Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 14, 2013

Looting or adapting?

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on November 14, 2013

Rice_AP_Aaron Favila

Here is the scene at the looting of a warehouse near Tacloban.  Those are bags of rice being carried away.  (Associated Press photograph by Aaron Favila.)

Major media have been quick to suggest a rapid descent into anarchy.  A report in today’s (November 14) Los Angeles Times begins, “As concerns grew about rampant looting and lawlessness, Philippine security forces sent reinforcements and imposed a nighttime curfew in Tacloban…”

USA Today suggests that security concerns have discouraged some relief efforts.  The most recent OCHA report includes, “Security concerns persist, including harassment and mobbing of people during relief transport and distribution.”

There have also been less prominent reports of something less starkly Hobbesian.  According to NBC News, “Some eight soldiers in the back of a military truck appeared to ignore residents clambering out of the rubble carrying canned food, bags of rice and bottles of water. And in a nearby checkpoint, soldiers waved through residents carrying bags of rice.”

I am not there.  I have only been to the Philippines once, years ago.  I understand that crime has been an increasing problem and there are pockets of armed insurgency.  I don’t pretend to be sure of the situation on the ground.

But I am certain there is a general expectation of panic and mass violence in the aftermath of  disaster.  It is a recurrent theme.  It is usually over-reported.  After-action analysis almost always finds an actual decline in violent crime following a major disaster.  While we look for the bad we often fail to notice the good.

A few years ago Rebecca Solnit examined the aftermath of several catastrophic events and wrote the book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise is Disasters.  She mostly found evidence of altruism, resourcefulness, and courage.

In the picture at the top, what do you see?  Opportunism? Chaos? Greed? Collaboration?  Civil collapse?  Personal initiative?  Crime? Adaptation?

November 11, 2013

Yolanda hits hard (again)

Filed under: Catastrophes,International HLS — by Philip J. Palin on November 11, 2013

Yolanda track

Haiyan — called Yolanda in the Philippines — may have been the strongest tropical cyclone ever to make landfall.

We are now passing the 72 hour inflection point since the initial event.  The President of the Philippines Red Cross has described the situation in the hardest-hit central islands as “absolute bedlam”.

I know several readers are already engaged in helping or preparing to help the survivors.  Godspeed.

For the rest of us there are some potential implications for domestic preparedness and response in the United States:

Water, food, pharmaceuticals, and medical goods are all in short supply. The contamination of local water sources is creating an especially significant health risk.

A US State Department official has told me, “The most crucial need is local logistics. We can get what’s needed into the area. But we’re not able to effectively redistribute from the depots.”

The World Food Program told a CNN reporter, “The main challenges right now are related to logistics. Roads are blocked, airports are destroyed.”  Damaged — or entirely destroyed — port facilities mean freighters with resources can get close but are very slow to disperse cargo.

A national legislator from one hard-hit provincial capital told a Manila television station that fuel shortages are now further complicating the ongoing response and recovery.

Red Cross supplies that were being pre-positioned last week have not been able to secure passage from one island to another.

Power is not expected to be restored to many areas for months. Telecommunications networks are down.

A rather weird coincidence: In late October I participated in a regional exercise that included a CAT-5 Hurricane Yolanda hitting the metro Miami area with catastrophic consequences, reforming in the Gulf and then slamming into the Texas-Louisiana coast taking out several refineries.  Just the secondary and tertiary effects on mid-Atlantic supply chains were similar to what we are seeing now in the Philippines.

For most critical commodities there is significant strategic capacity and resilience in most (not all) supply chains.  As noted above, options exist to ensure sourcing sufficient for survivors.  Connecting this capacity to local tactical capability — especially fuel, trucking, and street-level distribution — becomes a very complex problem-to-be-solved.

In my judgment, our understanding of how to even begin to engage this problem in a catastrophic context is just barely beginning to emerge.

The Philippines rough equivalent to FEMA is providing REGULAR UPDATES HERE.

Yolanda population

Map showing proximity and density of population to hurricane path.  More detailed look available at ReliefWeb.


November 9, 2013

Wednesday + Thursday = Saturday

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 9, 2013

Did anyone else notice the potential continuity between Chris Bellavita’s Wednesday post and my Thursday post?

It was entirely coincidental.

But — at least for me — my critique of catastrophe “plans” is creatively answered by Patrick Lagadec’s Navigating the Unknown (linked to by Chris)The strategic stance and organizational capacity advocated by Lagadec is a big part of what I perceive is most helpful in preparing for a catastrophe.

If you haven’t already, download and read and think about and talk about Lagadec’s free booklet. Writing about your impressions/reactions here might be an effective way to advance some shared thinking.

A couple of dozen readers, some I know well and some I have never met, have sent me private emails regarding my Thursday critique. Many seem to be in various states of distress.

I will not have the opportunity this weekend to respond personally to each of you.  In an attempt to be generically responsive: I am not trying to eliminate the planning profession in emergency management.   In specific regard to catastrophe planning, I hope you will read Lagadec, review your current plans and assess to what extent your current plans advance what Lagadec is advocating.

If not, why not?

November 7, 2013

Preparedness is different than planning

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 7, 2013

A rather small piece in the online version of The Atlantic flooded my in-box last week on the first anniversary of Sandy flooding coastal New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

David Wachsmuth describes how existing response and recovery plans were ignored.  He writes:

… emergency managers from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania created a Regional Catastrophic Planning Team for precisely this kind of emergency. But when the storm hit, the RCPT’s plans stayed on the shelf, particularly in New York City. As one NYC emergency manager described it to me, “The federal government spent millions of dollars on [the regional plan] and…we did not do anything. All the planning and all the dollars that were spent on regional planning [and] not once did we open the book to say, ‘Let’s do it this way.’”

Wachsmuth then explains why the book was left unopened.  He also points to other “books” he believes worth reading.  I agree with many of the symptoms Wachsmuth describes.  I doubt we share the same diagnosis (see below).

