Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

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

March 19, 2014

California earthquakes or why Jimmy Kimmel is horrible for homeland security

Filed under: Catastrophes,General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on March 19, 2014

I’ll admit up front – I’ve never lived in California and have no direct experience with earthquakes anywhere in that state or the West coast in general.

However, recent news out of Los Angeles following a weak-ish quake has me wondering.  Could LA be really this unprepared for a large earthquake?

As detailed in October by Times reporters Ron Lin, Rosanna Xia and Doug Smith, San Francisco was rightfully alarmed into doing something after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, which killed 63 people and injured nearly 4,000. The city established the Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety.

Los Angeles was equally alarmed by the 1994 Northridge quake, which killed 57 people, injured 5,000 and caused $20 billion worth of damage. But instead of drafting a plan to be better prepared the next time, city officials went into a deep sleep.

So now San Francisco is in the third year of a 30-year action plan outlining every aspect of preparedness, beginning with structural design standards, the retrofitting of wood-frame buildings and an examination of every private school structure in the city.

And Los Angeles?

We’re starting from scratch after being shamed into doing something by The Times’ earthquake series.

I can understand the incentive to kick the can down the road, however it seems like San Francisco has embraced this challenge:

Nobody loved the idea of shelling out money, San Francisco officials told me. But the mayor called a roundup of building owners and the bankers who finance their businesses and encouraged them to choose safety over risk, protecting lives and their own financial self-interest at the same time.

The point being for LA:

Nancy King, geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said: “We live in earthquake country and we can expect earthquakes frequently and the big one, one day. We don’t know when that one’s coming.”

King said she hopes Monday’s earthquake can be used as a teachable event for residents to be better prepared for earthquakes.

“We need to get ready and I think the good news about earthquakes is you can get ready,” she said, adding that residents can do things such as bolting down heavy furniture and securing bookcases that could help dramatically during a strong event.

And the award for biggest schmuck on late night/asking for people to be injured or killed in the next big earthquake, Jimmy Kimmel:

By the way, “diving under your desk” is the right thing to do according to experts.

March 17, 2014

Boston Globe: checking in on Boston’s evacuation routes on “Evacuation Day”

Filed under: Catastrophes,General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on March 17, 2014

Little known outside of the Boston-area, today is not only St. Patrick’s Day but “Evacuation Day,” marking the retreat of English forces out of Boston during the Revolutionary War:

So what is Evacuation Day? On March 17, 1776, George Washington had fortifications and cannons placed on Dorchester Heights. The British troops occupying Boston at the time realized they were outgunned.

History.com tells us what happened next:

Realizing their position was now indefensible, 11,000 British troops and some 1,000 Loyalists departed Boston by ship on March 17, sailing to the safety of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The bloodless liberation of Boston by the Patriots brought an end to a hated eight-year British occupation of the city.

It also serves as an extraordinarily convenient holiday for Boston city employees (about the only place in Massachusetts, or the country for that matter, that marks the holiday) and Irish bar owners and workers as it falls on St. Patrick’s Day.

However, this year the Boston Globe’s Steve Safran brings up the important issue of evacuation in present day Boston:

Have you ever noticed the “Evacuation Route” signs around Boston? Ever wonder where they lead?

It’s Evacuation Day in Boston, and it’s a good thing the Redcoats didn’t follow our “Evacuation Route” signs, or they might still be here.

In a short article he brings up several important points relevant to cities across the country:

It’s hard enough finding Fenway Park by following street signs. Evacuating the city during an emergency would make our already clogged routes out of town that much more chaotic. The first thing you notice on the city’s official map of evacuation routes is that they all pretty much point the way you’d normally go if you were hightailing it out of town.

And he’s understandably a little pessimistic:

Boston area residents have to be at little skeptical about the plan. We’ve seen snowstorms tie up all the routes out of town for hours. Even regular rush hour traffic comes to regular standstills. It may be that you’d be better off trying to leave not by land, but by sea.

If you can’t escape by sea, perhaps sheltering-in-place is the best option?

