Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 11, 2015

Boston snowstorms an emergent crisis

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Claire Rubin, the Recovery Diva herself, made a very insightful observation regarding the string of snowstorms that have hit the Boston area:

I guess you could consider three major snowstorms in three weeks a slow onset disaster for Boston at the present time.

I must have been too busy shoveling snow and catching up on “House of Cards” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episodes (no, seriously…that show had very good writing) not to have seen this myself.

Boston is a city that can handle a snowstorm.  Indeed, it can handle any single blizzard.  What is causing problems is the quick succession of substantial snow storms in the past month, along with sub-freezing temperatures preventing melting, that has slowly choked the transportation arteries of this densely built city.  This is leading to an unfortunate set of cascading outcomes that normally would not be a concern during normal winter weather.

This is what Harvard professors Dutch Leonard and Arn Howitt refer to as an “emergent crisis.”  They explain:

But some forms of crisis do not arrive suddenly. They fester and grow, arising from more ordinary circumstances that often mask their appearance. We term such situations emergent crises – a special and especially difficult category.

What makes emergent crises problematic? First, they arise from normally variable operating conditions, making emerging problems difficult to spot as a break from typical operating and response patterns.

When and if the problem is spotted, an individual or group with technical expertise in the issue (as it is understood at the time) is generally assigned to address it.

But what if the diagnosis is not entirely correct? If the standard approach doesn’t work? If the response is too small or too late? A second major challenge of coping with emerging crisis situations is that the initial responder(s), if not immediately successful, either fail to diagnose their inadequacies or resist calling for additional help. Often, experts (and, perhaps even more so, teams of experts) are not adept at recognizing that their approach is not working. Often, they ignore “disconfirming evidence” (i.e., the flow of data tending to show that what they are doing is not working) and “escalate commitment” to their existing approach. The person or team working on the situation may not only believe that they are about to succeed (with just a little more effort and time) but also feel pressure not to lose face if they fail to handle the assigned situation. Moreover, they may resist seeking help.

The third reason that emergent crises are challenging is that they present crisis managers with all of the standard challenges of managing true crisis emergencies—the difficulty of recognizing novelty, the challenge of creativity and improvisation of new approaches and designs under stress, the painful realities of the errors and rough edges that arise when executing new and untested  routines. But these standard challenges now arise in the context of organizations and teams that are already deployed and working on the situation

It sounds like this is what is happening, at least in part, in Boston due to the almost unprecedented buildup of snow.  Specifically in regards to the transportation infrastructure, both for cars and all forms of public transportation.

Confronted with at first just one large storm, city and Commonwealth agencies followed SOP to clear roads and train tracks of snow.  Normally, this is more than adequate to return some semblance of normal life back to the area. Unfortunately, one big storm was followed by another and another (and potentially another again this weekend). Standard plowing and snow removal procedures could not keep up with the amounts, streets became clogged with snow piles, and the aging and underfunded public transportation system (locals refer to it as the “T”) began to break down under the combination of snow and cold.

Five hundred members of the Massachusetts National Guard were activated Tuesday to help with snow removal.

“These men and women will deploy across Eastern Massachusetts today,” Gov. Charlie Baker said, adding MEMA will determine which towns help is most needed.

Baker said the state has purchased two additional snow melters that can process about 25 truckloads of snow every hour.

“We are dealing with unprecedented circumstances here,” Baker said.

Boston-area subways, trolleys and commuter rail trains shut down remained idle Tuesday, with only limited bus service running. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority said it needed the break to clear snow and ice from tracks and to assess equipment damaged by the spate of storms.

“The accumulating snow is making it virtually impossible to keep rail lines operational,” the transit agency said.

Boston’s transit system, the nation’s oldest, has been particularly hard hit this winter. The buildup of snow and ice on trolley tracks combined with aging equipment has stalled trains, delaying and angering commuters.

That would be 78.5 inches of snow, so far, in Boston itself.

Buffalo got more than that in just a few days this past November.  Issues of snow removal were more difficult at first, but the impact was very localized and the area benefited from a lot more space where to put the snow.  Once cars were unburied and major roads cleared, a region where almost everyone is dependent on cars for travel began to get back to normal.

Boston is an urban area, densely populated and highly dependent on the public transportation system. There are few places to put snow, and when the T isn’t running it is hard for a large portion of the Boston area workforce to actually get to work.  People don’t get to work, work doesn’t happen.  Work doesn’t happen, the customers of those businesses face difficulties.  When the customers of those businesses are healthcare organizations, than a large part of the population faces difficulties. As the Boston Globe reports:

One Boston hospital administrator called it a crisis: Surgeries canceled because there weren’t enough beds, taxis hired to ferry patients who had no other way home.

At another hospital, stockpiles of linens were running so perilously low that staff began rationing them.

Meanwhile, still other hospitals were forced to rely on the generosity of Boston police officers to deliver essential staff members to work.

With snow piled up to historic levels, and the region’s subways and commuter rail systems halted Tuesday, administrators labored to keep their hospital doors open, hobbled by a stranded workforce and patients unable to get home.

