Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

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 13, 2014

The 21st Century Stafford Act

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Preparedness and Response,Recovery,Resilience — by Philip J. Palin on March 13, 2014

Today’s post is authored by a member of the homeland security enterprise who would prefer to not be named. The post reflects the views of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of any particular federal agency or the Federal Government.

–+–

In January, a bipartisan group of congressional legislators from Illinois introduced a bill entitled the Fairness in Federal Disaster Declarations Act of 2014. A few days later, Illinois’ senators would introduce the same bill in the Senate. The ostensive purpose of these bills is to bring fairness to rural communities when competing for federal disaster declarations by altering FEMA’s disaster declaration regulations.

The problem is no President has ever delegated the right to decide disaster declarations to FEMA and Congress has limited the President from establishing disaster declaration criteria based upon arithmetic formulas or a sliding scale based on income or population. Even if this bill would become law tomorrow, it almost certainly would not change the framework of disaster declarations and only make changes to unbinding regulations. So why would these members go through such an effort?

The answer may be the lack of serious discourse about the primary legal framework for federal disaster preparedness and relief, the Stafford Act, over the last 25 years. While the Stafford Act has been amended several times since 1988, outside of the addition of mitigation authorities in 2000, there has been no substantive review of the utility, incentives and disincentives put into motion by its overall structure and purpose. The end result is Congress’ knowledge has atrophied. The nation’s citizens have been deprived of a chance to understand the issues surrounding disaster relief and preparedness that would allow them to set practical expectations for the types and amount of disaster assistance they can expect after a disaster. This includes the lack of debate about how the Stafford Act may, or may not, have affected the role and responsibility of different levels of governments to prepare for disasters and provide disaster relief. Nor has there been a serious debate about the balance between public sector and private sector relief efforts.

Beginning in 1950, the first four decades of the modern era of federal disaster relief saw periods of spirited review about these issues. Four times this evaluation led to significant restructuring of the statutory configuration of federal disaster preparedness and relief, almost always expanding the assistance available through the Federal Government. However, with the exception of emphasizing and incentivizing mitigation in 2000, there has not been a serious study of the utility of the structural foundations for federal disaster preparedness and relief.

This has deprived the nation of the serious study of what disaster preparedness and relief efficiencies need to be reinforced and what deficiencies should be rectified. It has also prevented citizens from understanding how much disaster assistance they should expect and the level of risk and responsibility they should be prepared to assume. We have avoided questions of responsibility for disaster relief from their different levels of government, the private sector and non-profits. While the nation has seen several major disasters since 1988, the debate after each of these events never led to the serious and episodic reappraisal seen in the previous four decades. We are now nearly 26 years past the last serious evaluation of the responsibilities for disaster relief.

It may be that the answers to these questions have changed little over these last 26 years but how do we know? What are the issues that might be debated? The obvious ones are perpetual: The division of responsibility and risk between public and private, federal and state, state and local and the individual responsibility of citizens. The debate over these issues will always ebb and flow with the direction of the country but are the factors that influence this debate static? What about the dramatic changes in technology over the last 26 years? With the profusion of resources and capabilities to individual citizens, much of it relayed through the computer in every pocket, the smart phone, should citizens shoulder more responsibility (and risk)?

Does our increasing reliance on interconnectedness, much of it delivered through the private sector, provide a new role for federal disaster relief to critical infrastructure? How can we harness the capabilities of the newest generation of disaster relief organizations to provide a more efficient and nimble disaster relief response than their predecessors? Are there incentives or resources which could be provided by the Federal Government to incentivize these organizations without impeding their innovation and competences?

Now may also be the time to look back and see where the Stafford Act has created pockets of efficiencies and inefficiencies. What mitigation efforts have, or have not, incentivized states and local governments to become more prepared? Should we, and could we, reward local and state governments who shoulder more of the responsibility for mitigation efforts? Are preparedness efforts better funded locally or more broadly? How do we support growing inter and intra-state regional governments who fall outside traditional federal-state relationships for disaster relief? Should the Federal Government encourage new forms of intergovernmental cooperation? How do we weigh the responsibilities of states – does the Federal Government more actively force them to tax to their risk, or leave it up to them?