March 12, 2014

The non-Fukushima anniversary

Filed under: Catastrophes,General Homeland Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on March 12, 2014

I hesitated to post on the anniversary of the horrific Japanese tsunami.  I don’t have anything reasonably intelligent to say about the recovery efforts. And I think Phil summarized related issues quite succinctly in a comment to his post yesterday:

At least 18,000 died, 267,000 remain displaced. Progress in recovery has been made. Enough?

While I hope some portion of grief is reserved for those who suffered and still suffer, my greater concern probably relates to survivors much farther afield.

Tohoku is not Tokyo. Some day the tsunami will roll up Tokyo Bay. Some day the earthquake will shake L.A. Yet we have not, I think, given enough thought to what we might have learned — still might learn — from 3/11.

The only thing I would like to add is my general disappointment with the focus on Fukushima (in the American press almost always referring to the nuclear plant aspect of the disaster and not the larger prefecture). The New York Times fell prey to this inclination in their editorial “Fukushima’s Continuing Tragedy:”

Tuesday was the third anniversary of the triple disaster that struck the eastern Japanese prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima: the earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear power plant meltdowns in Fukushima. The catastrophe killed 15,884, with 2,636 still missing. The government’s reconstruction efforts have been insufficient and painfully slow.

There are still 270,000 refugees, of whom 100,000 live in makeshift housing. Since the disaster, more than 3,000 refugees have died from medical problems and suicide. In Fukushima prefecture, more people have died of disaster-related causes after the disaster (more than 1,650) than were killed in the disaster (1,607).

What the editorial doesn’t mention is that none of the the dead in the Fukushima prefecture are a result of the radiation released from the nuclear plant.  Obviously, some if not many of the those that have perished in related causes after the disaster could be evacuees from irradiated areas – though at this point none would be due to radiation exposure.

Andrew Sullivan of “The Dish” falls into the same trap, as he quotes another blogger:

Then there’s the psychological impact. A Brigham Young University study released last week found that a year after disaster, more than half of the citizens of Hirono, a heavily affected town near the plant, showed “clinically concerning” symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Two-thirds showed symptoms of depression.

I do not certainly mean to diminish the trauma experienced by those who had to evacuate the area around the damaged nuclear plant.

I only wish to bring attention to all those who died, were hurt, suffered great loss, and can’t return to their homes damaged by the earthquake and/or tsunami.

As a nation we have an unhealthy preoccupation with radiation.  While I wish more would have been done in terms of regulating domestic nuclear power plant spent fuel storage and emergency planning guidelines following the Japanese disaster, the preparations for a true mega-disaster on the scale of the Japanese experience are even more lacking.

March 11, 2014

Remembering March 11, 2011

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on March 11, 2014

Silence

A Kanji for Silence

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.

January 16, 2014

Engaging Uncertainty

Filed under: Catastrophes,Disaster,Infrastructure Protection,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on January 16, 2014

Water-Order     Gov. Tomblin (right) and Jeff McIntyre, West Virginia American Water

Late on January 9 not much was known about the chemical leak into the Elk River. No one seemed to know how much of the chemical had poured into the river or been sucked into the water system. No one could be sure what sort of health-risks might arise from skin contact or ingesting water tainted with the obscure chemical. There was uncertainty about when the contamination had begun and how long it might take to remove the contamination. When 300,000 people might again be able to consume their tap water was beyond reasonable prediction.

Our species survived — and eventually thrived — largely based on our weird ability to imagine the future and recognize steps to achieve (or avoid) what we imagine. When this imagination is anchored in experience or knowledge (indirect-experience) it is a source of confidence, even solace. When the anchor is ripped up and our fragile craft is swept into a cyclone of uncertainty… well, different folks respond in different ways. But there is a tendency for fear to proliferate, which can unwind in atypical behaviors and amplify uncertainty.

In the first two days of the West Virginia water crisis there were many indicators of imagination untethered. Rumors spread. Conspiracies were alleged. Even worse to come was envisioned. But mostly fears were contained, rumors corrected, and a covenant of social trust and mutual concern was, if anything, strengthened.

