TCS Daily

Disaster Rules

By Max Borders - August 7, 2006 12:00 AM

Glenn Reynolds has presented an important challenge when it comes to disaster relief.

"It does seem clear to me that we need an approach that's more flexible, and more capable of weighing information from numerous sources in a hurry. Any thoughts?"

More flexible? More capable of weighing information from numerous sources? So Reynolds is mobilizing the Army of Davids to think about the disaster relief problem. As one David, I want to take up that challenge by sketching the skeleton of a disaster relief approach -- one in which an Army of Davids is best mobilized on the ground.

Let's start out with some reasonable assumptions to set the context of our thinking:

  • Prior to a disaster, the forces of so-called "spontaneous order" -- normal trade, exchange, cooperation, etc. -- work due to vital institutions (law, property, security, and law enforcement) and infrastructure (communications, thoroughfares, utilities).
  • After the disaster, some or all of a normal social-economic system may be compromised, because the institutions which underlie it may be compromised. The extent of the institutional damage -- and secondarily the infrastructural damage -- must be quickly assessed before proceeding with a response plan.
  • Private sector organizations and emergency response teams will be waiting to help with lots of resources, manpower, and generous spirits once institutions and infrastructure have been restored to a workable level.

In short, disasters, by their very natures, wipe out systems. So the best way to deal with disaster is to figure out the best way to get a system, its sub-systems, and most importantly its underlying rules, back up and running quickly.

Disaster response and relief is in some respects like watching the sky for extra-terrestrial transmissions. I know that sounds crazy, but consider SETI. SETI is the private (formerly public) institute charged with the task of watching the sky for signs of life. Back in the heyday of UFO watchers, the government set up SETI with a five-man force to watch the readouts of radio telescopes. The thought was that if these guys kept watching, aliens might be trying contact us -- and radio transmission seemed like the most plausible way to do it at the time.

The problem? It became difficult for five people to keep an eye on so much sky (That's just ten eyeballs after all). What if they missed something? When the computer age came along, and the institute became private, SETI started using a distributed system of skywatchers. Trekkies and Star Wars fans could load portions of the observable sky as visuals onto their computer screensavers. Now, instead of 5 people watching the sky, you had 10000+ watching. SETI became a coordinator of helpers. Talk about information processing power. Talk about an Army of Davids.

So how does this apply to disaster relief?

Well, the current system of disaster relief is very much like the old SETI model. "Somebody call FEMA!" While it may be well-staffed, FEMA consists of a relative few, centralized bureaucrats arranged in a hierarchy that is very far away from the action. FEMA is not designed to harness the power of local knowledge and local resources already on the ground. It's a Goliath when an Army of Davids is required.

So what do we do? Any good complex system functions on rules. But the system in question -- normal life in, say, New Orleans -- is broken down, because its underlying rule-sets (institutions) are broken down. In the absence of rule-sets, we'll need some rules-of-thumb for evaluating the situation and getting those larger, institutional rules back online.

We'll call these rules of thumb "response rules". Let's break them down into tiers according to priority:

    1. Law and Order
    2. Access and Exit
    3. Infrastructure

First Tier: The primary question authorities should ask: what is the status of law and order? In other words, is the rule of law being respected and enforced? This should be top priority in any disaster. No response can function in panic, violence, or chaos, no matter how noble the responders. Thus, without ensuring law and order, no emergency response can proceed effectively. And the status of law and order is a judgment call that must be made by designated authorities.

Second Tier: After the status of law and order has been determined, it's the authority's job to determine whether major transport arteries are accessible. If not, what is required to make them accessible? Are public thoroughfares ensuring relatively quick access to (and exit from) affected areas? Once order has been established to roadways, movement of people, supplies and equipment can proceed safely and with fewer obstructions. (If boats and helicopters are required, orderly channels for these may also be necessary to establish.)

Third Tier: Finally, authorities should determine the extent of damage to vital infrastructure, especially as such impedes their ability to facilitate emergency response. Are utilities, water, communications issues being addressed? Once roadways or waterways are open to an acceptable degree, then workmen can begin working on restoring basic utilities and infrastructure.

Order. Access. Infrastructure. These "rules for restoring rules" are designed to restore the vitality of the system that was broken down. And that's why priorities should basically be set up this way. The precise execution of these rules will be left to each level of authority, of course, but the overall scheme should be clear.

Who's In Charge? (Subsidiarity Rules)

Given the rules of priority, who should be in charge? For starters, neither the president nor FEMA should be in charge. Nor should the governor. The mayor? Yes (at least at the beginning). Enter subsidiarity or: "rules for who rules".

Here's how it works:

  • Institutions, infrastructure and response capability must be assessed at the most local feasible level.
  • Emergency response, problem-solving, and facilitation must occur locally, as well, to leverage local knowledge and resources.

