Friday, June 28, 2013

Failure isn't a four letter word

When we fall short of reaching our goals we tend to quietly sweep it under the rug and move on; no one shouts from the rooftops about how they missed the mark, which is both surprising, and not.

It’s not surprising because no one likes admitting when things don’t go according to plan, especially when there are expectations associated with the outcomes: donor, beneficiary, volunteer, and otherwise.

It is surprising however, in light of the talk about “professionalizing” the disaster response sector. In working for a smaller disaster-response non-profit I was forced to do more with less, as a result, I needed to know a little about a lot. Because I’m kind of a dork, I started reading management books to help broaden my horizons and understanding around non-profit type things, books like: ‘the 5 dysfunctions of a team’, and ‘the 4 secrets every great manager should know’, etc… And while there were a lot of commonalities, the one thing that was repeatedly said was: don’t be afraid to fail, and failure is the greatest teacher.

If that’s true, why is it that the business world is embracing failure and being rewarded for it through innovation and massive profits, while we in disaster response manage to avoid the subject entirely and have to fight for dollars? If we’re serious about “professionalizing” what we do, I believe open and honest conversations about where gaps persist are needed so that planning can take place, benchmarks can be set, and communication can be directed to ensure accountability in our evolution as a sector of practitioners.

We push for transparency around: financial stewardship, the communication of program impacts, our role within community response and recovery, etc...However, I’ve yet to read an article by an organization about a time where they didn’t accomplish what they set out to do. Is that due to a fear that if we tell funders that we came up short that we won’t get grants renewed and funding will dry up? Is it complacency? Is it a lack of definition around roles and responsibilities? Or is it that we’re just not failing? Of course I don’t want our Search and Rescue personnel to fail, nor do I want to prolong a communities recovery so that we can "figure things out", but if we continually come to the same conclusions as to the challenges and gaps faced when conducting response and recovery operations, why aren’t we as a sector jumping on the failure bandwagon by trying new things and seeing what works?

Recognizing the need for an open dialogue/forum on the subject of failure, Engineers without Boarders began the site: A place where stories of magnificent flops can be shared and what was learned as a result. After watching the Occupy Sandy debrief trailer the questions of why we aren’t embracing failure as a sector keep coming up in my head.

So maybe we don't need to shout it from the rooftops, but how about we submit 3 things we could've done better as response transitions to recovery in Moore, OK and the surrounding communities. Submit them to NVOAD to begin a base of institutional response knowledge, put them into a hat, pull them out, and talk about them so that we can figure out ways to ensure that the next time we respond that the same challenges don't persist. 

Honesty is the best policy and failure is the best teacher...if we can't be honest with each other enough to admit where we can be better, how are we going to learn from our mistakes in an effort to avoid making them again in the future?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Scar on the Earth

Earth Observatory - Moore, OK
In the image above, you can clearly see the path of Moore's EF-5 that did so much damage. The scar is a reminder of why being prepared and giving as much warning as possible to communities in the path of these storms is so vital. In addition to the lead time meteorologists can give communities of a storms anticipated path, it takes the will of those in positions of power to institute substantive changes to ensure that when storms of this magnitude impact populated areas, that the damage is minimized. For communities in Tornado Alley that 'will' should center on promoting stronger building codes, specifically with Tornados in mind. While momentum has been building around this issue, there is still no movement on adopting stronger codes so that when the repair and rebuild of Moore and the surrounding communities gets underway, they have to build back stronger.

The prevailing mindset is that to build homes to withstand these severe wind events would not be economical, however engineers are coming out saying that is a fallacy as illustrated by the 'Insight' article below. As population densities and suburban sprawl continue to transform the midwest, more communities are going to get "in the way", and by looking at the graphic below, they already are:
map created by IDV Solutions

Just like new flood maps take time to create, changing building codes isn't something that can happen overnight, but the 'can do' attitude that exists in Tornado country means that no one is going to wait to rebuild, revised codes or not. By waiting too long to strengthen codes many homeowners may face a similar fate next time the sirens go off.

