Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 5, 2015

Carolina flooding and exceedance probabilities

Filed under: Catastrophes,Recovery,Resilience,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on October 5, 2015

Sunday the Governor of South Carolina explained that the state has not seen the current level of flooding in 1000 years.  I doubt that was what she was told.  But I understand how she might have heard it.

Monday morning’s headline in USA Today was 1,000-YEAR STORM SLAMS S.C.  The millennial reference was not explained.

‘1,000-year’ rain floods South Carolina, and it’s not over yet is how the CNN website headlined their video-and-text reporting.  The text-based version includes, “A “1,000-year rainfall” means that the amount of rainfall in South Carolina has a 1-in-1,000 chance of happening in any given year, CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward said.”

A thousand-year-flood or a hundred-year-flood are shorthand descriptions for the annual exceedance probability for such a flood-event. Too often this is heard, as by the governor, as suggesting it has been a very long time since such an event and — of even more concern from a public understanding and public policy perspective — it will be a very long time until such an event recurs.

Here’s how the U.S. Geological Survey explains exceedance probabilities:

In the 1960’s, the United States government decided to use the 1-percent annual exceedance probability (AEP) flood as the basis for the National Flood Insurance Program. The 1-percent AEP flood was thought to be a fair balance between protecting the public and overly stringent regulation. Because the 1-percent AEP flood has a 1 in 100 chance of being equaled or exceeded in any 1 year, and it has an average recurrence interval of 100 years, it often is referred to as the “100-year flood”. Scientists and engineers frequently use statistical probability (chance) to put a context to floods and their occurrence. If the probability of a particular flood magnitude being equaled or exceeded is known, then risk can be assessed. To determine these probabilities all the annual peak streamflow values measured at a streamgage are examined. A streamgage is a location on a river where the height of the water and the quantity of flow (streamflow) are recorded. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) operates more than 7,500 streamgages nationwide (see map) that allow for assessment of the probability of floods. Examining all the annual peak streamflow values that occurred at a streamgage with time allows us to estimate the AEP for various flood magnitudes. For example, we can say there is a 1 in 100 chance that next year’s flood will equal or exceed the 1-percent AEP flood. More recently, people talk about larger floods, such as the “500- year flood,” as tolerance for risk is reduced and increased protection from flooding is desired. The “500-year flood” corresponds to an AEP of 0.2 percent, which means a flood of that size or greater has a 0.2-percent chance (or 1 in 500 chance) of occurring in a given year.

I have done some modest work with the Charleston, South Carolina region on community resilience.  They have been concerned about flooding and especially the potential impact of a strong hurricane.  The current storm has been “just” a rain event, but it has exposed — again — many of the vulnerabilities of concern to the community.  Even without strong winds and storm surge, massive volume and high tides have been destructive enough.

The greatest challenge in Charleston — and everywhere else I have ever worked — is a strong tendency to diminish attention to what are perceived as rare risks.  Too often I have seen individuals and organizations decide that since they just experienced something exceedingly rare they have essentially been indemnified from future losses.

Rather, at least in many coastal communities, there is good cause — data-driven and statistically sound — to reasonably assume that this weekend’s extremes will recur with increasing frequency in the next hundred years.  Instead of indemnifying, it is just a down payment.

Late Monday USA Today reported:

The biblical flooding in South Carolina is at least the sixth so-called 1-in-1,000 year rain event in the U.S. since 2010, a trend that may be linked to factors ranging from the natural, such as a strong El Niño, to the man-made, namely climate change.

So many “1-in-1,000 year” rainfalls is unprecedented, said meteorologist Steve Bowen of Aon Benfield, a global reinsurance firm. “We have certainly had our fair share in the United States in recent years, and any increasing trend in these type of rainfall events is highly concerning,” Bowen said.


Yikes!  Here are the two opening sentences and the closing sentence of the lead editorial in the October 6 Charleston Post and Courier:

Catastrophic rainstorms like this one happen only every thousand years, climate and weather experts explained as unprecedented flooding forced people out of their homes, closed roads and submerged stalled vehicles. One can only hope that assessment holds true… We must work to prepare for the next disaster, even if it doesn’t happen for a thousand years.

The P&C is a much better than average daily newspaper.  When they get this so very wrong, we can be sure most other folks will too.

September 1, 2015

Thad Allen: “The real problem in New Orleans was they experienced the equivalent of a weapon of mass effect. And they lost continuity of government.”

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response — by Arnold Bogis on September 1, 2015

Former Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen is fond of using that description of what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans.  Often he adds, “without the criminality.”

That is an important distinction.  It means that because it was a natural disaster rather than a terrorist attack, the federal government could not simply take control of the response.  Instead, there was an intricate dance of competing political pressures, interpretations, and interests at all levels of government.  Depending on one’s political leanings, it is easy now to lame blame on particular people over others.  What I think should be understood by all is that communication between the local, state, and federal governments fell apart at the very moment it was most needed.

