Category — Critical Infrastructure

2011 – The Costliest Year for Emergencies?

This past year was unusual both in terms of frequency of disasters and each event’s high cost. In recent years, typically one or two large to catastrophic events have dominated the news — like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010. Whether 2011 with its multiple billion-dollar disasters is a trend is hard to tell, but professional emergency planners and managers should be prepared for that possibility.

The National Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration compiled data, including total loss data, on the 12 billion-dollar disasters of 2011. The following information illustrates the historic nature of those disasters:

The Groundhog Day blizzard of Jan. 29 to Feb. 3 dumped one to two feet of snow across the Northeastern, mid-Atlantic, eastern and central states, resulting in 36 deaths. Total losses were more than $1.8 billion.

During the Midwestern/Southeastern tornadoes of April 4-5, 46 tornadoes affecting 10 states caused nine deaths, more than $2 billion in insured losses and exceeded $2.8 billion in total losses.

The Southeastern/Midwestern tornadoes of April 8-11 included an estimated 59 tornadoes across nine states that were responsible for numerous injuries but no deaths, and more than $2.2 billion in total losses.

On April 14-16, about 177 tornadoes across 10 states in the Midwest/Southeast resulted in 38 deaths. While few of those tornadoes were considered intense, they caused total losses greater than $2 billion.

The Southeast/Ohio Valley/Midwest tornadoes of April 25-30 were responsible for more loss of life than any of the preceding tornadoes of 2011. An estimated 343 tornadoes across 13 states caused 321 deaths. Several major metropolitan areas, including Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala., were directly affected by several strong tornadoes, which were responsible for $7.3 billion in insured losses and more than $10 billion in total losses.

The Midwestern/Southeastern tornadoes of May 22-27 resulted in total losses greater than $9.1 billion, more than $6.5 billion of which were in insured losses. More than 180 tornadoes caused at least 177 deaths; 160 of those deaths were in Joplin, Mo., in what was the single deadliest tornado to strike in the U.S. since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950.

An estimated 81 tornadoes and severe weather struck the Midwest and Southeast on June 18-22; losses exceeded $1.3 billion.

Spring through fall, drought, heat wave conditions and wildfires in the Southern Plains and Southwest affected Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arizona, southern Kansas, and western Louisiana and Arkansas. Direct losses to agriculture, cattle and structures totaled more than $9 billion.

Mississippi River flooding during the spring and summer resulted from persistent rainfall (nearly 300 percent of normal precipitation) combined with melting snowpack. Economic losses were estimated at $3 billion to $4 billion.

Upper Midwest flooding in the summer resulted in five deaths and estimated losses in excess of $2 billion. These floods were caused by the melting of an above-average snowpack across the northern Rocky Mountains combined with above-average precipitation.

Hurricane Irene made landfall on Aug. 20 as a Category 1 hurricane over North Carolina. Over the next nine days, it moved north along the coast, bringing torrential rainfall and strong winds while causing flooding across the Northeast. Losses were more than $7 billion; at least 45 deaths resulted from the storm.

Wildfires impacted Texas, New Mexico and Arizona during spring through fall, losses from which exceeded $1 billion.

The estimated economic damages from these events exceed $45 billion as of press time, making it likely that 2011 will be the costliest year for insured losses since records have been kept. Given that 2011 was the first year of the 21st century’s second decade, it’s clear that those responsible for emergency management and disaster planning must anticipate the future in a bolder, more proactive way than they have in the past. The historic events of last year demonstrated some unusually destructive characteristics, attracted significant media attention, and laid bare numerous deficiencies in the plans, systems and processes used in all phases of emergency management.

When talking about disasters, 2011 has been a significant year on its own — and the events of the year appear to be keeping with the noticeable upswing in the number of declared disasters in recent decades. Although it is too early to establish a firm trend line or pattern, as a nation we need to consider the following:

  • Are large-scale disasters and catastrophes, events whose costs are measured in the billions of dollars, the new normal in the foreseeable future?
  • If so, how should the emergency management community plan and prepare for such mega-disasters?
  • Do we need to make changes, major or minor, to our policies, programs and response/recovery systems?
  • Should the threshold for a presidential disaster declaration be changed? (A staffer from the U.S. DHS Office of Inspector General recently noted that the formula hasn’t changed since 1999.)
  • Should the preparation of a national risk assessment be given a higher priority?
  • Should the DHS’ education and training programs give more attention to risk management for catastrophic natural disaster events?
  • Will the Whole Community concept being promoted by the current administration at FEMA be essential? Is it adequate as now articulated?

The emergency management community seems to be entering new territory with respect to the scale, number, frequency and cost of disasters in the United States. It is essential that we’re prepared for the worst as we head into a new year.

