I’ve recently noticed these signs around my new Buffalo neighborhood.
The message inspired me to return to blogging.
And to take pictures.
I’ve recently noticed these signs around my new Buffalo neighborhood.
The message inspired me to return to blogging.
And to take pictures.
This past weekend homeland security expert Juliette Kayyem had an op-ed in The Washington Post unfortunately titled (by the editors I’d assume…), “No, America isn’t 100% safe from terrorism. And that’s a good thing.”
Obviously provocative but, in my view, unnecessarily vague in regards to the point of the piece. But whatever. The important thing is the message:
Is my family safe?The answer is both simple and liberating: No, not entirely. America was built vulnerable, and thank goodness for that.
The flow of people and things, the movement to and within cities, the congregation of the masses that makes our lives meaningful, whether at church or at Fenway Park, are inherently risky. Our system (a federal government with limited powers, mayors overseeing police departments, governors directing National Guards) wasn’t designed to produce a seamless shield against every conceivable threat. Every day, more than 2 million passengers board planes at U.S. airports. The movement of goods and services — the expectation that everything from airline tickets to groceries can be purchased with just a few mouse clicks — is our lifeline. We’ve traded a measure of safety for convenience. And in our America, there are sometimes monsters under the bed.
Kayyem identifies the problem as the unwillingness of our leaders to speak the truth about our situation:
Threats constantly change, yet our political discourse suggests that our vulnerabilities are simply for lack of resources, commitment or competence. Sometimes, that is true. But mostly we are vulnerable because we choose to be; because we’ve accepted, at least implicitly, that some risk is tolerable. A state that could stop every suicide bomber wouldn’t be a free or, let’s face it, fun one.
And she suggests a path forward:
Yet we still live, often joyfully, in a world with gun violence. And drunk drivers. And disease. We implore government to allocate resources as best it can to minimize those risks. Once we move past our angst, this becomes the most rational way to approach terrorist violence.
Accepting these vulnerabilities means our safety can be measured and evaluated on three core premises: how well we minimize our risks, maximize our defenses and maintain our spirit.
The entire piece is worth your time reading, and worth sharing with friends, family, and loved ones who might not have a grasp on the concept of risk management.
With the declining state of campaign rhetoric during this political season, especially as it concerns immigration, Islam, and terrorism, I thought it appropriate to bring attention back to President Obama’s visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore last month.
If you missed it behind the sheer volume of campaign and other news, it is a speech worth reading or watching. The President hits on several important homeland security topics, while at the same time resisting the urge to frame the speech in simple security terms.
As a reporter from the Washington Post described it:
President Obama Wednesday delivered the comforting sermon to U.S. Muslims that their community leaders have been requesting for years, framing Islam as deeply American and its critics as violating the nation’s cherished value of religious freedom. Obama’s comments came in his first visit as president to a U.S. mosque.
The historic 45-minute speech at a large, suburban Baltimore mosque was attended by some of the country’s most prominent Muslims. In what appeared to be a counter to the rise in Islamophobia, Obama celebrated the long history of Muslim achievement in American life from sports to architecture and described Muslims as Cub Scouts, soldiers and parents, pointing out the mother of the pre-med college student who introduced him at the podium.
“There are voices who are constantly claiming you have to choose between your identities…. Do not believe them…. You fit in here. Right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too,” Obama said, his volume rising as he said he was speaking in particular at that moment to young Muslim Americans. “You’re not Muslim or American, you’re Muslim and American. And don’t grow cynical.”
You can read the text of the speech at the White House website here:
Or you can watch it below:
The Wednesday, December 30 Wall Street Journal included an Op-Ed by William A. Galston. The entire piece is below. Such wholesale appropriation is bad practice. I have purposefully waited for one day to pass. But in my judgment this is the best short analysis and argument I have read regarding the issue. You should read it too. I also encourage you to access the WSJ website to scan the over 250 comments that readers have offered. There are some thoughtful disagreements, there are many more reflexive dismissals. The few supportive comments are indirect.
My wife and I have just returned from twelve days with extended family, mostly in Kentucky and Illinois. On the refugee crisis we encountered a wide-range of opinion: From those opening their own homes to those in need to one individual who was so consumed with anti-immigrant anger that his wife had hidden the television and disconnected Internet, blaming the media for driving her husband crazy.
At a party after the Christmas Eve service an old friend with whom I once shared Latin class reminded me that argument originally had two forms: argutare, meaning to babble, prattle, chatter and arguere, meaning to brighten, clarify, prove. “Too much tearing, not enough air” was his analysis. Maybe you had to be there (and sharing the eggnog). But fundamental to any meaningful homeland security — especially for this particular land — is an ability to communicate with each other: to brighten and clarify, not just babble and accuse.
The following is by William A. Galston:
Democracies are often better than their leaders, but they cannot be better than their peoples. As months of anger give way to a winter of fear, it is time for Americans to ask themselves some hard questions.
Despite hyperbolic claims to the contrary, we remain the land of the free. But are we still the home of the brave?
According to a CNN/ORC survey released on Monday, 45% of Americans are worried that they or their families will become victims of terrorism. With all due respect, my fellow citizens, this is absurd. During the past decade, seven times more Americans died from lightning strikes in the U.S. than at the hands of Islamist terrorists.
But America’s public culture, which shapes our society and our politics, is increasingly decoupled from facts. We prefer to take our bearings from our sentiments—often the least honorable ones.
Fear is a powerful motivator but a poor counselor. Driven by fear, democracies make mistakes. The World War II internment of Japanese-Americans is a blot on the nation’s history. That the action was demanded by California Attorney General Earl Warren,authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt and ratified by the Supreme Court makes it even worse.