Could the Federal Government provide incentives for states to push more responsibility for disaster relief to lower levels of government? Is this wise? What should be done about the clearly anachronistic Cold War era Title VI of the Stafford Act? A decade later, does the relationship between the Stafford Act and the Homeland Security Act need to be clarified? Could the debate over the relationship between these two statutes lead to streamlined Congressional oversight for disaster relief?

We learn by talking, by debating, by the marketplace of ideas. It’s time for a serious and spirited discourse if for no other reason than to reeducate ourselves and reestablish consistent expectations and responsibilities for disaster preparedness and relief.

March 6, 2014

Neighbors: Engaged or Not

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Resilience — by Philip J. Palin on March 6, 2014

Maybe you saw the reports of a neighborhood’s response to an avalanche last Friday:

Rescue officials say about 100 neighbors converged to help find three people buried Friday when an avalanche swept down a mountain in a residential area of Missoula in western Montana and crushed a house at the bottom.

“It was very chaotic but a lot of energy,” said Jeff Brandt, assistant chief of operations for the Missoula Fire Department.

Scores of neighbors had already started the rescue effort when he arrived about half an hour after the slide, and some 20 professional responders helped provide focus to the effort, Brandt said. An 8-year-old boy was pulled from the snow just as he arrived, he said.

The three people remained hospitalized Saturday, a day after the avalanche slid down 4,768-foot Mount Jumbo into the northeast Missoula neighborhood…  MORE

In crisis situations, we see this again and again.  We saw it on 911.  We saw it at the Boston Marathon.  In a few weeks we will see the annual festival of neighborliness called the Red River Flood.

But it is interesting to me that among urban public safety personnel a positive neighborhood response tends not to be expected.  In a few situations I have even heard police, firefighters or emergency management tell “civilians” not to get involved and let the professionals take charge.  Over a beer in Baltimore, Chicago, or Philadelphia many (not all) pledged to protect and serve the public consider that same public their greatest threat.

On March 13, 1964 Kitty Genovese was killed in a middle-class neighborhood of Queens.  Her story became a modern parable of corrupt priests, fearful pharisees, and bad Samaritans.

According to the New York Times and the story told and re-told, scores of neighbors did nothing even as they heard her screams for help.  Maybe you can depend on your neighbors in Missoula, but not in the big cities became a common understanding.  Since then we have looked for and found corroboration. Expect the worse and you will not be disappointed.

There are tw0 new books out on the Genovese story.   A debate is renewed over what happened — even more what did not happen — a half-century ago.  In the current New Yorker Nicholas Lemann reviews the books, sympathizes with the argument that urban apathy was amplified far beyond reality, and concludes, “The real Kitty Genovese syndrome has to do with our susceptibility to narratives that echo our preconceptions and anxieties.”

Meanwhile in the Daily News, Catherine Pelonero, author of the one of the new books, defends much of the urban myth.  (“In speaking of myths and mythologies we do not make claims regarding empirical truth,” a favorite professor explained, “but instead point to the power of popular perception.”) Yet even she writes, “The witnesses weren’t chronically hard-hearted  New Yorkers who couldn’t bother intervening while a neighbor was murdered.  They were normal people hobbled by a mix of fear, self-interest, and apathy.  We all fail at times, and how bravely we behave varies from day to day, moment to moment.”

I spend a good deal of my time and energy working with people who expect the worst and that may well include human nature.  Given this expectation they plan, act, and at times decide not to act in anticipation of viciously self-interested behavior.  I am aware evidence for this predisposition exists.  It is not, however, the only or always predominant evidence.

Emerging directly from the Genovese case is the empirically demonstrated “Bystander Effect“. We are, it would seem, more heroic when there are fewer folks about.  The larger a crowd,  the more we tend to defer to the heroism of others.