Additional Reading:
Oklahoma’s Building Codes Don’t Factor For Tornadoes (
Insight - In U.S. tornado alley, building practices boost damage (

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Funding Disaster Preparedness and Community Resilience

I recently posted about the Rockefeller Foundation and their move to create a $100 Million Preparedness fund, something that will hopefully change the mindsets of how private donors and foundations view the funding of disaster-related initiatives.  

Any opportunity to challenge traditional funding mindsets is important and I believe by Rockefeller establishing this fund, the current funding trickle that disaster organizations fight over can turn into a steady flow for disaster-related operations and programming. While establishing consistent access to funding is key, I believe there may be a larger opportunity connected to what Rockefeller is doing; I believe there may be an opportunity to leverage this fund, or the idea that spurred the creation of this fund, in a way that can work to create an environment of accountability in reporting, coordination, and the creation of standards to improve the unity of effort around preparedness and community resilience.

The current landscape for disaster funding comes as a reaction to events and as such is based around a shorter-term view of how to measure impact. A great number of donors have their own ideas of what “success” is as it relates to preparedness, response, and recovery, with little overlap existing between those ideas. This diversity makes generating consensus around standards in any facet of the disaster life cycle difficult because everyone is beholden to different funders—for many of whom disaster response is not a part of their mission / mandate.

With the push for broader inclusion around the ideas of resilience and preparedness at a local level, and the money to back it predominately coming through state agencies to local/county Emergency Management Agencies (EMA), there is little room to support those at the ground level through education and planning to further the ideas of resilience beyond its current state.

As a philanthropic leader, The Rockefeller Foundation can as part of its existing preparedness fund, or with the creation of a separate fund, begin to implement a standards-based grant program that offers money for preparedness and resilience focused initiatives. In exchange for accepting funding, community based organizations would have to adopt an operational framework and common standards that relate to disasters that scale to meet needs, and can be easily replicated. Sounds easy, right? We know money is a means to an end, and we’ve seen the success of this funding model with the dollars flowing from the Federal government to City, County, and State EMA. As long as NIMS/ICS compliance is maintained, State Agencies remain eligible for Federal dollars, which is what a large percentage of their operational budgets are derived from.

The result is consistency in action across City, County, and State EMA, something that hasn’t been possible in the non-profit world. The reason why there is uniformity of effort and a greater consistency in language amongst the federal family is because of the strings attached to available dollars requiring compliance with NIMS/ICS.

I believe The Rockefeller Foundation can be the financial muscle that gets the ball rolling for a similar initiative amongst disaster response and community resilience focused non-profits. With the help of IAEM, CNCS, NVOAD, FEMA and other leaders in the sector, the creation of a commonly accepted framework for the preparedness and response can be built with a financial incentive for adopting it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

So where exactly did all of the Sandy money go?

Yesterday I posted about the massive $1.4 Million grant that Presbyterian Disaster Assistance received and the questions I have surrounding the award and how the public can measure the return on that investment. This morning I came across an article from Mother Jones covering similar issues, specifically: "What Happened To The Money Occupy Sandy Raised?"

The article examines a growing discontent over how some organizations, specifically Occupy Sandy, have, through a perceived lack of transparency and community inclusion, not been honest about how the remainder of Sandy donations are going to be dispersed, when, and to whom on the Rockaway Peninsula. 

A Train service restored to Rockaway Peninsula (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The article also points out that there is no clear picture of how the money that has been raised by Occupy Sandy has been spent; this is due to a lack of tracking and documentation, an oversight that almost every spontaneous group succumbs to in the craziness of response and something that needs to addressed as a part of community preparedness moving forward.

What’s happening in the mid-Atlantic region is a shift from response to recovery, and with that the recognition that the coffers that were once brimming with an unprecedented number of donations from individuals, groups, and foundations, are now beginning to run low. Coupled with this dip is the understanding that beyond federal funding for beach restoration and mitigation projects, remains a list of projects that need time, attention, and most of all…money.