Toward the end of his life, Warren said that he “deeply regretted the removal order and my own testimony advocating it, because it was not in keeping with our American concept of freedom.” Whenever he thought of the children torn from their homes and neighborhoods, he admitted, he was “conscience-stricken.” He had come to believe that “it was wrong to react so impulsively, without positive evidence of disloyalty.”
Warren had discovered what Greek tragedians knew: Wisdom usually comes too late. In 1988 President Reagan signed legislation authorizing financial restitution for surviving Japanese-Americans who had been forcibly relocated. “No payment can make up for those lost years,” Reagan said. “What is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong.”
Fear is the enemy of honor, because it induces us to act dishonorably. That was the effect seven decades ago, and it threatens to return today.
When the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination recently called for a moratorium on the entrance of all Muslims into the U.S., 41% of his party agreed, according to a Quinnipiac survey in mid-December. Asked whether America should admit 10,000 Syrian refugees, only 28% of Americans endorsed humanitarian relief without regard to religion, according to a mid-November Bloomberg survey. Eleven percent said only Christians should be admitted, and a majority—53%—opposed admitting any Syrian refugees at all.
Granted, no public official can honestly say that accepting the refugees entails zero risk. But is that the right standard? Does a truly brave people do the right thing only when it is risk-free? Does a truly brave people exaggerate a minuscule danger into an existential threat? Is this the course of national honor?
The brave individual, Aristotle tells us, fears the right things for the right reasons, in the right way and at the right time. The fear so many Americans feel toward Syrian refugees does not meet that test.
Demagogues manipulate public passions; they don’t create them. These would-be leaders pander to what is worst in us in the service of their destructive agendas.
Real leaders tell the people what they need to hear. True friends of democracy don’t flatter the people. Demagogues assure the people that they are thoroughly virtuous and always right. That is the core falsehood of populism.
On Jan. 20, 1939, just two months after Kristallnacht was front-page news, Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion made public the results of a survey asking whether the U.S. government should permit 10,000 refugee children from Germany—most of them Jewish—to enter the country to be taken care of in American homes. Sixty-one percent of the people answered in the negative. The next month, a bill authorizing the admission of 20,000 German-Jewish children was allowed to die in a congressional committee.
That May, as the German liner St. Louis sailed within sight of Miami, President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order allowing nearly 1,000 German refugees, nearly all of them Jews, to enter the country. He did not. The ship returned to Europe, its passengers left to fate as Germany overran the Continent.
Since 2011 the U.S. government has done almost nothing to alter conditions on the ground in Syria. Nor have European governments. Now a flood of refugees threatens the stability of our closest allies. Thousands of refugees already have died at sea. And yet our leaders, backed by the American people, take no responsibility for the consequences of our collective inaction.
Even those who remember the past, it seems, are condemned to repeat it. Nothing changes except the names of the victims.
With further rain looming, more families abandoned their homes on Sunday in Paraguay, the country hardest hit by the worst flooding in decades in the area bordering Uruguay and Argentina, which has already forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate.
The El Niño weather phenomenon has exacerbated summer rains, swelling rivers in the region. The River Paraguay, which flows by the country’s capital, Asuncion, has already reached 7.82 meters (25.66 feet), its highest level since 1992.
A massive firefighting effort continued on Monday to combat the [Otways] blaze. The resources included 397 staff (including 273 firefighters), 69 four-wheel drive vehicles with water tanks 11 fire tankers, bulldozers and six aircraft.
“This fire will be with us for a period of time. People need to be ready to respond to any messages from authorities, and need to have a plan for the possibility of this fire growing in size,” Mr Rourke said.
The fire has been burning since December 19, when it was sparked by a lightning strike. It has now burnt about 2300 hectares. It destroyed 116 houses in the communities of Wye River and Separation Creek.
Australia’s weather is influenced by many climate drivers. El Niño and La Niña have perhaps the strongest influence on year-to-year climate variability in Australia…most major Australian droughts have been associated with El Niño.
From some of the worst floods ever known in Britain, to record-breaking temperatures over the Christmas holiday in the US and and forest fires in Australia, the link between the tumultuous weather events experienced around the world in the last few weeks is likely to be down to the natural phenomenon known as El Niño making the effects of man-made climate change worse, say atmospheric scientists…“What we are experiencing is typical of an early winter El Niño effect,” said Adam Scaife, the head of Met Office long-range forecasting.
Some 2.3 million people in Central America will need food aid as the current El Niño weather pattern, one of the strongest on record, exacerbates a prolonged drought, the United Nations warned today in the latest alert on the impact of the phenomenon which causes floods in parts of the world and drought in others.
“Unfortunately, another dry spell in 2015, this time exacerbated by El Niño, has again caused significant losses during the first crop cycle, the Primera season,” UN World Food Programme (WFP) Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean Miguel Barreto said in Panama…
The WFP alert came just two days after UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Anthony Lake warned that 11 million children are at risk from hunger, disease and lack of water due to El Niño in eastern and southern Africa alone.
Mr. Barreto said $75 million is needed in Central America, where the drought has already lasted two years in the Dry Corridor that stretches from Guatemala to Nicaragua, but resources are being depleted.
On Monday December 28, the Dallas Morning News headline read “TOTAL DEVASTATION” and reported:
Hundreds huddled in shelters Sunday while trying to add up the damage to their homes, churches and schools caused by deadly storms that blew through North Texas.
Eleven people, including an infant, were killed in Dallas and Collin counties, and as many as 11 tornadoes were reported to the National Weather Service.