Facta non Verba

Article republished with permission from Emergency Management.

February 28, 2012   No Comments

A Culture of Planning: How to Know if the Shoe Fits

We have all heard how important an organization’s culture is and yet the essence of the culture of any given organization often defies accurate description. Charles W. L. Hill and Gareth R. Jones have defined the concept as: “The specific collection of values and norms that are shared by people and groups in an organization and that control the way they interact with each other and with stakeholders outside the organization.”

An organization’s culture is always at work, always in force — pulling, influencing and shaping attitudes and actions. The culture can be likened to gravity, constantly tugging us back to the reality of earth.

A culture of planning has many facets. One of those facets is how the organization views and executes the task of planning. There are many types of planning, and all may not be equally valued or performed in all organizations. For example, an organization that fully embraces and values strategic planning may fail to commit the same level of collective effort to continuity planning. For the purposes of this writing/audience, I refer to the genre of emergency or continuity planning.

There’s a qualitative difference between an organization that usually, frequently or occasionally plans, and one that has planning endemic to its culture. How does one know if one’s organization has its affiliation in the former or the latter? I propose 10 characteristics of a culture of planning (CoP) and a brief description of each that can help with the distinction.

1. A CoP emphasizes resilience and understands the difference between it and recovery.The differences can best be understood if one realizes that resilience is an adjective, and recovery is usually a verb or noun in the emergency management context. Resilience is a quality applied to materials when they have the ability to resume their normal shape after being stressed. It is an innate quality rather than an after-the-fact campaign. Both may be necessary, but resilience is qualitatively better because it implies that the ability to recover is woven into the fabric of the organization.

2. Values planning and understands the appropriate level of detail — strategic, operational and tactical. It is common to over-plan or under-plan, each caused by a different organizational trait/characteristic. Under-valuing planning reveals the deeper problem of apathy; over-planning (in terms of detail) runs the risk of assembling a collection of manuals that gather dust on the shelf but are of little practical value. The major value of the planning exercise is that it teaches us how to think about the problem; then, and only then, can we know what to do about it.

3. Has the ability to psychologically embrace the possibility of bad things happening. Some organizations, like some people, think that if they ignore a potential issue or incident, it will either go away or never manifest. A mature organization — a CoP organization — seeks out and engages the environmental hazards before they occur for planning purposes. While engaged in the battle is not the best time to be thinking about how to fight for the first time.

4. They compile an extensive experience bank by a multiplicity of methods.
 In his book, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions author Gary Klein discusses a model for understanding the human decision process. He reports that experienced decision-makers improve their skills by:

  • engaging in deliberate practice;
  • compiling an extensive experience bank;
  • obtaining accurate, timely and diagnostic feedback; and
  • reviewing experiences to derive new insights and learning.

5. Anticipates and mitigates “hidden variables;” prevents “ignorant variables.” There are consequences to events and actions that occur despite our best efforts at due diligence. The threat of these “hidden variables” may be lessened by a disciplined approach and systematic analysis, but seldom can they be completely eradicated. There is no shame in being bitten by a hidden variable; the same cannot be said about its ignorant cousin.

An ignorant variable is one that could and should have been foreseen had the evaluator had the requisite knowledge, applied the disciplined approach, and done the systematic analysis. Unfortunately the culture that gives rise to opportunity for ignorant variables seldom recognizes them as such. They are, therefore, prone to repeat their mistake — if not in the same venue, in another.

6. Has a high tolerance of ambiguity. The root word of ambiguity is, of course, ambiguous, meaning unclear, indistinct or obscure. Where there is ambiguity, there is always uncertainty. Uncertainty implies a degree of a lack of control, and incremental lack of control is one pervasive characteristic of an emergency or disaster. There are those that assert that control of one’s environment is an illusion at best. Yet, illusion or not, anxiety and apprehension in ambiguous circumstances are not characteristics of a CoP.

One trait of a CoP is that the organization has the collective ability to preside over its circumstances even in the absence of clarity. This calmness of organizational spirit has a traceable cause; it is rooted in the preparation for action that comes with planning, with learning to how think about problems, not just the nuts and bolts of solving them. Once the process is mastered, problem solving becomes the application of a variable-yet-iterative process.

7. Embraces testing, training and exercising. Who in the brother and sisterhood of emergency managers has not had the experience of difficulty getting organizational executives to training and exercise sessions? A CoP has inculcated the value of dress rehearsal for the “big one” from top to bottom.

8. Constantly scans the environment and has a conversational/technical knowledge of threats. A CoP doesn’t exercise the same tired old hurricane scenario over and over, but gives attention to the perhaps more exotic-but-deadly threats on the horizon.