I especially disagree with the conclusion suggested by the title of his piece (How Local Governments Hinder Our Response to Natural Disasters).  I am too much a disciple of Elinor Ostrom to reduce such manifold problems to jurisdictional diversity.

Full disclosure:  For most of the last four years I have been involved in regional preparedness for catastrophe in the mid-Atlantic, funded by the same FEMA grant as the unopened book in metro New York.  As such I have met with, admired, even envied the NY-NJ-CT and one-county in PA RCPT.   In every interaction I have been impressed by the expertise and commitment of these planners.   The actual plans were (are) thoughtful and extremely detailed.  There was considerable effort to socialize — even evangelize — the planning process and ultimate plans.

I disagree with the strategic predispositions of some of their plans. But by exposing their assumptions planners make possible intelligent discussion, exploration, and evolution.  The RCPT planners have always been open to comments, critique, and improvement.  They have been consummate professionals.

But in my judgement we cannot plan for catastrophe.


plan  noun

1. a scheme or method of acting, doing, proceeding, making, etc., developed in advance:battle plans.
2. a design or scheme of arrangement: an elaborate plan for seating guests.
3. a specific project or definite purpose: plans for the future.


Wachsmuth writes that RCPT plans  were “quickly sidelined by the Mayor’s Office.”  This alone suggests that Sandy — as bad as she was — was not the cause of a local, much less, regional catastrophe.  The Mayor’s office still had sufficient command-and-control to assert authority.  One persuasive definition of catastrophe is the total collapse of local command-and-control capabilities. (I think this definition originated with a regular reader and I hope she might comment further.)

Plans typically — though not necessarily — depend on systematic implementation by an authority.  Most emergency-or-disaster-or-catastrophe plans authorize atypical exercise of command-and-control, going well beyond the ordinary.

Yet any thing qualifying as a potential catastrophe has, ipso facto, at least confused if not destroyed most sources of authority and means of coordination.  Catastrophes are not just complicated they are innately complex, easily becoming chaotic.  Indeed some argue that efforts to contain catastrophric complexity accelerate the emergence of chaos.

Please notice that in the prior full-disclosure paragraph my role is identified as being involved in regional preparedness for catastrophe.


prepare  verb

1. to make ready or suitable in advance for a particular purpose or for some use, event, etc: to prepare a meal ; to prepare to go
2. to put together using parts or ingredients; compose or construct
3. ( tr ) to equip or outfit, as for an expedition


Beware of nouns.  Embrace verbs.

There is, of course, a verb form of plan, but even this action is usually focused on developing a noun (the plan).  Preparedness is an awkward noun.  Much better to stay with verbs: prepare, train/educate, exercise, assess, analyze, plan,  implement, prepare, train/educate, exercise, assess, analyze, plan, implement, and again… and again.

Plan as a verb helps. Not as a noun.

You knew it was coming:  To plan was originally to plane.  Ancient armies would plane battlefields to create space to operate chariots or otherwise shape for strategic advantage.  To prepare is derived from the root meaning to parry another sword or spar with another boxer or separate from a source of vulnerability. (The prefix pre- signaling to be ready to do so by what is done in advance.)

I am not opposed to planning.  But to be ready for the truly catastrophic is less about choosing and shaping context to suit your preferences and much more about being ready — psychologically and operationally — to effectively engage the range of surprises a catastrophe will create.

October 31, 2013

Prosaic sight and poetic insight

Filed under: Catastrophes,Futures,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 31, 2013


Once Again by Amy Medina

Tuesday an exhibition of photographs related to last year’s assault by the one-time Hurricane Sandy opened at the Museum of the City of New York. It will run through March 2, 2014. I saw a sort-of-preview at the International Center of Photography in September.

The photography critic, James Estrin, headlined his blog post on the exhibition, “A Prosaic View of Hurricane Sandy.” The title provokes several questions, including: Is it possible the results of Sandy point toward a future when similar events will become ordinary, everyday, vapid, humdrum, tedious, tiresome, uninteresting… prosaic?

Based on our behavior, this is how most of us perceive 150 murders a day in Syria (in the US three people are killed by gun per hour) or the continuing suffering in Haiti or the accelerating entropy of US infrastructure or… another choice from a long list of seemingly intractable crises.  Plenty of prose is available on each.  But persuasive insight?


Photojournalism by Matt Nighswander/NBC News

Many — maybe most — of the more than 200 images in the exhibit are amateur color digitals of Americans in the midst of circumstances we still consider far outside the ordinary: destroyed homes, flooded streets, surrounded by mountains of donated clothes, waiting in long lines for water or food or fuel. The images personalize vulnerability (or should I write threat or consequence or simply stick with risk?).

Because you read Homeland Security Watch, you would probably do what I did with most of these photographs: Connect each human face and its context to a policy, strategy, or tactic. Consequence of subsidized insurance. Consequence of delayed maintenance. Consequence of unsolicited donations. Consequence of coordination failure. Consequence of faulty problem analysis. And so it goes, cause and effect unfolding.

None of this is necessarily wrong. Observation and analysis are among the best bets in the human toolkit. Lessons-learned can be very important the next time.  But I suggest this is seeing — and thinking — in prose.


Image_DSC6477b.jpg by Alex Fradkin

Prose is where most of us should spend most of our time and energy.  There are ordinary, everyday, tedious problems and issues to engage.  A bit more time and energy on a disciplined process of risk analysis for fuel distribution in the New York metro area would have paid big dividends twelve months ago.

But there is also a profound need for more poetic seeing, thinking, and doing.

Prose can be good at breaking apart the complicated into its component parts.  Prose alone is usually insufficient for perceiving — in any meaningful way — the whole or envisioning entirely new possibilities.  Prose needs at least a touch of poetry to move from understanding to transforming.