Hardest hit Saturday was Garland, Texas, a city of 230,000 people 20 miles northeast of Dallas, where eight people died and 15 were injured, police Lt. Pedro Barineau said. Most of the fatalities occurred on highways as multiple cars became caught in the severe weather, and several vehicles plunged as far as 17 feet from a bridge, authorities said. Barineau said 600 homes and businesses were damaged…
The tornadoes that roared through Texas reached as high as EF-4, with winds reaching 175 mph, Oram said. This is the USA’s first EF-4 tornado to strike in December in 15 years. It is also the farthest west a tornado of that strength has formed in December, according to the tornado research site U.S. Tornadoes.
Until the holiday season outbreak, only 10 people had died in tornadoes across the nation this year, the fewest number on record. Wiley blamed the rare run of December tornadoes in part on a strong El Niño that has been pushing spring-like temperatures across much of the North and East. El Niño also can take some blame for the snowstorm — another trait of the system is colder than normal temperatures in parts of the South, Wiley said.
Today the Mississippi River at St. Louis is expected to crest close to its second highest level on record, the April 28, 1973 flood crest (43.2 feet). This is still short of the record 1993 crest (49.6 feet)… The St. Louis crest will then combine with the rain-swollen Ohio River and move downstream into the Mid-South and Lower Mississippi Valleys later next week and into mid-January.
Since December and November have been so warm and so wet, the atmosphere and watershed are behaving more like the spring. Temperatures over much of the Mississippi Valley have averaged 8-12 degrees Fahrenheit above normal and featured highs in the 60s and 70s during December. During November and December, frequent storms loaded with abundant moisture have delivered rainfall well above average to much of the Mississippi Basin. The pattern is typical of an El Niño, but rainfall of this magnitude has crossed into uncharted territory for the region.
The Amazon forests of Central and South America are at increased risk of fires in 2016 due to the ongoing El Niño, according to NASA scientists.
This El Niño, which has helped trigger more than 100,000 fires in Indonesia and spewed an estimated 1.75 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents into the atmosphere, will next threaten tropical forests in Southeast Asia and in southern Mexico, Guatemala and other countries in Central America, said James Randerson, an Earth system scientist at the University of California, Irvine.
The higher fire risk in the tropics is one of many of El Niño’s impacts that scientists are observing. In rain-starved California, models are projecting that the weather phenomenon, which is the strongest seen since 1997-98, will likely include heavy precipitation beginning in mid- to late December.
After Paris and before San Bernardino a Washington-Post ABC News poll found that 83 percent of registered voters perceive “a terrorist attack in the United States resulting in large casualties is likely in the near future.”
In a more recent poll seventy-seven percent of Americans express significant skepticism that it is possible to stop terrorist attacks carried out by individuals, so-called “lone wolfs” or those inspired but not directed by ISIS, al-Qaeda, and similar organizations. There is much more confidence that larger-scale coordinated attacks can be preempted. But even here a majority of poll respondents doubt all such attacks can be stopped.
The media reports on these polls (linked above) tend to perceive increasing anxiety or fear and focus on political consequences.
But the more recent poll, conducted between December 10 – 13, also asked the question, “How worried are you that you or someone in your family will become a victim of terrorism?” Despite (because of?) the proximity of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks the percentage responding as “not too worried” or “not worried at all” increased from 49 percent in a June poll to 57 percent last week.
These survey results seem coherent with my own perceptions:
Continued terrorist attacks on the United States are likely. Variations of the Boston bombings or San Bernardino shootings are most likely. An urban swarm attack, ala Mumbai or Paris, will — almost certainly — eventually be carried out.
We should be proactive and smart in taking reasonable and effective steps to reduce these probabilities. In the homeland security domain this ranges from a strategy of social solidarity to well-targeted intelligence operations. But at some time and place all of our best efforts will fail.
In any case, these terrorist operations are unlikely to directly threaten me or my family directly. They do not — or at least, need not — present an existential threat to the nation.
Given the polls reported above, other recent polls, and my own conversations with a wide range of Americans, it would seem that more than sixty percent share very similar views. It is, it seems to me, a very realistic perspective on probabilities.
It is remarkable that political leadership seems unwilling or unable to build-on the realism of a significant majority of the population. It is even worse when some putative leaders are focused on stoking an unachievable fantasy of complete security on the part of a fearful minority.
UPDATE: On December 16 the Department of Homeland Security released a National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin, a new approach to providing public alert. Rather than the old (bad) color codes, it attempts to provide some context. The first alert opens with:
We are in a new phase in the global threat environment, which has implications on the homeland. Particularly with the rise in use by terrorist groups of the Internet to inspire and recruit, we are concerned about the “self-radicalized” actor(s) who could strike with little or no notice. Recent attacks and attempted attacks internationally and in the homeland warrant increased security, as well as increased public vigilance and awareness.
This is hardly new, but perhaps someone had been waiting for “official” notice.
First proposition: Terrorism is the strategic application of opportunistic violence to achieve political purposes.
Second proposition: The political purposes of several radical Salafist groups are advanced when terrorist attacks are made against the United States. The perceived success of such attacks enhance the recruiting potential of the group that can claim credit and serves to improve the power-position of that group vis-a-vis other radical groups.
Third proposition: The political purposes of several radical Salafist groups are advanced when United States military force is deployed in Muslim-majority territories. This enhances the ability of such groups to portray themselves as legitimate defenders of Islamic peoples under attack and/or occupation.
[Readers are encouraged to utilize the comment function to raise objections to any or all of these propositions.]
