6 Vital Catastrophic Planning Considerations

Author: Michael Icardi, Associate Manager, Preparedness Programs, IEM

Hurrican KatrinaMaintaining a high degree of preparedness for conducting emergency management operations has gone through many iterations of planning paradigms in the recent past. New incidents, both domestic and international, have called attention to the policies, protocols, and procedures that shape response and recovery activities. These incidents highlight the need for catastrophic planning, that is, planning for a disaster that immediately overwhelms the personnel and resources of a jurisdiction; it is a scenario considering the maximum of maximum impacts.

In the past eight years, IEM has served as one of the lead companies supporting catastrophic planning in Louisiana for a major hurricane; Florida and FEMA Region IV for a major hurricane and subsequent breach of the Herbert Hoover Dike along Lake Okeechobee leading to long-term flooding; and the Midwest and South for a major earthquake along the New Madrid Seismic Zone.  Through these efforts, we have identified six concepts that all planners should address during their planning process for a catastrophic incident.

1. Requires fundamental shift in traditional methods

It is easy to become complacent with the status quo for preparedness activities, especially when your jurisdiction has not gone through a significant incident.  As such, the traditional way you provide food and water, sheltering, or evacuation has not been overwhelmed by catastrophic impacts. Planners commonly assume that they can implement operations in the same way they have always done it; they will just scale it up. In Southern California, the Catastrophic Earthquake Response Plan project identified the need to shelter 500,000 survivors in the Los Angeles Operational Area. Using the traditional model, a shelter will hold 300-500 people. Thus, at least 1,000 shelters, personnel and logistical support would be required to shelter 500,000 survivors. The traditional method must be reconsidered.

2. Requires cultural changes

To understand the level and depth of impact without experiencing a catastrophe like we have seen recently in Japan, Christchurch, New Zealand, Haiti, or Chile, we must shift our methods and change the culture of disaster response. There is a mindset of, “that will never happen to us” or “we have enough staff, resources, tools to handle it”.  The very definition of catastrophic is that there is not enough staff to manage the incident or resources to respond to it.  The community of planners must understand that simply moving faster or adding resources will not be successful to meeting needs or changing outcomes. 1,000 traditional shelters may not be realistic, but what about 50, nontraditional open air or mega shelters holding 10,000 people each?

A key step to transitioning this mindset is developing comprehensive consequence documents that outline specific impacts to infrastructure, the population, and establish baseline quantifiable planning consideration and outcomes to focus on. There is a major difference of saying you will not have enough shelters compared to you have to shelter 500,000 people. People react different to specific, targeted details. Identify what is relevant to their operations, scientifically establish the impact from a disaster and help them understand what they will be facing.

3. Requires an honest assessment of polices and law that hinder a coordinated and expedient response

The primary focus and ultimate goal of response and recovery operations is to save lives, protect property, and recover.  If there are laws or existing policies and procedures that prevent this from occurring they should be carefully reviewed, considered, and recommendations for amendments or pre-approved waivers to current practices should be presented.  Agencies and jurisdictions should be prepared to focus their operations on fulfilling the mission. By testing the system against catastrophic consequences it is stressed, and those hindrances can be identified. Planners must take the approach that nothing is off limits and everything should be open to a re-evaluation of how it has previously worked.

4. Promotes “cross-walking” various risks/hazards to verify key concepts

A single disaster can devastate a jurisdiction or region; however, as we are seeing in Japan, a massive earthquake led to a destructive tsunami and damaged nuclear power plants.  Cascading events must be evaluated and integrated into planning efforts. If only the earthquake impacts were considered, it would be short-sighted to the externalities that can occur. Additionally, merely considering how an evacuation would occur during a hurricane would be insufficient. That evacuation process must also be applied to other scenarios, such as a weapon of mass destruction or terrorist attack to identify its viability and additional planning needs dependent on the event. The baseline operational concepts should be evaluated and tested from multiple perspectives to verify their execution.

5. Must include survivors in all phases of disaster management

As we discussed before, the potential of setting up, staffing and maintaining 1,000 shelters would be impossible without engaging the whole community. Planners have traditionally failed to consider how many of those staff positions in the shelter could be filled by volunteers who may be a part of the shelter population. The survivors of a disaster have a wide array of skills and abilities, and are invested in the success of response and recovery operations in their community so they can resume normal life as quickly as possible. Their engagement is also paramount to retaining them in the community. Always consider what positions volunteers could fill, and pre-identify the skills and necessary just-in-time training needed so that when a catastrophe happens, they can quickly be used.

6. Must include private sector in all phases of disaster management and preparedness

As with the members of the community being engaged in their own recovery, businesses want them to return home to begin shopping at their stores, eating at their restaurants and using their services. But beyond that, they also have nontraditional resources that planners have largely ignored. If you identify a gap in feeding for survivors or responders, why not engage local eateries to use their resources, fire up their grill, and serve the food. This is an organic resource that does not have to be brought in from outside the impacted area. Establish pre-disaster agreements that they will support in specific ways, receive an agreed upon reimbursement and be a part of response and recovery operations.

Catastrophic disasters pose a unique opportunity to reconsider your planning efforts, change mindsets and adapt a planning environment to streamline and focus your operational response and recovery capabilities. Step away from the status quo, understand the devastation you will experience, and engage the process with a renewed vigor to redefine your approaches and the populations who can support operations.

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