I bring this up because Allen was interviewed on Juliette Kayyem’s latest podcast.  It is an interesting conversation on his recollections about the response to that catastrophe.

You can listen to it here: http://wgbhnews.org/post/thad-allen-hurricane-katrina-10-years-later


“Devastating consequences if the current trend lines continue”

Filed under: Biosecurity,Catastrophes,Climate Change,Futures,Resilience,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on September 1, 2015

Thanks to the Alaska Dispatch News, here’s a transcript of the speech President Obama gave Monday evening (9PM Eastern) in Alaska.

The phrase “homeland security” was never uttered.  But I perceive a considerable connection.  One excerpt:

We also know the devastating consequences if the current trend lines continue.  That is not deniable.  And we are going to have to do some adaptation, and we are going to have to help communities be resilient, because of these trend lines we are not going to be able to stop on a dime.  We’re not going to be able to stop tomorrow. 

But if those trend lines continue the way they are, there’s not going to be a nation on this Earth that’s not impacted negatively.  People will suffer.  Economies will suffer.  Entire nations will find themselves under severe, severe problems.  More drought; more floods; rising sea levels; greater migration; more refugees; more scarcity; more conflict. 

That’s one path we can take.  The other path is to embrace the human ingenuity that can do something about it.  This is within our power.  This is a solvable problem if we start now. 


August 27, 2015

New Orleans and the Gulf at Ten

Above, Weather Channel coverage of Katrina on August 27, 2005

On Saturday, August 27 ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina was a CAT-3 still in the Gulf, but projected to hit along the Mississippi delta. The state of Louisiana requested and received a Stafford Act declaration of a major disaster in anticipation of the hurricane’s impact. Late Saturday afternoon the mayor of New Orleans (finally) encouraged voluntary evacuation of the city.

That weekend I was conducting counter-terrorism training in a windowless, Strangelovian room far from the Gulf. But we had the storm track and continuous news coverage displayed on several giant monitors.

I perceive that over the next week Homeland Security morphed from being mostly threat-oriented toward much more engagement with vulnerability. This very nascent field began shifting from a focus on “stopping bad guys” to assessing risk and cultivating resilience.

Media and scholarly attention to the Tenth Anniversary of Katrina started in early August and has been surprisingly substantive. Here at HLSWatch, Bill Cumming has offered several notes and links on the anniversary, see recent Friday Free Forums. Following are five more links I hope you find worth your time.

  • The Data Center –  Fantastic resources on demographics, economics, and other quantitative measures related to the region’s recovery.
  • Resilience in Survivors of Katrina (RISK) – This is an ongoing longitudinal study of several angles on several sub-populations.  Focus is on psycho-social outcomes.
  • Catastrophes are Different from Disasters – The now classic essay by E.L. Quarantelli.  Also check out other excellent essays in this 2006 special report by the Social Science Research Council.
  • Recovery Diva – Claire Rubin has posted at least twenty thoughtful updates with multiple links.
  • REVERB – An exhibition (through November 1) at the Contemporary Art Center of New Orleans.

Threats continue to challenge and tempt us.  Vulnerabilities can be difficult to acknowledge. Meaningful mitigation often requires sustained collaboration. Resilience is complicated. We continue to learn from Katrina.

April 23, 2015

Gulf oil spill: Lessons still to be learned

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on April 23, 2015

It has been five years since an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon killed eleven and initiated several weeks of an uncontrolled release of oil from the well-head.  Over 200 million gallons of oil are thought to have escaped into the Gulf of Mexico.

I perceive the lessons-learned — or what might still be learned — from responding to the Gulf oil spill are at least as important as those we have tried to learn from 9/11 and Katrina.

What can and should be done, and sometimes not done, when dealing with big footprint, multi-consequence disasters that unfold over an extended period of time?  How is such an event to be engaged when the technical, experiential, and even intellectual resources needed are in short supply?  How does leadership and management operate when authority and competence and capability are scattered across various public and private entities? What can the lessons-learned from five years ago tell us regarding drought, sea-level rise, pandemics, and other disasters that are as much cumulative as acute?

Thad Allen, the former Coast Guard Commandant who was pulled out of retirement to serve as the National Incident Commander for the Gulf oil spill has tried to help us learn these lessons.  Here is some of what he said back in September 2010.

When I was designated as the national incident commander, I sat down with a small group of folks who became my cadre and senior staff. I wanted to focus on what needed to be done about the universe — above the unified level that had been established. I wanted to focus on those things that were distracting unified area command from doing their job: working inter agency issues in Washington and dealing with the governmental structures, Congress and so forth…

I was a 39-year veteran of the coast guard. The last thing we want is the 3,000 mile screwdriver. We would leave tactical control as close to the problem as we could… I would like to characterize the national incident command as a thin client. To use a software term. Necessary to integrate but no more than what is necessary and without adding layers of bureaucracy.

