of the digital medium: http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2013/05/us/sutter-walk-oklahoma/


Analyzing 2 Million Disaster Tweets from Oklahoma Tornado

The use of social media during and following a disaster is an emerging topic across the preparedness/response community.  In this post, Patrick Meier describes the analysis of the millions of tweets associated with the Moore tornado.

Thanks to the excellent work carried out by my colleagues Hemant Purohit andProfessor Amit Sheth, we were able to collect 2.7 million tweets posted in the aftermath of the Category 4 Tornado that devastated Moore, Oklahoma. Hemant, who recently spent half-a-year with us at QCRI, kindly took the lead on carrying out some preliminary analysis of the disaster data. He sampled 2.1 million tweets posted during the first 48 hours for the analysis below.

His conclusions are interesting:

The first point to keep in mind is that social media complements rather than replaces traditional information sources. All of us working in this space fully recognize that we are looking for the equivalent of needles in a haystack. But these “needles” may contain real-time, life-saving information. Second, a significant number of disaster tweets are retweets. This is not a negative, Twitter is particularly useful for rapid information dissemination during crises. Third, while there were “only” 152 unique tweets offering help, this still represents over 130 Twitter users who were actively seeking ways to help pro bono within 48 hours of the disaster. Plus, they are automatically identifiable and directly contactable. So these volunteers could also be recruited as digital humanitarian volunteers forMicroMappers, for example. Fourth, the number of Twitter users continues to skyrocket. In 2011, Twitter had 100 million monthly active users. This figure doubled in 2012. Fifth, as I’ve explained here, if disaster responders want to increase the number of relevant disaster tweets, they need to create demandfor them. Enlightened leadership and policy is necessary. This brings me to point six: we were “only” able to collect ~2 million tweets but suspect that as many as 10 million were posted during the first 48 hours. So humanitarian organizations along with their partners need access to the Twitter Firehose. Hence my lobbying for Big Data Philanthropy.


Don’t Be a Dead Hero” 

This piece was of particular interest to me.  In the past, I’ve (and so many more individuals and organizations much more important and influential) advocated for the positive impacts of citizen or bystander care in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.  However, in the back of my mind I’ve always wondered if the potential risks could outweigh the positive impacts.  Fortunately, Bryce Hall of Slate is here to help:

In certain situations, the data show, more people are killed trying to rescue others than are killed in the initial accident. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently examined reports for fatal, confined-space accidents and found that when multiple deaths occurred, the majority of the victims were rescuers. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health previously reported that rescuers account for more than 60 percent of confined-space fatalities.

OSHA defines confined spaces as those with limited or restricted entrances or exits, places that are not designed for continuous occupancy. They include, for instance, underground vaults, tanks, storage bins, manholes, pits, silos, and pipelines.
But untrained rescuer fatalities aren’t limited to confined spaces. Chances are you’ve read other stories about compound tragedies, most likely involving floods, riptides, traffic accidents, electricity, or mines. Here are just a few.
  • In July 2012 in Georgia, a man was killed by a train while trying to rescue a crash victim from a minivan that rolled on its side near a set of railway tracks. An eyewitness said, “I just said a prayer with him and kept talking to him and told him he wasn’t going to go nowhere because he was trying to help someone else.”
  • In 2001 in Alabama, 12 miners attempting to rescue an injured miner after a coal mine explosion were killed by a second explosion.
  • Last summer along the Northern California coast, five people in three incidents drowned attempting to rescue their pets from strong ocean currents.

The central piece of advice sounds, well….sound.  But I have to admit I’m not sure where I yet come down on advising the public to help, but also not to help because it’s too dangerous.  Are the potential risks greater than the potential rewards in lives saved?  This is a particularly tough question to answer.

If you witness a tragedy, contact experienced first responders as soon as possible, and keep other people away from the hazard. Do not act instinctively or impulsively. That is to say, if you do try to help or attempt a rescue, first evaluate the risks and understand your limitations—especially in situations involving enclosed spaces, gasses and chemicals, swift water, electricity, and moving traffic. In these situations, rescuers are at extreme risk of becoming additional victims.

This post is getting long and I am getting tired, so only two more items.  The first reminded me of an existing hot topic for me: security experts becoming cultural/artistic experts.

Jamaica Plain artist sketches MBTA stops, explores city

A few years ago I cringed when Erroll Southers, an incredibly experienced law enforcement officer, wrote the following in Security Debrief:

The “Twelfth Lesson: Espionage / Information-Gathering Using Covert Methods” instructs surveillants to gather critical site information, including detailed drawings and/or photographs. Drawings should be so detailed that a first-time viewer could visualize the location. Photos, preferably panoramic, should be printed (if necessary) at home, avoiding public photo venues that might report the image content to the local Joint Terrorism Task Force. Night photography is discouraged, as to not arouse suspicion. Close attention is paid to vehicular access and traffic design (to determine the feasibility of a truck bomb attack), parking locations, pedestrian volume, lighting, public areas and security presence. Armed with this knowledge, citizens can employ a common-sense approach to “See Something, Say Something.” Ask yourself, would an artist draw what you see them sketching? Are the photos a person is taking something you would place in your vacation or family photo album? Give yourself the “reasonableness” test. Is it reasonable that the activity is likely tourist or terrorist in nature? Trust your intuition.