But — or especially — in a crowd, when one steps forward to help, s/he will often be followed.  A significant element in social resilience is facilitating individual initiative to help.

Dorothy Day was about nine years old when she lived through the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.  Years later she recalled:

What I remember most plainly about the earthquake was the human warmth and kindliness of everyone afterward. For days refugees poured out of burning San Francisco and camped in Idora Park and the race track in Oakland. People came in their night clothes; there were new-born babies. Mother and all our neighbors were busy from morning to night cooking hot meals. They gave away every garment they possessed. They stripped themselves to the bone in giving, forgetful of the morrow. While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.

It shows a susceptibility to narratives that echo my preconceptions and aspirations, but it seems to me part of being involved in homeland security, a large part of any presumed leadership role, and a significant part of being fully human is to do our best to love each other.

But I am embarrassed to speak in such terms.  Is my embarrassment part of the homeland security problem or is it just that love is as tough to define as homeland security?

January 30, 2014

The mitigation message

East Rivers Elementary

Cobb County elementary school children sleeping Tuesday night in the gym

Last Tuesday my train pulled into Union Station, Washington DC, shortly before noon.  The station and surrounding city were unusually quiet.  The Federal Office of Personnel Management had given most of its employees liberal leave to stay home.   Most area schools followed this lead.

On Capitol Hill — where I still had some meetings — the snow did not really begin until about 2:00 and was not quite as bad as predicted even into the height of the typical rush hour, which given the OPM decision had much more rush than usual.

By the next morning there was nearly 4 inches of snow at Reagan Airport and over 8 at Dulles.  Wednesday got underway with official delays.

Still some were inclined to second-guess the Tuesday mitigation decision made with the best possible information Monday night.

I hope the second-guessers are giving close attention to the more recent news out of Atlanta.

Even at dawn Tuesday, January 28 the best information available to Georgia decision-makers — very much including the general public — was that the worst weather would track south and east of Atlanta.  Beginning between about 7 and 8 that morning the best information began to shift.  By 10 it was snowing in Bartow County on the northwestern edge of metro Atlanta.  By 11 it was snowing hard and icing.  At 11:23 Cobb County Schools (along the Northwest Atlanta beltway) closed and began busing students home.  At 12:15 Georgia DOT suggested private-sector workers head home.

By 1:00 many Atlanta highways were grid-locked, more the result of sudden volume than — yet — because of the weather.  (Should bring back unpleasant memories of similar events in Chicago and DC in recent years.)  As some of you know, traffic is not an unusual problem in Atlanta, even in fragrant and sunny springtime.

At 1:55 the Governor declared a State of Emergency; the most immediate effect being to pour state employees onto already packed roads.  Across the United States we are predisposed to evacuations.  It is a bad — sometimes, someplaces deadly — habit.

By mid-afternoon the snow and especially ice were adding to the problems.  You have probably seen the videos.  There were several hundred vehicle accidents just in the Atlanta area.

On Wednesday many Tuesday afternoon commuters were still stuck in their cars.  Some had abandoned their vehicles.  In several cases school buses were forced to retreat back to classrooms.  Several hundred children — the numbers are still unclear — spent the night in their schools. (See picture above.) My ten-year-old nephew got home from school, but neither of his parents could.  Shane spent the night at the neighbors.

There will be after-action analyses. There will be studies.  There will be hearings.  There will be blame-gaming. There will be lessons-learned.

What I hope someone will declare clearly and well is that 1) there are many things we cannot accurately predict, 2) especially in unpredictable contexts innate vulnerabilities are exposed, and 3) in densely networked environments, like cities, these vulnerabilities can sometimes meet and mate, propagating suddenly and prolifically.

So… for a whole host of risks we are wise to invest in mitigation and to keep in mind that what will always seem an over-investment before will likely pay profitable dividends after.

This principle applies well beyond the weather, including water systems, supply chains, fuel networks, bridges, and much, much more.

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.