The classical Greeks understood poiesis, from which our poetry is derived, as any kind of creating or making.  Trying to interpret the Greek sense of the term, Martin Heidegger blends making (machen), production (herstellen), and power (macht).  Does anyone anymore even aspire to this sort of poetics?

The problems and opportunities of homeland security need both prose and poetry.  But we are especially deficient in poetry.


Jetstar by Alex Fradkin

September 19, 2013

Homeland security: Policy in Context

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on September 19, 2013

Recently I came into near simultaneous possession of two books.  If not for the coincidence of each being in my bag at the same time, the contrast between them would probably not have been noticed.

They are superficially similar.  Each has “Disaster” in the title.  Each measures  5 1/2 x 8 1/2.  One has 193 pages, the other 244 (with an appendix).  Both are particularly intended to inform and influence public administration of disasters.

But substantively they are profoundly different and, it occurs to me, reflect deep differences in homeland security (and probably beyond).

One is written by an individual, the other by a committee.  One draws heavily on history, as far back as Gilgamesh.  The second is aggressively contemporary, including a few statistics from the mid-20th Century but is otherwise very much a product of the last decade.  One is global in scope, the other almost entirely focused on the United States.

Given their public administration purposes it is not surprising that both give significant attention to institutional frameworks.

One book offers four key approaches: 1) enhancing institutional flexibility, 2) building an appreciation of risk, 3) understanding disasters and crises as part of our reality, and 4) identifying means to continually invest in infrastructure.

The other book sets out six more detailed — narrow, actionable, prescriptive, presumptuous, [insert your preference here] — recommendations:

  1. Federal agencies should incorporate national resilience as an organizing principle to inform and guide the mission and actions of the federal government and the programs it supports at all levels.
  2. The public and private sectors in each community should work cooperatively to encourage commitment to and investment in a risk management strategy that includes complementary structural and nonstructural risk-reduction and risk-spreading measures or tools.
  3. A national resource of disaster-related data should be established that documents injuries, loss of life, property loss, and impacts on economic activity.
  4. The Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with other federal agencies, state and local partners, and professional groups, should develop a National Resilience Scorecard.
  5. Federal, state, and local governments should support the creation and maintenance of broad-based community resilience coalitions at the local and regional levels.
  6. All federal agencies should promote and coordinate national resilience in their programs and policies. A resilience policy review and self-assessment within agencies, and the establishment of a strong community among agencies, are keys to achieving this kind of coordination.

The contrasting proposals are good clues to the conceptual origins of each book.

It will not surprise any regular reader that I am more personally predisposed to the historically and globally framed text.  But even when I disagree, I admire the other effort to move from conceiving possibilities to actual action.

These two efforts could have been complementary.  One might have placed our contemporary challenges in context.  Serious engagement with deeper context would likely have produced action recommendations more likely to see action.  The tactical tendencies of the group-effort would have put more meat on the individual’s frame.

But my purpose is not to critique either book.  Each is informative and helpful on its own terms.

It is those terms of self-reference that, perhaps, concern me most.  One is mechanistic — at least Newtonian — in its expectations.  The other is philosophical.  (A colleague recently commented that a publication of mine was “very philosophical”.  He was not being complimentary.)

But whether we love wisdom or just lust after its consequence, we need — especially homeland security needs — to somehow better blend policy levers (mechanisms) with social insight (philosophy).  Yes, it is possible and often helpful to conceive of individuals and neighborhoods and diverse populations as mathematical objects.  But it can also be dangerously reductionist.

I am — perhaps fatally — biased toward the historical and philosophical because of the respect these disciplines have for human failure while (usually) avoiding cynicism regarding human potential.  So much of positivist policy development is either Pollyannish or despairing.  There is a middle way.

A former Speaker of the House once told me Washington DC is the last refuge of Medieval Nominalists; by which he meant it is a city preoccupied with finding precisely the right words to successfully legislate, regulate, adjudicate, and rule. Words matter.  But no set of words, alone, are ever sufficient. Relationships matter more. Working together toward a shared vision even more.

I commend both books to you:

Crisis, Disaster and Risk: Institutional Response and Emergence by Kyle Fambry

Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative by the Committee on Increasing National Resilience to Hazards and Disasters, National Academy of Sciences.

May 2, 2013

Catastrophe: Should’a, Would’a, Could’a

“I should prefer Mozart. Mostly I listen to 70s hits.”

“I should eat a hot breakfast, but usually have a powerbar instead.”

“I should work-out three or four times a week, maybe I walk around the block twice.”

Should has become moralistic.  It is typically used as a kind of anti-verb, ascribing — often anticipating — non-action.

I have heard a lot of “shoulds” in regard to the explosion of the West, Texas fertilizer storage facility. The April 17 blast killed 14 and injured more than 190 in the town of 2700.

“We should regulate better.”

“We should put buffer zones in place.”

“We should be more realistic about the threat.”

“We should do a better job sharing what we know about the risk.”

“We should focus more on pre-event prevention and mitigation.”

More plural pronouns than singulars it seems.

According to a November 2012 analysis undertaken by the Congressional Research Service, 6,985 chemical facilities self-report they pose a risk to populations greater than 1,000. There are 90 that self-report a worst-case risk affecting up to 1 million people.

The West facility was not included in the CRS analysis.  They did not self-report — or evidently self-conceive — a worst case scenario that would seriously harm anyone.

As regular readers know I have for a few years worked on catastrophe preparedness.

One of the most remarkable — and absolutely predictable — aspects of this gig is the readiness — preference really — by nearly everyone to define catastrophe as something non-catastrophic.  I saw it again last week and this.  It extends across the public-private divide and every level of government.  When a few of us argue otherwise we are being pedantic, unrealistic, and wasting people’s time.

We should give regular time and energy — maybe five percent of overall effort — to truly catastrophic risks: Global pandemic, significant earthquakes and cyclonic events hitting major urban areas, sustained collapse of the electrical grid whatever the cause. Each of these could have far-reaching secondary and tertiary effects.  In some regions I would include wildfire and flooding. If you have a chemical storage or processing facility nearby that is absolutely worth worst-case thinking now not later.