A conversational technical/knowledge of threats means that the emergency manager not only knows what is “out there” to put the organization at risk, but also knows enough about the threat to understand why the threat is real. For example, knowing the chemistry and gene sequence of the H5N1 virus is not necessary; knowing that an outbreak of the same would likely result in a 50 percent mortality rate is essential.

9. Does not confuse the distinction between “frequency” and “probability.” According to Liisa Valikangas, professor of innovation management at the Helsinki School of Economics, one of the human cognitive factors that complicates our ability to take resilient action is, “confusion between frequencies and probabilities.” Valikangas goes on to say, “direct experience is a poor guide” because of the human tendency to (because the lack of actually having an experience) discount the probability of a catastrophe from happening, hence reducing preparation measures. Our experiences (or lack thereof) make us poor interpreters of future probabilities where those probabilities fall outside of a mainstream of cultural history.

10. Resists the “urgent” in deference to the “important.” The point of Parkinson’s Law of Triviality is that organizations tend to spend disproportionate amounts of time devoted to trivial issues. That is, the more time and attention spent on important matters, the less time that is required to attend to urgent matters. Though the work indisputably expands to fill the time available for its completion, the nature of the work in which we engage is entirely under our control.

Reprinted with permission from Emergency Management.

Facta non Verba

February 6, 2012   No Comments

Tapping the Potential of Faith-based Organizations in the Wake of Disaster

Becoming “Nehemiah Complaint”

(reprinted with permission)

Over the course of the years, I have had the opportunity to witness quite a few churches operate in the wake of a disaster. Before getting too far into this article, I want to say that there are many faith-based organizations that have done a tremendous job of responding to disasters, but those are not the ones I am addressing here.

Aftermath of Joplin, Missouri Tornadoes

I remember some of my early programs included discussions about what I called “chaotic response”. These references were regarding the groups of youth or volunteers from different churches that, with hearts of gold, would deploy themselves into disaster zones only to become a part of the problem and not the solution. One of my favorite anecdotes was that of a church that, with broken gas lines hissing all over town, took it upon themselves to set up a large number of BBQ grills in a parking lot to feed the storm victims…

The government is much more politically correct when describing this activity; they call it “spontaneous response”. I still refer “chaotic”.

I will never forget one experience I had this summer. As my team worked debris removal in the heart of Joplin’s “ground zero”, we were encountering every type of debris imaginable from hospital waste to broken glass, from shredded sheet metal to twisted power cables.  We had several pieces of heavy equipment operating in a few acres of space and over 60 workers. Our team, no strangers to deployments, were geared from head to toe with hard hats, steel toed boots, long pants, safety glasses and masks.

It was in the midst of this that a large white bus pulled up…

There was window paint decorating the bus that exclaimed in no uncertain terms what had brought the bus to this place for on each window was emblazoned messages like “To Joplin with love” and “God’s Army”. As the bus came to a stop, the doors were flung open and I had my first view of what was to come.  The youth leader was the first out of the bus…

He was a large man, in his mid-to-late-twenties with a goatee and what looked like a middle-aged version of a Mohawk. The Hawaiian shirt was a great look for him, but the pale-purple sandals really caught my eye.

There is an old saying, “As the leader goes, so go the people”. Never a more true statement here. The entire bus was packed with young people, all in shorts, light t-shirts and baseball caps. They were all wearing running shoes or crocks and in one hand, they each had sun-screen; in the other, yard rakes.

I wanted to alert the field hospital immediately just to let them know they were about to have a run!

What is the difference between a “Missions Trip” and a “Deployment”?  The answer is almost obvious.

Missions trips take place every year and can range from puppet shows on the street to trips overseas to spread the gospel or a message of hope.  Deployment is a military word and refers to the transfer of soldiers to an area where the purpose is to overcome an obstacle or enemy.

While many churches and faith-based organizations will schedule missions trips to disaster-struck areas in order to rebuild homes or churches, teams deployed into disaster zones need to be properly deployed and need to be deployed with a knowledge base of training that allows them to be of use where they are needed the most.

Simple understanding of the phases of disaster, basic research, and trained people can make all the difference.

Now, I am not saying this group should not have come to Joplin. What I am saying is that too often I see faith-based organizations step into situations where they have no business being simply because they have allowed the “separation of church and state” to overshadow common sense. As I visit churches, I find that the separation of church and state has become almost a “comfort zone” in which we exist; a world where churches operate on their rules while the government operates on its rules.  We have to be willing to embrace the concept that this separation cannot apply to deploying. There is a National Response Plan that includes us all as American’s, church-going or not.

This particular group was geared to work in a food tent, to be distributing water or to be assisting at the City’s base of operations. There was no way this group should have been in that “ground zero” area.