January 14, 2014

Private-public collaboration essential to water restoration effort

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With the active, coordinated, nearly  synchronous involvement of neighborhoods and individuals across the region the Kanawha Valley is currently engaged in a process of flushing and restoring a 1700-mile water network.  A continually updated map is available here.

This is an amazing example of “whole community” in action.

January 13, 2014

Water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

MONDAY EVENING UPDATE:

Several media outlets — and some private emails — indicate some areas of the Kanawha Valley are being told their tap water is again safe to consume.  Different areas are being “cleared” in a step-by-step process of flushing and multiple-testing.

–+–

Last week an unknown amount of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol leaked from a storage tank into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia (one estimate referenced 5000 gallons, another estimate is 7500 gallons). About one mile downstream from the discharge is the intake for a water system serving most of nine counties and up to 300,000 persons.

By Thursday evening a “Do Not Use” order was announced. Water customers were instructed to avoid bodily contact with tap water. Water has continued to flow for sanitation and firefighting (and to flush the system).

Even 24 hours after the spill the contamination risk was not well-understood. While not thought to be toxic, the chemical can cause irritation of the eyes and skin. Ingestion could cause nausea, gastrointestinal distress, and liver damage.

The chemical is known to be harmful in concentrations of 500 parts per million. By Friday evening levels of the chemical’s concentration in the Elk River near the water intakes had dropped from 2 to 1.7 parts per million.  On Saturday it was announced the “Do Not Use” order would not be lifted until a comprehensive testing process found concentrations of less than 1 ppm throughout the Kanawha Valley water network.  On Monday morning several spot-checks are reporting levels below 1 ppm.

The water network involves over 100 storage tanks and 1700 miles of pipeline.  On Saturday the water company explained, “Concentric flushing beginning at a central location and moving out to the far ends of the distribution system is expected to take several days but will not be simultaneous based upon the construction of the system. The timeline may vary based on geographic location, customer demand and other factors that impact water usage and availability.”

Retail supplies of bottled water quickly sold out on Thursday night and Friday.  But by Saturday most stores had been resupplied and some major retailers were providing customers water at no charge.  Several public distribution locations had also been established.  FEMA has shipped over 1.5 million liters into West Virginia.  Proactive efforts are being made to ensure drinking water distribution to the elderly, disabled, and other vulnerable populations.  Both private and public supply chains will continue to surge water into the greater Charleston area.

This is a still developing situation.  Lots of lessons — and pseudo-lessons — are likely to emerge.  With appropriate trepidation, let’s begin to gather some observations and hypotheses.

Prevention and Mitigation

In my personal experience secondary-effects on water systems are especially consequential. I have seen urban areas emerge from a detailed analysis of a nuclear detonation in what seemed a survivable condition only to have the water system fail and unwind an entire region.

As with many — most — modern systems of supply urban water systems are nodal networks.   These networks are innately more efficient on good days and innately predisposed to catastrophic cascades on bad days.  Trouble at any node is likely to propagate to other nodes.   The nodes — electrical, logistical, water, whatever — are especially susceptible to no-notice concentration stresses.   (This is what is currently speculated to have happened at the UPS Worldport on the weekend before Christmas causing one of the best supply chains in the world to nearly collapse.)

A significant aspect of the problem in West Virginia is that the — largely unknown — chemical was released in considerable quantity so close to the node.  There was not sufficient time-and-space for dilution to do its magic before the whole system was contaminated.  Electrical, computing, fuel, and other networks are vulnerable to analogous risk.

Response

West Virginia is on the edge of four regional supply chain networks.  This is so rough to be at least a bit misleading, but think of large circles radiating out from Washington-Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Charlotte/Roanoke.  Depending on the commodity or sector, these circles overlap in West Virginia.

I expect — but it is only an informed guess — that the spike in demand signals began emerging after Thursday orders and Friday morning deliveries were processed.  So it took until Friday morning to seriously engage the unexpected explosion in demand.  Then it was late Friday or early Saturday before sufficient commercial stocks of bottled water could be redirected into the network.

