Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 30, 2014

The mitigation message

East Rivers Elementary

Cobb County elementary school children sleeping Tuesday night in the gym

Last Tuesday my train pulled into Union Station, Washington DC, shortly before noon.  The station and surrounding city were unusually quiet.  The Federal Office of Personnel Management had given most of its employees liberal leave to stay home.   Most area schools followed this lead.

On Capitol Hill — where I still had some meetings — the snow did not really begin until about 2:00 and was not quite as bad as predicted even into the height of the typical rush hour, which given the OPM decision had much more rush than usual.

By the next morning there was nearly 4 inches of snow at Reagan Airport and over 8 at Dulles.  Wednesday got underway with official delays.

Still some were inclined to second-guess the Tuesday mitigation decision made with the best possible information Monday night.

I hope the second-guessers are giving close attention to the more recent news out of Atlanta.

Even at dawn Tuesday, January 28 the best information available to Georgia decision-makers — very much including the general public — was that the worst weather would track south and east of Atlanta.  Beginning between about 7 and 8 that morning the best information began to shift.  By 10 it was snowing in Bartow County on the northwestern edge of metro Atlanta.  By 11 it was snowing hard and icing.  At 11:23 Cobb County Schools (along the Northwest Atlanta beltway) closed and began busing students home.  At 12:15 Georgia DOT suggested private-sector workers head home.

By 1:00 many Atlanta highways were grid-locked, more the result of sudden volume than — yet — because of the weather.  (Should bring back unpleasant memories of similar events in Chicago and DC in recent years.)  As some of you know, traffic is not an unusual problem in Atlanta, even in fragrant and sunny springtime.

At 1:55 the Governor declared a State of Emergency; the most immediate effect being to pour state employees onto already packed roads.  Across the United States we are predisposed to evacuations.  It is a bad — sometimes, someplaces deadly — habit.

By mid-afternoon the snow and especially ice were adding to the problems.  You have probably seen the videos.  There were several hundred vehicle accidents just in the Atlanta area.

On Wednesday many Tuesday afternoon commuters were still stuck in their cars.  Some had abandoned their vehicles.  In several cases school buses were forced to retreat back to classrooms.  Several hundred children — the numbers are still unclear — spent the night in their schools. (See picture above.) My ten-year-old nephew got home from school, but neither of his parents could.  Shane spent the night at the neighbors.

There will be after-action analyses. There will be studies.  There will be hearings.  There will be blame-gaming. There will be lessons-learned.

What I hope someone will declare clearly and well is that 1) there are many things we cannot accurately predict, 2) especially in unpredictable contexts innate vulnerabilities are exposed, and 3) in densely networked environments, like cities, these vulnerabilities can sometimes meet and mate, propagating suddenly and prolifically.

So… for a whole host of risks we are wise to invest in mitigation and to keep in mind that what will always seem an over-investment before will likely pay profitable dividends after.

This principle applies well beyond the weather, including water systems, supply chains, fuel networks, bridges, and much, much more.

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23 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 30, 2014 @ 1:57 am

Well at 2AM here in Northern Neck of Virginia’s Northumberland County a mighty cold 4 degrees with Little Wicomico River’s Rockhole Creek frozen solid into cake frost white caps around me. In my 9th year here and the coldest yet. Many Native American stone artifacts found on property with some estimated 6,000 years old. County founded in 1600s and county seat is Heathsville named after John Heath founder of Phi Beta Kappa at the College of William & Mary [the first chapter]! About 13,000 population in entire county. One of Virginia’s 98 counties.

Comment by John Comiskey

January 30, 2014 @ 5:21 am

Mitigation and self-reliance

IMHO, American government and society is “hyper-dependent.” Hyper-dependent is used analogously here in an urban dictionary sense. See: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=hyperdependent

As Phil suggested, AARs will likely lament poor government and agency planning. Some agency or perhaps some supra-agency should have predicted and prevented/mitigated the effects of the storm.
To varying degrees some got caught out in the cold and our less than perfect critical infrastructure (roadways) was less than optimal.

