Tuesday, February 11, 2014

An after action report that does not mince words..

The National Center for Security and Preparedness are in the midst of compiling an After Action Report on Sandy and New State OEM's response...words are not minced:

"NOTE: Blue-bolded and italicized texts contain information intended only for the Commissioner of the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. 

"OEM is extremely understaffed. By comparison, Iowa's emergency management agency, serving a state with the same area as New York but only a sixth the population, is as large as OEM. The profound demands on an overtaxed staff during its many activations, as well as under performance by a vocal and unmotivated minority have severely degraded morale and compromised effectiveness. Designating emergency management staff as nonessential personnel to facilitate early retirement and a subsequent failure to fill empty positions has further eroded OEM’s capabilities.  ""

One of the biggest revelations was the New York State OEM's staff has been reduced by 50% since 2011, from 125 to approximate 65 post-Sandy.

The report blasts Staff management, morale, outdated technology, strategy and response planning, etc...The report is clear, concise, and highlights vulnerabilities that will / have impacted recovery and New York State's ability to respond to future events. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Marketing Preparedness...

How do you break through? How do you create messaging that resonates? How do you get people to care, to act, to change their behavior? These questions can be heard in the offices of marketers and advertising...but they can also be applied when considering how to market preparedness.

The challenges in creating awareness and ultimately action around preparedness messaging feels very similar to the challenges advertisers and marketers face when changing perceptions or introducing a brand. Creating value around an idea, or inspiring action can be a daunting task, especially when we're talking about subject matter that makes people uncomfortable. The ability to raise awareness while actually imparting knowledge or changing behavior is the end goal in both marketing and preparedness, so why isn't there more cross pollination done between the two disciplines?

Meet Jenny Gottstein, she is one of those people who is blurring the lines between preparedness, marketing...and dare I say something that sounds like fun?!

At preparedness events there is usually a long line of people coming for free stuff, and during the 15 seconds you have their "attention" you try to impart some wisdom that may help them in the event of a disaster. These types of events are more about moving product to make reporting look good than it is about changing attitudes and perceptions.

Urban scavenger hunts are a big deal thanks to shows like "The Amazing Race;" clues direct you to various point and challenges dictate how quickly you advance and it appears Ms. Gottstein has combined the two, and thrown our love affair with Zombie's in the mix. The result is a disaster preparedness training game under the guise of the Zombie Apocalypse.
Soucre: Thelocalvoice.net
She armed players with smart phones and Nerf guns, and had teams of people run around the San Francisco completing challenges like "light a BBQ without matches" or “pack a Go Bag” or "bandage a burn wound" all while being chased by zombies. She tried to incorporate practical skill building but in a way that is more fun than serious. There was a lot of coverage of the event as well, on sites like: SF WeeklyFunCheap SF, and 7x7 and from the looks of it, it was well attended and fun was had.

According to Ms. Gottstein "It was a huge success" and as a result she is working to develop this concept into a nation-wide phenomenon.

I like this concept because it takes everything that I've talked about and we as a community of practice talk about and is actually trying to do something with it. Of course it's easy to be negative about how it doesn't do this, or meet the standards of that...but what it is doing, is getting communities of young people engaged. By leveraging popular culture and tying it to concepts that we struggle to connect to people on, she may have found a way to make people care, which I believe is a huge step in the right direction.
source: millenialtrain.co
Ms. Gottstein is working to create a version 2.0 and has applied to board Millennial Trains Project, a cross country start up incubator-esque environment on a train that stops in several cities along the way.

She has raised $5,000 and I believe secured her seat which is great news because she plans on meeting with some interesting people to build her ideas to adapt the game and make it better.
The Little Things Lab
Univ. of New Mexico Game Design Students
Code for America
Create Here

I encourage you to check out her page at: http://crowdhitch.millennialtrain.co/campaign/detail/2481

Make a plan, build a kit, get engaged...and get attacked by zombie's adds a new dimension to a marketing message that many have tuned out. In order to communicate with the whole community, we have to revise the way we approach how we engage. I think what Ms. Gottstein is trying to do is different, fun, and allows people to interact with the concepts of preparedness...something I haven't too much of in preparedness programming up to this point.

