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!

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 30, 2014 @ 9:33 am

The obvious solution is free cars and gas for all including the lame, the halt, and the blind.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

January 30, 2014 @ 4:56 pm

The Journal Constitution and other Atlanta social and media outlets are increasingly referring to the crisis as “Gridlockalypse”. This term serves to deemphasize the weather as a source and give more emphasis to how humans behaved.

Arnold, I also don’t want to absolve the leadership of schools, cities, or states of their important part in events of this sort. But especially in weather events for which there is reasonable notice — and even moreso in a place with a somewhat recent similar event — I mostly want to emphasize the critical role of individuals making context-informed and deliberate decisions.

There are a whole host of social, cognitive, even evolutionary factors that can suppress thinking. These are real, but they can be transcended. Whenever I see large numbers of people moving in one direction at the same time, I will almost always try to make a lateral (which has its own risks). Especially at the edge of a fast-moving storm is not the time to get in a car with a few hundred-thousand of your neighbors. Why this could be a bad idea is not a profound mystery.

Political leaders often deserve their share of blame and their technocratic operators too. But there is also an unhealthy tendency, it seems to me, to engage in blaming as a way for the public to absolve itself from not thinking. At some point we have to ask all those who rushed to their cars — in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, DC, and elsewhere — “What were you thinking?”

Comment by Philip J. Palin

January 30, 2014 @ 5:05 pm

Claire:

Here’s a comparatively new report from the Atlanta Journal Constitution that seems to answer your question.

At Wednesday’s press conference, GEMA Director Charley English stressed how well the state followed the 2011 plan. “We did everything we said we were going to do: got extra plows, did the pre-treating,” he said.

And he rejected suggestions that earlier and stronger warnings would have made a difference. Without a “crystal ball,” English said, “in this particular event, if we played it exactly the same again, I would have made the same decisions.”

As the disaster unfolded, GEMA’s website displayed no instructions to drivers, and a prominent link to “winter weather” led to a week-old tip sheet on insulating homes and cars following the early January “polar vortex.”

State Department of Transportation Commissioner Keith Golden said that before the storm, he and English never had a conversation about whether to forcefully urge people to stay home Tuesday.

Deal said that in hindsight he would have done that sooner. He said the state had learned lessons for next time, such as working with schools and the public to urge them to stagger drive times. But he still said the timing of the storm warning from the National Weather Service was a problem.

“Yes, I would have acted sooner and I think we learned from that and we will act sooner next time,” Deal said. “But we don’t want to be accused of crying wolf. Because if we’d been wrong, y’all would have been in here saying, ‘Do you know how many millions of dollars you’ve cost the economy and the city of Atlanta?’”

Comment by William R. Cumming

January 30, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

Senate passed bill delaying NFIP premium increases!

Comment by Arnold Bogis

January 30, 2014 @ 6:44 pm

Phil,

The question: What were you thinking?
The answer: Family and economic security.

Not to go all class warfare…but…so can I take it that you support a much more robust social safety net in this country? You mention a lot of factors but left out economic. Because many of those who call up their bosses who haven’t closed work and say I’m not coming in due to the forecast could be out of work and health insurance.

Most people do make context informed and deliberate decisions in these situations — it is for economic security and family rather than commuting safety. Unfortunately that means going into work if they haven’t closed because the danger of the commute in a storm is much less than not having a steady paycheck for months. It means rushing home to meet the kids, even if that rush means hours on the highway.

This isn’t a case of staying in the path of a hurricane to party. When work is open the general public does think and realizes that while driving in the snow is a bad idea, losing a job is much worse. When that job does eventually close, along with the schools, someone needs to take care of the kids.

The cumulative effect is bad for the system, but it’s still the outcome of individual, informed decisions.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

January 30, 2014 @ 7:02 pm

Arnold: Thanks, and I think that is a good explanation of why people would go into work on Tuesday morning. The context was sufficiently ambiguous to default to the economic issues you outline. It does not explain to me why they would drive into the maelstrom of Tuesday afternoon. I have been in a similar situation a few times — with children at home or heading there — and it was clear that me trying to get home was nearly a fool’s errand. I had to depend, very reluctantly, on neighbors, or friends, or someone in my network who could be there when I could not or, at least, probably would not (as was the case with my brother-in-law and his wife).

Now… if your response involves the systemic lack of such a network, as a result of economic, cultural, or other factors, then I think we have a very interesting hypothesis to explore that could have deep implications for any strategy of resilience.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

January 30, 2014 @ 7:27 pm

I think, and have absolutely nothing to base this upon, that it is a combination of economic considerations (where do I stay? a hotel? how much would that cost? how long will it take me to get there vs. a bit more to get home to my own bed?), lack of network or that in large urban areas it may be likely that network is similarly affected, and lack of situational awareness.