The Incident Command System that was established in New Orleans was the basis for… the coordination of command. That is a sound system. Incident command is one of the ways to approach these spills…

If we look at what transpired, we need to know what the basic doctrine says against the reality of what we found on the ground… We did not have a large, monolithic oil spill. We had hundreds of thousands of patches of oil that moved in different directions over time that moved beyond the geographical area that was contemplated in any response plan, putting the entire coast at risk. That required resources above the plan. It required coordination across state boundaries and federal regional boundaries for the team…

We have worked on smaller spills with state and local governments with smaller responsible parties. Some of the anomalies associated with this spill that challenged the doctrine need to be looked at in detail for constructive changes to the contingency plan which should remain in place, and how we need to manage large, and, as evidence in the future that defy the traditional parameters of the incident command system…

First, I think we need greater clarity moving forward on what the responsible parties, who they are, what they do, and how they interact with the contingency plan. We have worked with the responsible parties for over 20 years, very effectively managing oil spills…There were two basic issues that were not well understood by most of the people of the US and political leaders: There would be a constructive role for the entity that was attributed to causing the event. That created concern that could not be explained away. Even though we had worked effectively in that construct in responding to oil spills. The second is the fiduciary link between the representative of the responsible party and unified command and their shareholders. There are legal requirements for documenting costs which you have to carry on a balance sheet that they cannot sever.

The second notion was difficult for the people of this country to understand and our political leaders was ultimately, there is a fiduciary link between the responsible party and shareholders which would bring into question whether or not a decision should have been made based on the environment and the response itself. As stated in the national contingency plan and by statute, the responsible party is to resource the response and the federal government is to oversee their response…That is what occurred, but as you look at the enormity of this response, and the local implications, the isolated geographical areas where access is an issue, where logistical support for this type of response is an issue, a lot of the details that are carried out by those contractors that are brought to the scene are done in a contractual obligation basis with the responsible party under the general supervision of the federal government…

There is a discussion about what constitutes an authority to take action, the day-to-day supervision of workers. How this gets interpreted in terms of feedback and the effects you are trying to achieve. There is a couple of things we need to do. We need to look at the contingency plan and think about what we need by the concept of responsible party and how we want that to look in the future…

Admiral Allen is one of those rare people who somehow speak more clearly than the transcript can sometimes capture.  Thanks to C-Span, you can see and hear his extended remarks here.

As time and space expand, typically so does the number and diversity of those involved in engagement. Allen sometimes refers to the difference between theater command and incident command.  I wonder if just using the word “command” may be misleading.

April 2, 2015

Confederate Capital’s Conflagration

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on April 2, 2015

Richmond evacuation fire

One hundred-fifty years ago today — and tomorrow — most of the core of Richmond, Virginia was consumed in flame.  We tend to romanticize the past and we can catastrophize our present. From a homeland security perspective our current situation is much less dire than the context reported below, even as the Union was successfully reclaimed.  This is a transcript from the Richmond Whig reported in The New York Times.


The evacuation of Richmond commenced in earnest Sunday night, closed at daylight on Monday morning with a terrific conflagration, which, was kindled by the Confederate authorities wantonly and recklessly applying the torch to Shockoe warehouse and other buildings in which was stored a large quantity of tobacco. The fire spread rapidly, and it was some time before the Fire Brigade could be gotten to work. A fresh breeze was blowing from the south, and the fire swept over great space in an incredible short space of time. By noon the flames had transformed into a desert waste that portion of the city bounded between Seventh and Fifteenth streets, from Main-street to the river, comprising the main business portion. We can form no estimate at this moment of the number of houses destroyed, but public and private they will certainly number six or eight hundred.

At present we cannot do more than enumerate some of the most prominent buildings destroyed. These include the Bank of Richmond, Traders’ Bank, Bank of the Commonwealth, Bank of Virginia, Farmers’ Bank, all the banking houses, the American Hotel, the Columbian Hotel, the Enquirer building on Twelfth-street, the Dispatch Office and job rooms, corner of Thirteenth and Main streets; all that block of buildings known as Devlin’s Block; the Examiner Office, engine and machinery rooms; the Confederate Post-office Department building; the State Court-house; a fine old building situated on Capitol-square, at its Franklin-street entrance; the Mechanics’ Institute, vacated by the Confederate States War Department, and all the buildings on that square up to Eighth-street and back to Main-street; the confederate arsenal and laboratory, Seventh-street.

At sunrise on Monday morning Richmond presented a spectacle that we hope never to witness again. The last of the Confederate officials had gone; the air was lurid with the smoke and flame of hundreds of houses weltering in a sea of fire.

The streets were crowded with furniture and every description of wares, dashed down to be trampled in the mud or burned up where it lay. All the government storehouses were thrown open, and what could not be gotten off by the government was left to the people, who, everywhere ahead of the flames, rushed in, and secured immense amounts of bacon, clothing, boots, &c.