What this is creating is a catch-22 situation that centers on the idea of fiduciary stewardship. Throwing money off the back of the proverbial truck just because you have it and are being pressured to spend it, isn't the right approach...those who get it will be happy, those who don't will vilify you for not doing your due diligence in identifying the best way to stretch the limited dollars that are left. Yet the longer you hold onto the funds to identify innovative ways to stretch the remaining cash to impact as many people as possible, the more people scream about secrecy and exclusionary practices.

This catch 22 is fueled by the idea that your mission and operational focus is the most important and as such, you should be given the money to continue your work--given this rationale, satisfying everyone isn't possible. So in that regard, I can see why Occupy is taking their time, because once that money is gone…it’s gone, so why not take the time needed to ensure that it goes as far as possible and advances the recovery of as many as possible. Occupy Sandy's actions to this point give me no reason to believe that they will do anything other than what they’ve stated, which is transition the funding to local groups in the best, most responsible way possible (that’s me paraphrasing).

However, Occupy Sandy doesn’t get off scot-free. I believe those individuals and organizations that are dissatisfied with the lack of transparency and communication around how the remaining funds are to be spent and when, have every right to be vocal about their discontent. Saying inflammatory statements however is counter-productive and discredits the work that has been accomplished because you disagree with how long its taking to disperse money: 
“ If Occupy Sandy doesn't tell the Rockaways community how it plans to spend the rest of the money, I personally believe they have outstayed their welcome.” (see linked article for context) 
What many fail to recognize is that before the storm made landfall, Occupy Sandy didn’t exist; just like the other hundred or so groups that came about to solve community problems caused/exacerbated by the storm. While I appreciate the scrutiny being applied to Occupy in an effort to "keep them honest," lets not forget about the army of established non-profit organizations that came to the area and received significant donations as well. I haven't seen one article asking for an accounting of where/how those groups spent their donations and their the ones who are supposed to be model for how groups like Occupy Sandy learn to do response better. It would be interesting to put the same resources and scrutiny applied to Occupy Sandy to some of the more established disaster response non-profits who responded and compare and contrast findings.

All that to say, Occupy Sandy, get a plan for how you intend to spend the remaining money and publish an accounting of what you've spent and where thus far…if you don’t know, then tell us…you're not the first Spontaneous organization to be overwhelmed and not put the effort needed into tracking and documenting donations, and you won't be the last. And for those who are demanding answers, good for you…but remember that there are other organizations out there with track records of disaster response who also received copious amounts of donor dollars flying under the radar, why not ask for an accounting of their donations received vs. dollars spent on community might be surprised by what you find. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

$1.4 Million dollar grant to Presbyterians for Volunteer Housing?!?!

Please read this press release found on Disaster News first to get background so that we start on the same page.

Now, please forgive the incredulity as I know what it takes to find housing for 50+ volunteers in disaster areas during immediate response, it's not easy, and even when it does work, there are always problems. But when learning about the grant from the Red Cross to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) for $1.4 million dollars to "setup and coordinate volunteer housing" my jaw dropped.

Before I get into it, if anyone has any additional information on the details of this grant and would like to share them...please do, because it's in the details that I hope an explanation can be found. In going to the PDA site, you need to search to find any mention of it and in the world of disaster response this is a big what gives, where's the pomp and circumstance?

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster the need for housing is great, for displaced families, for first responders from outside the immediate area, for Federal officials, and also for Volunteers groups. Depending on the size/scope/type of disaster, the availability or lack thereof of housing can create a panic. This could be seen in the New York metro area following Sandy where housing was scarce and the need was great, and the influx of people overwhelmed what little was available. I spent several weeks knocking on doors before finding suitable space on Staten Island and on Long Beach on Long Island. All that to say, I understand what goes into setting up volunteer housing.

The reason why my jaw dropped is because setting up volunteer housing for 50+ people had a price tag closer to $1-2,000 mostly spent on infrastructure improvements: showers, shelving, secure storage, etc...and PDA now has $1.4 million?