First observation: To the extent the foregoing propositions are broadly accurate (if inevitably reductionist), it is reasonable to anticipate that one or more radical Salafist groups are actively engaged in motivating and/or coordinating a terrorist attack on the United States. An especially sophisticated group would try to choose a time and target designed to prompt new or increased US military operations in Muslim-majority territory. Given prior patterns of behavior, a dramatic attack late in the US election season or early in the new President’s administration might be conceived as having particular potential. (Al Qaeda, in any of its surviving forms, might be especially motivated to launch a well-coordinated attack to differentiate and resuscitate its brand in competition with the more free-lance ISIS approach.)
Second observation: Barring a significant terrorist event, it seems unlikely the US presidential campaign will give substantive attention to terrorist threats, counter-terrorism, or other aspects of homeland security. Nor is there evidence any current candidate is especially well-qualified on these issues. As a result, any well-timed and creatively targeted terrorist attack might well produce significant surprise and — especially when surprised — American political processes are predisposed to dramatic responses.
Recommendation: To the extent these observations are plausible, there would be potential benefit if homeland security professionals in the United States would be proactive during the presidential election season communicating the “draw-play” potential of terrorist attacks and discussing a wide range of US strategic options. Such activity would be designed to 1) reduce the surprise factor associated with any such attack and 2) discourage US responses that play into the political purposes of radical Salafist groups.
[If the observations and recommendations survive reader scrutiny, it would be especially interesting to hear suggestions about how homeland security professionals could engage in this process.]
The principal author of the prior 400 words does not want to be identified. Let’s call him “Paul Brown”. He is a self-described homeland security professional currently employed by a State. Philip Palin has helped shape the language above and will — sometimes in conversation with the author, sometimes not — attempt to respond to reader comments, critiques, and suggestions.
California is now in its fourth year of drought. In a state this big precipitation varies widely, but for example, in Bakersfield the average annual precipitation is 6.4 inches and through the end of September roughly 4.5 inches. This year’s total at the end of September was 2.8 inches. The winter snowpack was almost non-existent this year. The lowest in 500 years according to some.
The State of California reports reservoir levels as of October 15 are roughly two-thirds below capacity and less than half historic averages. Some examples: Castaic Lake 31% of capacity (40% of year to date average); Don Pedro 31% of capacity (47% of average); Exchequer 8% of capacity (18% of average); Folsom Lake 17% of capacity (31% of average); Lake Oroville 29% of capacity (48% of average); Lake Perris 36% (47% of average); Millerton Lake 35% of capacity (90% of average); New Melones 11% of capacity (20% of average); Pine Flat 12% of capacity (34% of average); San Luis 18% of capacity (35% of average); Lake Shasta 33% of capacity (56% of average); and Trinity Lake 21% of capacity (32% of average).
Since early this year Californians have cut their total water usage. For June, July, and August the cumulative statewide savings rate was 28.7% equal to 611,566 acre-feet of water saved. The Governor’s office has set a goal of saving 1.2 million acre-feet of water by February 2016. Some are seeing signs of a long-term shift in cultural attitudes toward water use. Last week the LA Times advocated public shaming of Southern California water hogs.
Since January 1 there have been 5942 wildfires in California, consuming 307,335 acres, almost triple a five year average.
All of which further complicates the already tough job of selling flood insurance in California.
Yet last week Accuweather reported accumulating evidence for a powerful 2015-2016 El Nino, beginning to impact California in late November into December.
The most likely, and most impactful, scenario during this winter is that California will get significant precipitation in the form of both rain and snow.
“California will be much more active weather-wise this winter than last winter,” AccuWeather Meteorologist Ben Noll said.
Copious amounts of rain from systems over the same area, a theme which occurs often during this type of weather pattern, can lead to problems for California.
Locals may be faced with flooding and mudslides, which could prove devastating for home and property owners. This will be especially problematic over recent burn scar areas, where rampant wildfires have charred millions of acres.
According to the Census Bureau there are 12,542,460 households in California. According to FEMA there are 229,538 flood insurance policies in force. Hmmm?
Last week NOAA and FEMA made a concerted effort across California to raise-the-warning and encourage preparations, including purchasing flood insurance. I happened to be in Los Angeles at the same time. City, county, and state officials are taking the flood risk very seriously. But it does require a particular exercise of the will to prepare for floods in the midst of drought.
And selling flood insurance in these conditions: How about ice to Eskimos or sand in Timbuktu or coal to Newcastle? There must be a better way to recognize and mitigate the risk.
Presidential Policy Directive 8 is one of several tools designed to actuate the President’s constitutional authority under Article II.
PPD-8 sets-up the National Preparedness Goal, a second edition of which was released last week. Acts of Congress might have been used to justify the Goal. From PPD-8: “The national preparedness goal shall reflect the policy direction outlined in the National Security Strategy… applicable Presidential Policy Directives, Homeland Security Presidential Directives, National Security Presidential Directives, and national strategies, as well as guidance from the Interagency Policy Committee process. The goal shall be reviewed regularly to evaluate consistency with these policies, evolving conditions, and the National Incident Management System.” Absence is often meaningful. The Goal, for better or worse, is a creature of the Executive.
Whether the legislature, executive, or both are involved, the creation of of such products is aptly called sausage-making: usually involving left-over scraps and fat, ground together, combined with spices and herbs, packed into something that tastes much better together than apart.
But making is only the first step. An example: In the 2011 first edition of the National Preparedness Goal there is one mention of supply chains:
Supply Chain Integrity and Security: Strengthen the security and resilience of the supply chain. 1. Secure and make resilient key nodes, methods of transport between nodes, and materials in transit.