What do you think? Do you have examples of unique or innovative preparedness programming?

Friday, January 31, 2014

How Local Governments Hinder Our Response to Natural Disasters

Read this article: "How Local Governments Hinder Our Response to Natural Disasters" by Mr. David Wachsmuth; it could potentially be construed as heresy in some circles, but there is also a degree of truth in the observations he makes. Wachsmuth looks at the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and talks about how the Mayor's office usurped the power to lead following landfall favoring improvisation instead of the plans the OEM had created.

One of the more interesting takeaways from the article is this:

"Collaborations need to be achievable to be useful. The sociologist Lee Clarke argues that disaster plans are "fantasy documents"—tools for building trust in an organization rather than actual, implementable plans. This was certainly true in the response to Sandy. More modest plans, which take account of political realities and power relations, are more likely to be useful than comprehensive but unachievable fantasy documents." 

A lot of time, effort, and money goes into disaster planning and yet I've seen firsthand, as I'm sure many of you have as well, the ad hoc nature of response environments. Even when the best curated plans are exercised ad nauseam, challenges remain. This is not to say that planning can account for every facet of a disaster, but it would seem that two opposing forces are being pushed simultaneously, the need for rigidity in planning that ICS and the command and control mentality require, and the push for greater community involvement to build resilience and self-reliance. 

How do you reconcile the rigidity that is often seen in municipal planning with the inherent ad hoc nature of grassroots community response? What does that look like in a plan for a city? As it stands many plans don't account for emergent response activities but with the role Occupy Sandy played following Sandy, that will hopefully change.

If the idea that the Mayor's office totally disregarded OEM's plans seems crazy...you can read about how Michael Brown, (you may remember him as "brownie"), disregarded the newly minted National Response Plan following Hurricane Katrina...plan-averse public officials it seems, are nothing new.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

To declare, or not declare...that is the question...

Washington, IL November Tornado Source: imugr
While never having had the responsibility of sitting in a County Executive's position or position of even greater responsibility at the state level, I would imagine that when a disaster strikes, they are conflicted: on the one hand they worry about the safety of their constituents, and on the other, they want the event to cause enough damage so that their jurisdiction can qualify for federal assistance. In a time when cities are declaring bankruptcy and tax bases are eroding, elected officials have to navigate the emotional fallout of a disaster as well as figure out how to pay for the subsequent response and recovery.

Although the disasters of 2013 didn't have the gravitational pull that Superstorm Sandy had, the Oklahoma Tornadoes, The Rim Fire in California, and the Colorado flooding all caused significant damage and all received Major Disaster Declarations.

However, 2013 also had several events that didn't qualify for Individual and/or Public Assistance, adding new voices and national coverage to growing discontent on how exactly the declaration process works. While some sort of declarations were given to the Yarnell Fire in AZ, The Fertilizer Plant explosion in TX, and the November Tornado outbreak in Illinois, in each instance there was an outcry that more should have been done to support the communities and survivors of those events.

Even though the above events didn't meet designated thresholds that would have triggered the full breadth of federal assistance, a Bill (H.R. 3295) was introduced in the House of Representatives with the intent of amending the criteria under which resources are offered dubbed the: "Fairness in Federal Disaster Declarations Act of 2014."

This Bill, which was introduced on January 21st, would amend the criteria used to evaluate a request for a major disaster declaration by weighting the factors used to determine Individual and Public Assistance, as well as request that economic factors of the impacted locality and the state's financial situation be taken into account when determining eligibility.

When the Congressional Act of 1803 was passed, considered the first piece of disaster legislation, it provided assistance to Portsmouth New Hampshire, a town recovering from a major fire. Prior to that localities were left to fend for themselves in the wake of a diaster. The premise on which our Emergency Management infrastructure is based is that events are to be handled at the lowest level of government possible. By amending the rules on how federal assistance is meted out, would we be making more events eligible? Would it work against the goals of creating resilience and bolstering preparedness in communities? Would the Bill ultimately end up paying for deferred infrastructure improvements? Not only that, but who's paying for the additional dollars given to disaster survivors?