A 500 word blog — okay, I’m not always so concise — is not the right place to undertake a full analysis of what happened and did not happen in terms of community resilience. But I advocate this being done.

My hypothesis is that what happened mostly involved the expression of preexisting social networks and relationships.

But I also want to credit — and ask others to more rigorously explore — the role of leadership that was courageous enough to embrace uncertainty.

I was in eastern West Virginia (outside the impact area) from Sunday through Tuesday, close enough to get a bit more of the local media angle. I was impressed by the calm, realistic, and consistently understated approach of the Governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, and the President of West Virginia American Water, Jeff McIntyre.

I never heard them claim to be in control. I did hear them state clearly the sources of uncertainty. They outlined in writing and in their remarks what was being done to engage the uncertainty. They did not try to distract citizens from the uncertainty with accusatory vents. They did focus on what citizens could do for themselves and their neighbors. They recognized progress. They did not over-promise.

Here is one of the first statements made by the Governor (bold highlights by me).

We urge all residents in the affected areas to follow West Virginia American Water Company’s “do not use” order until it is lifted. This includes water companies supplied by West Virginia American Water in this area. If you live in one of these areas, do not use tap water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, washing, or bathing. At this time, I do not know how long this will last.

Don’t neglect the use of that personal pronoun.  Next he said:

We ask that all West Virginian’s check on their friends, families, and neighbors—especially those with small children and seniors living in their households—to make sure they have enough water, food, and supplies. If you—or anyone you know–experiences symptoms including: nausea, vomiting, dizziness, irritation of the eyes and skin, seek care immediately.

Here’s what a citizen can do, even should do.  The most important action that can be taken is to practically and personally renew the human relationships on which we all depend.  Begin some new relationships if you can.  Then, here’s what  your government is doing on your behalf (he said more, this is one of four paragraphs):

I’ve mobilized and deployed all appropriate government assets and resources, including our Office of Emergency Management, our experts at DEP, DHHR Bureau of Public Health along with our National Guard—who are out doing health and wellness checks across the area along with collecting, testing and monitoring the water. The federal government is also providing assistance. The President has approved my request to issue a federal emergency declaration to provide FEMA resources. County emergency offices are also working 24-7.

Your basic human needs can and will be addressed:

If you are low on bottled water, do not panic. Help is on the way. We are taking every measure to provide water to you. There is no shortage of bottled water. Supplies are moving into the area as we speak. We encourage all West Virginians in affected areas to contact their local emergency management office for water distribution sites.

Please be active in helping yourself and others:

If you or your organization would like to donate supplies, please contact your local emergency center. If you are in the Kanawha Valley Area, we are organizing a call to action drive for needed items—including water, sanitizer, wipes, liquid baby formula, paper plates, plastic utensils, and microwavable meals. The drive will take place on the Boulevard in front of the State Capitol from 2:30 – 6:30 today. It is important to emphasize, water and supplies are available—there is not a persistent shortage of bottled water.

We are grateful for the offers of support from private firms and charities—and our fellow West Virginians—to aid in providing relief.

This is the second time I have listened-in to Governor Tomblin deal with a basically no-notice and hard-hitting disaster.  The first time was the late-June 2012 Derecho.  In that multi-state event I was able to compare and contrast his approach to that of other governors, mayors, and such.   When others were attacking, blaming, and threatening, Governor Tomlin was thanking and encouraging and informing.

I think there are some lessons to be learned.

November 24, 2013

Update on Visayas Event

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on November 24, 2013

PHL_snapshot_OCHA

Click on the map to open a larger version

As of Saturday evening Philippine time:

Confirmed fatalities: Over 5000

Displaced persons: 4.29 million

Needing emergency food: 2.5 million

A combination of extraordinary international relief and restored domestic supply chains are delivering basic needs — water, food, pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, and such — to a wide area of the Central Philippines impacted by the November 8 typhoon.  It seems to me that it took roughly eight or nine days to establish sufficient capacity and capability across an area roughly the size of Louisiana.