This was one of many core capabilities listed. This particular core capability was situated under the so-called “Protection Mission”. Protecting supply chains tends to invoke a security-orientation much more than a resilience-orientation. It was a struggle to insert “and make resilient”. Over the last four years I have applied these few words like a beachhead at Normandy (it sometimes felt like Gallipoli).
Later in the same 2011 document, under the Response Mission, is another core capability worded as:
Public and Private Services and Resources: Provide essential public and private services and resources to the affected population and surrounding communities, to include emergency power to critical facilities, fuel support for emergency responders, and access to community staples (e.g., grocery stores, pharmacies, and banks) and fire and other first response services. 1. Mobilize and deliver governmental, nongovernmental, and private sector resources within and outside of the affected area to save lives, sustain lives, meet basic human needs, stabilize the incident, and transition to recovery, to include moving and delivering resources and services to meet the needs of disaster survivors. 2. Enhance public and private resource and services support for an affected area.
Supply chain resilience has become the weird personal mission of my sundown career. The words immediately above, despite their likely intent, complicated mission achievement. When combined with the Protection mission language, the Response mission language could even encourage non-resilient choices.
In the second edition of the National Preparedness Goal released last week the capability under Protection remains the same. The capability under Response now reads:
Logistics and Supply Chain Management: Deliver essential commodities, equipment, and services in support of impacted communities and survivors, to include emergency power and fuel support, as well as the coordination of access to community staples. Synchronize logistics capabilities and enable the restoration of impacted supply chains. 1. Mobilize and deliver governmental, nongovernmental, and private sector resources to save lives, sustain lives, meet basic human needs, stabilize the incident, and transition to recovery, to include moving and delivering resources and services to meet the needs of disaster survivors. 2. Enhance public and private resource and services support for an affected area.
My professional menu just evolved from boiled hot dogs to grilled kielbasa. And I will spend the next months, even years, trying to deliver this kielbasa as widely as possible. Making is only worthwhile when a product is delivered and consumed.
The 2011 hot dogs were better than nothing. But there is now a substance and flavor better matched to market realities and consumer needs. I expect this kielbasa will be consumed much more widely and enthusiastically than those hot dogs.
Supply chain issues are equally important to mitigation. Plenty of sausage-making still ahead. I am a great fan of Merguez sausage (especially made with lamb). It is a bloody, sticky, messy process. But results can fill and satisfy.
Sunday the Governor of South Carolina explained that the state has not seen the current level of flooding in 1000 years. I doubt that was what she was told. But I understand how she might have heard it.
Monday morning’s headline in USA Today was 1,000-YEAR STORM SLAMS S.C. The millennial reference was not explained.
‘1,000-year’ rain floods South Carolina, and it’s not over yet is how the CNN website headlined their video-and-text reporting. The text-based version includes, “A “1,000-year rainfall” means that the amount of rainfall in South Carolina has a 1-in-1,000 chance of happening in any given year, CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward said.”
A thousand-year-flood or a hundred-year-flood are shorthand descriptions for the annual exceedance probability for such a flood-event. Too often this is heard, as by the governor, as suggesting it has been a very long time since such an event and — of even more concern from a public understanding and public policy perspective — it will be a very long time until such an event recurs.
Here’s how the U.S. Geological Survey explains exceedance probabilities:
In the 1960’s, the United States government decided to use the 1-percent annual exceedance probability (AEP) flood as the basis for the National Flood Insurance Program. The 1-percent AEP flood was thought to be a fair balance between protecting the public and overly stringent regulation. Because the 1-percent AEP flood has a 1 in 100 chance of being equaled or exceeded in any 1 year, and it has an average recurrence interval of 100 years, it often is referred to as the “100-year flood”. Scientists and engineers frequently use statistical probability (chance) to put a context to floods and their occurrence. If the probability of a particular flood magnitude being equaled or exceeded is known, then risk can be assessed. To determine these probabilities all the annual peak streamflow values measured at a streamgage are examined. A streamgage is a location on a river where the height of the water and the quantity of flow (streamflow) are recorded. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) operates more than 7,500 streamgages nationwide (see map) that allow for assessment of the probability of floods. Examining all the annual peak streamflow values that occurred at a streamgage with time allows us to estimate the AEP for various flood magnitudes. For example, we can say there is a 1 in 100 chance that next year’s flood will equal or exceed the 1-percent AEP flood. More recently, people talk about larger floods, such as the “500- year flood,” as tolerance for risk is reduced and increased protection from flooding is desired. The “500-year flood” corresponds to an AEP of 0.2 percent, which means a flood of that size or greater has a 0.2-percent chance (or 1 in 500 chance) of occurring in a given year.
I have done some modest work with the Charleston, South Carolina region on community resilience. They have been concerned about flooding and especially the potential impact of a strong hurricane. The current storm has been “just” a rain event, but it has exposed — again — many of the vulnerabilities of concern to the community. Even without strong winds and storm surge, massive volume and high tides have been destructive enough.
The greatest challenge in Charleston — and everywhere else I have ever worked — is a strong tendency to diminish attention to what are perceived as rare risks. Too often I have seen individuals and organizations decide that since they just experienced something exceedingly rare they have essentially been indemnified from future losses.
Rather, at least in many coastal communities, there is good cause — data-driven and statistically sound — to reasonably assume that this weekend’s extremes will recur with increasing frequency in the next hundred years. Instead of indemnifying, it is just a down payment.
Late Monday USA Today reported:
The biblical flooding in South Carolina is at least the sixth so-called 1-in-1,000 year rain event in the U.S. since 2010, a trend that may be linked to factors ranging from the natural, such as a strong El Niño, to the man-made, namely climate change.