“This has put us in a capacity crisis situation,” said Dr. Paul Biddinger, Massachusetts General Hospital’s medical director for preparedness.

The commuting concerns at South Shore Hospital were not as much about hospital staff members — most don’t rely on trains — but on the workers at a Somerville company that cleans the facility’s linens. So many of the linen company’s employees didn’t make it to work that South Shore was worried about running out of clean sheets and towels.

“We have had to conserve linen,” Darcy said. That doesn’t mean the hospital is reusing linens, she was quick to add, but rather that it was keeping a “close eye on the supplies.”

Back in Boston, hospitals in the cramped Longwood Medical Area grappled with a cornucopia of issues.

Several surgical practices at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center canceled sessions for patients who need to be evaluated before and after surgery because staff members simply couldn’t get in. Other employees at Beth Israel Deaconess who had to get to work arrived via sport utility vehicles rented by the hospital, while some others relied on the Boston Police Department to drive them, hospital spokesman Jerry Berger said.

With even more snow on the way, I’m hoping that the experts have realized their standard operating procedures haven’t been up to the task.

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4 Comments »

Pingback by 3 Major Snowstorms = Crisis for Boston Area | Recovery Diva

February 12, 2015 @ 7:09 am

[…] See this posting by Arnold Bogis, in HLSwatch, re the “emergent crisis” from the snow storms in […]

Comment by Wayne

February 12, 2015 @ 9:19 am

While the impact, measured in disruption to normal routine and inconvenience for a large population, is undeniably massive in the greater Boston area (indeed, all of eastern Massachusetts), this type of post only continues a long term media focus on urban cores as opposed to the areas actually affected. Reading this, one would assume that Gloucester, Worcester, Lawrence and other towns around that region had no problems. Indeed, it ignores other regions of New England that were hit as hard or harder by the ongoing series of storms.

If you look at Downeast Maine, as one example, they have received more than 7 feet of snow during this same period, with NO public transportation and even less in the way of snow removal resources per road mile. There are still communities that are struggling to get anything other than the main road (which provides the only land access to a part of Canada) open – but since the town population is low with no media there, the plight is not of concern.

There are issues, with out doubt, in the Greater Boston Area. They are less issues of poor preparedness by the government, I respectfully submit, but rather issues of public perception. The public expects that the last snow flake drops and, immediately, the roads are opened and everything is fine. Life doesn’t work that way – as long time residents of New England will know. It takes time, and a lot of resources in equipment and people, to move that volume of snow to allow for the normalization of routines. It also takes negotiated relaxing of environmental regulation to allow for the only available option for that much snow – which is not an easy agreement to reach.

Oh, well. Off my soapbox now. Time to go shovel – again – for the 18th time in the past 19 days. Just a dusting today. Tally, though, for our removal in our small driveway is about 37 tons removed in that period. By hand and snow thrower. Now translate that into the requirement in the greater Boston area for a similar depth of snow – can we say MASSIVE effort? patience is a virtue.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

February 13, 2015 @ 9:25 pm

On one hand, as the great Dr. Peter Venkman once observed, Boston is not “headed for a disaster of biblical proportions…Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!” On the other, the effect of the successive storms plus continued cold on the entire transportation system of the Greater Boston area is pronounced and perhaps unique.

In other words, I live in Boston and my observations are not driven by where the Weather Channel decided to send Jim Cantore.

My aim with the post was to point out what I perceive as perhaps unique consequences of the recent weather in Boston – a transportation system on the brink of collapse, which I haven’t witnessed in more than a decade of living in Boston; as well the second and third order effects in healthcare, logistics, and other areas described by the articles quoted. And the possible explanation that everyone followed SOP that has mostly worked following previous storms and is not up to the task this time.

Having grown up in a small town in Western New York, I’m both used to snow and the big urban area (Buffalo in that case) getting the media attention. In this case, besides the reasons I already mentioned and without malice towards those living in the areas Wayne referenced, another point of mine is that Boston is the most important area of Massachusetts and possibly New England. States and regions do best when their urban cores are prospering. They are weaker when their big cities are struggling for a variety of reasons: tax revenue, employment, innovation, etc. The transportation system, in particular public transportation, in the Boston area isn’t a perk but a necessity that allows the city to operate. It’s too densely populated and densely built out to allow for cars to replace the public transportation system in the best of weather, never mind when parking is also severely restricted.

I do respectfully (in part) disagree with the notion that this is mostly about public perception rather than public officials’ preparedness. The public transportation system has been underfunded over the course of several administrations, spanning both parties. The one public responsibility I do see shirked is the willingness to vote for political candidates if they even hint to being amenable to raising some sort of taxes to improve funding for the public transportation system. This is true in the Boston area as well as over the entire Commonwealth. It is a hard argument to make that paying higher taxes to allow Boston to run efficiently helps you if you live in the Berkshires…but it’s true.

Pingback by An Unusual Winter: Boston’s trouble with Emergence | EMscholar

February 18, 2015 @ 4:48 pm

[…] happen every year. And every year, Boston has to deal with snow. What’s the big deal? Homeland Security Watch has this to […]

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