Friday, May 21, 2010

The BP disaster

It is hard to see these videos of BP live underwater feed about the emerging oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and not cringe. How did we let this happen?

Rosenthal, Boin & Comfort (2001) experts in crisis management research wrote about the Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea, 110 miles off the coast of Scotland. This disaster was triggered by a series of explosions, fire, the rupture of the pipeline carrying gas and oil to a nearby Texaco pipeline, and the eventual collapse of that platform. Of the 226 workers on the platform that day only 61 survived. The eerily similar malfunction of safety valves or apparatuses in the underwater pumps, indicates we should have been aware of what could go wrong. The Exxon Valdez oil spill and the eventual disaster it triggered in Prince William sound should have been a stark reminder as well of what was possible.

There is enough blame to go around but to me, accountability should be to those who had responsibility for oversight, event though BP and no one else should foot the bill, every penny of it. There are so few apparatuses to assist in correction should there have been a disaster, given the depth at which the drilling was taking place. Moreover, because human access at such great depth is so limited, prevention had to be the key. Preventing or at least mitigating such a disaster required that the protections were in place and functioning.

These protections should have included quarterly testing of emergency systems under the supervision of independent but government appointed overseers - those systems designed to shut down the drilling in the event of a malfunction. Quarterly spot checks of the platforms including interviews with workers on these platforms should have been conducted. It is clear that workers were aware that the system had flaws. Under water video feeds must also be monitored by the oversight agency. Strict deadlines should be given for addressing any problems with strict sanctions including closure of platform until those problems are resolved. It is not clear how soon the current spill can be curtailed. In the meantime, the other platforms should be tested, monitored or closed until they have been deemed safe.

The difficulty with the Gulf oil spill is the fact that there were others we could have learnt from. There was evidence of what was possible and frankly we may have have been presumptious. Mike Williams interview with Scott Pelley on CBS's 60 minutes on May 16, clearly shows that there was evidence of a problem, and had there been adequate oversight or at least mechanisms for reporting such concerns to an oversight agency, we could have averted the problem.

While we wait for BP to invent equipment and strategies to stop the oil spill, this may be a good time to look at all deep water platform. Our fragile ecology may not be able to withstand another spill, given that this was the deemed the "safest platform" in BP's fleet.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Big Brother is watching

I return to an observation I made in an earlier blog on the Christmas day bomber in which I indicated that outsiders may be finding it increasing difficult to launch terrorist attacks on us from the outside. The Times Square bomber further confirms this. He has been in the US long enough to obtain citizenship and at thirty had to have been here since he was probably 24 years old or younger. Which means he would have been in Pakistan during the 9/11, the start of Afghan and Iraqi wars and all things in between. It would be instructive to get into his mind to understand how notions of terrorism are established and find expression, and whether he became corrupted here,in the US or in Pakistan and what were the triggers or events.

The fact that he was caught speaks to the increased ability to track terrorist and create a sense of confidence in law enforcement, and apprehension in other would-be terrorist who by their actions demonstrate they would rather not be caught.

There is something more important in what happened that is treated as luck and it appears that many of the major media houses also frame it as such and that is, the skill and attitude of this veteran to notice the vehicle and the smoke, and to set off the alarm. What this suggests is the first indication of a shift in behavior and response in the face chronic threat. Anderson (1967) argues that the more chronic a threat, the greater will be its integration into the local culture. We are being to see an inculcation of response to terrorism into the New York culture as a result of the persistent threat of terrorism

September 9/11 was a sudden event but since then subsequent events are transforming terrorism into a chronic threat in which a culture of mitigation is beginning to emerge. In such a culture ordinary people are beginning to work to reduce or respond to that threat. It was ordinary people who responded to that threat on Christmas day. That kind of respond corresponds to what Carr (1932) and Dombrowsky (1980) referred to as social and cultural protections. They argue that it is a collapse of these protections that results in disasters. Such an approach is instructive for other disasters, if one argues that disasters are often associated with faulty decision-making based on inadequate,untimely or faulty information.

Terrorism requires protections different from other threats since it is human-induced and fabricated in the mind and philosophy of men. A counter-mindset is required to diffuse it. As one expert noted "we may not be able to prevent the events" but we can sure use our observation skills, presence of mind to set off alarms and the courage to take responsibility for the safety of our communities and fellow human beings. It took some spatial awareness and local knowledge of New York to achieve that in this case.