So many “1-in-1,000 year” rainfalls is unprecedented, said meteorologist Steve Bowen of Aon Benfield, a global reinsurance firm. “We have certainly had our fair share in the United States in recent years, and any increasing trend in these type of rainfall events is highly concerning,” Bowen said.
TUESDAY MORNING UPDATE:
Yikes! Here are the two opening sentences and the closing sentence of the lead editorial in the October 6 Charleston Post and Courier:
Catastrophic rainstorms like this one happen only every thousand years, climate and weather experts explained as unprecedented flooding forced people out of their homes, closed roads and submerged stalled vehicles. One can only hope that assessment holds true… We must work to prepare for the next disaster, even if it doesn’t happen for a thousand years.
The P&C is a much better than average daily newspaper. When they get this so very wrong, we can be sure most other folks will too.
When someone is accused of “September 10 thinking” it is usually meant to suggest attitudes that under-estimate the terrorist threat. Before September 11 we understood terrorism mostly as a matter of criminal investigation and prosecution. After September 11, the critique strongly implies, any clear-thinking person must recognize that terrorism requires waging war to make peace.
On this tenth day of September we have experienced fourteen years of war. Thousands have been killed in the crossfire. Millions have been displaced. There has been a militarization of domestic governance fraught with unintended consequences. Has there been a coarsening of American culture? Perpetual war has a reputation for producing this outcome. But Americans can be proudly rough-hewn. Perhaps this is an effect with deeper cause.
In any case, I perceive very little prospect for peace. If anything the terrorist threat to the United States – and many others – seems more pronounced, even more complicated than fourteen years ago.
Since 9-11 there has not been a successful “strategic” attack on the United States. Several attempts have been preempted by a combination of effective intelligence, policing, criminal prosecution, and military operations. Several mostly free-lance terrorist operations have been carried out, but the damage done pales in contrast to US mass-murders perpetrated by non-terrorists.
This is not to deny the continuing – perhaps increasing – terrorist threat. We have seen in London, Madrid, Paris, and elsewhere what is possible. Those we call terrorists do not obscure their ambitions.
The cause of current threats is complicated. It is not a straight line from American military operations to the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. But this is one of several converging lines. Our failure to shape a more inclusive and stable post-occupation in Iraq is another of these lines. We share with many others the failure to avert Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe. There are even more twists and knots and weird webs, not all of which can be traced to an American source. It is, however, often impossible to distinguish our lines from these others.
It was never a binary: war-fighting or policing. It has always been much more complicated. Most police officers and military personnel are quick to agree that deadly force is best-used only when better options have proven ineffective.
But we have given the vast majority of our attention and resources to these two counter-terrorism tools. While we can commend certain CT competencies, our current strategic situation suggests other investments are needed.
If you are expecting a comprehensive answer from me, don’t hold your breath. But I will highlight three issues beyond fighting and prosecuting which I perceive need sustained attention if we are to be in a better place fourteen years from now.
Demographic density – There are twice as many of us as in 1965. There will be even more of us. We are coming together closer in cities. We are interacting more and more through communications, commerce, and culture. The simple mathematical likelihood of conflict increases as our interactions proliferate. If predicted shortages of water and food unfold, it could be an especially ugly century.
Proximate diversity – Conflict often arises over real or perceived differences. What is interesting at a distance may be irritating close at hand. What seems reasonable to me, strikes you as crazy. Economic inequality, while perpetual, was once less obvious. Until 200 years ago many of our cultural differences were buffered by various sorts of distance. Many physical, temporal, and cultural aspects of distance are experiencing compression (see supra). This compression can encourage intentional expressions of differentiation. Such expressions escalate proximate differences that might be insignificant at a distance. One person’s creative cosmopolitanism is another’s satanic confusion.
Interdependent networks—I most often use these words to reference the electrical grids, telecommunications networks, and supply chains that facilitate and sustain the two prior issues. If these fail, preexisting tensions may escalate. But in this context the challenge – and opportunities – of interdependence also extend to social, economic, and political networks. Separation is increasingly difficult and usually delusional. Relationships across various divides are real and can be constructive, even affectionate. But whatever the affect, the connections are increasingly fundamental, spreading good and bad with equal alacrity.
These are issues that seem innately to prompt either-or, yes-no, right-wrong reactions. But I worry it is precisely this analytic predisposition that threatens mutual annihilation.
Hegel used a German word that Marx allowed to be translated into English as suggesting the old way is destroyed to make way for the new. But the original word — Aufheben — can, depending on context, mean destroy or transcend or retrieve or renew. The implication, at least for me, is how prior meaning can be constructively adapted to present reality. Or how contending worldviews can be resolved. Or how thesis and antithesis might constructively coexist. Can we develop the interpersonal skills and social systems to deploy contending energies for the common good?
A program that has roots in traditional counter-terrorism, but is trying to stretch into the issues noted above is outlined in a September 9 story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
In a speech last week to note the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the Gulf Coast, President Obama said:
Here in New Orleans, a city that embodies a celebration of life, suddenly seemed devoid of life. A place once defined by color and sound — the second line down the street, the crawfish boils in backyards, the music always in the air — suddenly it was dark and silent. And the world watched in horror. We saw those rising waters drown the iconic streets of New Orleans. Families stranded on rooftops. Bodies in the streets. Children crying, crowded in the Superdome. An American city dark and under water.