While the current criteria used to trigger federal assistance following an event may have its flaws, I believe more questions and a more thorough investigation of Bill H.R. 3925 will need to be undertaken as it seems to pose more questions than it answers.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Recovery of American Samoa

NOAA American Samoa Tsunami from Ed McNichol on Vimeo.

The South Pacific is a geologic hotbed of activity where earthquakes are a way of life and the threat of Tsunami's are all too real. In 2009, just under 2 years before the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami changed life for hundred of thousands of people, there was a Tsunami that struck the U.S. Territory of American Samoa as the result of a M8.1 quake--the largest in 2009.

American Samoa is a small island Territory with an area of just 76 sq miles, dominated by mountains running through much of its center, the topography of the island puts many of its 55,000+ inhabitants in close proximity to the ocean and at risk. While the familiarity with what to do and how to act in the event of an earthquake and tsunami prevented a large loss of life when the 4 15-20ft waves came ashore, the challenges of recovery were compounded due to American Samoa's unique geography and limited on island resources.

Because of its territory's status, FEMA was deployed to provide assistance, however, due to the indigenous system of land tenure that takes a more communal approach to land use, many couldn't prove "ownership" of their property which  added to the challenge of delivering financial assistance.

It's geography and topography, the indigenous land use system, the limited resources on island, and the number of individuals and families affected posed unique challenges to the Federal system setup to provide financial assistance and the network of voluntary agencies looking to provide help.

Given American Samoa's proximity to the Tonga Trench, an earthquake generating machine, and the challenges that the traditional response infrastructure faced, prompted FEMA to invest over $100 million to get American Samoa certified as TsunamiReady by NOAA. The criteria by which this certification is given are that:

  • A community must have a 24 hour warning point 
  • An Emergency Operations Center
  • Multiple ways to receive Tsunami warnings and alert the public -- a siren alert system has been installed
  • A formal Tsunami hazard plan
  • Conducting emergency exercises to promote public readiness through community education
The sizable investment made by FEMA to bolster resilience on island will hopefully work to mitigate the reliance on outside assistance in future responses. While the events that led to American Samoa receiving the TsunamiReady certification were tragic, the time, effort, and investment in resources have created a more resilient set of communities, ready when the next event happens.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Designing resilience into the fabric of our cities

In a similar vein to yesterday's post on the potential impacts the rapid increase in urban populations will have on our ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters, this article from the folks at Fast Company is about one vision that integrates resilience into our cities working with the space that's already available.

If the world did as Mr. De Chant's 'Per Mile Squareinfographic suggests and underwent a hyperdensification, stacking on top of itself to achieve NYC levels of population density, then there would need to be modifications made to that environment that promotes / reinforces the resilience we are currently striving to create. The real world application of what these resilience strategies would look like are explored in this article and are lumped together and classified as 'green infrastructure.'
Image © Gensler
Remember that if the world is going to live like New Yorkers do, then roughly the same wasted space would need to be accounted for...in the case of NYC, that's roughly 5.3 million square feet of space, or roughly 92 football fields. This manifests itself in concrete traffic medians, vacant lots, and barren space that is waiting to be transformed. When you think of New York City, wasted space is not a concept that comes to mind, which is why this idea of transforming the "dead space" that is there into something that can work to promote resilience in the face of increased severe weather events is so cool.

When we think about cities, the prevailing mindset is that there is no room to do anything, overcrowding, poor sanitation, noise pollution, visual blight, and we've been programmed to believe that it stems from the model of our urban infrastructure. What it is though is a reluctance to invest in ideas that would transform that blight into opportunity. What Eric Tan of Gensler has done is to take existing "dead space" and repurpose it, so that it can help an overwhelmed municipal sewer system during strong deluges by creating absorbent surfaces that "eat" water. Or capturing solar energy in current "dead space" by building solar panels and charging stations to mitigate the need for power to charge mobile devices post-event.

