Catastrophe in a Catastrophe: Hurricane Harvey

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Saturday, August 26, 2017

There is no doubt that Hurricane Harvey is a natural disaster already underway. We don’t know yet if it will become a catastrophe – time will tell, as flooding persists over days. First, this post will note how to help in a disaster. Second, why this could be a catastrophe… in a catastrophe.

First - How to Help in a Disaster

** Step 1: Don’t even think about going there. Do not self-dispatch. Do not go while the disaster is unfolding. Do not go after, unless attached to a very organized volunteer organization that actually expects you and needs your specific skills and abilities. This will not happen until days or weeks after the impacts are worst.

People who show up to “help” in disasters outside of the established protocols create confusion and additional needs for logistical support when resources are already stretched. It does not matter if you are a firefighter, medical doctor, or generally able-bodied person. Systems are in place to mobilize qualified individuals to places where they are specifically needed.

** Step 2: DO NOT SEND STUFF. Donations clog up all kinds of works. Do not send donations. Don’t send them even if your church or any other group says they will do good. They almost never do, and end up in warehouses or landfills and take tons of time to sort out. It is not helpful to deal with unrequested donations in the middle of a disaster. Donate items to local charities where you live who can actually use them, now.

** Step 3: DO send money, if you are financially able. Find a reputable organization that is trusted. Use good cyber hygiene. Only send money via trusted channels and organization. Scammers will pop up during any disaster. Be aware.

** Step 4: See what you can do in your local community to receive potential evacuees. This may or may not be relevant, but after Hurricane Katrina, evacuees were resettled across the US.

** Step 5: Make a difference where you live. See what you can do to be ready for a disaster in your home, community, or state. We can always be more resilient and more prepared. Whether it is a broken leg, an active shooter, or a tornado – we are all vulnerable. Stuff is going to happen. We’ll be better if we have put some thought into it ahead of time. We are also better able to help others and other communities when we can take care of ourselves. That’s why you put your own oxygen mask on first on the plane – we can’t help anyone if we can’t breathe.

** Step 6: Take care of people where you live. Do it in honor of the people who won’t be able to in this current disaster. Do it because you don’t want to have to wait for a wake-up call to appreciate what you have. Do it because you can. Thousands are already impacted by this disaster – the power outages alone will be expensive and cause loss, let alone the dangers from wind and flooding. Take care of your people now. That’s something we can all do.

Second - Why This Could Be a Catastrophe in a Catastrophe

Let’s start with the basics. Hurricane Harvey could be a catastrophe based on the scale and scope of the impacted area. Floodwater is one of the most destructive disaster forces, and tends to cause the most economic damage nationwide annually. Critical infrastructure impacts will be wide, and can cause cascading impacts. And so on. Disasters are destructive – catastrophes are disasters on a larger scale.

We have made much progress in preparing for disasters since our largest most recent catastrophes – 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. However, much has also not been done.

We have never seriously built a National Incident Management System (NIMS) - a scalable and flexible system for managing incidents from every day emergencies and events to large-scale disasters.

There are not mechanisms in place to adjudicate the allocation of critical national resources between support systems in catastrophic situations. There are approximately 14 major national multi-scale and overlapping systems for mobilizing disaster response resources. These are also called mutual aid systems. Disaster impacted jurisdictions and entities can end up competing with each other for critical response resources, and there is not a mechanism or system to de-conflict or prioritize these.

Disaster response follows the principle of federalism per the constitution. That means that disaster response starts locally, and then to the state level and then to the federal level. Texas, for example, has an excellent incident management structure in place – and in fact hosts one of the premier centers in the world for learning about disaster response. Louisiana has weathered many major incidents and has vastly improved response systems. Both states are within very strong mutual aid frameworks.

Those things will help, but the systemic issues noted above and others will likely complicate the response. Also, FEMA is an agency with many good folks, but there are huge unresolved challenges in the agency - and the director is extremely new. Several political appointments have not yet been filled.

FEMA is within the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS is a very young department, in existence only since 2003. DHS not strong on disaster response, and is also without several political appointments including a Secretary. It is a department plagued by leadership challenges, frequent reorganizations, and a lack of understanding about the true needs of state and local governments experiencing actual crisis. These statements are not made lightly, but rather are informed by nine years of work at DHS – including five at FEMA.

Now to the challenges brought by the current administration.

This administration’s priorities for DHS include a major shift on immigration. In a state near the Mexican border, this has already caused issues with evacuation and sheltering. The competing missions of FEMA and the rest of DHS could be complicated in this response. This dynamic is extremely high-risk for this scenario, and could be a disaster-amplifier. In other words – it could make it worse.

One of the major complications in any disaster is getting behind the power curve. The administration is already running that risk – in part by not focusing completely on the unfolding scenario. The president’s pardon of controversial former sheriff as the storm rolled in takes focus from the hurricane. "The American Bar Association is disappointed that a #pardon was granted to former Arizona sheriff #JoeArpaio… Pardoning a #lawenforcement officer who has disobeyed the #courts and violated the rights of people he has sworn to protect undercuts judicial authority and the public’s faith in our legal system." This president is undermining the checks and balances of the constitution itself. How will he take care of US citizens impacted by a disaster, when he does not uphold the rule of law meant to protect those same citizens?

Thus the larger catastrophe. We have a #president at war with his own intelligence community, dissing his own Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and undermining the law itself. A president who cannot bring himself to disavow white supremacists after days and weeks, but who condemns foreign terrorists within hours. A president who has stated his willingness to shut down an entire US government so that he can fund one tiny piece – a partial southern border wall – to address an immigration situation that is not in any significant way tied to terrorism, 9/11, or ISIS.

Should Hurricane Harvey become a catastrophe, this president will face the challenge of “leading” in the midst of some level of chaos. There is no indication that he has the tools to be successful at it.

Failure to do so could be an amplifier in itself, leading to more protests and instability in the US – on top of the fractures since the election, and the hurricane disaster.

Why is this about countering fear?

Because we need to be aware. Things are very likely to get messier before they get better. We need to be prepared in our own homes and communities to deal with what could potentially come next.

Countering fear is about navigating disruption – and we’ll likely see quite a bit of it in the next days as these scenarios unfold. We can hold space for those enduring crisis now. We can also go back to the six steps at the top of this list to get started making a difference for them, and for people in the communities we live in.

We will be better able to navigate disruption when we are resilient, and when we have connection, community, and each other.


Are you navigating some chaos or disruption?  Do you think you might need to?  Check out private coaching at inclusive pricing ratesWe can find a way forward.  There's always a path.

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NOTE:  A shorter and non-political version of this post is here:  "10 Ways To Help in Hurricane Harvey Disaster."

2017 posts advocate & amplify assess situation & resources assess, accept, & address risk build resilience connect continuity of business / operations disasters & emergencies disruption & transformation don't panic foster community infrastructure manage incidents & events opposition / resistance security / homeland security / national security

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