And this was something that was supposed to never happen here — maybe somewhere else. But not here, not in America. And we came to realize that what started out as a natural disaster became a manmade disaster — a failure of government to look out for its own citizens. And the storm laid bare a deeper tragedy that had been brewing for decades because we came to understand that New Orleans, like so many cities and communities across the country, had for too long been plagued by structural inequalities that left too many people, especially poor people, especially people of color, without good jobs or affordable health care or decent housing. Too many kids grew up surrounded by violent crime, cycling through substandard schools where few had a shot to break out of poverty. And so like a body weakened already, undernourished already, when the storm hit, there was no resources to fall back on.
In the podcast with Thad Allen that Arnold Bogis highlighted on Tuesday, the former Coast Guard Commandant remarked, “The event does not create the preconditions, and to the extent that preconditions exist, that erodes resiliency and your ability to deal with the problem, you’re going have the consequences of greater effect and greater magnitude.”
In addition to the preconditions noted by the President and the Admiral, I would highlight the structure of the electrical grid, fuel distribution systems, supply chains for food, pharmaceuticals, medical goods, and more. The lower ninth ward did not have a functioning public water system for fourteen months after Katrina. What would be the situation in post-earthquake Los Angeles? In the New Orleans region, as in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and in myriad locations along most major US waterways, dikes, levees, dams and other engineered structures have incrementally accumulated without much attention to potential interdependencies. Dozens of dams my grandfather was instrumental in building more than sixty years ago have not been maintained and are an increasing hazard.
As the President suggests, many of our most troublesome preconditions are the result of neglect. But others — even some referenced by Mr. Obama — are as likely to emerge from proactive and purposeful choices intended to enhance efficiency, economic productivity, and other generally perceived positives.
Does the Homeland Security mission include addressing preconditions?
Glance at the screen capture below. This is from the White House website. Click on ISSUES and this is what is displayed. Does the distinction between “Top Issues” and “More” strike you as meaningful?
I suspect the headings were organized by a web-master rather than senior policy staff. But like an innocent (Freudian?) slip of the tongue, it’s interesting to consider. I may even agree with the distinctions. The “Top Issues” listed above have the potential to shape the strategic landscape. Those listed under the first set of “More”, as usually conceived, are much more responses to problems that resist strategic shaping.
Much of my work tries to get Homeland Security more effectively engaged in preconditions. Presidential Policy Directive 21 indicates:
The Federal Government shall work with critical infrastructure owners and operators and SLTT entities to take proactive steps to manage risk and strengthen the security and resilience of the Nation’s critical infrastructure, considering all hazards that could have a debilitating impact on national security, economic stability, public health and safety, or any combination thereof. These efforts shall seek to reduce vulnerabilities, minimize consequences, identify and disrupt threats, and hasten response and recovery efforts related to critical infrastructure.
Later in the same PPD, we read:
The Secretary of Homeland Security shall provide strategic guidance, promote a national unity of effort, and coordinate the overall Federal effort to promote the security and resilience of the Nation’s critical infrastructure. In carrying out the responsibilities assigned in the Homeland Security Act of 2002, as amended, the Secretary of Homeland Security evaluates national capabilities, opportunities, and challenges in protecting critical infrastructure; analyzes threats to, vulnerabilities of, and potential consequences from all hazards on critical infrastructure; identifies security and resilience functions that are necessary for effective public-private engagement with all critical infrastructure sectors; develops a national plan and metrics, in coordination with SSAs and other critical infrastructure partners; integrates and coordinates Federal cross-sector security and resilience activities; identifies and analyzes key interdependencies among critical infrastructure sectors; and reports on the effectiveness of national efforts to strengthen the Nation’s security and resilience posture for critical infrastructure.
Several additional DHS roles are then listed. Similar proactive language — authorities, as they are called — can be found in other statutes and executive actions. But whatever the authorities and occasional exception, the culture of Homeland Security remains more defensive…threat-oriented…reactive.
Preconditions persist and multiply.
Thanks to the Alaska Dispatch News, here’s a transcript of the speech President Obama gave Monday evening (9PM Eastern) in Alaska.
The phrase “homeland security” was never uttered. But I perceive a considerable connection. One excerpt:
We also know the devastating consequences if the current trend lines continue. That is not deniable. And we are going to have to do some adaptation, and we are going to have to help communities be resilient, because of these trend lines we are not going to be able to stop on a dime. We’re not going to be able to stop tomorrow.
But if those trend lines continue the way they are, there’s not going to be a nation on this Earth that’s not impacted negatively. People will suffer. Economies will suffer. Entire nations will find themselves under severe, severe problems. More drought; more floods; rising sea levels; greater migration; more refugees; more scarcity; more conflict.
That’s one path we can take. The other path is to embrace the human ingenuity that can do something about it. This is within our power. This is a solvable problem if we start now.
Above, Weather Channel coverage of Katrina on August 27, 2005
On Saturday, August 27 ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina was a CAT-3 still in the Gulf, but projected to hit along the Mississippi delta. The state of Louisiana requested and received a Stafford Act declaration of a major disaster in anticipation of the hurricane’s impact. Late Saturday afternoon the mayor of New Orleans (finally) encouraged voluntary evacuation of the city.
That weekend I was conducting counter-terrorism training in a windowless, Strangelovian room far from the Gulf. But we had the storm track and continuous news coverage displayed on several giant monitors.
I perceive that over the next week Homeland Security morphed from being mostly threat-oriented toward much more engagement with vulnerability. This very nascent field began shifting from a focus on “stopping bad guys” to assessing risk and cultivating resilience.
Media and scholarly attention to the Tenth Anniversary of Katrina started in early August and has been surprisingly substantive. Here at HLSWatch, Bill Cumming has offered several notes and links on the anniversary, see recent Friday Free Forums. Following are five more links I hope you find worth your time.