That last point is especially difficult to sort out. I’m addicted to my weather apps. I especially love the one that overlays Google maps with weather radar that you can zoom down to the neighborhood level. Very helpful in dodging summertime DC pop up storms. But most people only digest the big picture. Is it raining out? Snowing? Clouds dark? They take an initial appraisal of the situation and if they don’t face a catastrophic situation they set out for home.

But who can blame them? Digesting and applying information is more difficult than many perceive. You hear snow warning, but you also hear that it’s your turn to do X this week. Meh…a bit of snow. I can’t wait at the office! Allons-y!

And we circle back around to the original issue. In this case, while the weather definitely contributed and worsened as time went on, the initial problem was the commuter dump. Given the green light everyone set out for home. The weather was difficult, not horrible. But the congestion was horrific because everyone left at about the same time. The maelstrom wasn’t the weather but the unique volume. And most people wouldn’t take that into account before heading home.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

January 30, 2014 @ 7:35 pm

Arnold, I’m glad you were still online and looking in. For what it’s worth, your speculations align mostly with mine. In assessing these choices you are more forgiving — or realistic — while I am less. It’s interesting our observations — or perceptions — are more alike than our assessments.

Now you can have the last word. While it is still early, I am really tired and going to sleep.

Comment by Christopher Tingus

January 30, 2014 @ 11:04 pm

….and here’s how we do it in good ‘ol Massachusetts —

http://www.mass.gov/eopss/agencies/mema/ready-massachusetts/

http://www.mass.gov/eopss/agencies/mema/

Comment by Arnold Bogis

January 31, 2014 @ 12:44 am

Victory is mine!

Oh, wait. We mostly agree. And besides, you’ll rule the morning comments…

In all seriousness, I’ve noodled your “systemic lack of such a network” idea. And I have to say I reject it. Are you prepared to embrace the chaos?

In other words, for every neighbor no longer available to help look after your child because you’re stuck in weather, there are a number of strangers finding shelter, food, and water because of a Facebook page quickly created during the storm. And a very pregnant woman who is rescued from the highway gridlock by kind strangers arranged by a husband who can’t physically reach her but can utilize social media.

It is too soon to say that social media is replacing older networks. But it is also too soon to say that it can’t. In my last federal-related job, those who would bemoan everyone on the train typing on their phones instead of being engaged “socially” would also fail to say hello to me in the halls. Probably not due to the fact that I didn’t hold a position of any importance in leadership…and in case you’re wondering they never did once yell at me to get off their lawn…

How will we tell if there is a shift? Everyone loves and wants metrics. Unfortunately, I feel that we’re in a period of transition that may befuddle most attempts at measurement. It’ll take a bit to sort out. What will constitute social capital? How will information flow, be shared, reach an intended audience? What information will shape decision making at the individual level, now that it no longer depends on official voices?

These and other questions peek out from under the blanket of events like what happened in Atlanta. But there is a long ways to go yet before anyone can honestly start guessing how it will all shake out.

For me, any strategy of resilience has to let go of old ideas of networks and self reliance, and instead embrace a future of shifting connections, interdependent populations, emergent communities, and an ever present level of uncertainty.

Perhaps the future belongs to Schrödinger?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

January 31, 2014 @ 6:18 am

Arnold:

Complexity is real. I ought not deny it.

Schrodinger’s insights can be a matter of life and death (not just for his cat).

Human-caused complexity is increasing, especially as we gather in more densely populated urban ant-hills.

And we are not ants.

Swarming behavior is real, it can be helpful, there are situations where it is not.

We are each part of a group even many groups, often without choice, our membership simply emerging.

Our ability to think independently is usually compromised, even more the presumption of free will.

Yet there is the possibility of thought.

In this paradox of free and not-free is, I suggest, the fuller reality and some persisting hope for humanity.

Resisting this paradox leads to rigidity just asking to be shattered.

So… whenever I hear complaints regarding command-and-control — especially when better is demanded — I am instead inclined to ask, can each one in the crowd be made a bit wiser?

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 3, 2014 @ 11:12 am

Congrats to Claire Rubin for her award from the Hazard Mitigation Association for her RECOVERY DIVA blog!

I find it very helpful although have almost no interest in recovery because I find it seldom does more than reward those that created the Built Environment problems in the first instance of disasters!

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