In many cases the most important issues relate to the mitigation of systemic vulnerabilities that are threat-agnostic.  ”Fixing” vulnerabilities can reduce consequences for a whole host of threats, including non-catastrophic threats.

USA Today editorialized, “The Boston Marathon bombings overshadowed the disaster in Texas, but what happened in West was deadlier, and preventing the next fertilizer accident should command serious attention.”

There’s that anti-verb again.


And how I wish I’d, wish I’d thought a little bit more
Now shoulda, woulda, coulda I means I’m out of time
Shoulda, woulda, coulda can’t change your mind
And I wonder, wonder what I’m going to do
Shoulda, woulda coulda are the last words of a fool

Can’t change your mind
Can’t change your mind

Beverly Knight

March 28, 2013

On catastrophe’s eve

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on March 28, 2013

In my religious tradition today is Maundy Thursday.  This is when many Christian churches remember the celebration of Passover by Jesus and his disciples.

I “do” catastrophe preparedness, this has become my principal role in homeland security. In this context the Maundy Thursday narrative has some resonance.

The perennial story begins with a long celebratory dinner recalling liberation and forty years in the wilderness. After dinner, recognizing he is on the edge of an agonizing choice, Jesus asks his best friends to help him. But they keep falling asleep. Later that evening he is betrayed by a long-time friend. As a very dark night unfolds religious hypocrisy and political expediency conspire toward profound injustice. Trusted followers flee and deny any relationship with their one-time hero. Expectations are shattered. Hopes are dashed. The most cynical outcomes are — with wonderful exceptions — confirmed.

Friday is even worse.

The consequences are catastrophic. At least in the Euro-American context, this death and what happened next was until recently (still, in some quarters) widely understood as precipitating a fundamental shift in ultimate reality.

My own strategy for “managing” catastrophe involves individual, family, neighborhood, organizational, regional, and national resilience. I’m all in favor of prevention (up to a point, at some point many efforts at prevention become as bad or worse than the threat). But prevention will fail. There will be another seriously successful terrorist attack on the United States. I don’t know when or where, but it will come. Much worse than any terrorist attack will be when earthquake or pandemic or epic flooding or you name it de-link a major urban area’s supply chains for several weeks.

Mitigation, response, and recovery are, for me, all important components of resilience. But resilience starts, I increasingly perceive, with the stories we tell each other over meals together. Such as Passover when the story is told again and again of courage and cowardice, loyalty and betrayal, victory and defeat.

There’s a new book out called “The Secrets of Happy Families.” It’s another example of delving into social science research to reclaim common sense that was widely accepted until distracted by earlier versions of social science research. According to the author:

Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative… and those narratives take one of three shapes.

First, the ascending family narrative: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. …”

Second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”

“The most healthful narrative… is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”

Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

For the last sixty years or so the Ascending narrative has dominated the American imagination.  In the last six or seven years the Descending narrative has exerted amazing power.  But as with most families, our national narrative is more complicated.

Reality oscillates. Catastrophes come. Seventy-two hours later or 40 days-and-nights (or years) later, even 1900 years later reality may take another turn. There are no guarantees of “success”. There are resilient and non-resilient choices.

February 7, 2013

Everybody, get on the floor, let’s dance! Don’t fight the feelin’, give yourself a chance! Shake, shake, shake…

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on February 7, 2013

More from United States Geological Survey

Earthquakes are precisely unpredictable.  But they can be anticipated with considerable accuracy.

We don’t know exactly when and where the New Madrid fault will shift.  But most (though not all) argue continuing tectonic movements will eventually produce a geologic snap, crackle, and pop.   The last time a major shift began (December 16, 1811) the earthquake is estimated to have been in the upper 7s or low 8s on the Richter Scale.  Here’s how the naturalist and artist John James Audubon described it from 200 miles west of the epicenter.

Never had I witnessed anything like this before, though I had heard of earthquakes. I found myself rocking on my horse and I moved to and fro with him like a child in a cradle, expecting the ground to open at any moment and reveal an abyss to engulf me and all around me. The fearful convulsion lasted only minutes, however. Almost every day or night for weeks shock succeeded shock, but gradually diminished into more vibrations of the earth. The quake ceased, but not until after it had caused serious consequences in other neighboring places, rending the earth and sinking islands.

There are several million more people in the seismic zone today and a huge panoply of modern — and a fair share of pre-modern — infrastructure on which the nation’s economy depends and which was constructed without anticipating such an earthquake.   This has implications for the grid, drinking water distribution, sewage systems, dams, bridges, buildings, river locks and levees, natural gas pipelines, and much more. When it happens we will be surprised and we will suffer.

But today at 10:15 many schools, hospitals, workplaces, and more in nine states are collaborating in the The Great Central US Shake Out.  A reasonable investment in a bit less surprise, a bit less suffering.  As KC and Sunshine Band sang, “Give yourself a chance.”

A local comment caught my eye.  According to the Pantagraph (Bloomington, IL), Steve Land with the Williamson County emergency management office, “…encourages Illinoisans to have enough food, water, medicines and other necessities to last two weeks.”   This will not be a 72-hour event.

February 7 was not selected at random.  On this date in 1818 the “last” 7.0 plus (some say 9.0 plus) earthquake hit the region.  From December 1811 until February 1818 the central United States experienced at least four earthquakes above 7.0 and as our little 2011 Virginia trembler demonstrated, the shaking travels farther this side of the Rockies.

Talk about a cascading event.

February 6, 2013

It was smooth until it wasn’t

Filed under: Catastrophes,Infrastructure Protection,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on February 6, 2013

In reporting on the Superbowl blackout a CBS News correspondent commented, “It was smooth until it wasn’t.”  Which echoes Craig Fugate’s comment, “Our system works really well until it doesn’t.”