Next to the river, the destruction of property has been fearfully complete. The Danville and Petersburgh Railroad depots, and the buildings and shedding attached thereto, for the distance of half a mile from the north side of Main-street to the river, and between Eighth and Fifteenth streets, embracing upward of twenty blocks, presents one waste of smoking ruins, blackened walls and smoking chimnies.

After the surrender of the city, and its occupation by Gen. WEITZEL, about 10 o’clock, vigorous efforts were set on foot to stop the progress of the flames. The soldiers reinforced the fire brigade, and labored nobly, and with great success. The flames east on Main-street, were checked by the blowing up of the Traders’ Bank about noon.

The flames gradually died out at various points as material failed for them to feed upon; but in particular localities the work of destruction went on until towards 3 or four o’clock, when the mastery of the flames was obtained, and Richmond was safe from utter desolation.

We regret to learn that a serious loss of life resulted from the blowing up of the powder magazine on the suburbs early on Monday morning. The shock was tremendous, jarring every house in the city, extinguishing the gas, and breaking a great quantity of glass in dwellings…. From that moment law and order ceased to exist; chaos came, and a Pandemonium reigned.  MORE

January 12, 2015


Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on January 12, 2015

Five years on what so fully captured our attention is now too easy to forget.  More than 160,000 were killed.  The recovery has been difficult for thousands more.

There has been a tendency to dismiss Haiti as Haiti, too forsaken to have any lessons for anyplace else.  Yet when the Tohoku Triple Disaster struck, some experts saw comparable patterns in the initial response.  One has told me, “If not for the Japanese trucking companies voluntary action, Tohoku was sliding toward Haiti.”

Several colleagues at the White House, DOD, and with various voluntary agencies have commented on important lessons that each of them learned.  “Catastrophes are entirely different beasts, as different as a Lynx from a Lion,” said one.  Another wondered aloud, “Would Americans display the resilience we saw in the Haitians, if hit as hard?”

So it has been a long day.  It is almost too late.  But while not nearly enough, a few words in honor of those who died, those who worked so hard to save lives, and for the struggle that continues today.

December 25, 2014

Another strategic narrative

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on December 25, 2014

Greek Opening of Gospel of John

God looms large in homeland security, though we seldom say so.

Arguments over God — the nature of reality, what is right and wrong, and prospects for atonement — precipitate acts of terror.

Acts of God — Force Majeure — are subjects of ongoing strategic engagement.

Recently I was in discussion with a long-time peace officer, together we were trying to make sense of a treacherous situation.  He has a PhD.  We both are proud children of the Enlightenment.  Each of us accustomed to practically engaging problems.  Yet we decided that, at least for the moment, we must leave this particular problem to prayer. And, he confessed, to tears.

God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought, even the categories of being and non-being. (Joseph Campbell)

What Campbell perceives as metaphorical many have encountered as palpably physical, emerging from the encounter transformed.  This is typically an experience difficult to articulate.  But it becomes their very source of being.

From this source some are motivated to frenetic external action, others to placid mindfulness. Either seeming extreme to those outside the experience.

In all the great spiritual traditions we are also warned of our shared tendency toward error and corruption. We pollute direct experience with self-serving explanations or — even worse — confuse our finite understanding as encompassing the infinite.

God is being-itself.  After this has been said nothing else can be said about God as God which is not symbolic. (Paul Tillich)

In my particular tradition this is a day dense with symbolism.  It is our story that God has become human, infinite becoming finite, author and character are now as one.  In this synthesis many encounter a compelling metaphor for living authentically.

Our metaphor is replete with injustice, suffering, torture, and agonizing death. Also friendship, feasting, forgiveness, extravagant gifts and considerable drinking of wine. The master-metaphor is reinforced with a crowded collection of metaphorical set-pieces, most of which suggest tension and conflict as furrows from which love may flower.

Within this intricate system of metaphor, allegory and parable there are plenty of contradictions, but also intriguing coherence. Reasonable expectations are consistently overturned. There is unrelenting delight in words that surprise, shattering settled understanding, and seducing any having ears to radically re-imagine human possibility. It is a reality — close-at-hand, in-our-face — in which paradox is beautifully persistent, creatively prolific, and profoundly powerful.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us. (The Gospel of John)

December 11, 2014

Resilience by Design

On Monday the Mayor of Los Angeles released a report entitled Resilience by Design.  It gives particular attention to how Los Angeles can take steps now to mitigate the consequences of major risks, especially an earthquake.

This is the kind of document that — too often — only appears after a major event.  It is significant that one of the first steps Mayor Garcetti took upon his election was appointment of a Science Advisor for Seismic Safety and tasking her to undertake this analysis.

The report gives particular attention to:

  • Resilience of building stock — It is interesting that this is treated as a matter of economic resilience as well as public safety.
  • Resilience of the water system — This is what worries me most regarding the vulnerability of the Los Angeles basin.
  • Resilience of the telecommunications systems — This is a key interdependency that can divide or multiply every other response and recovery capability.

