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Disaster Zone

by Eric Holdeman: Emergency management in the blogosphere

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April 09, 2014

Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) provides a report card on the status of the United States’ infrastructure. This report card is a tad better than the last few reports, but still not what you’d want to bring home to your parents saying, “Look what I got!”

You can focus in on particular types of infrastructure or you can get a flavor for all parts by reading the Executive Summary.

All parts of the critical infrastructure system are important to emergency managers. In our modern society it only takes a small hiccup to throw things out of balance and have significant impacts due to critical infrastructure interdependencies. Electrical power systems for example are key to so many functions that it is the Achilles Heel of most of our other systems and functions.

Infrastructure systems don’t fail as systems. Instead they fail one piece at a time. That then is how we fix or repair them. It is a “fix on failure” process and mentality. The problem with that is that you can’t depend on the fact that these structures won’t fail catastrophically and impact people and the economy. This is particularly true with dams and levees. When they fail, people get hurt physically and economically.

One small bit of better news in the report is on the status of the railroad systems. There is a resurgence of rail traffic and the movement of commodities to market. In fact there are some areas of North America where they can’t move the shipments they need to make money. With that type of demand, railroads have reinvested some of their profits back in to their rail systems, improving roadbeds and other system functionalities.

Watch for more system failures as climate impacts start to take their toll on outdated infrastructure.

And, legislators take note. For every delay in repairing or replacing infrastructure you are digging your jurisdiction deeper into a hole that will be difficult to climb out of. Here in Washington state we have not passed a comprehensive transportation bill for two years. That is 24 months of lost progress—eventually the Piper will need to be paid, but at what cost?


Claire Rubin pointed me towards the report.

April 09, 2014

I’ve written about the cost of lost institutional knowledge as people retire and move out of the profession of emergency management. Additionally, over the years we’ve discussed where best to have the emergency management function placed on the organizational chart. When I was seven I decided that I wanted to be an emergency manager—not! We all seem to fall into it at some later time in our life as we became exposed in one way or another to the profession.

All of the above issues and more are discussed in this article/interview with an experienced private sector Business Continuity Management (BCM) professional. I think you will find the similarities striking if you have spent any time at all in trying to build and maintain an emergency management program.

Counting the cost of lost BCM experience…and passion

Phil Lambert shared this link and immediately saw the transferrable nature of experiences between the public and private sectors.

When you happen to meet a brother or sister BCM professional, give them a hug—we are in the same business and face similar challenges personally and professionally.

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April 08, 2014

When a President comes to visit a disaster zone all work stops. It is a fact of life and one reason that a visit by a head of state is both a curse and a blessing.

President Obama is evidently planning on visiting the Oso mudslide in the coming weeks. At least in this case he is coming after the critical rescue phase is completed. Presidential security concerns and the desire of the White House to position the President for maximum visibility means that wherever he or she may go work has to stop.

What the visit does allow is that State and Local Elected Officials have the opportunity to interface directly with the President, and survivors and victim families can be comforted by him.

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April 08, 2014

Most people don’t think that much about insurance and certainly not disaster insurance. It is something your bank requires if you have a home loan with them. When a disaster does impact you many people reach for their policy to determine exactly what coverage they have.

For hurricane areas people find out if they are protected only due to wind and if it is storm surge that destroyed their home they better have flood insurance from a separate policy.

Antone P. Braga sent me a link to a post he has Peer Support Program that speaks to the insurance company’s responsibilities. In a separate email he shared the following:

There is a public policy issue I would like to bring to your attention, that needs public airing. The U.S. State of Texas has stated that insurance companies owe "fiduciary-like" duties to their policyholders. The reasoning is that since insurance companies have such a superior bargaining position over the general insuring public, and issue policies on a take-it-or-leave-it basis (adhesion contracts), they should be held to act as a fiduciary when dealing with policyholders. However, many courts do not see it that way.

Disaster survivors in particular are in jeopardy, although the general public needs to have access to fundamental insurance consumer protection from the start. No matter how fair insurance companies imagine themselves to be, they have a separate interest, self-interest. The more they pay, the less they keep. Disaster survivors need all the help they can get and consumer protection is the missing link.

I am not enough of an insurance expert to agree or disagree with his point of view. I do know that most insurance companies are overextended in the coverage they provide in high hazard areas. Two places where they have figured that out is Florida and California where the big companies have significantly withdrawn from the market due to previous losses and projected disasters still to come.

My purpose with this blog post is just to call your attention to the topic and perhaps encourage you to start a dialog with the insurance industry in your part of the country.

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April 08, 2014

PreventionWeb, an effort of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), has a new revised webpage. Check out their announcement below:

Thanks for your continued participation and interest in improving our PreventionWeb information and knowledge services.

We have listened to your needs, and are now starting to roll out new features to help you in your Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) work, orient new members of the DRR community, and make it easier to share, find and connect.