Aside from the liability they immediately became the minute they stepped off their bus, they were immediately not operating within the confines of any authority; a poor witness for a faith-based organization.

While large denominations, for the most part, have phenomenal training programs, it is still the local churches and the independent churches that hit the ground the most, and it is in lack of training that representatives of God can quickly bring hell to a town.

I am not discounting the value of missions by any means.  Many of our members are involved in missions and we wholeheartedly endorse the concept of missions, but we believe that the ministry performed by certain teams comes through the professionalism, the efficiency, and the timing of the response.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s Disaster Relief organization states “When humanity is judged, one of the decisive factors will be how well we responded to the needs of our neighbors.”  It is this belief and philosophy that has made the Convention’s work some of the finest ever seen in the wake of disasters.

“But Eddy, if I start requiring all kinds of training for my people in order to go we’ll lose volunteers!”

“My people don’t have time to train AND respond so we take what we can get!”

I believe there is a biblical basis for requiring your church members to train and prepare to respond rather than becoming “chaotic response”.

It is in the Bible’s book of Nehemiah that we find our original blueprint for this avenue of ministry we call disaster response.

Although the current books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book, and were originally just chapters called “Ezra I and Ezra II”, the chapters were eventually split into two separate books.  The book of Ezra now contains a portion of the history of how Jerusalem came to ruins, but in Nehemiah, now that since 1560 is its own book, reads like the story of a deployment.

Nehemiah was a spiritual leader who had the gifting and wisdom to seek practical solutions.  We find in the beginning of the account that Nehemiah was involved in government.  He worked for the government.  When Nehemiah saw the ruins of Jerusalem, he chose to act.  It says in Chapter One that he wept at the first report.

Let me point out that this is where the church excels.  Nehemiah’s heart was broken and he wept.  I believe that what makes churches so valuable and gives them more potential than any other type of organization is that the infusion of faith into the human spirit ignites passion and it is that passion that can be the catalyst for large movements.

Nehemiah approached the king and discussed the current situation with the king, very much like our C4LDRT (Chasing4Life Disaster Response Team) leadership has briefings with government agencies now.

The king, in Chapter 2 asks Nehemiah what his goals are in order to hold Nehemiah to a form of accountability, and Nehemiah presents his missions statement and purpose, adding that he would like permission to respond to the disaster.

This is a key element in how we should respond.  Never self-deploy, and never enter the gates of a city without permission.

The account continues with even more insight for us as Nehemiah requests of the king a few things; the first is the permission.  The second request is that the king give him certificates so that upon deployment, Nehemiah will have the ability to operate freely in the disaster zone.

In the same manner as Nehemiah, the church needs to require of its members that they be constantly educating themselves and acquiring certificates of training from entities such as FEMA and DHS.  Simple online courses offered for free from DHS and FEMA not to mention dozens of others can be a great source of education and understanding for any faith-based organization’s volunteers. If a church expects to deploy alongside fire departments, there should be no difference in understanding between the two entities or they will not be able to function together.

Nehemiah gets his certificates, and has another request for the king; grant funding.

While the scripture only briefly touches on this, the story says that Nehemiah was “granted” what he asked for, and this included even security provided for by the king’s soldiers.  My point here is that once Nehemiah was NIMS compliant, he suddenly became a respected entity. It was obvious that the king no longer was seeing Nehemiah as just another “Bible-thumper”, and Nehemiah was having doors opened for him!

You can see the precedent set for churches in disaster here; there is a great value to be placed on pre-arranged relationships and “permissions”.

It is only at this point that Nehemiah can deploy, and as the story progresses, we see that he enters the city, begins to work, and inspires those around him who marvel at his efficiency, professionalism and authority.

As the year comes to a close, we have to look ahead. 2012, (Mayan calendar considered or not), we are sure to see more disasters that will require massive amounts of volunteers. The faith-based population is the largest population in the United States and therefore, could be the largest work-force in the wake of disaster, but we have a responsibility to ready ourselves, get trained, become educated and follow in the footsteps of Nehemiah.

If you are in church leadership, I encourage you to seek out training opportunities such as CERT for your people. Meet with local authorities to determine what you might do to create NIMS compliant response teams within your fellowship. Make your next bake sale or fundraiser a source for purchasing hard hats.  From the little things to the big things, you can become a part of a system that needs you, but needs you to do it right.

As for those of you in governmental positions, I have another word today…

Seek out faith-based leaders in your community and include them.  The passion and numbers of the faith-based community is a source we do not tap into often enough and if we intend on becoming more efficient and effective, we need to utilize this vast and tremendous resource.


Original post: Becoming Nehemiah Compliant

Reposted with permission from Chasing4Life.


Fact non Verba

January 9, 2012   2 Comments