There are, obviously, other crucial problems.  But too many of these kind of studies try to take-on too much.  If everything is a priority, really nothing is a priority.

These are three strategic elements within the ability of city government to seriously engage.  Enhancing the resilience of these three elements will improve the ability of the city and the whole community to address other challenges.

See the full report here.

November 8, 2014

Central Philippines one year later

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on November 8, 2014

Last November HLSWatch gave considerable attention to the impact of Hurricane Haiyan —  locally called Yolanda — on the Central Philippines.

For those not directly involved in humanitarian relief, the aftermath became a valuable case study in supply chain resilience… and too often suppression of such resilience.  There were plenty of lessons for the US, if anyone was willing to watch and listen.

A few year-old links that may be worth scanning for analogies that still apply:

Yolanda hits hard (Again), November 11

Healing our addiction to control, November 14

Post-typhoon supply chain, November 16

In terms of recovery:  Of course it has been uneven.  Of course there are heart-warming and heart-breaking stories.   In most ways and in most cases, recovery is the most complicated — complex — stage of the disaster cycle.  Will be interested in what lessons-learned you perceive.

Here are a few updates:

New Comprehensive Rehabilitation and Recovery Plan  (geenormous)

Summary of the immediately prior

Recovery briefing by Office of the President

Update Bulletin by UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

GMA News Aggregation Site for Yolanda Recovery (Manila media outlet)

Some move on, some agonize (AP, The Inquirer, Manila)

Building Back Better (Christian Science Monitor)

Still trying to survive (BBC)

October 9, 2014

Retrospectively, it is often so clear

The Ebola outbreak is, almost certainly, a precursor for a future pandemic that will be much worse.

The current California drought is, almost certainly, a precursor of more to come.

The recent series of cyber-attacks are, almost certainly, a precursor of many more — and much worse — to come.

The intention of Australian terrorists to undertake random attacks is, almost certainly, a precursor for such attacks there and elsewhere.

In each case a current threat-vector is amplified by human behavior, especially increased population density and mobility.  Ebola is naturally occurring. Until the last four decades its natural range was isolated from humans and, especially, human networks.  Drought is naturally occurring in the American West and Southwest. Until the last six decades, this region was sparsely populated. Never before has so much monetary value been so concentrated and (at least virtually) proximate. Violence is naturally occurring in human populations, its mimetic mutations now facilitated by many more of us in communication, contact, and perceived competition.

In the case of Ebola, the rapidly increasing population of Guinea (Conakry) —  up 220 percent since 1960 —  has created substantial ecological and economic stress.  This has been especially the case in the forested uplands of Eastern Guinea neighboring Liberia where the current outbreak first emerged.  With about 70 people per square kilometer this region has twice the density of the Virginia county where I live.  It’s less than 300 miles to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, which has a population density of 600 per square kilometer.  No wonder Monrovia has been hit so hard.

Macenta Epicenter

We don’t know precisely when or how the virus was transferred to humans in this epidemic, but consumption of bushmeat infected with the virus is a good guess.  That has been the origin in several previous — but much smaller — outbreaks in Congo and Gabon.

Mid-March is when I first read about what has unfolded into the Ebola outbreak:

(Reuters) – An outbreak of hemorrhagic fever has killed at least 23 people in Guinea’s southeastern forest region since February when the first case was reported, health authorities in the West African nation said on Wednesday.

At least 35 cases have been recorded by local health officials, said Sakoba Keita, the doctor in charge of the prevention of epidemics in Guinea’s Health Ministry.

“Symptoms appear as diarrhea and vomiting, with a very high fever. Some cases showed relatively heavy bleeding,” Keita said.

“We thought it was Lassa fever or another form of cholera but this disease seems to strike like lightning. We are looking at all possibilities, including Ebola, because bushmeat is consumed in that region and Guinea is in the Ebola belt,” he said. No cases of the highly contagious Ebola fever have ever been recorded in the country. (March 19)

Well into summer I assumed this Ebola outbreak would be contained as others have been contained.  I neglected to notice that this  time the threat had emerged in a region much more densely populated than previous outbreak zones (and with much easier access to even more densely populated areas).  I overestimated the vigilance and capacity of the World Health Organization. I underestimated the power-amplifiers of human need and social interaction and fear… multiplied exponentially as the vector penetrates more deeply into the matrix.

This is how it happens.  Prior success encourages undue confidence.  And maybe you’re  a bit distracted. The threat morphs and emerges into — then out of — a different context.  So it may not initially be recognized. The critical contextual cues are unnoticed.  The threat is given time and space to strengthen.  This is especially likely to happen with places or people already neglected.

What worked last time is not quite calibrated with the new context.  Besides, for many of those engaging this threat, this is their first time.  Former lessons have not been learned, are being re-learned.  This threat in this place is in many respects unique — at least in the experience of those who confront it this time.