Today we launched a transitional home page to give you a taste of our new design: PreventionWeb

We've also released our first monthly redesign newsletter. Please read it for more on our new and upcoming visual and responsive design, social features, discoverable and topical content.


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April 08, 2014

From an announcement:

Western States Seismic Policy Council (WSSPC) holds an annual meeting to review the year’s efforts, approve draft policy recommendations, and honor the winners of the WSSPC Awards in Excellence and Lifetime Achievement Awards. This year’s meeting is being held Monday, July 21, 2014, in Anchorage, Alaska. Registration is now open, and we’ve added an online form to our website to make your registration process easier.

The group hotel rate is available through June 19th, but because our meeting is running in conjunction with the 10th US National Conference on Earthquake Engineering, we encourage you to make your hotel reservations as early as possible to ensure you get a room. This year, we will be providing free transportation from the affiliated Hilton and Marriott hotels to the meeting site at the BP Energy Center.

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April 08, 2014

Drought is one of those slow onset disasters that tends to creep up on you, as Claire Rubin pointed out in a recent blog post. As Americans we are not motivated to do much until there is a crisis, and California is now staring drought in the face and beginning to wonder where their next cup of water might come from.

Check out their new California Drought Web page that highlights various aspects of the drought. I watched their series of very short public service announcements. They made a nice connection with what it means to be a Californian and not wasting water.

Their efforts would be good to watch since I think many areas of the United States will begin having water issues as severe as California in the coming years. Instead of waiting for the crisis to hit our state it would be great to get ahead of the curve and address the issues head on today.

Emergency management will play critical roles in any drought situation. Here in the Pacific Northwest much of our electrical power comes from hydro and when the water levels behind the dams go down and we compete with other priorities like preserving fish runs there will be plenty of impacts to go around.  Look below for what a difference one year makes. 


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April 08, 2014

One of the strongest partnerships we have as emergency managers is with the science community. Without them we could not understand the many hazards that we have and what we need to do to prepare for them using mitigation and preparedness measures.

It wasn’t until after the 1964 Alaskan Earthquake that scientists began to understand the relationship between ocean plates and the North American Plate. Read this New York Times story A ’64 Quake Still Reverberates to understand the journey to understanding the subduction zone threat we call Cascadia.

Science has been under attack here in the United States as some sort of voodoo way of getting what you want. When you get a chance to support what science is doing—take time to verbalize that to others and offer thanks for what science is contributing to our profession.

For anyone not alive in 1964, that is a 1959 Chevy in the picture on the right.

Lastly, I believe in seismic mitigation of our roads and bridges.  But, you do need to understand the forces that are at work in an earthquake.  Few bridges will survive the grade separation in this picture.

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April 07, 2014

There are many complicating issues to responding to emergencies and disasters in the Arctic region of the world. For the United States, the State of Alaska is our Arctic touch point.

The melting Arctic icecap will drive what happens next. There will be many more ships trafficking the Arctic with commercial endeavors leading the list. First of all the melting ice will provide an ice free passage for shipping. Forget the Panama Canal when shipping to Asia from Northern Europe. No need to pay $1M a ship to go through the canal. Next of course is oil and gas exploration and development of those resources to feed our petroleum product addictions. Lastly, eco-tourism will become really big business as bigger and bigger ships make that sailing.

Check out this Brookings video on Artic Issues that summarize some of the above.


Then of course with all that activity above there will be emergency management issues to contend with. Search and rescue, collisions between ships, and oil spills from either the collisions or accidents that come with drilling for and exploiting the natural resources in the region are all issues that will need to be dealt with.

What complicates any disaster response is our lack of resources that are in proximity to the Artic. Deep water ports will be need to be established along with response resources. When you think about a strategic plan for the US Coast Guard it has to include readiness for having a full time presence in the Artic. The time and distance that the Artic presents is a huge obstacle to having effective responses.

A good first start would be building a modern icebreaker fleet of ships that match the capability of what other Artic Nations already have in place today. When it comes to the Artic—we are way behind the power curve!

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April 07, 2014

I have been struggling since 1991 to promote individual and family disaster preparedness activities.  Throughout that time I have been involved with group PowerPoint presentations and the distribution of disaster preparedness materials, to neighbors, family, and the public.  

Regional preparedness campaigns like "Three Days, Three Ways" that used TV, radio, billboards, bus signs, professional baseball stadiums as partners.  I have partnered with the American Red Cross, preparedness vendors, businesses, and other organizations.  How effective that has all been has always been a question.  

Which leads to the question of, "How effective has all this activity been to date?"

Rocky Lopes is nationally known for his work on disaster public education.  Recently he responded to a question about disaster preparedness public education by sharing his Twelve Cs of Disaster Preparedness Education. I recommend it for your reading.

The only piece that I think I'd disagree with is the information about standing in a doorway during an earthquake.  For all the reasons he mentioned as to why you don't talk about the wrong thing to do during an event--I would not even mention it.  Up here in Washington State we don't teach it -- only Drop, Cover and Hold.


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