So the mayor's office is in charge by default. He or she asks himself: Are we capable of making a rapid damage assessment for our jurisdiction? Then, are we capable of responding adequately? If the answer is "yes", authorities should begin response where possible according to response rules above. If the answers are "no", the authorities should then cede authority to state officials.

Once authority has been passed on to the state-level, officials should go through the same response rules we set out above: 1-2-3 ... Order? Access? Infrastructure? Chances are, if the local officials are overwhelmed by the damage, primary responsibility will lie with the state. If state authorities determine that, they too, lack the resources and capability to respond adequately, final responsibility should lie with the federal government. And its responsibilities should be severely limited (rather than expanded, as in the Katrina fallout).

No one should be surprised if this last resort takes longer to coordinate, is carried out at high cost, and involves a host of inefficiencies. However things turn out, if the designated authority deals with the issue of getting institutions and infrastructure back online, local knowledge and local resources will be put to best use. Subsidiarity should not be construed as a license to pass the buck. At each level, authorities should be aware of the rules of subsidiarity to avoid misunderstandings, bureaucratic turf wars, or gridlock. That's why making these rules clear from the outset is vital for this process to succeed.

When not given authority, super-ordinate levels of government should, of course, stay at the ready to offer assistance where needed -- and upon direct request. Otherwise, one level of organization should remain in charge at one time. To ensure the rules stick, it may be important to establish accountability mechanisms that correspond with the rules -- particularly as politicians may be tempted too quickly to pass the buck up to the federal level.

Now, even though priorities for order, access, and infrastructure should remain clear, it may be possible for the relevant authority to break responsibilities apart and delegate them to other levels. For example, it may be best for the state's National Guard to control law and order, while the state and local police prepare to facilitate access. In all cases, however, authority should remain with one office -- preferably the one closest to the action with the most information about local conditions.

The Role of Government in a Disaster

Governments at whichever level should have a very narrow set of responsibilities in disaster response:

  1. Institutional Facilitator, Coordinator - Focus should rest on institutions and infrastructure first. This should be the primary role of government at whatever level ultimate authority falls. After a positive assessment has been made, government may then deploy basic (and limited) emergency responders - including fire, rescue, and so on, as it falls under their jurisdiction. Otherwise, it should get out of the way.
  2. Coordinate Mostly Private-Sector Responders - Volunteers, Volunteer orgs, philanthropies, police, fire, and rescue, as well as active citizen-victims should proceed with a response effort via channels coordinated by government. They should take on the bulk of the emergency effort including first response, triage decisions, and general aid. These are the doers. They will be there to help, but will help little if uncoordinated.

The latter priority is where your "Army of Davids" comes in. If the government focuses on these priorities, the system of people on the ground will have a lot easier time reordering and reorganizing itself.

Spontaneous Order

Myriad spontaneous ordering forces -- like people lining up next to a transfer truck to deliver water to those in need, or Wal-Mart deploying elements of its fantastic logistics system -- can proceed after basic institutions and infrastructure are restored. In this way, disaster response can be a public-private partnership. The government helps keep the arteries intact. Private, voluntary outpouring of support flows better with government's coordination. This leaves open all the creativity and improvisation that comes with people who are willing to lend a hand. And if history is any guide, they will be.

However we address the Glenn Reynolds disaster response challenge, it will have to be with rules of organization. And that's what I've tried to offer here, albeit in crudely sketched form. The status quo in disaster relief gets it exactly backwards. What do you think?

Max Borders is managing editor of



Buck passing: Who do we hold accountable and how do we do so?
My town recently experienced a substantial amount of tornado damage from a particularly nasty storm. Several apartment buildings and businesses were destroyed, there were a myriad of minor injuries. The immediate response was exceptionally effective. Within a few hours roads were cleared, people who had lost their homes had places to stay, leaking gas mains were shut down and being repaired, and tow trucks were hauling away the vehicles that had been destroyed. Two days after the tornado, life was back to normal for all but a few people.

Despite the fact that this problem was, in essence, solved and the city was functioning, our Governor declared our county a disaster area and appealed to FEMA for funds. Now it turned out that FEMA did not approve that request, but largely because they have been directing most of their money to Katrina recovery. We still get low-interest loans and a few other benefits from the government.

The immediate response of any government agency faced with spending a ton of money is to pass the buck. Counties pass it to States, States pass it to the Federal government. The primary difficulty with this plan is that no disaster, no matter how small and localized, will stay local for long if the authorities can get away with passing it off.

By requiring that each level go through an assessment process before deciding whether or not to pass the buck, Mr. Borders' plan will simply add another layer of bureacracy to slow down recovery efforts and will not stop the driving incentive: to pass on the cost to someone else.

