A rather small piece in the online version of The Atlantic flooded my in-box last week on the first anniversary of Sandy flooding coastal New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.
David Wachsmuth describes how existing response and recovery plans were ignored. He writes:
… emergency managers from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania created a Regional Catastrophic Planning Team for precisely this kind of emergency. But when the storm hit, the RCPT’s plans stayed on the shelf, particularly in New York City. As one NYC emergency manager described it to me, “The federal government spent millions of dollars on [the regional plan] and…we did not do anything. All the planning and all the dollars that were spent on regional planning [and] not once did we open the book to say, ‘Let’s do it this way.'”
Wachsmuth then explains why the book was left unopened. He also points to other “books” he believes worth reading. I agree with many of the symptoms Wachsmuth describes. I doubt we share the same diagnosis (see below).
I especially disagree with the conclusion suggested by the title of his piece (How Local Governments Hinder Our Response to Natural Disasters). I am too much a disciple of Elinor Ostrom to reduce such manifold problems to jurisdictional diversity.
Full disclosure: For most of the last four years I have been involved in regional preparedness for catastrophe in the mid-Atlantic, funded by the same FEMA grant as the unopened book in metro New York. As such I have met with, admired, even envied the NY-NJ-CT and one-county in PA RCPT. In every interaction I have been impressed by the expertise and commitment of these planners. The actual plans were (are) thoughtful and extremely detailed. There was considerable effort to socialize — even evangelize — the planning process and ultimate plans.
I disagree with the strategic predispositions of some of their plans. But by exposing their assumptions planners make possible intelligent discussion, exploration, and evolution. The RCPT planners have always been open to comments, critique, and improvement. They have been consummate professionals.
But in my judgement we cannot plan for catastrophe.
Wachsmuth writes that RCPT plans were “quickly sidelined by the Mayor’s Office.” This alone suggests that Sandy — as bad as she was — was not the cause of a local, much less, regional catastrophe. The Mayor’s office still had sufficient command-and-control to assert authority. One persuasive definition of catastrophe is the total collapse of local command-and-control capabilities. (I think this definition originated with a regular reader and I hope she might comment further.)
Plans typically — though not necessarily — depend on systematic implementation by an authority. Most emergency-or-disaster-or-catastrophe plans authorize atypical exercise of command-and-control, going well beyond the ordinary.
Yet any thing qualifying as a potential catastrophe has, ipso facto, at least confused if not destroyed most sources of authority and means of coordination. Catastrophes are not just complicated they are innately complex, easily becoming chaotic. Indeed some argue that efforts to contain catastrophric complexity accelerate the emergence of chaos.
Please notice that in the prior full-disclosure paragraph my role is identified as being involved in regional preparedness for catastrophe.
1. to make ready or suitable in advance for a particular purpose or for some use, event, etc: to prepare a meal ; to prepare to go
2. to put together using parts or ingredients; compose or construct
3. ( tr ) to equip or outfit, as for an expedition
Beware of nouns. Embrace verbs.
There is, of course, a verb form of plan, but even this action is usually focused on developing a noun (the plan). Preparedness is an awkward noun. Much better to stay with verbs: prepare, train/educate, exercise, assess, analyze, plan, implement, prepare, train/educate, exercise, assess, analyze, plan, implement, and again… and again.
Plan as a verb helps. Not as a noun.
You knew it was coming: To plan was originally to plane. Ancient armies would plane battlefields to create space to operate chariots or otherwise shape for strategic advantage. To prepare is derived from the root meaning to parry another sword or spar with another boxer or separate from a source of vulnerability. (The prefix pre- signaling to be ready to do so by what is done in advance.)
I am not opposed to planning. But to be ready for the truly catastrophic is less about choosing and shaping context to suit your preferences and much more about being ready — psychologically and operationally — to effectively engage the range of surprises a catastrophe will create.