These crucial elements of near-term recovery have been accomplished while most of the area still does not have electricity.  This is, I suggest, another in those important distinctions between a disaster and a catastrophe.  In a disaster the priority is usually restoration of power after which most other problems can be solved.  In a catastrophe or near-catastrophe the priority is often to deliver basic needs without the grid being operational… with all the complications that involves.

The Visayas are shifting to longer-term issues of recovery.  For example, fishermen who lost their boats to the typhoon are improvising as they can, but at least 1300 fishing craft were destroyed.  Mid-December is the season for rice-planting.  Seed-stocks were lost and need to be replenished and distributed quickly.  A geo-thermal plant — Asia’s largest — in western Leyte was thrown offline by the typhoon.  Cooling towers and controls will require repairs before it can restart.  The plant supplies roughly one-third of the electricity consumed in the Vasayas region.

November 21, 2013

Complex versus complicated

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Recovery,Resilience — by Philip J. Palin on November 21, 2013

Sunday I was doing what I could — not much — to deploy barges, boats, anything that could float a truck to the San Bernadino strait between Luzon and Samar in Eastern Philippines.

About the same time several tornadoes were tearing through the area of downstate Illinois  where I grew up.  In Pekin and Washington over 500 homes were destroyed, over 100 were hospitalized, one died.  There was more death and destruction across the Midwest.

In each case — Central Illinois and Central Philippines — the precipitating cause was a cyclonic event with winds exceeding 190 miles per hour. In each case similar critiques have emerged related to risk-awareness, mitigation, warning, and preparedness.

Otherwise the differences are significant.

While there were over 70 confirmed tornadoes across the Midwest on Sunday, tornadoes are episodic. Tropical cyclones are epic.  Survivors in the tri-county region of Illinois talk about two-minutes of hell.  Survivors in the Visayas region of the Philippines experienced hours of assault by rain, wind, and surge. It is now estimated that up to 4 million have been displaced by the typhoon. Over 518,000 houses have been destroyed.  The dead are still being found.

Terrestrial cyclones don’t come with storm surge.  Water kills much more effectively than wind. Only earthquakes are more deadly… especially if they splash up a tsunami.

The scale — specific power at impact — of the EF-4 tornado that hit Washington is comparable to the CAT-5 typhoon that passed south of Tacloban.   In terms of their scope… well, look for yourself.

Haiyan to Washington

But it is a mistake to only see the differences as a matter of scope or scale.  In terms of consequences these events are expressions of entirely different categories.  The Visayas Event was/is complex and very much continuing to unwind.  The Washington Event was complicated and, except for those directly affected, is now mostly finished.

Disasters are contained in recognizable time-and-space, temporarily disrupting patterns that mostly rebound.  Catastrophes are complex cascades marking a fundamental shift in experience and direction.

There is a temptation to focus on size, as if one is a ping-pong ball and the other is a basketball.  Instead, it seems to me, we need to recognize that one is any size ball and the other is a positron: two very different types of reality, requiring two very different strategies of engagement.

For example:

In Illinois it is entirely reasonable to form a security perimeter around the impact site, to focus on evacuating survivors, and to defer mostly to private sector decisions related to recovery.

In the Visayas these same choices are possible, but where in Illinois the velocity and outcome of these choices are reasonably predictable and positive, in the Visayas such choices are likely to make things even worse (especially the next time).   In any case, in the Visayas (the positron) we are dealing with probability not predictability.

Given the catastrophic context in the Philippines instead of perimeters, focus on permeability (e.g. clear debris, repair bridges, expedite convoys).  Instead of evacuation, focus on quick restoration of lifelines (especially water and food, even electricity is secondary).  Private choices will be important in both places, but there are threats and vulnerabilities in Tacloban and elsewhere that would benefit from a much more active role by both government and civil society.

Catastrophes are not just big and complicated, they are an entirely different category of reality.

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