Unfortunately, I do not have a suggestion for a solution. If somebody else has some suggestions for what sort of measures could be taken to prevent buck-passing, I would be glad to hear it.

Army of Davids
The idea of shifting responsibility to the "Davids," at the ground level who are engaged with the actual issues makes sense to me. Thanks Max..

In our Federal Government, The Federal authorities cannot intervene directly with assets (FEMA, the U.S. Armed Forces) without an invitation by the local authority. I am dismayed by the lack of discussion on this subject, when the press, local authorities or other folks with opinions do not explain the basic structure of our governmental system.
It seems that the inadequacies of FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, etc. have benn discussed ad infinitum. These entities should not intervene directly and immediately without a request by a Governor.

V/R Allan

Accountability is always at the ballot box
Set up an electoral scorecard on disasters. Rate every politician in the country. Now most years, most elections, there won't have been an intervening disaster. So the politician gets a rating on his last one or "no disaster on his watch" rating, a neutral score. Once the politicians know that they're being rated and that their ratings will affect their electability from then to the next disaster, passing the buck and letting things drop become less attractive.

Interesting idea, but will anybody enforce it?
The key problem in Louisiana in general, and New Orleans in particular, was the overwhelming number of Democrat voters. They re-elected Ray "School Bus" Nagin, the man who failed to competently execute even the simplest parts of the city's disaster plan. Similarly, they kept re-electing whoever appointed members of the Levee Commission, a do-nothing body that spent all of its funds on statues and make-work rather than building a better levee. They elected Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a dimwit of the first order. She initially refused to allow the National Guard in to the city despite reports of looting and riots because she was afraid people would be killed by the soldiers. Similarly, she refused to let the Red Cross in until very late in the operation.

Ray Nagin is the only one of these people that I am certain has already stood for re-election. However, his example, and the political composition of the remaining citizens says to me that Bianco and the rest of the Democrats will be re-elected. In one-party states like Louisiana, New York, California, Vermont and the ilk, I am pretty certain that people will not hold people accountable this way.

Maybe a referendum expressing up or down approoval of the politician's performance in a given response would be effective? (At least it might get people to think about how bad the response was...)

Disaster Prep
There is a hierarchy in society, and disaster never gives time to set up a new hierarchy. We have to run what we brung. In the US of A the hierarchy goes like this:

Municipal Government.
State Government.
Federal Government.

Everyone on each level has responsibilities in time of disaster. Individuals are responsible for:

1. Keeping the family car full of gas BEFORE disaster strikes.
2. Having a few days worth of food and water on hand.
3. Be prepared for a sustained power outage. Have lights, something to cook on, a radio or TV that works. Charge rechargable batteries and buy fresh disposable batteries. Have plans to cope with electric well pumps, sump pumps, furnaces, refrigerators full of food while the power is out.
4. Obey the local authorities. If they order evacuation, it is probably best to evacuate. If they order stay put, then stay put.

Municipal governments are responsible for:

1. Having fire and police radio&phone systems that work when the power goes out.
2. Having a municipal command post with communications, backup power, supplies, and connections with local broadcasters. Make sure everything works by having yearly disaster drills and command post exercises.
3. If evacuation is a strategy, give the evacuation order early enough to do some good.
4. Be aware of what is happening and issue frequent press bulletins. Squelch rumors and keep the population informed. Disaster's are scary and not knowing the situation makes it scarier. Municipal government is responsible for keeping the citizens informed, so they don't get scared.

State Government is responsible for :

1. Calling out state resources (National Guard) in a timely fashion
2. Appealing for Federal support as required, and in a timely fashion.
Federal Government is responsible for
1. Mobilizing the armed forces if appropriate and after a request.
2. Writing checks to keep people afloat and start rebuilding. FEMA is the check writing office.

David Starr

Disaster Rules
What you are saying is alright, but you are assuming that the "authorities" will be there to assist or run the effort to restore everything. Actually it is much more basic:
1. You are the first responder, not the police, nor the mayor, nor the Governor or even FEMA. You are the first responder. period.
2. you must be prepared to live on your own for a minimum of 3 days, preferably for 7 days. That includes everything, including water, food and everything. This is basic survival for the whole family.
3. You must have the means to evacuate with enough food and water for 3 days.

This is not difficult, but you should have the bare necessities for 3 days, preferably for 7 days.

If everyone had this, there would not be panics and the need for immediate help from the feds. Lets face it, it takes a week to get relief from out of state. In state, there won't be relief period, and local, who knows???


I would add
Have on hand the tools needed to keep your family safe. Including safe from human predators until the local authorities can regain control.

Municipal Govt:
Is responsible for maintaining law and order, and appealing for assistance to the state govt if the disaster damages your ability to provide law and order in a timely manner.

State Govt:
Maintain constant communication with Municipal Govt to determine whether the disaster is overwhelming their ability to respond.

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