To better understand how PDA does Volunteer housing, I found this document that outlines their Volunteer Village model. In the document you will see that the individuals responsible for running these villages are volunteers, so there is no cost for personnel to run the sites. In addition, there is a $20/person/night charge for staying on-site, presumably to cover utilities and upkeep. In addition to that, these villages don't take it's not a holistic volunteer housing solution because it doesn't accommodate Individual Volunteers who need a place to sleep.

So what exactly is PDA going to do with $1.4 Million dollars? Even if they setup 100 volunteer housing sites in the mid-atlantic region, as far as I understand it, they are a cost neutral proposition. Even if PDA took between 5-10% and used it for admin/salaries...there's still well over $1 Million to spend on this and I just don't see how.

I would love to see what the plan is, how many sites will be setup, when, and for how long? How many Volunteers are to be housed under the terms of the grant? Where is this money going exactly? How do Long Term Recovery Groups feel about this in the Mid-Atlantic region? Is PDA a pro-bono subcontractor now?

A lot of questions come to mind and I'm short on answers. I realize I'm owed nothing, but a greater degree of transparency would be helpful especially as articles are beginning to pop up asking where, why, or why not Sandy Recovery funds have been spent...and this massive grant, a first of its kind if I'm not mistaken, is flying under the radar.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Singapore Smog

The health concerns smog represents are real and severe. Its ubiquity has become woven into the fabric of urban life, as such air quality indexes have been created to provide guidance on the level of health impacts just by breathing.

While not every city grapples with airborne particulate, what's happening in Singapore right now is really interesting and quite horrible. In the days leading up to the first day of summer here is a visual progression of the air quality in Singapore:

The pictures from the 20th and 21st look like they were taken from a sci-fi movie set in a post-apocalyptic land...not Singapore 2013.

The reason the smog level is the highest its been in 16 years is due to naturally occurring fires and plantations clearing land in preparation for another growing season, much of which is happening in Sumatra. Intense winds are blowing wildfire smoke in a northeasterly direction, crushing Singapore...check out this slider image showing the smoke coverage over the course of a few hours, you have to click on the Image Comparison button.

As the Al Jezeera report illustrates, limited resources and the lack of political will to take steps to deal with the causes of these events mean that many will have to endure the potentially hazardous smog until conditions such as: rain, change in wind, or the fires being extinguished take place.

Seeing this unfold and being a resident of Southern California where we're under Red Flag warning, in the middle of a drought, and are already dealing with smog on a daily basis, makes me question how  our urban cities would deal with a similar situation and whether the political would exist to enact swift and substantive changes to remedy the situation.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Lesson in Sharing

We talk about learning from the past so that we don't make the same mistakes in the future, systems are setup to help facilitate the sharing of lessons learned...but how effective are we at actually sharing?

How many of you know what is? More importantly, how many of you actually have access to it? That repository of information is an example of a body of "best practice" that sits under-utilized due to access issues. LLIS is the "Lessons Learned Information Sharing site hosted by DHS. Lessons learned do no good when they're locked away...especially when there are communities out there thirsty for information; for better or worse, the sharing of what we do needs to be done better.

Lessons tend to be shared at conferences amongst smaller groups of people who have a lot of the same experiences and knowledge base. Given the variety of individuals who are getting involved at a local level and the growth of local actors in response activities, the need to know what's working and especially what isn't, has to be pushed out on a broader scale. The folks at Occupy have created a mini-documentary chronicling what worked and didn't and I would imagine that based on the success of their operations, many will watch and try to replicate what they did when a disaster strikes in their community. By Occupy chronicling what they did, how they did it, and intentionally pushing it out to the world, they are taking a more aggressive approach to transparency then I've seen the response community do in the past. And while it may not be perfect, I imagine it will be honest, straightforward and will resonate with those would-be responders in communities preparing for the next event.

I look forward to watching the full length production from Occupy and am hopeful that it isn't a prescriptive "how to" video but more of a chronicle of their experiences for others to learn from. Either way, I think the sharing of this information is a step in the right direction and hope that it spurs conversations about how it can be done better by more people in all facets of disaster.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Yo Soy El Derecho...

That's spanish for, The Derecho.

