Sunday, April 19, 2009

The five stages of catastrophic planning

It's called scenario based catastrophic planning. Pick a suitably awful disaster and write a plan to meet that specific disaster. What everyone learns from the planning process and the disaster plan developed by that process will be useful in all future disasters. After two years of work on our catastrophic plan I can say that scenario based planning works.

As a result of the lessons learned from Katrina FEMA began funding catastrophic planning with specified state and local jurisdictions. There was a hurricane plan for Hawaii, two earthquake plans for California (one North and one South), the New Madrid Earthquake plan for Missouri, Arkanasas, Tennessee and surrounding states and a hurricane plan for Florida. I think that this is the best money that FEMA has spent in the last two years.

The scenario for Florida is particularly horrific: a Category 5 hurricane that hits Broward County (Ft Lauderdale) head on, devastates much of Dade and Palm Beach counties, then crosses the state and exits Tampa Bay as a Category 2 storm. The consequences are much worse than anything we experienced in Katrina.

Working on this project has been the equivalent of studying for a graduate degree in emergency management. The project was organized into workgroups: debris, search & rescue, medical, animal issues, education, community stabilization, disaster housing, environmental protection, law enforcement, fuel, health & welfare, host communities, infrastructure, logistics, public information, volunteers & donations. I was made chairman of the mass care feeding and sheltering workgroup, along with my good friend from FEMA Region IV, John Daly.

Many of the problems that we addressed were interrelated with the other workgroups, requiring us to rapidly become familiar with the basics of each discipline. Many of the problems that we dealt with had never been encountered before in the United States, or if they had been encountered then on a much smaller scale.

Over the course of the two years we had to absorb new members to the workgroups. The learning curve for new members was steep. The consequences document, which explained the impact of this single storm on the state, was one hundred pages long. The complexity and scale of the problems required us to invent new ways of doing business in emergency management. It has been a very interesting and exciting ride.

As the new members join or are introduced to the project I have observed that they pass through five very well defined stages. The first stage is disbelief. The catastrophe is so big that they can't conceive of a solution. "We can't do this," they say.

In the second stage they challenge the assumptions. To generate a one hundred page consequence document for an imaginary hurricane, certain assumptions must be made (the hurricane was real, and passed along the identical track in 1926, only a lot fewer people lived there than do now). In this stage the newbies start reading the fine print of the consequences document and declaring that the assumptions are wrong. One group of federales, when told the scale of the response required, responded that the scenario needed to be changed. Comments in this stage are along the lines of, "That can't be 1.8 million people, it most likely is 1.1 million." The answer, of course, is that it doesn't matter if it is 1.8 or 1.1 million, that's still a lot of people. Some people wallowed in this stage for month, arguing over angels dancing on the head of the pin.

The third stage is resignation. Exhausted from fighting the assumptions, they stare at the numbers and shake their heads. They know that they have to write a plan but they are clueless. The common refrain at this stage is, "I have no idea how we're going to do this."

In the fourth stage they awaken from their lethargy and with a burst of energy focus on the small and extraneous. They are going to reach the big solution by developing a bunch of little ones. Or they want to bite off a small bit of the problem and solve that. An example of the kind of thinking that arises at this stage is, "Let's make sure every survivor has a toothbrush!" We can spend many an hour chasing our tail on that one!

Actual productive planning doesn't arrive until the fifth stage. "I've got a good idea!" The best work happens when we have a room full of people operating at the fifth stage. For the willing, moving through the five stages can take a matter of days. For the unwilling, the process can last months.

Unfortunately, we weren't always operating on all cylinders, with everyone working optimally at stage five. Frequently, we would have a room full of people operating in all five stages. It those situations we would get questions like:

"Did you think of...?"

"What about..."

"You really should try..."

We would sit there and nod our heads. Yes, we thought of that. Yes, we tried that. Yes, what you are saying is correct but it's not the solution - there is no silver bullet.

Yet, after two years we have gone where no emergency managers have gone before. We have written a plan. I know that we have a pretty good mass care feeding and sheltering plan. The first week of June the state of Florida will be holding a hurricane exercise to test this catastrophic plan. FEMA will be there in abundance. I believe that in my my area, feeding and sheltering, this will be the largest and most complex exercise ever conducted in the nation.

When I get the chance, I'll tell you how it turns out.

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