Rational, reductionist, predictive, risk-informed, well-tested — and almost always effective — many of our most important modern systems hum along until suddenly they don’t.

From a Tuesday morning front page story in the Times-Picayune:

It’s still unclear exactly what went wrong Sunday. Entergy officials said they are working with the company that built the electrical switchgear, which controls the flow of electricity from the power company to the stadium, to determine if that is to blame.

The equipment, added as part of the upgrades, automatically shuts down when a problem is detected, such as a surge or loss of electricity, potentially signaling — and protecting — against a more protracted power outage.

Ultimately, the equipment worked as it was supposed to. But what caused it to trip Sunday is the central mystery officials are now trying to unravel.

Doug Thornton, senior vice president of SMG, which manages the Superdome, said Monday that the switchgear “sensed an abnormality” and tripped.

“It was a piece of equipment that did its job,” he said. “We don’t know anything beyond that. It’s premature at this point to say what it was or what caused it.”

A cause will be found and a recurrence of that cause will be suppressed.   And probably, unknown and unintended, something even worse will be seeded in the fixing.

If you have not, I encourage you to read Bak’s Sand Pile: Strategies for a Catastrophic World by Ted G. Lewis.

January 17, 2013

Post-Sandy: Investing in resilience

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on January 17, 2013

Last Friday the NYS 2100 Commission released its report: Recommendations to Improve the Strength and Resilience of the Empire State’s Infrastructure.   It is a helpful contribution and provides a very constructive level of detail.

The report also offers a meaningful framing for investing in resilience in New York and well beyond. The following long quote is from the c0-chairs’ foreword:

While the response to Sandy continues, work needs to begin now on how we build back better – in a way that increases New York’s agility when responding to future storms and other shocks. Building back better demands a focus on increased resilience: the ability of individuals, organizations, systems, and communities to bounce back more strongly from stresses and shocks. Resilience means creating diversity and redundancy in our systems and rewiring their interconnections, which enables their functioning even when individual parts fail.

There is no doubt that building resilience will require investment, but it will also reduce the economic damage and costs of responding to future storms and events, while improving the everyday operations of our critical systems. In a time of fiscal constraints, the positive sign is that inexpensive policy changes will be as critical as the financial investments we make. Hard infrastructure improvements must be complemented by soft infrastructure and other resilience measures, for example, improving our institutional coordination, public communication, and rapid decision making abilities will make us better able to recover from the catastrophic effects of natural disasters. In many respects, New York is ahead of the game in this regard. In recent storms, including Irene and Sandy, we have successfully embraced the notion of “failing safely,” accepting the inevitability of widespread disruptions and tucking in to protect our assets to the extent possible.

We cannot prevent all future disasters from occurring, but we can prevent failing catastrophically by embracing, practicing, and improving a comprehensive resilience strategy. As New York and our neighboring states continue to recover from the devastating impacts of Superstorm Sandy, we have a narrow but distinct window of opportunity to leverage the groundswell of consciousness.

I have delayed and hesitated to post on this report because, with all its strengths, it fails to sufficiently address a fundamental aspect of resilience.   The co-chairs foreshadow this issue in writing, “Hard infrastructure improvements must be complemented by soft infrastructure…”

Achieving resilience involves a different way of thinking, choosing, and behaving. There are a whole host of trade-offs. I agree with the report’s authors that the trade-off’s are worthwhile. But this will not be obvious to everyone. Resilience emerges — or not — from families, neighborhoods, and communities. It unfolds from dialogue and relationships, or not at all.

The NYS 2100 Commission report does a great job identifying and seeding the hard infrastructure topics that need to be discussed and engaged. But how will the dialogue be started and sustained? How will a soft infrastructure be cultivated that is sufficient to enable hard infrastructure decisions?

The current report reads as a set of recommendations to be implemented by the widely-respected and honored philosopher-kings of a latter day Kallipolis (Plato’s “Beautiful City” in The Republic).  New York is, for me, a beautiful place, but last time I looked its politics were more complicated than this.

January 10, 2013

What was, what is, and what will be

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy,WMD — by Philip J. Palin on January 10, 2013

Earlier this week the World Economic Forum released its annual report: Global Risks 2013.

According to the WEF survey of 1000-plus “global experts”, over the next ten years the most serious risks by potential impact are:

  • Major systemic financial failure
  • Water supply crises
  • Chronic fiscal imbalances
  • Food shortage crises
  • Diffusion of weapons of mass destruction

Of these most consequential risks the expert survey — complemented by a series of workshops — found that water supplies and fiscal balance are already widely in crisis (What a surprise!). The risk of food shortages and systemic financial failure will increase as water and fiscal problems worsen. Increased diffusion of WMD almost seems simple in comparison.

Combined with the November release of Global Trends 2030 by our friends at the National Intelligence Council, we now have even more excuses for bad dreams.

In his preface to the report, Klaus Schwab, the founder and Executive Chairman of the WEF comments,

I think you will agree [the report] makes a compelling case for stronger cross-border collaboration among stakeholders from governments, business and civil society – a partnership with the purpose of building resilience to global risks. They also highlight the need for strengthening existing mechanisms to mitigate and manage risks, which today primarily exist at the national level. This means that while we can map and describe global risks, we cannot predict when and how they will manifest; therefore, building national resilience to global risks is of paramount importance.

The report offers suggestions related to definitions of resilience and good practice in resilience.

I was one of those contributing to the WEF survey and workshops. WEF does a great job of bringing together a broad mix of public and private policy makers, academics, and fellow-travelers. The report is helpful and I look forward to the follow-on work. The Davos Summit, January 23-27, focuses on “resilient dynamism” and will kick-off several important initiatives.


I paused while reading of the WEF report to take a call from the operations manager for a grocery chain in the New York metro area. I will do a case study on their Hurricane Sandy preparedness and response. One store on Staten Island was flooded under three feet of water. It reopened within a week. Another store within three blocks of the New Dorp Beach inundation zone — the deadly ground zero for Sandy — stayed open without interruption. There are a range of smart, heroic and almost miraculous tales.

