Becoming Resilient

May 16, 2011

Keith Stefanelli and Daniel Kaniewski smile in front of George Washington bust on university campus

Keith Stefanelli (left) and Daniel Kaniewski

If another major terrorist attack or a natural disaster hit U.S. soil, how quickly could the American public recover?

Daniel Kaniewski, assistant vice president and deputy director of GW’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, thinks most Americans are ill-prepared for a catastrophic event.

“We don’t feel that the American public has a significant understanding of the risks they face, and if they don’t understand the risks they face, then they probably won’t prepare to mitigate those risks. And even if they know what risks they face, many people think the federal government will be there for them following a catastrophic incident, but the federal government is ill-positioned to do that,” said Mr. Kaniewski, former special assistant to the president for homeland security during the Bush administration. “So in order for the public to be resilient and deal with the consequences of whatever the disaster is, they need to take action themselves.”

The HSPI Preparedness, Response & Resilience Task Force, a group of 14 emergency experts including Darrell Darnell, senior associate vice president for safety and security, will be defining and discussing resiliency over the next year as well as making specific policy recommendations for making the government and the public more resilient.

According to the White House, resiliency is defined as the ability to adapt to changing conditions and prepare for, withstand and rapidly recover from disruption from terrorism, natural disasters, large-scale cyber attacks and pandemics. In addition to holding meetings with government officials about the nation’s preparedness and resiliency, the task force will publish a series of policy papers and host public events such as last month’s announcement of Presidential Policy Directive 8 on National Preparedness.

The task force released its first report today, which urges the nation to develop more policies surrounding resiliency in all levels of government.

“The most effective way for our country to recover from catastrophic events, whether natural or manmade is to develop resiliency in our federal, state and local governments, our businesses and our families,” said R. David Paulison, task force co-chair and former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The task force is being supported by a $100,000 grant from ICF International, a professional services firm that partners with government and commercial clients to provide strategy, policy analysis, program management and evaluation.

“ICF’s support of our Preparedness, Response & Resilience Task Force will enable us to delve into resilience policy issues heretofore not considered,” said Mr. Kaniewski, co-chair of the task force. “I am convinced that the task force is well positioned to serve as a thought leader on these issues.”

John Paczkowski, ICF vice president, believes his organization’s support for HSPI will benefit the entire homeland security community.

“We are committed to advancing the cause of national resilience and a whole-of-nation approach to homeland security. ICF shares HSPI’s commitment to candid and unbiased analysis of homeland security issues and its unwavering support to our nation’s elected leaders and policymakers as they address merging threats to the homeland,” said Mr. Paczkowski. “We are very proud of our relationship with the George Washington University and in particular the Homeland Security Policy Institute.”

Keith Stefanelli, a graduate student in GW’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, is serving as a liaison between HSPI and ICF.

Mr. Stefanelli said the U.S. has to be more diverse in its preparedness than many other countries because of the varying geographical areas.

“It’s more challenging for us to put together a cookie-cutter all-hazards approach to resiliency because we are more diverse than other countries,” he said.

But what Mr. Stefanelli and Mr. Kaniewski worry most about is what they call “low probability, high consequence” events such as an earthquake in the Midwest or a blizzard in the South.

“People treat these types of events like they have zero probability, but the reality is it’s not zero probability. When these ‘perfect storms’ happen, they have a very high degree of damage and loss of life,” said Mr. Stefanelli.

Mr. Kaniewski often uses the New Madrid fault line that runs through the South and Midwest as an example of a low probability yet high consequence event.

“There is a real risk that the fault could rupture in the not too distant future. Whether that’s today or 100 years from now, we don’t know, but it’s a risk with greater probability than what people perceive. The Midwest is well prepared for floods and tornadoes but not for an earthquake so if the fault were to rupture, it would be absolutely catastrophic,” he said. “The normal response put into place for a regular disaster would be so inadequate. That’s why citizens have to take actions themselves to be prepared.”

Mr. Kaniewski suggests that all Americans should have an emergency preparedness kit with enough food and water for 72 hours, a three-day supply of needed medications, a first aid kit, flashlight, battery-operated radio, extra batteries, dust mask, local maps and whistle. Americans should also make an emergency disaster plan with their family, learn their local evacuation routes and decide on a meeting spot if communication networks are down.

“When a disaster hits, governments are overwhelmed in the first 72 hours after an incident. People need to realize that they could be on their own for several days,” he said.

However, in some cases, it’s best not to evacuate but rather “shelter in place,” said Mr. Kaniewski.

“By going out into the environment, you’re exposing yourself to even more risk than if you stayed inside,” he said.

For example, Mr. Kaniewski said the federal and local government should have advised Washingtonians to spend the night in their offices rather than send employees home early during the snow storm in January this year which caused a traffic gridlock with motorists trapped in their cars for more than 14 hours on the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

“People would have been much safer staying in their office than being stuck in their cars all night,” said Mr. Kaniewski, who recommends people keep a change of clothes and extra food and water in their offices.