What made me cringe was my concern that while attempting to provide sound advice to operationalize “see something, say something,” he was applying his personal analysis informed by a lifetime in law enforcement to a field with which he seems to have little experience…art.  In other words, I can easily find more artists who paint, draw, and photograph what is considered “critical infrastructure” in this country than the number of publicly known plots against that infrastructure.  His “reasonableness” test isn’t so reasonable.  What reminded me:

Jamaica Plain resident Laura Meilman found art in her daily commute. The 24-year-old artist launched “Project T-scapes,” her plan to visit and draw each of the MBTA’s T stations, in January. “One of the things I would love to do is travel and make artwork inspired by where I travel,” said Meilman. “I thought I would start locally.” Meilman said the project has given her a chance to talk with people from around the city. During a recent trip to the Ashmont Station, a man approached Meilman, questioned what she was doing, and proceeded to pull out his cell phone and share his photographs and drawings of the station.

And finally, the R-rated story in this series.  Please advert your eyes if you feel uncomfortable about stories based on sex.  Regardless of your sensitivities, this story represents to me just one of an avalanche of examples that contrary to much of the popular framing of the shelter-in-place order during the hunt for the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings, residents were anything but scared or cowed by terrorism.  Instead, they united in a showing of community spirit that continues to inspire residents.

The Problem with One-Night Stands in Locked-Down Boston

There’s not much I can add to the author’s description:

The whole city was locked down. Taxis were suspended. Public transit shuttered. Cops were going house to house. Armored vehicles were roaming the streets. No one could go out. You weren’t even supposed to open the door unless it was for a cop.

At that point, I really had no option but to just pull up my socks (literally and figuratively) and deal with the moment. One of the great joys (or at least essential requirements) of the boozy one-night-stand is the ability to throw on whatever clothes of yours found strewn across an alien bedroom, and saunter out the door on your own volition. Without it, you face the very real and comically awkward situation of hanging around, reeking of stout and sex, until the city resumes its regularly scheduled programming.

Then time elapsed and cabin fever began to take hold. We slipped out the door, contravening the governor’s orders, and hustled down the deserted Boston streets, hoping not to get shot by a SWAT team, to go to Dunkin Donuts (if Dunkies closes, the terrorists win) and get some smokes.

You get the idea…the terrorists didn’t win.

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Comment by Rubin, Claire

June 12, 2013 @ 5:34 am

I find this a curious collection of bits and pieces about Moore. I just finished writing a magazine article on the Moore event, and my take included issues regarding deaths of children in schools without shelters and the lack of safe rooms in homes — despite a frightening history of repetitive powerful tornadoes centered in Moore over the past 14 years.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 12, 2013 @ 7:46 am

No doubt MOORE to come. Any particular failures in preparedness noted outside absence of safe rooms?

Comment by Rubin, Claire

June 12, 2013 @ 10:00 am

Maybe our two takes reflect the difference between those focused on homeland security and those focused on emergency management.

Comment by Christopher Tingus

June 12, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

By Mark Schone
Investigative Editor, NBC News
Officials in the Oklahoma City suburb ravaged by deadly tornadoes Monday complained earlier this year about FEMA’s foot-dragging over $2 million in federal grants for “safe rooms” in 800 homes that would protect people from severe weather.

“Our countywide Hazard Mitigation Plan still has not been approved by the State and FEMA,” said a statement posted in February on the City of Moore’s website. It said that changes to federal requirements occurred while the city’s contractor was preparing the plan, adding, “We’ve found that the FEMA requirements … seem to be a constantly moving target.”
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A spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency told NBC News the agency is “looking into” the city’s claim about delays.
In October 2011, the city collected the name of Moore residents interested in applying for the federal money. In order for residents to be eligible for the money, the city and other communities in Cleveland County had to submit an updated “Hazard Mitigation Plan” for FEMA and state approval. Moore started revising the plan late that year.
Slideshow: Tornadoes ravage Plains

Destroyed vehicles lie in the rubble outside the Plaza Towers Elementary school in Moore, Okla., on Tuesday.

Launch slideshow
In May 2012, according to city’s website, the county-wide plan was almost finished and the city anticipated final approval of the plan by November.
“We intend to apply for $2 million in FEMA funding, which will assist approximately 800 Moore homeowners,” it said. “If a homeowner is chosen for the program … the homeowner will be eligible to receive up to $2,500 in rebate.”
But in an update in February, the officials said the Hazard Mitigation Plan had to be rewritten because of the “new wrinkles.”
“However, the Plan is not our main obstacle,” it said. “The federal grant program which funds local initiative such as ours is funded by monies set aside during presidential major disaster declarations. Oklahoma has had a few of these declarations in the past couple of years, so there is not a lot of grant money available.”
The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management and Gayland Kitch, director of emergency management for the city of Moore, did not immediately return calls from NBC News seeking comment.

Jim Seida /NBCNews.com
Aaron Miller, owner of Midwest Storm Shelters, shows off a safe room he installed in a new house in Joplin, Mo., in August 2011.

While bemoaning the delay in getting the grants, the unsigned statement played down the need for safe rooms, saying Moore has no community or public tornado shelters because people “face less risk . . . in a reasonably well-constructed residence.” The city’s website also said that Moore faced only a “1-2 percent” chance of a tornado hitting the town on any spring day, and that if a tornado did strike, there was less than a 1 percent chance of it being as strong as the one that swept through town in May 1999 and killed three people.

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