It is a threat that, if recognized early-on, might be quickly suppressed or contained. But instead it proliferates, filling the void opened by neglect. Thus amplified the threat is much more likely to find and exploit vulnerabilities; even those that until the threat’s  emergence were seen as strengths. Which is typically how tragedy unfolds, when what had been strong makes us weak.

August 14, 2014

Resisting soccer-moms, embracing black swans, and expecting the unexpected

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on August 14, 2014

Last week a regular reader and thoughtful commentator observed:

Black Swans are better ignored until their arrival – cynically, it reduces expectations for preparedness, responsibility and accountability if you do not acknowledge the possible threat.

Given the context of this individual’s commentary over the years I do not take this as cynical. At least in the modern use of cynic: “a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.”

Rather, I hear irony: “the mildly sarcastic use of words to imply the opposite of what they normally mean.” I hear an encouragement to greater preparedness, responsibility and accountability.

If I have misheard, s/he — probably he — will correct me.

By definition Black Swans cannot be accurately predicted.  As a result they are not well-suited to tactical planning.  At least not if plan-execution is your goal. But assiduously working through strategic scenarios with tactical details can be helpful to expose preparedness issues. This is especially the case if tactical planning is consistently framed and facilitated to achieve strategic purposes.

Too often organizations are tempted to treat planning documents as operational algorithms, something that — with enough resources and training  — will unfold per specifications and achieve each outcome.

In disaster preparedness, involving black or white swans, this is self-deluding.

Lee Clarke has famously and persuasively called such plans: “Fantasy Documents.” He writes, “When uncertainty about key aspects of a task is high, rationalistic plans and rational-looking planning processes become rationality badges, labels proclaiming that organizations and experts can control things that are, most likely, outside the range of their expertise.”

This is hubris: “an excess of ambition, pride, etc, ultimately causing the transgressor’s ruin.”

Bill, Claire, others: Are there longitudinal studies of the personality types attracted to Emergency Management?  Especially planning folks?  I am familiar with a study of the Clark County (Las Vegas, NV) Fire Department that I tend to project on the homeland security professions.  It found more than three-quarters of CCFD personnel testing with a strong SJ temperament on a Myers-Briggs type instrument.

Those with SJ temperaments are often called “Guardians” or “Protectors”.  According to Dr. David Keirsey: “Practical and down-to-earth, Guardians believe in following the rules and cooperating with others. They are not very comfortable winging it or blazing new trails; working steadily within the system is the Guardian way, for in the long run loyalty, discipline, and teamwork get the job done right. Guardians are meticulous about schedules and have a sharp eye for proper procedures. They are cautious about change, even though they know that change can be healthy for an institution. Better to go slowly, they say, and look before you leap.”

This personality type is especially well-suited for many aspects of public safety and disaster response.  But Black Swans are seldom tamed by following the rules and working steadily within the system.

Unless — I suggest — the rules and system are developed to anticipate Black Swans, to expect the unexpected and to develop the cognitive and organizational capabilities to critically and creatively engage the unexpected.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb drew on David Hume to popularize our current notion of Black Swans.  In his 2012 book Antifragile Taleb tells us:

The biologist and intellectual E. O. Wilson was once asked what represented the most hindrance to the development of children; his answer was the soccer mom… Soccer moms try to eliminate the trial and error, the antifragility, from children’s lives, move them away from the ecological and transform them into nerds working on preexisting (soccer-mom-compatible) maps of reality. Good students, but nerds–that is, they are like computers except slower. Further, they are now totally untrained to handle ambiguity. As a child of civil war, I disbelieve in structured learning… Provided we have the right type of rigor, we need randomness, mess, adventures, uncertainty, self-discovery, near-traumatic episodes, all those things that make life worth living, compared to the structured, fake, and ineffective life of an empty-suit CEO with a preset schedule and an alarm clock.

Rigorous random near-traumatic episodes sound like the sort of “content” that many of the personality types drawn to public safety and emergency management would welcome.  This is the kind of learning that encourages us to expect the unexpected and develop the skills to engage the unexpected.

When was the last time you participated in a table-top or exercise that you would describe as rigorous random near-traumatic?  Have you ever participated in a planning process that could be described with these terms?  Too many planners and trainers and, increasingly, managers (self-styled leaders) are really just soccer-moms in disguise.

April 3, 2014

“Simply a manifestation of the criticality of the system” and the implications if true

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on April 3, 2014

OSO_Photo by Marcus Yam_The Seattle TimesPhoto by Marcus Yam, The Seattle Times

John Schwartz and the New York Times gave us an unusually thoughtful piece of journalism last Saturday: No Easy Way To Restrict Construction In Risky Areas.  Several cases are examined: Oso Landslide, Sandy, Katrina and more.

This is largely an issue of the transfer, avoidance, reduction, or acceptance of risk.  Very closely related are attitudes toward contingency.

The Oso landslide is a specific case where “complexity originates from the tendency of large dynamical systems to organize themselves into a critical state, with avalanches or punctuations of all sizes.” Other dynamical systems include seismic networks, volcanoes, ocean currents and I would include the electrical grid and significant concentrations (populations) of almost anything.