Threats continue to challenge and tempt us. Vulnerabilities can be difficult to acknowledge. Meaningful mitigation often requires sustained collaboration. Resilience is complicated. We continue to learn from Katrina.
Each month the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases a review of weather data. What the accumulating data demonstrates are increasing departures from historic means, much more extreme weather of every sort.
While some continue to argue the cause for this shift, there is more and more consensus that the data confirms an emerging climate much different than that experienced by recent generations. (Monday I received a briefing on the so-called Kankakee Torrent of 14,000 to 19,000 years ago. This suggests that even extremes are relative).
So far the impact of the extended California drought on agricultural production — and prices — has been modest. According to a late-June analysis by the USDA Economic Research Service,
The current outlook for 2015 is for slightly lower than average retail food price inflation, with supermarket prices expected to rise 1.75 to 2.75 percent over 2014 levels. Despite drought conditions in California, the strength of the U.S. dollar and lower oil prices could have a mitigating effect on fresh fruit and vegetable prices in 2015. As of June, ERS predicts fresh fruit prices will rise 2.5 to 3.5 percent and fresh vegetable prices 2.0 to 3.0 percent in 2015, close to the 20-year historical average.
But if the current drought would extend for another several years, and especially if drought in one agricultural region is combined with destructive extreme weather in other agricultural regions (e.g. the 2010 drought in Ukraine, Russia, China, and Argentina), the combined consequence can be dire.
While an understanding of cause is usually crucial to prevention and many kinds of mitigation, it is possible to disagree as to cause and develop plausible projections of consequence. In most of life there is a “cone of uncertainty” of some sort, but even when we cannot precisely predict, we may be able to reasonably anticipate.
Over the last several months a UK-US team has attempted to anticipate the impact of extreme weather on global agricultural capacity. They recently released a report, concluding:
... the global food system is vulnerable to production shocks caused by extreme weather, and… this risk is growing. Although much more work needs to be done to reduce uncertainty, preliminary analysis of limited existing data suggests that the risk of a 1-in-100 year production shock is likely to increase to 1-in-30 or more by 2040. Additionally, recent studies suggest that our reliance on increasing volumes of global trade, whilst having many benefits, also creates structural vulnerability via a liability to amplify production shocks in some circumstances. Action is therefore needed to improve the resilience of the global food system to weather-related shocks, to mitigate their impact on people.
I find the binational report especially interesting for reasons that go beyond the explicit factual analysis. The organization and rhetoric of the report seems a bit bipolar… unable to resolve a persistent tension between two policy/strategy perceptions. One angle tends toward greater redundancy and centralization. The other tends toward greater diversity and decentralization. The authors do not seem self-aware of the tension. It would be interesting, at least to me, to see a principled strategic process for engaging these two alternatives… or possibly complementary approaches.
Over the last many days an extraordinary volume of water has encountered the structural and human density of the fourth largest city in the United States. The Greater Houston metropolitan region has a population of 6.22 million and a population density of 630.3 persons per square mile.
During the month of May over twenty inches of rain has fallen across much of East Texas. In the Houston area on Monday night over ten inches fell in a period of only six hours. Rain continued to fall on Tuesday and Wednesday.
This quantity of rain in a comparatively contained space over such a short period of time would profoundly challenge the equilibrium of most natural environments. The built environment on which humans depend is seldom as resilient. Pack millions of humans into a dense urban environment and whatever our individual resilience, there will be a range of interdependencies that increase everyone’s risk. We can be surprised.
Extraordinary external volume can seldom be entirely avoided. This is true for potential threats beyond precipitation. Denial of service attacks, mass suicide bombings, and uncontrolled oil spills are other examples. Unusual volume, concentrated in time and/or repeating time after time, disrupts and destroys.
Urban population density is a choice, but for the last two centuries it has also been a persistent — and accelerating — choice. There are real benefits. Density is likely to increase in the years ahead.
Given the loss of life, destruction of property, and the extent of human misery caused, I am sure some will be appalled at my lack of apparent empathy, but the floods in Texas and Oklahoma have — among other things — reminded me of some junior high physics problems.
If density and volume are each highly elastic and mostly beyond our control, we seem to be left with mass as the input with which we might still hope to influence outcomes.
In seventh grade I was taught that mass is the property of a body which determines the strength of its mutual gravitational attraction to other bodies and its resistance to being accelerated by a force, such as a volume of water. Generally we protect populations and the built environment by increasing the size and weight of dams, walls, and other “resistance” structures that retain, divert, disperse or otherwise reduce the force of any threatening volume.
At least here on earth, we don’t always give much attention to gravity because there’s not much we can do about it.
Mrs. Holman taught me that gravity is the weakest of the four fundamental interactions of nature, the others being electromagnetic, strong nuclear and weak nuclear. Yet despite its comparative weakness, gravity is absolutely necessary to the universe as we know it. Both gravitation and electromagnetism act over infinite distance to mediate diverse actions.
Both as a matter of physics and as a metaphor for broader application, gravity determines mass through interactions and relationships among multiple bodies. In addition to adding size and weight to strengthen the built environment, what ought we do in regard to interactions and relationships to reduce the risk of volume and density converging?
In the midst of the flooding in Oklahoma and Texas, as in the recent earthquake in Nepal, as in the aftermath of Sandy and Katrina, and in the ongoing recovery from the Triple Disaster in Japan, there has been a tendency to emphasize “weighty” engineering solutions. Good. Great.
But interactions and relationships are also an important part of the formula.