Some of you may remember the massive Thunderstorm system that begin in the midwest and screamed across the country in a matter of hours causing widespread power outages and 22 deaths. Prior to June 29th, not many knew what a Derecho was, other than spanish for straight...the high winds knocked out power and that coupled with the sweltering heat necessitated the opening of cooling shelters.

Well it seems that June is the month for when these Derecho's like to make appearances...this radar image was captured on June 12th/13th:

The Washington Post has an in-depth comparison of the two storms with more maps and stats to help illustrate the similarities on the impacts of the two storm systems.

With the systems hitting just as summer begins, it will be important for emergency management to think about protocols and procedures for increasing the availability of cooling centers while adding Derecho to the list of events that need specific messaging and educational components to ensure the public is aware not only of what they are, but how best to protect themselves when June 2014 roles around. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The National Conference on Volunteering and Service

This week finds me in our Nation's Capital attending The National Conference on Volunteering and Service, a marathon 4 days of workshops, talkshops, plenary's, and more...
this is the "and more"
I will be adding my two cents on Thursday when I, along with fellow disaster-ite Travis Gibson, will be presenting on empowering local response in disaster through expanded coordination models. An important topic given the growing participation of spontaneous groups following disaster, and a good audience given the over 200+ Hands On Network Affiliates who will be at the conference as well as more than a handful of State Commissions on Volunteering.

If my posting suffers it's probably because I'm in a baked goods induced coma...all they have to eat at these conferences are sweet treats.

I'm looking forward to all the things that come with attending an event of this magnitude (did I mention it was 4 days?), the people, the ideas, the possibilities, etc...and hope to post on one or two of them.

If you happen to be in, or call Washington, DC your home...let me know.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

CRO -- Chief Resilience Officer

In a move that hopefully signifies a change in how foundations and donors view funding disaster initiatives, the Rockefeller Foundation is blazing a path forward with the creation of a $100 Million Dollar Global Disaster Preparedness Fund. At the center of the fund is the "100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge," a global grant program that essentially works to incentivize the integration of resilience into urban and disaster planning. Those who win a grant award will receive funding for a "Chief Resilience Officer," an individual who will be responsible for oversight and implementation of the city's master recovery plan.

Beyond the initial PR splash, there are few details on the application / nomination process at this time, but will be something I watch for updates on given the questions an initiative of this nature raises. Since many cities already have robust preparedness plans in place, seeing how this position will integrate with those existing plans and where the position will sit within the Emergency Management hierarchy could be telling of how effective it will be. Will this position create another layer of planning and procedural bureaucracy that cities have to wade through, or will the Resilience Officer have the authority to begin to make sweeping changes to how cities define and enact resilience in the face of disasters? While much of the authority will most likely be derived from how and where the dollars are to be spent, it will be interesting to learn how the position is to be integrated in with the existing HR frameworks.

While I imagine cities are excited at the prospect of supplemental dollars in their preparedness coffers in light of dwindling federal money to support their efforts, non-profits should be equally excited or at the very least encouraged by this move. The quest for consistent funding for disaster-focused non-profits is all consuming and the results are often weak given the reluctance of foundations (public and private) to fund response activities...let alone general ops to keep the doors open.

The reason the creation of this fund with Rockefeller backing is so important, is because of the momentum and acceptance it will hopefully generate throughout the donor community when approached with opportunities to fund disaster initiatives. For the same reasons no one likes to go first for anything are the same reasons no one wants to be the first to fund something new.  

I'm hopeful that with the creation of this $100 million fund and the coverage it will generate, that mindsets will shift and the foundation world will recognize the importance of funding non-profit disaster-related initiatives associated with preparedness/response/recovery.

Shifts in mindsets move at a glacial pace when dollars aren't involved and a move of the type I would like to see happen would entail a lot of money, as a result, I don't see any radical changes happening anytime soon…but the creation of this fund is the first step in the right direction.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Ted Talk

This made the rounds awhile back but the points remain as valid as ever. Dan speaks to why non-profits limp along in terms of raising funds and scaling impact and the backward cultural reinforcement that perpetuates it.

