Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Science During Crisis: Group Helps Decision-Makers with Long-Term Strategy

The Department of the Interior’s Strategic Sciences Group prepares scenarios during a crisis that describe possible environmental outcomes.

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This time last year, Hurricane Sandy was finishing up a one-week tour that consisted of killing (at least) 286 people and causing an estimated $68 billion in damage, making it the second most costly hurricane in U.S. history. On Oct. 24, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced $162 million in funding that will be distributed among 45 restoration and research projects aimed at protecting the Atlantic coast from future storms. The projects selected for funding were chosen based partially on the work of a new organization called the Strategic Sciences Group (SSG).

Formally established in January 2012, the SSG is a small, adaptable group of scientists charged with visiting live disaster sites like Hurricane Sandy or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and providing decision-makers with information that allows them to make better long-term strategic choices, such as deciding which research projects will be most helpful when the next storm comes.

The SSG’s concept is loosely modeled on the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an intelligence agency that was formed shortly after the U.S. entered World War II and dissolved a few weeks after the war ended. The OSS was a sort of Swiss Army Knife of the military world, without any specific jurisdiction, filling in the gaps between existing government agencies and military branches. The OSS supplied, armed and trained resistance movements like Mao Zedong’s Red Army in China, disseminated propaganda, spied in occupied France, and ultimately supplied leaders with information that became useful in strategic post-war planning. In its search for officers, the OSS described its ideal candidate as a “Ph.D. that can win a bar fight.”

The Strategic Sciences Group is authorized to:

•    develop and provide the Department of the Interior with science-based assessments and interdisciplinary scenarios of environmental crises affecting departmental resources;

•    rapidly assemble teams of scientists to conduct such work during environmental crises; and

•    provide the results of this work to the secretary and departmental leadership to support decision-making during crises.

Source: U.S. Department of the Interior
 
Strategic Sciences Group co-leader Gary Machlis said his group does not, of course, possess the heroism that the OSS demonstrated during WWII, but they borrowed much from the service’s structure and culture, looking at how that organization handled science during a crisis. The SSG has just three permanent members and one research fellow, adding volunteers from various government agencies, private companies and universities as needed when a crisis like Hurricane Sandy occurs — typically ending with a team of 10 to 15 members.

“Our job was to take the available scientific information, what we knew about Sandy and its immediate aftermath, and lay out these scenarios of what are the likely long-term consequences of the hurricane and the aftermath to not just the ecology, not just the economy, and not just the people, but all three together as part of a coupled, human-natural system and present those scenarios with our own certainty about different elements,” said Machlis, who is the science adviser to the National Park Service director. Those evaluations allowed leaders to make better long-term choices regarding the disaster, whereas traditionally most decisions and research during disasters is focused on mitigating short-term damages and dealing with immediate threats, he said.

The SSG does not conduct new research, such as collecting samples in the field, but rather looks at the science that’s already being done and provides analysis. Before the SSG was made an official organization, it conducted its first mission after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in 2010. Machlis traveled to the disaster site to review the science being done there as a proof of concept for creating the SSG as a permanent organization.

“I believe that we’re important because we deliver science assessments of a holistic kind … in real time when they’re trying to make decisions, and that kind of additional information is extremely valuable when decision-makers are trying to be smart,” Machlis said.

Machlis has a doctorate in both sociology and ecology, a combination that he said is helpful in emergency response science that he applies while working onsite with the SSG. “Many of the environmental problems we deal with in a disaster have absolutely essential social components. You can’t solve one without the other,” he said.

After Hurricane Sandy struck, for instance, he said a community garden group met to help a group of senior citizens that was trapped on the eighth floor of a building without water. “Those nongovernmental organizations at the community level began to play an important new role in recovery and emergency response. And that was fascinating to us and they will play a key role in the future.”

Of the funding that will be provided through the Secretary of the Interior, $113 million will be put toward 25 projects to restore coastal marshes, wetlands and shoreline, improve flood resilience and protect against future storms. An additional $15 million will go toward protecting communities within 60 miles of the New Jersey coast.

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin Wood has been writing for Government Technology and Emergency Management since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@emergencymgmt.com

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