There is also a very open, practical self-criticism in how the grocers are working to prepare for and adapt to the likelihood of something-worse-than-Sandy.

I perceive a yawning gap between the analysis and attitude encountered at the grocery chain and that revealed in the WEF report. It is a contrast often found between the theoretical and the operational.

The point is not that the operators are hubris-free and the theoreticians — including me — abide with such overabundant pride (though the thought does occur and recur). Rather, it seems to me, that this gap is where many of our vulnerabilities originate.

The WEF report (and many more) is in the future tense. These are issues we can reasonably anticipate will influence the operational environment for the next ten years or more.

Operational thinking and even planning is considerably more present tense. The possibilities of now — both opportunity and threat, strength and weakness — are at the heart of the operational worldview.

Past, present, and future are characteristics of English. Other linguistic systems focus much more on action being finished or unfinished. Any meaningful notion of homeland security will remain unfinished (and perhaps worse) until we can more effectively communicate across the operational-theoretical continuum.


Through me what was, what is, and what will be, are revealed. Through me strings sound in harmony, to song. My aim is certain, but an arrow truer than mine, has wounded my free heart! The whole world calls me the bringer of aid; medicine is my invention; my power is in healing.

Metamorphoses, Ovid: Book I:521-523, Apollo begging Daphne to yield to him. I realize that quoting a Latin poet, even in translation, will not help bridge the gap. But it is beautiful, is it not? The Latin is luscious. And doesn’t it evoke an image of homeland security begging for affection? A big part of the challenge is to respect the insight that exists across the continuum, learning how to fully engage different dialects.

December 28, 2012

Some Far Rockaway of the heart

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on December 28, 2012

So many others are giving such expert attention to the recovery from Sandy — and its implications for preparedness and response — that I have not found much to add.   It’s too soon to tell what will actually happen, but much that is being said strikes me as prudent, wise, even prophetic.

Reading the Times, Observer, New Yorker, Daily News, and even the Post — talking with friends and colleagues on return visits — I have been reminded how rough realism and real romanticism are coequals in most New Yorkers.  They know the City must constantly change, they are proud of their ability to navigate the constant turmoil, and they embrace most improvements with weary regret.

Some of that attitude — both resilient and adaptive, it seems to me — is captured in this poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. New York, here’s wishing you a Happy 2013.


A native-born New Yorker
I was from the Lower Inside
a part of town much favored by
addicts of the subjective
(a subversive group always being investigated)
as well as buddhists
and their lower chakras
and others seeking salvations
from various realities
virtual or actual
And losing track
of where I was coming from
with the amnesia of an immigrant
I traveled over
the extrovert face
of America
But no matter where I wandered
off the chart
I still would love to find again
that lost locality
Where I might catch once more
a Sunday subway for
some Far Rockaway of the heart


January 1, 2013 Update: There is a great companion piece to the Ferlinghetti poem — and a wonderful bit of post-Sandy reporting — by Michael Greenberg in the just published New York Review of Books.  Please see Occupy the Rockaways!

December 26, 2012

Disaster Amnesia

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on December 26, 2012

From the December 26 Jakarta Post, an Op-Ed by Syamsidik, head of applied research at the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center (TDMRC) and a lecturer in the civil engineering department of Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh.


The eighth anniversary of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami will fall on Dec. 26. The disastrous event effected many changes not only in Indonesia, but also in the international disaster management paradigm.

Nevertheless, eight years after the event, unintentional or intentional actions by communities and government agencies seem to have led to a downgrade in the awareness of and preparedness for future disasters.

Although a less focused effort on disaster risk-reduction in official documents might not be apparent, the underlying concerns are real.

Intensive measures on disaster prevention and mitigation are only visible when major disasters occur with an overwhelming impact on human life. It is only natural that people tend to forget things after years have passed and the grieving and fear are gone.

The only way to fight this disaster amnesia is to be bold in promoting disaster risk-reduction at community level and in government policies and programs.

Unfortunate lessons obtained from past disasters notwithstanding, experience should be the key guide in increasing community and regional preparedness for future disasters. Past disasters do provide some basis for prediction of future disasters.  MORE

December 20, 2012

Proximate solutions to insoluble problems

Filed under: Catastrophes,General Homeland Security,Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on December 20, 2012

I am in the bad day business.  Whether the cause is natural, accidental or intentional my role is preparing for bad days.  My specific role has become helping others prepare for very, very bad days.

It is my impression most readers of HLSWatch are in a similar business.

While personally most of my days are fine — even very fine — I know bad days will come.   I have experienced them.  I have been with others shortly after their experience of such days.

One of my favorite memories from when I was 8 or 9  is of laying upside down on the backyard slide on a bright summer day reading about Vesuvius burying Pompeii and the tsunami swamping Lisbon.  History books are mostly about somebody’s bad day.

A few years ago I was in the prevent-bad-days business.   In some ways that was a better job.  But no matter how good you are: prevention will fail.  The bad day will come. Very bad days seem to be coming more often.

Last Thursday I reported on an “emerging threats forum” that had decided the best strategy for the most serious threats is to:

  • Inform the public of the threats,
  • Explain that government is not capable of prevention or timely response regarding many threats,
  • Encourage and facilitate enhanced individual, neighborhood, school, and workplace (other) preparedness to be self-sustaining.

Arnold Bogis asked that I give more details.  I promised I would.  In the seven days since there have been several very bad days in Newtown, Aleppo, Karachi, Davao, Goma, Suva, and elsewhere.

I was surprised the emerging threats forum chose a “public engagement” strategy.  In my experience, these sort of sessions are usually dominated by men (mostly) who want to exercise control and prefer developing systems and methods subject to their control.  At a similar session the week before there had been an extended discussion regarding how to ensure the persistent appearance of control (even though being out-of-control was the implicit reality).