In the video he calls for a re-thinking of how we approach non-profit donations and our aversion to the term "overhead." While I couldn't agree more, I wonder how the non-profit world would react to more consistent capital? Would a radical change take place? I haven't spoken to anyone in the non-profit world who doesn't say their organization/agency/etc isn't a mess...would opening the proverbial flood gates, providing access to capital revolutionize the impact the non-profit sector has? Probably, but I believe it would also magnify many of the challenges sector currently faces. 

Some of the issues that could potentially be magnified are covered in this article from the Center for Investigative Reporting on the Dirty Secrets of the Worst Charities.

Either way, this talk clearly articulates some of the chalenges that exist with the way we approach supporting non-profits with dollars to achieve their mission.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Good for Nothing Club*

Civic Engagement: Community Disaster Relief Wagon from Lori H. Ersolmaz on Vimeo.

The reason I posted this video is because it captures the spirit of so many people who just start helping after a disaster...whether it's flying across the country and renting a U-Haul to create a mobile kitchen, or helping someone cleanup their home, the power of people helping people is pretty amazing.

The other reason I posted it is because I think this video captures the sentiment of a lot of Spontaneous Unaffiliated Volunteers (SUVs) and their motivations for getting involved, which I believe is an important first step in being able to setup systems that work with this type of mentality. Better understanding the motivations of SUVs will help to create dynamic and flexible systems of coordination that support these types of individuals on a local level, while working to integrate them into the broader response context instead of ignoring or marginalizing them and their impacts.

Have a good weekend...see you on Monday.

* The good for nothing club, people who do "good" for "nothing." Kinda corny...but I like it.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Waffle House Index and Business Continuity

There are a lot of interesting relationships out there that seem to have no connection at face value--however, if you dig deeper you find interesting connections. The guys over at are really good at finding these connections if you want to learn more. Some examples: skirt length and economic health or the amount of bacon consumed and how fat I get.

However, given that we like to talk about disasters, I'm referring to Administrator Fugate's now famous Waffle House Index. Long story short, this "index" uses Waffle House as a measure of a disasters impact on a community and it comes in three tasty levels that determine severity:
  • Green: Waffle House is open and serving a full menu = minor damage and minor impacts
  • Yellow: Waffle House is open but serving a limited menu, usually meaning the use of generators to get food into stomachs based on a limited food supply = issues with infrastructure / access and major impacts
  • Red: Waffle House is closed = not good, area is unsafe to return
If you've never had the good fortune of eating at a Waffle House, you should remedy that because you're doing your waistline and arteries a disservice. Background: located throughout much of the south, especially the gulf coast states, they are as ubiquitous as Starbucks and known for always being open, 24/7/365. The combination of their geography and their business model, to be open as quickly as possible should they have to close the doors, makes them the perfect litmus test to gauge the impacts of an event in an area. 

It's a good menu...
Which brings me to my point, resilience on a personal level is at the crux of community recovery--if people don't rebuild, there is no community to come back to. However, just as important but less talked about is business resilience. Waffle House makes keeping the doors open a priority, as a result they need to be prepared when disaster strikes given where many of them are located--it's almost become a part of their organizational culture by default. Given that fact, duplication of supply chains and the ability to source things locally in order to get the doors open and butts in the seats as quickly as possible, is part of owning/running a Waffle House franchise. Along with Waffle House, Lowe's, Walmart, and Home Depot all strive to maintain a similarly high standard post-disaster. Given that these giants of industry have solid continuity planning integrated into their organizational culture...why is it that those models and procedural know haven't trickled down to help prepare small to medium-sized enterprises (SME)? 

We talk about whole of community but with the focus being on the individual/family. We need to push the availability of resources for small and medium-sized business as well...groups like the Small Business Administration and the Economic Recovery Support Function are some help to SME's, but in today's world of millions of messages being thrown around, the importance of business preparedness is diluted or lost.

The only reason people were able to get their hash browns covered, smothered, and chunked 3 days after Irene went through the mid-atlantic region in 2011, was because the Waffle House puts an emphasis on being many other businesses can claim the same?