Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 7, 2013

Preparedness is different than planning

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 7, 2013

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.


plan  noun

1. a scheme or method of acting, doing, proceeding, making, etc., developed in advance:battle plans.
2. a design or scheme of arrangement: an elaborate plan for seating guests.
3. a specific project or definite purpose: plans for the future.


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.


prepare  verb

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.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

November 7, 2013 @ 3:02 am

Well imagine Storm Sandy without any preparedness or planning effort.

My take on Storm Sandy of course different than most!

This was NOT a catastrophic event and well within what should have been anticipated and of high probability.

Just the major players including Governors and Mayors not paying attention. How many of these had not just read the plans but participated in the planning?

Governance is like soldiering s very tough job.

The destruction of beach towns, Staten Island, underground criticsl infrastructure was IMO pledanned for not unplanned for.

Let’s just face the fact that Storm Sandy proves again the lack of resilience in the USA by design not lack of design.

I was interviewed after Hurricane Katrina by a reporter about NOLA impacts. The interview never published. I patiently explained that FEMA had referred NOLA to DoJ in 1981 for affirmative litigation along with Jefferson and St. Bernard Parish. At the request of the USACOE NOLA was exempted from the litigat

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 7, 2013 @ 3:12 am


litigation even though the lack of a flood control system and effective management of flood control was putting the NFIP at risk. The reporter did not want to write that Katrina NOLA impacts predictable.

The he asked how many Katrina’s were out there. I said already known were over 200 very vulnerable communities. Including Staten Island.

Nothing published.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 7, 2013 @ 3:13 am

My conclusion is that PLANNING is part of PREPAREDNESS!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 7, 2013 @ 5:26 am


I do think that one of the big issues with the NY-NJ-PA RCPT was that they were all hired specifically for this job by that public health non-profit and housed in their own space separate from OEM. As I recall, there were a number of bright, committed young folks who lacked much experience in emergency management. I wonder how that might have contributed to the lack of usage of the plans. As we always hear, it’s the planning process that’s more important than the resultant plans. In this case, the practitioners and operators let someone else handle the writing and development and with all those plans, probably were fairly hands off in the process. I’ve seen that happen at other EMAs as well, so this isn’t just happening in NY-NJ.

Comment by Planning and Emergency Response

November 7, 2013 @ 5:44 am

“Let our advance worrying become advanced thinking and planning.”
Winston Churchill

Comprehensive Preparedness Guide (CPG) 101 provides guidelines on developing emergency operations plans (EOP). It promotes a common understanding of the fundamentals of risk-informed planning and decision making to help planners examine a hazard or threat and produce integrated, coordinated, and synchronized plans. The goal of CPG 101 is to make the planning process routine across all phases of emergency management and for all homeland security mission areas. This Guide helps planners at all levels of government in their efforts to develop and maintain viable all-hazards, all-threats EOPs. Accomplished properly, planning provides a methodical way to engage the whole community in thinking through the life cycle of a potential crisis, determining required capabilities, and establishing a framework for roles and responsibilities.

It shapes how a community envisions and shares a desired outcome, selects effective ways to achieve it, and communicates expected results. Each jurisdiction’s plans must reflect what that community will do to address its specific risks with the unique resources it has or can obtain.
Planners achieve unity of purpose through coordination and integration of plans across all levels of government, nongovernmental

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 7, 2013 @ 8:55 am

Eisenhower quoted as saying “Planning is everything but the plan is nothing”!

What do you think he meant?

I for one think that he meant no isolation for the planners from the operators but of necessity all must know and understand each other before the event occurs!

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 7, 2013 @ 9:00 am

BTW I rate overall Storm Sandy efforts by all governmental units a D+! Katrina a D-! Why those rating

Comment by Quin

November 7, 2013 @ 9:03 am

In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable. – Dwight D. Eisenhower


“the biggest single failure of the federal response was the Department of Homeland Security’s failure to recognize that Katrina was a catastrophic event and implement the catastrophic incident annex to the National Response Plan…” – Jeff Smith, Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (LOHSEP) Deputy Director for Emergency Preparedness

As quoted in the U.S. House of Representatives, A Failure of Initiative, Final Report of the Select Bipartisan Committee, footnote 52, 53, 137; U.S. Senate, Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared, Special Report of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, 554–555


Excellent post and I concur in part. Looking at the closest thing to catastrophic disasters in recent years though, there are clearly reoccuring points of failure and similiar decisions to be made. More importantly, role clarity, through understanding authority, responsibility and span of control are always key factors to responding to a catastrophe. True, as Col Smith’s statement shows in retrospect, just waiting for “the plan” to be carried out is probably folly, but there is value in planning. The Eisenhower quote quite pithily sums that up. If planning is done for the right reasons, identification of key decision points, understanding responsibilties and authorities, recognition of shortfalls for key capabilities and resources, then it should have a positive impact on the response to the next catastrophe. Not to mention the value of “exchanging business cards”. The opposite would be for it to become too rigid, think of the Prussian/German general staff planning for the Schlieffen plan which had railroad use down to the tiniest detail, and an impediment to expedient and creative decisionmaking. The danger is metrics driven planning can lead to such rigid plans without the right balance.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 7, 2013 @ 9:07 am

Why those ratings? Sandy had few structural flood control failures although design protection largley exceeded! And in Katrina despite over 1000 deaths of the transportation dependent over 800,000 successfully evacuated.