Maybe it was the list of emerging threats that discouraged the usual symptoms of homeland security’s own version of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  The facilitators chose largely novel or large-scale threats that dwarfed even the biggest ego.

Maybe it was the age of the participants.  It was a bifurcated group.   There were several “older” (apologies) folks like me and a roughly equal number of young.   The young are accustomed to not being allowed to exercise control.  The old have often discovered control can be an illusion.  Those in-between — perhaps still fighting for control — were a distinct minority (probably because that age group mostly remained in the cockpit while we were in the seminar room).

Maybe it was an increasing recognition of and respect for complexity.   The discussion gave considerable attention to linkages, signals, and unpredictability.

In any case, one of the younger people was the first to suggest there is a problem with unrealistic expectations related to government capabilities in major disasters.   Sandy was still on the mind of many and mostly there was the sense of a bullet dodged.  ”It could easily have been much, much worse,” seemed the consensus.   “This was not even a hurricane when it came ashore and look at the consequences.”  And still it was and is plenty bad.

Unrealistic expectations enable individual, family, and private sector choices that increase vulnerability.   Government responsiveness on a typical bad day sets up unrealistic expectations for response on a very, very bad day.

While there seemed to be considerable consensus that  ”unrealistic expectations” is a key strategic insight and “public engagement” could be an effective solution, the group perceived public engagement would be very difficult to achieve.  Among the problems discussed:

  • Many in government perceive public engagement as a political, not an administrative task.  Many government officials are reluctant  and uncomfortable engaging the public and nearly as uncomfortable with politicians.
  • When government does engage the public there is a tendency to over-organize the process.  It is difficult for  many officials to admit weakness to the public (One participant said, government officials tend to “talk at rather than with the public.”
  • The public is not listening and tends to deny or discount risk until it is too late.

There was not time at last week’s meeting to seriously engage these challenges.  But for what it’s worth, I will list some personal suggestions.

Government — and especially the homeland security professions — need to give more attention to hiring and using brokers, facilitators, relationship-builders and others skilled at bridging the private-public divide.   Politicians are, by the way, often very skilled in these methods.

Government needs to find existing networks of private-public and private-private connections.  These preexisting connections are much more likely to persist than anything created and managed by government.  Politicians are often expert navigators of these networks.

Within these existing networks there is a need to identify or recruit independent champions of prevention, preparedness, mitigation, response, recovery, or whatever other purpose.   Once again, politicians can be very effective champions within their preexisting networks.

Government should ask and listen about twice as much as it tells.   Politicians are usually not good at this skill.

In my experience when the foregoing preconditions are in place up to 80 percent (occasionally more) of individuals, families, and private organizations are very willing and interested to be in meaningful dialogue with the government.   The public is more likely to listen when they perceive the public sector is listening to them.  The public sector is more likely to listen to and engage with a neighborhood or business group or similar organization.

In my experience the public is surprised when told what the government cannot do in a disaster and about 10 to 20 percent will initially strongly resist what they are hearing.  But most are able to quickly recognize their own unrealistic expectations and begin to shift, especially if they get some informed help making the shift.

This is, I suggest, a model that extends beyond homeland security to a wide range of social, economic and political concerns.   Fantastic success in implementing all of my suggestions will not reduce the number of bad days, though I think consequences can often — if not always — be mitigated.


Maybe this is already clear enough, but to be sure I will add: What all these tactics and techniques are really about is making and maintaining meaningful human relationships that happen to engage disaster risk among other matters.  Other matters will usually be more important. But disaster risk is worth including among the concerns around which the relationships emerge and move.  It is kinship with each other and our shared prospects.  Get the relationships right and the rest will be much easier to engage.

December 7, 2012

New York City is where the future comes to audition

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,State and Local HLS,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on December 7, 2012

Thursday morning Mayor Bloomberg gave a speech on post-Sandy recovery.  It is important to New York.  Some of the principles articulated are, I suggest, important for the nation.  You can read the entire speech here. Below I have excerpted several paragraphs worth your particular consideration


We may or may not see another storm like Sandy in our lifetimes,but I don’t think it’s fair to say that we should leave it to our children to prepare for the possibility. We are a coastal city, a harbor city, surprise, surprise. And sea levels are expected to rise by another two and a half feet by the time a child born today reaches 40 years old, and that’s going to make surges even more powerful and dangerous. And intense storms are likely to increase as the ocean’s temperatures continue to rise…

You can argue about what caused the weather to change, but there is no question – you can measure the temperatures of the ocean, you can measure the amount of moisture in the air, and that just leads to the kind of aberrations that we’re seeing: snowstorms where we didn’t have them before, droughts where we didn’t have them before, hurricanes that take different paths, go in different directions and have different strengths.

We cannot solve the problems associated with climate change on our own here in New York City, but I think it’s fair to say we can lead the way. We have been, both locally and globally. New York City has always been a leader. As Ed Koch once said: ‘New York City is where the future comes to audition,’ and we have a responsibility I’ve always thought to help the rest of the world…

We don’t know whether the next emergency will be a storm, a drought, a tornado or a blizzard, but we do know that we have to be better prepared for all of them.

And we also know that every one of those events is not going to come exactly the way that we had prepared for. We need to make sure that we have people who are well-trained, well-equipped, and able to react in an emergency and to deal with whatever nature throws at us, even if we hadn’t predicted it…

We have to reexamine all of our major infrastructure in light of Sandy – and how we can adapt and modernize it in order to protect it.

So today, I have directed someone with extensive experience in both infrastructure development and community revitalization, Seth Pinsky, the President of the Economic Development Corporation, to develop concrete recovery plans for the communities Sandy hit hardest as well as a specific and comprehensive action plan to prepare our city for the climate risks we face. Deputy Mayors Cas Holloway and Bob Steel will directly oversee this work – and our entire City Hall team, especially our Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability – will be deeply involved…

This is not work that can be done overnight, but it is work that must begin immediately where the need is greatest. So in each of the hardest-hit areas, Seth and our team will work with local leaders to develop and implement comprehensive Community Recovery and Rebuilding plans.