Likely AAR
1. Need better storm warning and communication system
2. Need better weather contingency plans: If “A” happens do “B” …..or “C” ….or “D”
3. Need for better equipped mass congregant shelter capability
4. Need to improve national critical infrastructure
5. Need to improve urban planning (renewal). Urban migration is overstressing the nation’s cities. Many cities built for the nineteenth century. Retrofitting is inadequate.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

January 30, 2014 @ 5:27 am

Another example of our reluctance to pay the price of mitigation now, rather than the bigger price of response and recovery later is what seems to be the unraveling of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012.

In an effort to bring market-reality (and other forms of reality) to the federal flood insurance program, this statutory shift resulted in insurance rates increasing sharply… much more accurately reflecting the risk and potential replacement costs.

These costs have essentially priced many out of the market for flood insurance. If continued, this would overtime almost certainly reduce construction in flood-prone areas, thereby mitigating future harm by discontinuing federal subsidies for taking very high risks and signaling the real risk involved.

But there is now a significant effort to reverse the law. The reasons are in the near-term entirely humane, but in the long-term really insane.

See more at:

Biggert-Waters resources from FEMA

Flood Insurance Law Target of Both Political Parties (New York Times)

Opinion piece in The Hill on defending Biggert-Waters

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

January 30, 2014 @ 6:14 am

What bothers me about the Atlanta mess is that all of the decisions seem to have been made by the Mayor and the Governor. No mention of any emergency management staff or discussion of what the supposed professionals who anticipate emergencies and disasters were advising.

Did anyone see the possibility of trouble, and were they ignored. Apparently a similar event happened just 3 years ago, so why was their no recollection of that recent event?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

January 30, 2014 @ 7:32 am

Claire:

I share your concerns. I know — and have seen standing behind the Governor’s shoulder — some of the finest men and women in the Georgia public safety and emergency management professions

Clearly this has not been the time (yet) to reach out and engage in an at-arms-length inquiry. So I have no more information than anyone else who watches, reads, and participates in the bloodflow of digital messages.

But here’s my hypothesis which I am waiting to test on them: The threat information was truly ambiguous, sufficiently so to reinforce the human animal’s innate tendency for denial. School district decisions to open, entirely reasonable especially in the densely populated northwest metro area, further encouraged the view that the worst would trend southeast. In one of the Governor’s earliest statements as the disaster unfolded he referenced — as self-justification — that he surely would have been accused of “Crying Wolf”, if the storm had gone where he was being told it would go. I think that tells us a great deal about how decisions were (not) made.

So, an old friend has remarked, “Emergency Management never wins elections, but it sure can lose them.” And I bet this lesson has now been learned by these particular leaders and much of this generation. BUT I ALSO EXPECT, the lesson is being narrowly framed to winter weather when it should extend as well to drought, sprawl, cyber, pandemic and much more.

As long as we focus on mostly prevention or response, we will lose the strategic opportunities available in anticipating failure and mitigating its loss.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

January 30, 2014 @ 7:52 am

Here’s a Wednesday night update of “what happened” according to Atlanta Journal Constitution reporters:
(Behind a paywall)

How quickly did it happen? At 12:16 p.m., according to state officials, a computer model of the area’s major roadways depicted Atlanta’s interstates as a series of green lines and loops — they were clear, traffic moving smoothly. Twenty minutes later, they were red, a clear sign that the worst traffic jam in recent memory was well under way.

It got worse. By mid-afternoon, the merge at I-285 and I-75 was a study in glacial movement. Semis, sliding on the building snow, jack-knifed. Other motorists slid off shoulders or couldn’t get their cars up icy hills. Some people just left their cars and started walking.