These facts may seem counter intuitive to my ratings!

But just as much in EM is counter-intuitive without these “facts” Sandy would be a D- and Katrina an F!

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 7, 2013 @ 9:58 am

Thanks Quinn! And just for the record when was the National Response Plan adopted and superseded? And the Catastrophic Annex?

Katrina made landfall in late August 2005! Chertoff later admitted he had not read the NRP or been briefed on it before Katrina made landfall!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 7, 2013 @ 10:45 am

In my judgment planning can contribute to being prepared for catastrophe if care is given to who is involved in planning and how the outcome of planning is conceived.

In the case of catastrophe, I see very little value in a written plan per se.

Research findings on vulnerabilities and interdependencies make sense. Written and other descriptions of projected catastrophic consequences can contribute to shared understanding.

Exercises involving decisionmakers, operators, private and public can expose risks and mitigation opportunities. The relationship building referenced by Quin is, indeed, quite important.

Exercises should generate discussion, operational adjustments, mitigation measures, and moving toward recurring exercises. Certainly there will be documentation all along the way, but I don’t think the documents that matter most are what most of us would immediately label a plan. And this pre-conception of what a plan ought do, look like and include may be, I think, the biggest threat to preparing effectively for a catastrophe.

Recognizing core capacities, key capabilities, and being realistic about where these abide and how they are expressed is certainly wise. Too often “plans” try to replace or reproduce, as if from the forehead of Zeus, these complex components of modern life. This is why Lee Clarke references “fantasy documents”.

In case of catastrophe, realism should breed deep humility.

Comment by Dan OConnor

November 7, 2013 @ 12:39 pm

To some perhaps it is a semantic argument. To me, it is degree of intent. Planning is a thought process whereas preparation is an active state. Plans litter hard drives and shelves everywhere.

Plans are wishes and tend to be static in ideology. Preparation has baselines and builds a series of skills. “Planning” I think also gets kicked around quite a bit. “We plan to do ‘X’” etc.

Preparation is a bit more furtive, to me anyway.
Planning assumes, preparation reveals. Planning is an idea; preparation is an execution. Plans and planning are a litigious requirement. Preparation is more akin to determining capability.

Planning for catastrophe is like for planning for chaos; the situation is so novel that the fringes and constraints are ill defined. How does one plan for the unknown unknown?

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 7, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

Phil states ‘In the case of catastrophe, I see very little value in a written plan per se.”


Some but not all of the other elements of PREPAREDNESS include: (1) recruitment and training of personnel; acquisition of equipment; logistics and communications systems, testing and verification including exercising with no notice exercises for the fast breaker!


Mobilization of resources beyond the PLANNING BASIS!

SURGE concepts and details!

MUTUAL AID [including international aid]!

There are at least a dozen other key factors necessary including the MOST IMPORTANT: Does the PLAN

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 7, 2013 @ 1:43 pm

And of course decision points imbedded in the PLAN!

E.g. evacuation or shelter in place?

What are the decision support systems available? Quality?

E.g. GIS!

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 7, 2013 @ 2:18 pm

A federal District Court Judge has ruled NYC OEM plans violate the ADA!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 7, 2013 @ 3:38 pm

A variety of responses, including to a large number of personal emails received on today’s post:

1. My comments on planning are meant primarily in regard to catastrophe. At the very least, I am not competent to assess the value of traditional planning related to non-catastrophic events. (I am, however, struck by how Lee Clarke’s general critique of emergency planning corresponds to my experience in preparing for catastrophe.)

2. I think we are all agreeing that catastrophe “planning” can be helpful IF (big if) it avoids the typical traps of overly tactical plans. Foresight is good. Thinking is good. Trying to anticipate major issues and possible options is good.

3. But too often the process of developing “The Plan” distracts time, energy, and funds from the more meaningful process of preparing for catastrophe. I like Dan’s comments in this regard.

4. Bill, I think the kind of planning you describe makes sense for non-catastrophic events, but the decision-point discussion, for example, assumes someone will be in a position to make decisions and carry them out. At the federal level, I hope that will be the case. But in case of local planning for catastrophe trying to think this through and develop an implementation plan is mostly a distraction to framing and empowering decisive action by survivors. I am trying to suggest, that we need a level of preparation appropriate to decapitation of leadership and sustained loss of power, communications, and other key services.

5. The issue of intention is, I agree, crucial. Too often developing an intricate plan-on-paper becomes more important than really understanding the nature of catastrophe.

6. I feel like I am being redundant. Where the breakdown in communications may be happening is over the definition of catastrophe. Sandy was NOT, by any means, close to a regional catastrophe. Even the worst local effects seem to be mostly less than catastrophic. Katrina was catastrophic. But even Katrina does not compare to Tohoku or the still-to-come California earthquake crisis or the next shift of the New Madrid fault. Catastrophe is not just double or triple disaster, it is a whole new category requiring a fundamentally different strategic approach.

7. To those who have emailed me: I appreciate your very thoughtful notes. I wish you would also contribute here.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 7, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

Thanks Phil! And yes Tohoku catastrophic and continuing to be so!

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