Additionally, two years ago I wrote about the cameras being placed in public places and argued that in an increasingly dangerous world they would serve as a deterrent and media for evidence collection. While I believe in fundamental human freedoms, those freedoms have to be secured and maintained at a price.Part of that price is intrusion on our public space. Law abiding citizens have nothing to fear. If anything those Time Square cameras saved another day. Moreover, as threats persistent, more human surveillance will emerge, in which case big brother will be watching both in the air and on the ground. Imagine what that would be like if we would be vigilant to every threat, even when it is a false alarm. False alarms are trial runs.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Classic Disaster Response in Haiti and what can be done

Haiti and the unfolding response strategy demonstrate how little we have learnt after decades of dealing with disasters. It is my understanding that the Prime Minister of Dominica, who is also the current chair of CARICOM, Hon. Roosevelt Skerrit is on his way to Haiti. His visit, I understand will be short but he along with the former Minister of Education and Foreign Minister, Vince Henderson are probably in my estimation, the best disaster coordinators that I know. However, given the magnitude of the quake and the context in Haiti, one can expect logistics problems. Tierney (2007) noted "how people die during disasters is an indication of how they lived." what has worked so far in Haiti, it the determination and effort of local people in mounting the rescue effort. Often with bare hands, simple tools, patience and tenacity, they have been able to rescue many. High tech equipment, technology and experts and all those gadgets often tooted as tools for recovery are nowhere near present. It is local people, ordinary people who are now making the difference in Haiti.

Despite the assurance that assessors were evaluating the situation, they were unable to recognize that the airport was too small, the port was damage and has to find alternatives and the roads were impassible. No amount of manuals can make a difference here and it is this situations that make people cynical about disaster education and its ability to make a difference. In any case, the Haitian context is what is essential and disaster management should be designed within this context: the poverty, inadequate infrastructure, little expertise, inadequate organizational and institutional support.

Disaster recovery is the function of local people and local organization and the Haitian case is proving that. This is even more so when no one can reach the disaster site from the outside. Dominica's experience of using local disaster management committees in each community with responsibility for shelter management, local relief and reporting with central government and related disaster organization - the red cross, public utilities, media, taking on a coordinating role. The media has demonstrated that they are essential assets for relief mobilization and distribution as well. However, Dominica's experience has been with hurricanes which can be forecast and preparation made. The devastation can be just as tragic as Dominica discovered with Hurricane David In 1979. A system of local village councils also assist in organizing for disasters.

We need heavy equipment to clear roads, choppers to air lift food. local food centers can be manned by FAO and other UN Agencies who know the place well; the Red Cross to coordinate the list of missing they have wide experience in that area and providing emergency supplies; the church has years of experience in feeding large groups of people: the Adventist Relief Agency (ADRA) who are working in Haiti are excellent at Emergency shelter construction; the army are tent experts, they live in those all the time: UNICEF and Save the Children also in Haiti are best with children providing emergency education and supplies and support. Those kind will need PSTD intervention. Doctors without borders are world renowned to know their roles. Both the Dominica Electricity Company and LIME Telecoms in Dominica as well have tremendous experience in the restoration of electrical and telecoms infrastructure. They worked in Grenada after Ivan and in Montserrat at the Soufirere volcano; LIME moved it's cables underground to protect them after the use of community health workers, and local fist aids can be used to stabilise the injured.

However, the first three days of chaos is expected can be reduced significantly if locals - community organization is fostered because this is what is essential when cultural protections collapse. Neighbors know where people are, what their conditions are. Again Dominica is fortunate because of its health care system. a cadre of health and medical persons are located within each community. Haiti's poverty is a serious drawback in this case but there are some structures in place that can be used as I mentioned.

What is instructive here is how the very structures to be used for response and relief crumble during disasters and that it is local people, ordinary people who are presently making the difference, not only in direct help but how after almost 72 hours, they have been able to conduct themselves; their tenacity, attitude and patience; I supposed forged out of centuries of hardship and pains maybe. These are the protections in which we need to invest because Haiti shows that irrespective of the context this is what works in those critical hours. It can also work in the long term. Research in children, learning and chronic natural disaster will demonstrate how this can be done on a sustained level using intergenerational approach and the establish system of education.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti, I'm sorry

A West Indian Calypsonian penned and sang a heart touching song "Haiti, I'm Sorry." This song captured the historical struggles of a people and whose daily existence seem to have reached its nadir with this 7.0 quake that has rocked and totally devastated the country. Haiti is and has been a fragile state. Coups, poverty and poor infrastructure and institutions have marked the governance and organiscape of the the nation. Today as the extent and impact of the Haitian earthquake unfolds, its become clear that this is a perfect disaster. A classical lesson in disasters that no graduate level course could teach. My hope is that all students of disaster are paying close attention.