Again just an informed guess, but Kroger, Walmart, Sysco, and  McLane are probably the principal distributors of bottled water in West Virginia.  They will also be the principal sources for sanitizers, baby wipes, paper plates, and related products  For players this size, there is an existing strategic capacity to surge supply.  While 300,000 with a no-notice loss of drinking water is non-trivial it does not exhaust capacity… especially because this is on the edge of four regional supply networks, each with very deep resources. The challenge is more an issue of transport than supply.  So… by Saturday the commercial supply chain was aware of the problem, reorganizing to supply the problem, and largely successful doing so.

Provision of water by local fire departments, state emergency resources, and FEMA is a crucially important complement to the commercial supply chains.  Red Cross, churches and similar organizations are especially important to filling the demand-and-supply gap for non-mobile populations.

My off-the-cuff analysis would not be nearly so benign if a similar event hit a much more densely populated area that was served by a less diverse supply chain.

Recovery

Contamination events are especially challenging.  How do you prove a negative?  Rumors will fly faster than facts.  Bottled water is going to be more popular in the Kanawha Valley than ever before, enjoying sustained demand long after chemical concentrations fall below 1 part per million.

Nodes are important here too.  What and who are the psycho-social nodes in this (these) communities?  What relationships have already been established?  How can those relationships be energized in this instance to deal with this issue?  Will these communities respond as victims, as survivors, as heroes? And what, in retrospect, will they decide to learn?

One of my West Virginia friends who contributed to this report offered,  ”Tell your readers that if they want to help they need to plan their next vacation or convention for Charleston.” Basic human needs are being addressed, but the long-term economic consequences will be very troubling.

Much more to come.  This crisis continues. But in any case, Coleridge was right:

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink….

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

Rime of the Ancient Mariner

December 4, 2013

Expanding or Diluting Our Preparedness Priorities

Today’s guest blogger is “Donald Quixote”  Don comments frequently on Homeland Security Watch.  He writes under what he likes to call his nom de guerre because his agency frowns on its employees posting material without agency approval. 

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The House Committee on Homeland Security recently passed the Medical Preparedness Allowable Use Act (HR 5997)/ (HR 1791) authorizing the expansion of the use of existing grant programs for enhancing medical preparedness, medical surge capacity and mass prophylaxis capabilities during a natural disaster or terrorist attack.  Reportedly, it does not furnish any additional funding, but provides the ability to leverage the Urban Area Security Initiative and State Homeland Security Grant Program.

The pending bill can be viewed from several different perspectives.  The optimist may view this initial accomplishment as Congress finally addressing a very serious threat of a chemical or biological attack that may be looming, or  – rather more likely — the threat of a serious novel pandemic illness.  The pessimist may view it as the continued, wider distribution of limited resources between numerous partners in the ever-vague world of homeland security (whatever that entails, but that is another conversation).  I tend to believe it is both.

According to a Los Angeles Times article, the 2009 H1N1  influenza virus killed 10 times more than previously estimated by the World Health Organization.  A study published in the journal PLOS Medicine estimated the number that died was 203,000.  Although the number appears quite small when compared to the current world population and the momentous number that perished during the H1N1 Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919, it remains a relevant number, if accurate, as a warning indicator.

However, how many of us truly appreciate the conceivably massive cascading consequences of a serious novel pandemic threat?

Are MERS, SARS, H1N1, H5N1 and H7N9 warning shots over the bow or just natural occurrences that come and go over time without serious implications?

The topic of biosecurity is not new to this blog.  Mr. Bogis and Mr. Wolfe have identified numerous areas of interest regarding the funding and resources already appropriated for biosecurity and biodefense.  There have been valuable discussions and debates regarding the perceived and actual risks and returns on investment.  The practical value of the previous investments and effectiveness of the many programs shall remain the subject of debate until they are partially or fully tested by an incident or event.

In the realm of a serious novel pandemic illness, I controversially continue to argue that it could easily outrank a conventional terrorist attack as a current threat due to the possibly catastrophic consequences to our citizens, critical infrastructure and civil stability on a broader scale.