The plans will cover everything from public and private housing, to hospitals and schools, to transportation and parks, to businesses and nonprofits, including cultural institutions like the New York Aquarium. To succeed, the plans must include the input of the people who live and work in these communities – and they will. Members of the community will assist in shaping and implementing each community plan – and that will be just the beginning of our work.

The biggest challenge that we face is adapting our city to risks associated with climate change. And meeting that challenge will require us to take a leap into the future. But I think, as Al pointed out, the good news is, compared to any other American city, we’ve got a running head start…

For major developments in vulnerable areas, we now require a climate risk assessment. That’s why the developers of Willets Point – and those building the new recycling facility in Red Hook – are required to elevate development out of the flood plain. It’s why the park being built on Governors Island is being elevated by four feet, and I’m happy to say it sustained no major structural damage in the storm, nor did Brooklyn Bridge Park, which we designed specifically to withstand major storms – and I’m happy to say that it did…

New York City has 520 miles of shoreline – and it is some of the most beautiful, dynamic shoreline in the world, with the most beautiful views. Robert Moses built the roads along our coastline, separating us from this natural resource and we have worked very hard to try reconnect back to the most wonderful asset that we have. It’s why people have chosen to live at the coastline for centuries. And it’s why the question I have gotten most often since the storm is not about the damage Sandy caused, but about whether people can rebuild their homes in places like Breezy Point and Midland Beach.

Let me be clear: We are not going to abandon the waterfront.

We are not going to leave the Rockaways or Coney Island or Staten Island’s South Shore. But we can’t just rebuild what was there and hope for the best. We have to build smarter and stronger and more sustainably. And Seth and his team will be working with all of our City agencies, and lots of outside experts, to determine exactly what that means.

For instance: even though the City has already revised the building code to strengthen standards for flood protection, we will now do it again. The fact is: two-thirds of all the homes damaged by Sandy are outside of FEMA’s existing 100-year flood maps…

No matter how much we do to make homes and businesses more resilient, the fact of the matter is we live next to the ocean, and the ocean comes with risks that we just cannot eliminate. Over the past month, there has been a lot of discussion about sea walls. It would be nice if we could stop the tides from coming in, but King Canute couldn’t do it – and neither can we, especially if, as many scientists project, sea levels continue rising. However, there may be some coastline protections that we can build that will mitigate the impact of a storm surge – from berms and dunes, to jetties and levees.

On October 23rd, one week before Sandy hit, you should know that our Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability initiated a formal request to the Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate additional ways that we could reduce the impact of coastal storms. A full Army Corps study will take three to five years to complete – and that does not include the required engineering analysis, which also can take years. And I’ve said we just cannot wait that long. So we will launch an expedited engineering analysis of coastal protection strategies to ensure we pursue the ones that are right for our city.

But remember: there are no panaceas or magic bullets. No matter what we do: the tides will continue to come in – and so we have to make our city more resilient in other ways, especially when it comes to our critical infrastructure.

During Hurricane Sandy, all of our major infrastructure networks failed and they have all taken just too long to come back on line. Our Long Term Planning and Sustainability Team have been working with many of these network operators to assess their vulnerabilities.

We know, for example, that a substantial proportion of the City’s critical electrical infrastructure is in the 100 year flood plain, so I have directed Seth to work with Sergej Mahnovski and our sustainability team to assess what it takes to make every essential network that supports our city capable of withstanding a Category 2 hurricane, or a record-breaking heat wave, or other natural disaster. That includes our transportation network, our power network, our gas network, our telecommunications network and our hospital network.

What will it take to ensure that even in a Category 2 hurricane, orif a record heat wave comes, what will each of these networks be required to remain operational? How much will it cost? And what standards should be set for bringing networks back quickly so that residents and businesses can have reasonable expectations about how long they may be out of service? In addition, how can we ensure continuity of operations, not just of our critical infrastructure, but of critical industries?

Many businesses – including the New York Stock Exchange – remained closed for days because not enough people could get to work. In all fairness, the New York Stock Exchange did have generators, they were perfectly capable of opening, but they can’t open without their employees. In a wireless world, we have to do a better job, not only keeping our networks up, but keeping our markets and businesses open, come hell or high water.

Many of our key infrastructure networks are run by private companies as you know, but they have contracts, franchises, and licenses to provide public services – and the public does has a right to establish clear benchmarks for their performance in a disaster. That’s why we’ve reached out to the CEOs of Con Ed, National Grid, Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner, Hess and others and asked them to work with us on this effort. All have pledged their unqualified support…

I had a long conversation last night with Lowell McAdam, who is the CEO of Verizon. Their schedule right now says that Lower Manhattan’s night going to be back up until May, and I pointed out that is just not acceptable. And together we’ve worked out a plan where the City can help them get access into buildings and other things that you wouldn’t think about so that Verizon can accelerate that. Those buildings in downtown that lost electricity and heat should be back up by the end of this month, but they can’t be occupied unless we have telephone service, and that’s going to be our number one priority for downtown.

Even today, five weeks after the storm, there are just too many people who cannot come back to work here. We don’t want them moving any place else, and they need to earn a living and we need their service. And a growing number of New Yorkers, as we all know, today are relying on wireless networks and abandoning land-line telephones. We cannot, in the future, have cell towers that have only eight hours of back-up battery power. That is just not acceptable in the world that we live today. The telephone is our lifeline, the telephone is a lifeline not just to business, but to our own physical security. It has to keep working.

We’ll take on all of these efforts, but we also have to be mindful not to fight the last war and miss the new one ahead.


The actual speech is about twice as long and worth the read.    Reading Mayor Bloomberg is much better than listening to him.

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