November 01, 2012

Scenario Planning, Hurricane Sandy, and Relationships

Patrick Marren

This has been a ridiculously busy and stressful week for three of our recent scenario-based strategic planning clients: the United States Coast Guard, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

As of last night, reports from the Port Authority show that power has not yet been restored to port facilities in Newark, Bayonne and Brooklyn. A glance at the on-line Automated Information System shows that the only vessels at Port Newark and Port Elizabeth, the massive facilities that serve so much of America's shipping needs, are tugs or dredgers - not a single container or cargo ship among them. In addition, rail links from the port are currently suspended, and inspection of the channels is underway to make sure that there are no underwater impediments to ships. Our thoughts are with our friends and colleagues at the Port Authority; the entire country depends on these folks in ways that may not be evident to many of us, and we all depend to one degree or another on them making a quick recovery.

The U.S. Coast Guard has been fulfilling its normal heroic role, rescuing people from rooftops, from foundering vessels, and generally saving lives and helping to coordinate the recovery of the marine transportation system, as they did with Hurricane Katrina.

One spectacular example is the 14 people that were saved from the HMS Bounty, the replica of the 18th-century ship of Captain Bligh fame. Video from that rescue can be found at . Our work with the Coast Guard on Project Evergreen continues; we are proud to be associated with this heroic and selfless group of people.

FEMA of course has sprung into action as it always does during such emergencies, performing its role as coordinator and check-writer, bringing together federal, state, local, tribal and private sector entities to respond. Their forte is what a former client of ours used to call "bureaucratic multilingualism," translating systems, jargon, financial facilities, and communications and allowing very disparate elements of the emergency management community to work together more smoothly than they otherwise would. 

Last year we ran a workshop in support of FEMA's Strategic Foresight Initiative, an effort to bring together federal, state, local, tribal and private sector actors in the emergency management community. The report that resulted in large part from that effort, "Crisis Response and Disaster Resilience 2030: Forging Action in an Age of Uncertainty," is available at the following web address:

As we have found in past engagements, looking out decades across multiple scenarios is a very good way to free up your mind to think about things that are very likely to occur much sooner than in, say, 2030. In the case of FEMA, a lot of discussion was devoted to the possibility of extreme weather events possibly caused by climate change. The five scenarios we used in working with FEMA presented a broad array of possible outcomes on climate; several included increased intensity and/or frequency of storms, while one actually proposed a reversal of the current warming trends. 

The important thing about the scenario process is not predicting the future; it is anticipating the broadest plausible spread of conceivable futures, in order to prevent failures of imagination. No scenario planning exercise is going to settle the current controversy surrounding the issue of climate change; in fact, I will go further and say that NOTHING will settle the issue of whether humans are causing the current change in climate, much less whether a massive storm like Sandy is the direct result of human activities pumping 29 billion tons of carbon dioxide, along with methane and other compounds, into the atmosphere every year (100 to 200 times as much as all volcanic activity). There are far too many political and material and ego-driven interests lined up on all sides of that debate for there ever to be a consensus in the general public on this topic.

But it turns out that you do not have to believe in climate change at all, much less human-caused climate change, to see the urgent need to plan for the prospect of a giant storm like Sandy hitting a place like New York and New Jersey. All you need is to see the general increase in coastal populations and capital investment, which we have seen since the last deadly storm to hit New York City, in 1954.

The odds of a hurricane did not have to increase in order for the potential level of devastation of a serious storm to steadily grow and grow until it finally hits. In a sense, the recent rarity of hurricanes itself increased the damage level of Sandy, just as the growth of vegetation during a long period of no forest fires increases the devastation to be expected when one finally hits. Large oceanic storms have hit New York 84 times since the 17th century, and it was bound to happen again, and with the increase in population and infrastructure, the damage level was very likely to be unprecedented. 

What scenario planning did was not to settle the climate change debate or make people sure there was going to be such a storm imminently, but rather to put extremely talented and skilled people into a plausible created future within which they could discuss these issues and exercise their imaginations in order to prepare. 

Perhaps the most important outcome of the FEMA workshops was not any particular new policy or change in procedures, or any tremendous new discovery. It was the bringing together of dozens of committed and passionate and accomplished and experienced emergency management specialists, and the creation of a network of relationships that would prove useful the next time a big one hit.

Early in our relationship with the Coast Guard, such relationships were shown to be absolutely critical. Project Long View, our first scenario engagement with the Coast Guard, recommended the combination of operational command structure (ships, aircraft) with Marine Safety (onshore, port, inspection) command structure.

It was seen as a bridge too far at the time, in 1999; but there were several experiments in such integration ongoing nonetheless, and one of them happened to have been "Activities New York," where the complicated and huge-scale maritime universe of New York Harbor demanded that the "ship-drivers" and the "M guys," too often divided into siloes elsewhere, share a common command structure and actually talk to one another.

The operators thus shared the "rolodexes" of the Marine Safety people, and had a far greater network of onshore relationships with fire departments, law enforcement, municipal authorities, community leaders, and other stakeholders. When the Towers were hit, these relationships were critical to the Coast Guard's response. With many bridges and tunnels closed, the service evacuated more people from Manhattan than had been evacuated from Dunkirk in World War II. The integrated command structure was seen as an important factor making the response effective, and the service decided to expand the concept across the service with "sectorization." 

We can point to many insights and strategies that have resulted from our scenario planning work with these three entities. But at a time like this, we also hope that some of the relationships that have been forged in our workshops between members of the transportation and emergency management and response communities may also turn out to be useful. Again, our thoughts are with you. Godspeed. 

Comments  | 

Cliff Boyle
Thought provoking article. Spot on insight into what happens when population and infrastructure grows along areas subject to devastating weather. Much more useful imo than classmate Nick Kristoff's take on global warming this AM. Nice backhanded dig at global warming skeptics!
One data point on the increased-population-and-infrastructure element of storm etc. damage: in 1883 when Krakatoa blew, it caused a tsunami of epic proportions, in some places over 200 feet high. That event killed some 36,000 people. When the 2004 earthquake and tsunami occurred, it killed some 250,000 people, not because it was of greater magnitude, but because of massive coastal population growth in the interim period around the Indian Ocean. The sound of Krakatoa's explosion was so loud it was heard in Australia and on islands halfway across the Indian Ocean; its tsunami's impact was measurable on tidal gauges in the English Channel.
Tim Cary
That is an interesting historical comparison Patrick. In 1859 the famous Solar Superstorm spaceweather event known as the "Carrington Event" (named after Richard Carrington) occurred. This resulted in a large coronal mass ejection from the sun and the largest geomagnetic storm in recorded history. The induced affects of this geomagnetic storm greatly impacted telegraph transmissions throughout the Northern Hemisphere. As with the increase in human population in coastal Indonesia, our use and dependence on technology has greatly increased (satellites, communications systems, power grids, IT infrastructure, etc.). If we had another "Carrington Event," today, I wonder how well we would survive.