Calgary’s Cowboy Style Emergency Management – take #2

This article in HuffPost/Canada today really got my goat: Naheed Nenshi Tells World Economic Forum Clear Communication Key After Natural Disasters. Once again, the well-meaning but free-lance style of emergency management used in Calgary Alberta after the floods this past spring leave me wondering why the basic tenets of emergency management are so unknown or ignored by public officials in a major city. [And he got invited to Davos to talk about his maverick version of emergency management!]

The Calgary Mayor’s personal version of disaster response might have worked, at least once, in Calgary, but most of what he recommended makes no sense for efficient and effective emergency management; e.g.,

  • Mayor serving as Public Information Officer
  • Mayor getting no sleep and having no backup,
  • Empowering thousands of untrained, amateur bldg. inspectors.

In reading a second press account of what the mayor said – Naheed Nenshi discusses resilience to flood at Davos forum   I am even more infuriated.  Here he is quoted as saying the recovery process went well. Too bad no one else had a chance to speak to that statement, since that does not appear to be true by traditional emergency management standards, in my opinion. Plus the term resilience seems to be used in an imprecise and not helpful way..

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My  first take on this topic was back in June 2013, when I did a posting that was critical of the use of debits cards as a means of providing disaster assistance to disaster victims.  See: https://recoverydiva.com/2013/06/24/disaster-response-canadian-cowboy-style/.

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In this past year, two big Canadian Cities — Calgary and Toronto — have displayed a remarkable lack of preparation for disasters and have used mainly ad hoc means to muddle their their way through major disaster events. Some innovation is to be expected after a disaster, but more strategic thinking and planning seems to be needed.

Disaster Preparedness Deficiencies in Japan

Two other bloggers have captured some useful information about the deficiencies now coming to the fore about the Japanese disasters, so I will point you to their articles

(1) Eric Holderman, Disaster-zone.com, cited this article: in Scientific American: Japan Faces Up to Failure of Its Earthquake Preparations;Systems for forecasting, early warning and tsunami protection all fell short on 11 March. Posted on March 29.

(2) This is an excerpted version of a posting on the Homeland Security Watch blog (hlswatch.com) on April 1., by Arnold Bogis. I removed the baseball analogies in order to save space.

Some obvious lessons for homeland security planning in general.  Yet, just as in baseball, this balance between best and worst case scenario planning can be difficult in even the best prepared of countries–or simply ignored.

Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s disaster plans greatly underestimated the scope of a potential accident at its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, calling for only one stretcher, one        satellite phone and 50 protective suits in case of emergencies.

Hard to believe, but it seems that in a nation often lauded as among the best, if not the best, in terms of preparation for a natural disaster simply dropped the ball regarding catastrophic planning for nuclear facilities. More from the Wall Street Journalarticle describing the lack of proper planning:

Disaster-response documents for Fukushima Daiichi, examined by The Wall Street Journal, also contain few guidelines for obtaining outside help, providing insight into why Japan struggled to cope with a nuclear crisis after an earthquake and tsunami devastated the facility. There are no references to Tokyo firefighters, Japanese military forces or U.S. equipment.

The main disaster-readiness manual, updated annually, envisions the fax machine as a principal means of communication with the outside world and includes detailed forms for Tepco managers when faxing government officials. Much hinged on the fax machine. One section directs managers to notify the industry minister, the local governor and mayors of nearby towns of any problems “all at once, within 15 minutes, by facsimile.” In certain cases, the managers were advised to follow up by phone to make sure the fax had arrived.

Obviously one could take up several blog posts to simply unpack these and other related revelations. Undoubtedly, other Japanese efforts at disaster readiness saved thousands, if not tens of thousands, of lives following the earthquake and tsunami.  I have serious doubts about the current ability of the United States to manage a similar size catastrophe–both the immediate impact and long term consequences.  And I agree … that the nuclear crisis is needlessly overshadowing the larger natural disaster.

Yet it still boggles the mind that a society so prepared could allow such a substandard state of planning to exist.  The current disaster would not have been avoided if much of the response plan had been improved–only moving the back-up generators to higher ground would have saved the plant from the loss of power that initially drove events.  However, this disaster did underline the deficiencies in planning and hints at the difficulties that it caused in responding to this maximum of maximums event.

What the managers of the Fukushima plant failed to do was honestly consider even a bad, never mind worst, case scenario. * * *   Perhaps planning for an earthquake and resulting tsunami stronger than the reliable historical record indicates would not have been feasible before current events.  But the existence of a decent Plan B may have helped ameliorate the consequences of this Godzilla-esq black swan that fell on the people of Japan.

I suggest readers to the hlswatch.com website to see the comments and discussion today.

Assessment Report on FEMA’s Emergency Support Function Roles and Responsibilities

A newly released report from the Office of the Inspector General at DHS, reviews all of the Emergency Support Functions (ESFs).  While generally positive, ESF #14 did come in for some criticism. In my view the OIG did not dig deeply enough; I think the recovery process is fraught with deficiencies. From the report summary:

FEMA generally has fulfilled its Emergency Support Function roles and responsibilities. Specifically, the agency manages mission assignments, executes contracts, and procures goods and services for its Emergency Support Function activities. However, the agency can improve its coordination with stakeholders and its operational readiness.

FEMA should be coordinating with stakeholders for all Emergency Support Functions. For example, there was little evidence that support agencies are regularly included in planning meetings for an Emergency Support Function mission, even though agency officials said that such coordination would be beneficial. The agency must coordinate these activities with all relevant federal departments and agencies, state and local officials, and private sector entities to effectively execute the Emergency Support Function mission.

FEMA also should be fully prepared to provide community assistance after a disaster. Specifically, it is not conducting long-term recovery exercises, and one Emergency Support Function does not have clearly defined procedures to identify and deploy needed recovery services to disaster affected communities.

The report contains 11 recommendations that, when implemented, should improve FEMA’s efforts to meet its Emergency Support Function roles and responsibilities.

On Dec. 10, CQ Homeland Security commented on some of the content; their comments on the recovery aspect are as follows:

“FEMA also should be fully prepared to provide community assistance after a disaster,” it said.

For example, the report found that for post-disaster funding, FEMA has 36 full-time public assistance grant program employees, with 1,200 disaster assistance employees ready to supplement them in an emergency. However, the inspector general noted that as of February, 43 percent of the emergency staff were deployed to previous disasters, 15 percent were available and 42 percent were listed as “unavailable.” FEMA has said those numbers are inaccurate, though, as about 50 percent of the reserve staff typically make themselves available when an emergency hits.

And, while the report noted that FEMA already holds many hearings with its partners in response, the inspector general found that a few communications gaps still exist. For example, when it comes to communications restoration, “FEMA needs to consistently hold meetings with stakeholders and complete required reports from the regions to ensure continued coordination with stakeholders and to assess emergency communications capabilities and needs,” the report said.

This additional information does not make me any more optimistic about recovery. In my opinion ESF #14 is not well-conceived, so I do not find details about implementation satisfying. Recovery is far more comprehensive and complex than ESF 14 suggests.  Additionally, the final version of the National Disaster Recovery Framework still has not been issued.