Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 14, 2013

Healing our addiction to control

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Recovery,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 14, 2013

Logistics hubs

The area shown above is a roughly 50,000 square mile region featuring six major and many smaller islands.  The region’s total population is about 11.2 million.

The typhoon made landfall in eastern Samar province early Friday morning November 8. With sustained winds of 195 miles-per-hour and wind gusts of up to 235 mph, the cyclone tore west across the nation of islands for the next twelve hours.

There had been preparations and in many areas evacuations.  But given the cyclone’s reach and Philippine geography one might run but not hide from a storm this size.

The number of casualties is not yet clear. The fate of survivors is clear enough. Tomoo Hozumi, the Philippines’ UNICEF representative, told CNN food, shelter, clean water and basic sanitation are “in a severe shortage, the situation on the ground is hideous.”

The dead have not been buried. Toxic detritus has been splashed across the wrecked landscape. Human waste is accumulating. Simple cuts become life-threatening due to infection and lack of medicine.

More than 11 million people are affected. More than a half-million have been displaced. Up to 2.5 million are in imminent danger due to lack of human essentials.  “Maslow’s pyramid has collapsed,” one Filipino said.

Delivering supplies is the preeminent challenge. As it was in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 2010 Haitian earthquake, and 2011 Great Tohoku earthquake. We will see these challenges in the United States following a CAT-5 hurricane or 8-plus earthquake pummeling a dense urban area.

On Tuesday night, nearly five days after landfall, the Philippine national government outlined a “master plan” for supplying the expansive impact area roughly the size of Louisiana. Based on an interview with Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras, here’s an overview from the Manila Bulletin:

“This will come out to be one of the largest logistic and relief operations that the Philippine government has ever done in history and the President wanted to make sure that we have aligned everything,” he added.

“There has never been anything at the magnitude of what we are trying to do now—not in size, not in volume, not in even the breadth of it,” he added.

Under the relief plan, Almendras said the government will set up a special processing center in Cebu that will integrate the flow of all relief assistance. From Cebu, the relief goods will be distributed to the typhoon-hit places.

He said the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) will also establish additional repacking centers of relief goods, including in Ormoc, Cagayan de Oro and Davao.

He said the government is moving the relief goods to Tacloban City by air, land, and sea transportation. C-130 planes are doing sunrise to sunset operations to bring relief goods to the disaster-hit areas.

He added that Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya has been designated “transportation guru” to ensure relief goods are moved as fast as possible.

On questions why the goods are not reaching some victims, Almendra said: “That’s really a local issue that we are trying to address now.”

The last — unanswered — paragraph is the crucial concern.  Establishing logistical hubs is certainly a challenge. They may be needed, I don’t know the status of preexisting hubs.  But hubs exist to serve spokes and move energy to the treads. Spokes and treads are how commodities become supplies that survivors actually consume.

In its November 13 situation update the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) emphasizes, “Trucks and fuel are urgently needed to deliver aid. Debris and logistics continue to severely constrain the delivery of humanitarian assistance.” In the same report OCHA estimates that to date about 250,000 survivors have received food assistance (of the 2.5 million noted above).

There have been some — surprising — lessons learned from prior catastrophes.  After the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear emergency Japanese Self Defense Forces spent at least five days trying to self-create sufficient capacity to serve hundreds-of-thousands of survivors. There was never close to enough. Only after the perimeters came down, fuel was available and commercial resources were reengaged did supplies begin to meet demand.   The convenience store sector in Japan became a major engine of localized response and recovery.

A friend who was on the ground soon after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti says, “Really effective distribution did not take hold until street vendors opened a so-called black market for relief supplies.  Our initial reaction was moral outrage. Our second and very quiet reaction was gratitude.  In a couple of days the street vendors achieved a level of distribution that was far beyond the capability of the international and NGO communities.”

Since their 2011 experience the Japanese have given unprecedented attention to pre-planning and collaboration with the private sector. (There is even a — controversial — proposal to use private sector transportation for  non-disaster-related military missions.)  The emergency-response strategy is now more focused on restoring instead of replacing private sector supply streams.

In both Japan and Haiti — and now the Philippines — the strategic issue might be framed as, “How do you make complexity your friend?”

Some partial, situation-specific answers:  Clear debris, open roadways, restore or replace bridges, do not divert fuel from the commercial economy, keep perimeters reasonably permeable, compensate the private sector (even black-marketeers) to distribute at no-charge what they had previously sold, cherish and support truckers and trucks (especially small trucks), provide security as needed with convoys or otherwise. As much as possible, use whatever relationships, networks, systems, capacities, and capabilities facilitated distribution prior to the crisis. Encourage creative local — even random — adaptation.

I don’t know the Philippines well-enough to be confident of the right answers there and now. I do recognize in the government’s “master plan” familiar strategies that have proven ineffective in previous catastrophic situations.

The front-page of the November 14 Manila Bulletin includes this headline: Despair, chaos grip Tacloban: Survivors Hope To Escape Apocalypse


The “serenity prayer” is, perhaps, most associated with Alcoholics Anonymous:

Give me grace to accept the
things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

We might adopt it for catastrophe preparedness, response and recovery.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

November 14, 2013 @ 12:52 am

Great post Phil! Disaster as WAR! President Obama should do all that he can. Not pull another Haiti. After all these people are brown not black!

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

November 14, 2013 @ 10:18 am

Great post. I like the Serenity prayer too.

Comment by Django

November 14, 2013 @ 10:47 am

The other day I was in a meeting where a local partner was basically demanding to know how the “state” would handle a logistical issue. To me, the possible scenario under discussion would not lend itself to a simple answer or solution. In other words, the answer to the question might not become apparent until the actual bad day.