And it only got worse. A woman delivered a child in her car. A woman nine months pregnant found space at a hotel only after some Home Depot employees, in town for a convention, doubled up to free up a room. Fifty-four students took refuge in a Fulton fire station. Elsewhere, more than 10,000 students hadn’t made it home as of 9 p.m. Tuesday; some were still in buses, while others were bedded down in school gymnasiums. Churches opened doors for the stranded; some 24-hour businesses also accommodated the storm’s travel victims. And everywhere, people walked, leaving cars and trucks on icy shoulders as the temperature dropped.

Comment by John Comiskey

January 30, 2014 @ 8:43 am

Continuing Claire’s point, the homeland security enterprise learned from the failures of Hurricane Katrina that pro-active pre-emptive measures are no longer aspirations, but societal expectations.

The 2013 National Preparedness Report noted that the enterprise was more prepared than it had been circa Hurricane Katrina. The mitigation, response to, and recovery from Superstorm Sandy was a testament to that. The 2013 report, however, also noted that large scale events like Sandy would likely overwhelm the system.

Current and expected 2014 winter storms have overwhelmed many parts of the nation. Having once been stranded in D.C. disaffected by 2 inches of snow and having on numerous occasions shoveled 2ft of snow from my driveway I have a sense of being snowbound. Having (delightfully) a kindergarten teacher for a wife of 25 years and having once been a high school teacher I have a sense of loco parentis and how increasingly so, schools provide services well beyond scholastics. Government and school officials are reluctant to close schools knowing that many parents depend on schools for childcare.

BTW, I went through 2 gallons of windshield wiper fluid this week.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

January 30, 2014 @ 9:06 am

Claire and Phil, I am not looking to absolve the mayor of anything but I do get the sense that Atlanta is not analogous to Boston , New York, Chicago, or even perfectly with LA.

The metro region is very decentralized and spread out. I tell people my sister, a school teacher, lives “in Atlanta” when she really lives and works in Alpharetta. She doesn’t vote for the mayor of Atlanta. That in fact the city of Atlanta proper is shrinking as new cities around core are created — the opposite of what happened in Toronto when it incorporated surrounding towns and became GTA.

The mayor of Atlanta has nothing to do with the decision to close her school system. Or any school system for that matter. That is a decision made at the county level.

So you have a huge metro area made up of numerous governing structures with (I’m guessing) very little in the way of a coordination system. What connects them all are the roads that became instantly clogged when the commuting population was dumped on the system all at once.

Could the mayor have tried to lead by example by closing Atlanta government offices and asking that the schools close? Sure. Maybe he would have been heeded and praised for great leadership. Also a good chance he would be ignored because he doesn’t have the power of a mayor of Boston, New York, Chicago, etc.

All just to attempt to think about the situation (before my second cup of coffee) through what Graham Allison in “Essence of Decision” would call Model III (Governmental Politics) and not just Model I (Rational Actor) analysis.

(On a side note, my sister was stuck in traffic for several hours, was able to pull into a parking lot and walked more than 3 miles home in the snow. Having grown up near Buffalo, she was prepared with extra clothes and a blanket in her trunk!)

Comment by Arnold Bogis

January 30, 2014 @ 9:08 am

Eric Holdeman of the Disaster Zone blog has a good post that provides what he perceives would have constituted “leaning forward” in this case by emergency management professionals:

http://www.emergencymgmt.com/emergency-blogs/disaster-zone/Snow-woes-in-atlanta-012914.html

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 30, 2014 @ 9:32 am

Hoping the intelligent discourse on this blog, this post and this comment section read widely!

Wondering why all or nothing releases into the transport networks still the norm as in why not some schools not all, some businesses not all, why some government entities not all!

I say this all a big joke in that the modern EM focus should be almost exclusively in MMAs and SMSAs on the transportation dependent not those with POV’s!

We have neither the time and money for worrying about service level F situations in emergencies, i.e. bumper to bumper! That is the norm not the exception.

The biggest problem is 90,000 local governments few with transportation systems integrated with neighboring communities.

We are a foolish wasteful people! Scold for the day!

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