We can only ignore the low-probability\high-consequence biological attack or serious novel pandemic illness threat until it happens.  Unfortunately, there is a long history of ignoring this threat because of limited resources and impaired strategic vision.

The Medical Preparedness Allowable Use Act, if ultimately enacted, may affect some change in this area or at least spark interest in expanded medical preparedness.


 

 

 

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.

November 14, 2013

Healing our addiction to control

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Recovery,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on November 14, 2013

Logistics hubs

The area shown above is a roughly 50,000 square mile region featuring six major and many smaller islands.  The region’s total population is about 11.2 million.

The typhoon made landfall in eastern Samar province early Friday morning November 8. With sustained winds of 195 miles-per-hour and wind gusts of up to 235 mph, the cyclone tore west across the nation of islands for the next twelve hours.

There had been preparations and in many areas evacuations.  But given the cyclone’s reach and Philippine geography one might run but not hide from a storm this size.

The number of casualties is not yet clear. The fate of survivors is clear enough. Tomoo Hozumi, the Philippines’ UNICEF representative, told CNN food, shelter, clean water and basic sanitation are “in a severe shortage, the situation on the ground is hideous.”

The dead have not been buried. Toxic detritus has been splashed across the wrecked landscape. Human waste is accumulating. Simple cuts become life-threatening due to infection and lack of medicine.

More than 11 million people are affected. More than a half-million have been displaced. Up to 2.5 million are in imminent danger due to lack of human essentials.  “Maslow’s pyramid has collapsed,” one Filipino said.

Delivering supplies is the preeminent challenge. As it was in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 2010 Haitian earthquake, and 2011 Great Tohoku earthquake. We will see these challenges in the United States following a CAT-5 hurricane or 8-plus earthquake pummeling a dense urban area.

On Tuesday night, nearly five days after landfall, the Philippine national government outlined a “master plan” for supplying the expansive impact area roughly the size of Louisiana. Based on an interview with Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras, here’s an overview from the Manila Bulletin:

“This will come out to be one of the largest logistic and relief operations that the Philippine government has ever done in history and the President wanted to make sure that we have aligned everything,” he added.

“There has never been anything at the magnitude of what we are trying to do now—not in size, not in volume, not in even the breadth of it,” he added.

Under the relief plan, Almendras said the government will set up a special processing center in Cebu that will integrate the flow of all relief assistance. From Cebu, the relief goods will be distributed to the typhoon-hit places.

He said the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) will also establish additional repacking centers of relief goods, including in Ormoc, Cagayan de Oro and Davao.

He said the government is moving the relief goods to Tacloban City by air, land, and sea transportation. C-130 planes are doing sunrise to sunset operations to bring relief goods to the disaster-hit areas.

He added that Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya has been designated “transportation guru” to ensure relief goods are moved as fast as possible.

On questions why the goods are not reaching some victims, Almendra said: “That’s really a local issue that we are trying to address now.”

The last — unanswered — paragraph is the crucial concern.  Establishing logistical hubs is certainly a challenge. They may be needed, I don’t know the status of preexisting hubs.  But hubs exist to serve spokes and move energy to the treads. Spokes and treads are how commodities become supplies that survivors actually consume.

In its November 13 situation update the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) emphasizes, “Trucks and fuel are urgently needed to deliver aid. Debris and logistics continue to severely constrain the delivery of humanitarian assistance.” In the same report OCHA estimates that to date about 250,000 survivors have received food assistance (of the 2.5 million noted above).

There have been some — surprising — lessons learned from prior catastrophes.  After the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear emergency Japanese Self Defense Forces spent at least five days trying to self-create sufficient capacity to serve hundreds-of-thousands of survivors. There was never close to enough. Only after the perimeters came down, fuel was available and commercial resources were reengaged did supplies begin to meet demand.   The convenience store sector in Japan became a major engine of localized response and recovery.