With this in mind, I gently pushed back and asked if the need to tolerate some ambiguity was an acceptable response. The individual in question responded that she understood my point, however I could tell it was not a satisfactory answer. Another individual suggested to me that if the state could just provide at least three options of how things might unfold she would be satisfied.

I would argue that one of the first ways we make complexity our friend is by getting comfortable with ambiguity…the unknown, the unpredictable, the unordered, etc. However, in a world where people expect pre-written plans based on lessons from the past to apply to the future, this will prove difficult. We love our “fantasy documents.” They give a wonderful false sense of security.

However, in my opinion, the reality is that these documents only lead to preparedness theater. Tolerating ambiguity in the face of complexity means we are willing to live in reality. In a world where many of us look to entertainment and religion for escape from the real, I would say we have our work cut out for us.

Reality is the last place most of us want to be. Living in a fantasy, via a well-written plan, a good movie blockbuster or the Bible, is much easier than tolerating ambiguity.

Hard to make complexity one’s friend with that type of competition…

Comment by Quin

November 14, 2013 @ 12:29 pm


What is going on in the PI is a great example of why planning actually IS important to solve a dilemma that occurs in every catastrophic incident. One characteristic of a catastrophe, IMO, is the loss of situational awareness. The way we are set up now, we (I’ll let others figure out who that is) wait for situational awareness to move up from the ground before assistance gets delivered. Domestically, I assume political and legal concerns over authority are the basis for that. IMO, the first could be shaped by education, the second one just bad answers that have crept into the process over the years. What good planning can do prior to a catastrophic incident is bring back what they used to call the “push package” but with the ability to actually deliver assistance, not just make it available.

An example from my thesis is if you know where all our critical infrastructure is in a dense urban area, if a catastrophe hits it and causes the loss of SA for days due to lack of comm or requests from local first responders (who are now survivors and victims themselves) you can put relief packages together to restore them preemptively, before help is even asked for. As modeling gets better, we already have a macro level view of what damage has occurred pretty quickly (sometimes even pre-event), even though no one knows exactly where it occurred. Good planning can get assistance to those areas in the first hours or days, not the days or weeks required for SA to return. As SA returns, you move into adaptive decisionmaking.

But our response to the PI shows what happens when we don’t have a good plan in place IMO. The capabilities they are moving now, and could be in transit for days, could have been moved or prepositioned long before. Given the strategic importance of the PI in our pivot to China… er Asia and the unparalleled size of the storm, it was completely foreseeable massive assistance would be required. A good plan, once that decision point has been identified, can move assistance closer, and even begin to deliver it, long before SA returns.

And this actually fits quite well with a decentralized model of delivering assistance because at the ground level, each one of these assistance “packages” is exercising their discretion to develop local SA and determine the best use of their capabilities.

Granted for foreign relief, assent of the receiving country is always necessary and a predicate to actually delivering assistance, but given the facts available, capabilities could have been rolling in close behind the storm….

The value of planning to a catastrophic incident: providing immediate relief in the absence of situational awareness, most likely a result of the inability of local first responders to establish SA or request assistance. A centralized plan to deliver decentralized relief to key locations and populations.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 14, 2013 @ 2:17 pm

Quin: If I am following, you and I are in full substantive agreement. And if “the plan” is mostly focused on pre-event critical infrastructure/key resources mapping, analysis, mitigation, and understanding issues related to interdependencies, vulnerabilities, and restart/redirect options… then sign me up for the planning team.

How would your approach to planning deal with Django’s issue of embracing ambiguity?

Just to expose and acknowledge my own biases: I wish you would have referenced “A comprehensive plan to deliver decentralized relief to key locations and populations.” Then I would have been even more enthusiastic.

Comment by Django

November 14, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

Just to be clear, I am not advocating that we dismiss planning documents or pre-positioning assets. Obviously these documents and tactics are necessary.

What I am suggesting is that we become proficient in quickly determining when plans will not be sufficient depending upon circumstances. I would argue that applying a linear solution to a complex problem will not work.

Decentralization of key resources will help, but if the jurisdictions receiving the assets are still hoping to have a specific plan in place to get them to the desired location, they might be disappointed. (This was the case with the story I referred to earlier)

I believe, it is in these moments that the ability (and permission) to deviate from the plan by way of improvisation, adaptation, learning on the fly, emergent practice, etc. will be necessary. Ultimately, I believe that this type of self organization emerges regardless.

I would like to see an acknowledgement of that reality as well as a change in culture and policy to support these inevitabilities.

For example, spontaneous volunteers will show up to help whether we want them to or not. How do we change the culture of first responders to accept and leverage these assets without seeing them as added risk?

In other words, how do we shift culture and change policy to help planners and responders exist and manage within both predictable and unpredictable domains?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 14, 2013 @ 3:40 pm

Django: Understood. I did not hear you being anti-planning in your earlier comments. But I may have heard you being more non-traditional than I hear in this clarification.

Can we develop doctrine, strategy, and plans that anticipate complexity? That embrace ambiguity?

None of this is meant to suggest we don’t invest in good planning and preparedness for the “merely” complicated. That, too, is plenty challenging.

But I think part of the intellectual challenge here — and the very practical problem in the Philippines — is crossing the chasm between complicated and complex.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 15, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

Quin! What is SA? Situation assessment?

There is a long history domestically to damage assessment or lack thereof! I would argue for answers to the old polemic–who, what, where, how, and when!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 15, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

A note for future follow-on:

The 11/14 OCHA report references 20 army trucks arriving in Tocloban.

In an interview on 11/15 with the BBC the Interior Minister (coordinating in Tocloban) notes he only has 16 trucks for the entire province, but more is on the way.

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