In a seminal 1995 paper Per Bak and Maya Paczuski outline two very different explanations of the same “punctuation” event:

A Historian Describes a Sandslide.

On December 16, 1994, a grain of sand landed at the site with coordinates [14, 17] on the pile. Adding to the grains of sand already accumulated at this site, this addition caused a toppling of that site, spilling over to the neighboring sites. Unfortunately, one of these sites [14, 18] happened to be near an instability so that the toppling caused this site to topple also. This toppling destabilized sites [14, 19] and [15, 18] and eventually led to the collapse of a large part of the pile. “Clearly, the event was contingent on several factors. First, had the initial grain of sand fallen elsewhere, nothing dramatic would have happened. Also, if the configuration at position [14, 19] had been slightly different, the sandslide would have stopped sooner, without devastating consequences. While we can give an accurate and complete account of what actually happened, we are at a loss to explain how these many accidental features could possibly have conspired to produce an event of such magnitude. The event was contingent upon many separate, freak occurrences and could clearly have been prevented. Furthermore, we are baffled by the fact that even though sand had been added to the system for a longtime, only minor events had occurred before the devastating collapse, and we had every right to expect the system to be stable. Clearly, the event was a freak one caused by very unusual and unfortunate circumstances in an otherwise stable system that appeared to be in balance. Precautions should and could be taken to prevent such events in the future.

A Physicist Describes a Sandslide

During a long transient period, the pile evolved to a critical state with avalanches of all sizes. We were able to make a rough identification of the toppling rule and to construct a computer model of the phenomenon. Actually, the particular rule that we use is not very important. In any case, we do not have sufficient information about the details of the system to be able to make long-term predictions. “Nevertheless, our model exhibits some general features of the sandpile. We monitored how many avalanches of each size occurred, after the addition of a single grain to the pile. We made a histogram (Fig. 2), and found that the distribution of events where a total of s sites topple obeys a power law, P(s)- s-T. Thus, if one waits long enough, one is bound to see events that are as large as one has the patience to wait for. We ran our simulations (the tape of evolution) several times. Eliminating the particular grain of sand that caused a particular avalanche only made the system produce large avalanches somewhere else at different times. Changing the rules slightly — for instance, by planting snow screens here and there — does not have any effect on the general pattern.

Avalanches are an unavoidable and intrinsic part of the sandpile dynamics. “Actually, I’m not interested in the specific details of the event which Prof. Historian is so excited about and gives such a vivid account of. What the professor sees as a string of freak events appearing accidentally and mysteriously by an apparent act of God and leading to a catastrophe is simply a manifestation of the criticality of the system. History has prepared the sandpile in a state that is far from equilibrium, and the matrix through which the avalanche propagates is predisposed to accommodate events of large sizes. The complex dynamics which is observed in the ‘historical science,’ where the outcome appears contingent on many different, specific events, represents the dynamics of self-organized critical systems.

Historical narrative is inclined toward an understanding of reality where human intention, rationality and will can assert control.  Bak and Paczuski point toward the possibility of domains beyond our power, though certainly deserving our attention and respect.

March 27, 2014

Dignity in Disaster

Filed under: Catastrophes,Disaster,Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Technology for HLS — by Philip J. Palin on March 27, 2014

Shigeru Ban has been awarded the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize.

The Japanese architect’s practice is comprehensive, but he has given particular attention to innovative design, materials, and construction techniques for post-disaster settings.

He was one of the first to use — and creatively adapt — cargo containers for use as human shelter. (See here application in Northeast Japan following 3/11.)

No one else has so beautifully and effectively deployed cardboard.  Originally conceived as a quick and inexpensive means of providing temporary post-disaster housing in Rwanda, Kobe, Haiti and elsewhere, the material is now recognized as a sustainable, resilient, and flexible resource for an extraordinary range of form and function.

Cardboard Cabin_shigeru

Cardboard Cabins (Kobe, Japan) photo found here.

Below is the “Cardboard Cathedral” replacing the much-mourned earthquake pummeled Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand.   It has been found that with regular maintenance — mostly painting — these temporary structures can be long-living.

In response and recovery we often begin at the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: water, food, and basic shelter.  Too often we are inclined to ignore the higher reaches of beauty, inspiration, and hope.  Shigeru Ban’s architecture demonstrates attending to biological fundamentals need not exclude engaging the psychological and spiritual.

Cardbaord Cathedral_Stephen Goodenough Photo

Cardboard Cathedral (Christchurch, New Zealand) photo by Stephen Goodenough

March 26, 2014

Disasters cost money in rich countries and kills people in poor ones

Filed under: Catastrophes,General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on March 26, 2014

Nate Silver, former baseball stat analyst turned political blogger at the New York Times (whose  rise to fame was cemented by very accurately forecasting the results of the last two presidential elections),  has developed a new data-heavy site “FiveThirtyEight.com

Among the articles posted after their recent roll out was by Roger Pielke, Jr. on “Disasters Cost More Than Ever – But Not Because of Climate Change.”