These ideas are just that...ideas, but they open the door to what can be done to make our urban environments nicer places as well as places that work harder for us, helping us cope with a future of stronger and more frequent severe weather events.

Mr. Tan goes beyond the repurposing of existing dead space and explores what entire systems could look like from Storm Water Management, to Organic Waste Recyclers in a re-imagined urban setting. For more on his work check out: http://www.gensleron.com/cities/2013/6/10/town-square-initiative-new-york.html.
Image © Gensler
While hyperdensification brings with it lots of added benefits of space utilization, mass transit, opportunity for resource growth, etc...it also would compound the challenges faced when responding to disasters large and small. More people means more resources needed to evacuate, more shelters, better messaging on what to do, and a host of access issues ranging from infrastructure to accommodating individuals with disabilities. As our total population grows, this idea of re-imagining how we use our space will go from abstract to RFP rather quickly.

And for those who don't believe the density issue will quickly be pushed to the forefront of preparedness and recovery planning need look no further than the Post-Disaster Housing Prototype Program launching in New York City. The density issue is already being felt in the world of disasters and as more bodies migrate to urban centers, the ability to retrofit the space we currently use or have available while aligning it with the needs of the population will be crucial as we adjust to our new urban reality.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Future of Cities and Disaster Response

The global population is exploding. More people means more space needed for food production, housing, economic development, etc...generally, more is needed to support more people. This growth however is putting people in harms way; vulnerable populations are living in places known to be at risk for increased impacts to natural hazards because there's no place for them to go (usually). While this rapid human sprawl takes place, industry is continually playing catchup, bending the rules or delaying the implementation of new rules to build faster and bigger in an effort to capitalize on the opportunity that the growth represents while ignoring some of the glaring signs that point to dangers in building economic centers or relocating population centers based on economic incentives without understanding or caring about the risks involved.

source: http://unitedwerecover.wordpress.com/
The graphic above illustrates the move taking place from rural communities to cities, this continued migration to existing population centers is something that requires a re-examination of how we consider planning our future urban developments and what we can do moving forward to make better use of the space we have.

In this great talk given by Vishaan Chakrabarti, he talks about the need for hyperdensification and how it will revolutionize our cities, accommodating for the increase in population sizes work to create more efficient and better organized systems that govern the people living within them.

One of the points made during Chakrabarti's talk is that much of the resource strain/insecurity we face stems from the inefficient way we've designed our surroundings, and that by re-designing  / re-thinking the way we live, embodied by the concept of hyperdensification, we would be addressing the problem of people living in vulnerable areas while expanding available space for additional resource growth and development. While the wholesale buyin to Chakrabarti's ideology isn't what I'm selling, I must admit I find merit and a lot of common sense in his hyperdensification argument.

Hyperdensity as a standalone solution may not seem compelling given the comfort of our lifestyle and the fact the suburbs are a way of life for many, so the below infographic, taken from Tim De Chant's 'Per Mile Square,' puts the challenges of our population growth into perspective. The graphic only pertains to the land use that 7 billion people would require, it doesn't talk about resource consumption. The way we design our cities is only part of the equation, the rate at which resources are consumed would be another major hurdle that would need to be cleared in order for this type of thinking to work. As it stands, if the entire world used as much resource as the US does annually...we would need 4.1 times the resources of earth to sustain the American lifestyle...

Just as the conversation around disasters has migrated from the abstract of "if" to the reality of "when," the challenges associated with accommodating our constantly expanding population will necessitate that changing the conversation around how we live and the way in which we consume resources. And if a move to a more dense way of life is achieved, what will that mean for disaster preparedness, response, and recovery? While Haiti is an extreme example of the impacts of a disaster on a high density urban area, the ongoing response and recovery operations have underscored an urgent need in redefining urban response to disasters. Areas of Christchurch are still closed off due to the continuing dangers the damage of the 2011 earthquakes.

Dense urban environments present their own set of challenges that compound the already difficult and chaotic response landscape, and if we are intentional in our move towards more densely packed urban environments, being structured in our approach to providing services pre/post disaster need to be taken into account as well.