The Haitian case exposes the weakness of mainstream theories of disaster and approaches to emergency management. Any centralized management apparatus is worthless because communication and transportation have become victims of the disaster. Those have collapse. Telecommunications and any other technology gadgets long the bastion of mainstream disaster management have also collapsed. It is local people relying on their knowledge, skills and attitudes that are making a different in Haiti in that 36hour windows that is considered the most critical. Whatever emergency plans and organizations exists, it seems no one is consulting or referring to them. Theories of disaster should be congruent with the response approaches and recommendations. The need to remove protection from the infrastructural, technological and economic domains to the social and cultural domains that is knowledge,skills and attitudes. This would necessitate a philosophical shift in our thinking and the organizations that promote and fund disaster research and practice.

David Alexander (2000) in his excellent blog on "Disaster Planning and Emergency Management," argued for emergency planning and management, that focused on culture and context. Given the theories are "road maps" for practice, theories that focuses on culture and context have to be developed.

While a 7.0 quake by any imagination is huge, by Haiti's, its catastrophic. The poverty, poor infrastructure, weak management, poor environmental practices, weak governance under normal conditions are disastrous. California had a 6.9 quake a few week ago but with little damage. The disaster is not in the trigger. It is in the culture and context. In the case of Haiti, the quake was just a trigger and pictures fed on television are merely, the results or symptoms of the disaster. The disaster is in the collapse of the social and cultural protections - the knowledge, skills and attitudes that is necessary to get citizens to make informed decision in every day life conscious of the risk and vulnerability. Those have to be learnt in systematic and sustained ways and has to be pervasive to address this widespread collapse. The widespread extent of that destruction and collapse is a clear indication of the pervasive nature of what the issues are and the cultural and social elements inherent in that pervasiveness are assumed.

Change can be attained through a systematic process of transmitting the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to make decisions around the persistent threat of earthquakes and hurricanes. This requires shifts in disaster management - from institutional focus to community focus, from a centralized to a decentralized approach. This may not suffice now. Relief and human suffering has to be alleviated but the future demands that new approach that responds to or at best captures the culture and context notions of David Alexander.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

I missed the President of the United States report on the findings of the investigation following the Christmas Day attempted bombing of the Northwestern Flight. However, I listened to Messrs Brenan, Gibbs and Napolitano's press conference on the findings and strategies for response. As I did, a number of things come to mind. The first being the need to guard against solving the wrong problems. Dunn (1997) identified what he described as Type III error in which one arrives at the false conclusion that the estimated boundaries of a problem approximates the true boundary of the problem. He offers several benchmarks for establishing congruence between those boundaries. The second being the fact that the flight emerged out of the United States as an indication that terrorist may be finding it increasingly difficult to launch attacks from US soil - a possibility that the measures being taken within the United States are effective. The third things can be seen as two important aspects of the shift in terror tactics - the use of non- middle eastern, Muslims to launch attacks and to do so from outside the US. That third thing having been highlighted at the press conference. These three things have to be central to the response and approach. The press conference appear to focus strategy on the United States - new machines, more K-9 officers, sharing of intelligence. While there is the need to ensure greater supervision and decisive action to be taken within the public service arms involved in national security, there is a need to ensure that those avenues for attacks available outside of the United States are policed if not curtailed.

Returning to the question of problem boundaries, adequate analysis of the problem is required to identify as nearly as possible its true boundary that is, it causes, not its symptoms must be the focus of responses.

Another critical aspects of that approach is to develop "a culture of disaster aversion" - a mental and cognitive shift in understanding and accepting the risks and vulnerabilities and adopting matched attitudes and skills to diffuse. In means a systematic inculcation or transmission of the Knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to respond to disasters or at best threats of disasters. The reaction of the passengers on that Christmas Day flight is an example of the the kind of attitude that is required. It must extend to all citizens on airplanes, in airports, in queues, on trains, on buses, in schools, in neighborhoods. As much as we may not want to be suspicious of our neighbours and friends. Often it is they who have the greatest opportunities to do us harm. We all must be come disaster intelligent. This means refusing to remain silent in the face of suspicion, and confronting when breaches are recognized whether with respect to security or regulations.

In addition, there must be open and outright condemnation of these Al Kaeda attacks by mainstream Islam. It is these condemnations that will assist in serving as a signal to the young and unsuspecting adherents and would be recruits. The silence of mainstream Islam on these attacks continue to be troubling.