Civilian disaster scenario training: Why and how we should do it
|Editor's note: This is the third and final part of Homeland1’s exclusive report on the International Association of Emergency Managers’ 57th annual conference, focusing on sessions from the conference’s second and third days.|
Too much media coverage of disasters is really just the same thing over and over: "Oh, look! There’s Anderson Cooper in his slicker, and the rain is going sideways!”
These are the words of Amanda Ripley, author of "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why" and senior writer for Time magazine whose reporting on Hurricane Katrina helped Time win two National Magazine Awards, at a Tuesday morning session at the 57th annual IAEM conference.
Ripley explained that her book grew from the fact that she likes to ask disaster survivors what they wish they had known.
The year off that she took to report and write the book taught her that there are three phases of "disaster think."
The first is Denial/Disbelief, which can actually start years before an event. When the brain is under stress, the amygdala takes over from the higher centers and responds based on existing patterns. “New information doesn’t work well in these moments,” Ripley commented.
Part of the brain’s limbic system, the amygdala has an important role in emotional reactions and has been called, Ripley noted, “the basement in your brain.”
She related the story of Patrick Turner, an 85-year-old WW2 veteran and long-time New Orleans resident who tried to ride out Hurricane Katrina. Ironically, Ripley noted that the single greatest predictor of whether a person would refuse to evacuate before Katrina was having gone through a hurricane before. But one big difference with Katrina, she said, was that ongoing development had destroyed much of the surrounding wetlands that could buffer a storm’s effects.
Having resisted his children’s pleas to get out, Turner attended mass as usual as the hurricane approached and told the priest he was staying put. At one point, he even stopped watching the weather on TV and unplugged his phone so he wouldn’t be annoyed by them.
Turner’s children finally reached him by phone again around 9 on the morning the storm made landfall. And Turner said something he seldom said: “I think I made a mistake.” He was later found in the attic of his shotgun house two blocks from Lake Pontchartrain, dead of an apparent heart attack.
The second phase of disaster think, Ripley said, is Deliberation. Research has shown that people typically talk to four to five sources before deciding to evacuate. Ripley recounted the experience of Mike Wilson, a passenger who began Tweeting just seven minutes after being in a plane crash in Denver, and also noted that some of the survivors of the 7/7 bombings of London’s public transportation were reluctant to leave the subway platforms after getting off the bombed trains.
She also pointed out one bit of practical advice for emergency managers from the World Health Organization: Don’t say “Be calm,” just be calm.
And the third phase Ripley calls “the Decisive Moment.” Her main example was the well-known story of Rick Rescorla, a Vietnam veteran who handled security for Morgan Stanley’s 22 floors in World Trade Center 2.
Rescorla’s insistence on regular evacuation drills after the 1993 bombing is credited with helping nearly 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees evacuate the tower before it collapsed. Only 13 Morgan Stanley personnel were left in the building and killed, including Rescorla. His remains have never been found.
The bottom line
So what can be done to better educate the public about emergency and disaster hazards?
Ripley suggests creating a sort of a science center that would realistically simulate such forces as hurricane winds and earthquake G-forces.
She recalled being on an orientation session at a fire department live burn and asking herself “Why am I the only civilian in a burn tower?” More citizens should have the chance to do something like that, she said, because she herself will never be the same after that experience.
“Blaming the media is real easy, and it doesn’t fix anything,” Ripley cautioned. She also acknowledged the “enormous pressure” from the media for information during a disaster, but strongly recommends sticking to “We don’t know” if that’s true.
Excercising to failure
Up next was Ellis Stanley, former emergency manager for the City of Los Angeles, who hit a few key points in his presentation. For one, he said, more would be learned from disaster exercises if the military practice of exercising to failure were followed.
Stanley coined the phrase “leadership by adding chairs” for the success the annual Great California ShakeOut earthquake exercise has had in getting more and more parties to the table.
And building on Ripley’s comments about the amygdala, he opined that in a disaster, “You will go to the basement. That’s just a fact of life.”
Disaster housing and predictions
In an afternoon breakout session, two FEMA officials discussed the new National Disaster Housing Strategy at length. Mandated by the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, the strategy was just published in January 2009, said Rafaela Monchek.
The strategy both describes the current situation, she explained, and points toward the future, in part by establishing a National Disaster Housing Task Force. Overall, the strategy emphasizes the importance of being able to provide a broad range of flexible housing options following a disaster.
Among other projects, the task force, which is led by FEMA partnering with HUD and other federal agencies, will develop a Practitioners Guide for disaster housing. In addition, FEMA’s National Advisory Council has a working group on disaster housing.
Co-presenter Donna Weise noted that some states, including Florida, Oregon, South Carolina and Georgia, have their own disaster housing task forces.
In Tuesday’s final round of breakouts, veteran emergency manager and consultant Gunnar Kuepper tackled “Forecasting Disasters: Nothing Happens out of the Blue.” He began by noting that emergency managers carry a measure of Cassandra’s curse, which was that she would always be correct in her predictions of doom, but that she would never be believed.
Working off his session’s title, Kuepper noted that many disasters are actually predictable to a useful extent and pointed out that NFPA 1600: Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs, at paragraph 5.3.1, mandates a degree of hazard prediction.
In an interesting historical note, he described “Futility,” a novel published in 1898 by American author Morgan Robertson. The story centers on a giant British passenger ship named the Titan, which carries too few lifeboats, hits an iceberg while crossing the North Atlantic and sinks with a very heavy loss of life.
Of three crucial factors, that is, the time, the location and an event with impact, we can typically predict only two, but that should be enough to make a major difference, he concluded. Among the emerging issues for emergency managers, Kuepper said, is the rise of “environmental refugees.”
Floods and rebuilding
In a general session on Wednesday morning, emergency management consultant Lucien Canton, CEM, also touched on refugees. His presentation on the catastrophic 1927 Mississippi River floods noted their wide-ranging fallout, from the spread of various blues styles across the nation to a major shift away from a levees-only flood-control policy.
Canton recommended the Public Entity Risk Institute book “Managing for Long-Term Community Recovery in the Aftermath of Disaster,” by Alesch, Arendt and Holly.
Finally, in one of the morning breakouts, Helene Wetherington of Calvin, Giordano and Assoc. covered a wide variety of issues in community rebuilding following a disaster.
One such question was whether local government should use the National Incident Management System as a structure in long-term recovery management. Wetherington contends that NIMS is not an appropriate structure for such complicated political interactions and in fact suggested that the EOC should be succeeded at a suitable time by a Recovery Operations Center, or perhaps a structure based on the fusion center concept. She acknowledged, however, that the point at which to transition to the recovery process can be fuzzy.
There’s definitely a balance between rebuilding smart versus rebuilding quickly, Wetherington said, and “complex value conflicts” usually create the need for community-wide trade-offs. An attendee pointed out that consensus-building about reconstruction plans will be hampered if local residents have been scattered by the disaster.
Emergency management has a role in the rebuilding process, but not to lead, although sometimes no one else wants to. In Florida, Wetherington said, the local planning department often takes the lead, though it could instead be community development or even public works.