A friend who was on the ground soon after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti says, “Really effective distribution did not take hold until street vendors opened a so-called black market for relief supplies.  Our initial reaction was moral outrage. Our second and very quiet reaction was gratitude.  In a couple of days the street vendors achieved a level of distribution that was far beyond the capability of the international and NGO communities.”

Since their 2011 experience the Japanese have given unprecedented attention to pre-planning and collaboration with the private sector. (There is even a — controversial — proposal to use private sector transportation for  non-disaster-related military missions.)  The emergency-response strategy is now more focused on restoring instead of replacing private sector supply streams.

In both Japan and Haiti — and now the Philippines — the strategic issue might be framed as, “How do you make complexity your friend?”

Some partial, situation-specific answers:  Clear debris, open roadways, restore or replace bridges, do not divert fuel from the commercial economy, keep perimeters reasonably permeable, compensate the private sector (even black-marketeers) to distribute at no-charge what they had previously sold, cherish and support truckers and trucks (especially small trucks), provide security as needed with convoys or otherwise. As much as possible, use whatever relationships, networks, systems, capacities, and capabilities facilitated distribution prior to the crisis. Encourage creative local — even random — adaptation.

I don’t know the Philippines well-enough to be confident of the right answers there and now. I do recognize in the government’s “master plan” familiar strategies that have proven ineffective in previous catastrophic situations.

The front-page of the November 14 Manila Bulletin includes this headline: Despair, chaos grip Tacloban: Survivors Hope To Escape Apocalypse

–+–

The “serenity prayer” is, perhaps, most associated with Alcoholics Anonymous:

Give me grace to accept the
things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

We might adopt it for catastrophe preparedness, response and recovery.

November 12, 2013

How Australians are encouraged to learn first aid

Filed under: Education,Preparedness and Response — by Christopher Bellavita on November 12, 2013

How do you get people to pay attention to preparedness?

Here’s how the Australian Red Cross is trying to get people to learn first aid.

The first video is 1:27. The second one is 2:04. (You might not want to watch the second one if you’re eating.)

And yes, that’s really what Australians sound like.

 

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.

September 29, 2013

ICS implications of Westgate attack

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 29, 2013

On this blog I have been an advocate for more thoughtful and strategic application of the Incident Command System.  I have also argued that ICS is not fully scalable to theater-size operations (hundreds of square miles).

But today let me highlight how ICS is a fundamental component of emergency operations by offering this excerpt from a long-piece in the Sunday Telegraph:

The first rescuers to respond were a small team of Kenyan-Indians from a local plain-clothes unit that acts as a kind of armed neighbourhood watch for the large local Asian community.

With a handful of armed Kenyan police, they helped hundreds of people escape before pushing the terrorists into a corner on the ground floor, near the supermarket.

“They were returning fire, heavily, but they weren’t moving out from where they were,” said one person involved. “We had them contained. Done properly, we could have ended that thing on Saturday.”

Instead, Kenya’s army, which had taken four hours to group and prepare their assault, crashed in through both the ground and top-floor entrances, without understanding that some men wearing holsters and body armour were not attackers.

No radio contacts were set up between the units. No overall command had been appointed, and different commanders squabbled. A senior policeman was shot dead in a friendly-fire incident. Chaotic gunfire streaked across the mall’s open spaces.

Within 30 minutes, late in the afternoon, both the initial responders and the army had pulled out, leaving the mall to the terrorists and hostages.

There have even been rumors that the “friendly-fire incident” referenced above was the result of an argument over command between two military officers.

So for those readers who have felt my attitude toward ICS has been overly dismissive, here’s your dramatic example of how an effective Incident Command System is essential.

Yarnell Fire Investigative Report

Filed under: Disaster,Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on September 29, 2013

On Saturday September 28 the Arizona State Forester released the Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation Report analyzing the circumstances leading to the June 30 entrapment and deaths of 19 firefighters of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew. The report and accompanying documents are available at:

https://sites.google.com/site/yarnellreport/.

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.

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