As you might imagine this has stirred a bit of an uproar regarding the connection between climate change and natural disasters.  I’m not looking to get into that fight with this post.  Instead, I find myself dumbstruck at something Mr. Pielke points out that seems both obvious and new to me:

There’s a human toll, too, and the data show an inverse relationship between lives lost and property damage: Modern disasters bring the greatest loss of life in places with the lowest property damage, and the most property damage where there’s the lowest loss of life. Consider that since 1940 in the United States 3,322 people have died in 118 hurricanes that made landfall. Last year in a poor region of the Philippines, a single storm, Typhoon Hayain, killed twice as many people.

It seems obvious. But I have to admit I’ve never made this connection before, nor have seen the hard numbers:

We can start to estimate how countries may weather crises differently thanks to a 2005 analysis of historical data on global disasters. That study estimated that a nation with a $2,000 per capita average GDP — about that of Honduras – should expect more than five times the number of disaster deaths as a country like Russia, with a $14,000 per capita average GDP.2(For comparison, the U.S. has a per capita GDP of about $52,000.)

One possible good news conclusion to draw:

When you next hear someone tell you that worthy and useful efforts to mitigate climate change will lead to fewer natural disasters, remember these numbers and instead focus on what we can control. There is some good news to be found in the ever-mounting toll of disaster losses. As countries become richer, they are better able to deal with disasters — meaning more people are protected and fewer lose their lives. Increased property losses, it turns out, are a price worth paying.

March 20, 2014

A Catastrophic Failure

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Resilience,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on March 20, 2014

Last Friday I finished about four years of work.  I won’t identify the specific work, but it is homeland security-related.

Mostly I failed.

Yes, progress was made:

  • We have a much better understanding of the problem; among other things we recognize a problem that previously was not widely recognized.
  • We have identified most of the key players who are needed to effectively engage the problem.
  • We have established some meaningful relationships among several of the key players.

But the actual problem is as threatening and complicated as it was four years ago.  Maybe more threatening.

After four years of serious, ongoing, and mostly well-received work, I failed to practically advance our security.

I advocate for a distinction between national security and homeland security. But as a wannabe classicist, I embrace “security” derived from the Latin se-curus, se: free from, cura: care.  If anything, today we are less-carefree than four years ago.

Greater knowledge has, if anything, increased our concern:

  • We now recognize there are substantive differences between catastrophic and non-catastrophic.  Enhanced effectiveness dealing with the non-catastrophic has in some cases increased our catastrophic risk.
  • We now recognize the larger an impact area the more likely a catastrophe, even if the “first impact” is less than catastrophic.
  • We now recognize the more interdependencies (power, transport, fuel, supplies, etc.) the more likely a catastrophe
  • We now recognize that self-made vulnerabilities are at least as important — often more important — than external threats.

These aspects of the strategic landscape may seem obvious to you, but four years ago they were anything but.  Even today these findings are taken by some as fightin’ words.

While we now have a much better view of reality, we have not substantively reduced vulnerabilities. An analogy: The thick flat jungle of Mexico’s Yucatan is periodically punctuated by a rise.  Most of these exclamation marks are the overgrown ruins of ancient Mayan structures.  As the vines and trees are cleared from the stonework the threat of erosion — and trampling by tourists — actually increase the likelihood of collapse.

In clearing our problem’s landscape we have also experienced the cultural differences that complicate potential collaboration between the private and public sectors.

In this particular problem-set the private sector tended to recognize the risk earlier than the public sector.   So unlike some homeland security problems, the private and public sectors are in rough strategic alignment.

But to actually do anything together to mitigate risk has been problematic.  A forensic analysis of the multiple problems is not appropriate for a blog.  But at the highest level I think it is fair to say there has been a persistent disconnect between private and public regarding the fundamentals of time and space.

The dimensions of space important to the private sector are usually determined by markets that extend for hundreds, even thousands of miles in every direction.  One private sector participant said, “For our daily operations states are legal fictions.”  Yet on very bad days those fictional creatures become very real… with both good and bad consequences.

Dimensions of time can be even more complicated.  Everyone is busy. Everyone is mostly focused on meeting the calendar for some specific deliverable or set of deliverables.   Private sector success or failure is measured at least once a day and the measures arrive from multiple  players (dozens to tens-of-thousands) across diverse markets.  The public sector calendar tends to be more extended even while the measures-that-matter emerge from a much smaller set of observers/consumers/commanders.

As the private sector experience of time encounters the public sector experience of time reality can be contorted in weird ways.

Over the last four years I failed to practically accommodate these differences of space and time. I am sure private and public share the same reality.  I am sure they depend on one another.   But as I finish this work they remain trapped at different points on a very Newtonian plane.


A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Albert Einstein, Letter to Robert S. Marcus, February 12, 1950

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