Thursday, June 24, 2010

Defining "catastrophic" events-The BP Catastrophe

I plan to start referring to the BP spill as the BP catastrophe. It still does meet my short hand definition of what is a catastrophic event which is any unplanned incident or event in which the governmental organizations charged with disaster response and recovery are knocked out of commission for an indefinite period. Clearly the federal government is currently in operation no matter how ineffectively and now it appears the Congress and its oversight committees are going to hold hearings as early as next week on the "Chain of Command" for this catastrophic event.

I earlier posted on this blog on this subject and cited the language from Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1978 as set forth again below:

"Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1978 Extract

House Document No. 95-356
June 19, 1978
From first full paragraph on page 3:

Third, whenever possible, emergency responsibilities should be extensions of the regular missions of Federal agencies. The primary task of the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be to coordinate and plan for the emergency deployment of resources that have other routine uses. There is no need to develop a separate set of Federal skills and capabilities for those rare occasions when catastrophe occurs.
[emphasis supplied]"

It was not quite accurate however to state that this definition limited FEMA from conducting some research and analysis on the problems and definitions of catastrophic events when an independent agency. As all readers of this blog know I don't believe the language above still has any force or effect in limiting discussion or analysis by DHS or FEMA on this subject.

An organization was created even before the final issuance of the FRP (Federal Response Plan) in May 1992 [two months before Hurricane Andrew] called the CDRG (Catastrophic Disaster Response Group) which was designed to be a policy and issue analysis group focusing on those items deriving from disaster operations that might be of concern to the White House [WH] or would definitely be of concern to the WH and require WH intervention to resolve. This organization was designed to be staffed at the Assistant Secretary level from each responding agency. Its notes and issues have long been destroyed and were never properly archived so that is full impact is now hard to measure. IMO it operated well and dealt with many issues of major concern in disasters some of which are repetitive.
Two FEMA staffers, both experienced and very intelligent civil servants, Veronica Moreland and Karen Sagett [both long retired from civil service] drafted a discussion document to facilitate the discussion of catastrophic disaster issues at the April 11, 1997 of the CDRG. Some indication exists that the CDRG adopted some of the recommendations in the paper at least to the extent they identified tough issues to be further analyzed.

The next effort to conduct analysis that was formalized was the circulation of a draft paper on July 20, 2001, entitled "Catstrophic Disaster Definition and Criteria." That document referenced the earlier paper. Again there was no specific decision or decisions made except to recognize the problem. It is true however that this whole policy subject was in fact raised and attempted to be addressed by Joseph Allbaugh, Director of FEMA, under George W. Bush but then of course September 11, 2001 intervened.
I frequently comment on and the subject of catastrophe has been explored several times on that blog. It is also true that once again DHS has started tiny steps to address this topic and resolve issues. I hope that tough analytical work produces results.

In the meantime here's to the BP Catastrophe!