Community Prepping

Q: How Did We Became So Vulnerable?


A: We became vulnerable gradually. We realized it suddenly.

Papa described it perfectly:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

Ernest Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises. (1926)
Click for larger view

In 1850 – nine years before the Carrington Event and 12 years before the Civil War – the population of the United States was 23 million people. At the end of 2018, the population of the U.S. stood at 328 million people. What enabled our population to increase by 305 million people? The answer at first would seem complex but it is actually quite simple. Numerous new technologies allowed our population to increase. Advances in medicine, advances in agricultural methods, the ability to transport food across the country (and across the world), new sources and uses of energy, an industrial revolution, advances in many areas of technology… I can go on and on but there is no need to. All of it is tied to one thing: the advent of the electric grid.

In 1850, the country could not have supported a human population of 328 million. We simply did not have technology and resources to support that many people. Our plows were drawn by horse or mule. Much of our population worked hard just to survive the winter – if you didn’t preserve food that you grew and chop wood to keep warm, you simply couldn’t survive. Even in the cities, limitations in technology (e.g., coal mining techniques, transportation, ability to store food) limited the number of people that could be supported by the agriculture and technology of the time.

Gradually, we became vulnerable

The electric grid is an amazing human accomplishment. It is the largest machine in the history of the world, built piece by piece over many generations. It arguably started on September 4, 1882 with Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station in Manhattan – which initially had had 82 customers and an electric load of 400 lamps. After “the war of the currents” between Edison’s direct current (“DC”) and George Westinghouse’s alternating current (“AC”), More and more areas began to have electric power available.

So the electric grid that exists today has been built gradually over the last century. The electric grid advanced life in every way imaginable and literally made the impossible possible. The population of the U.S. between 1930 and 2018 increased by over 200 million.

Vulnerable

At some point, gradually, we lost the self reliance we had in the 1800s and became completely reliant on all these things that the power grid made possible. New ways to heat (oil, gas, steam electricity, etc.) meant we didn’t have to chop our own wood. Farms were made exponentially more efficient and that meant less of us had to farm.

Better transportation meant that food and goods could be transported long distances. Today, you can get oranges and bananas in New Hampshire – even though they are grown thousands of miles away. This isn’t even a novelty, but something we depend on. We actually get annoyed if there are no bananas in our northern grocery stores.

Gradually, we became dependent on our ability to get food that is produced elsewhere. Most people don’t preserve food for the winter anymore. Gradually, we became dependent on goods such as vehicles and medications that were made possible by electricity. Water and sanitation systems are now completely dependent on electricity – gone are dug wells and outhouses. Our entire financial system has become electronic. You don’t even get paper stock certificates any more – everything is digital.

And then suddenly, we realized that we are vulnerable.

Click for larger view

Today, we are literally on life support, plugged into the electric grid. The lives of hundreds of millions of people depend on the things the electric grid provides. Without it, we would literally have what we had in 1850 – except we no longer have the requisite skills and most of us do not own a horse or mule.

Sound far-fetched? Unfortunately it isn’t. Two years ago the U.S. Senate said that the majority of the population of the U.S. would die if the electric grid as successfully attacked – by man or nature! (Read it HERE.) Still not convinced? How about over two decades of federal reports, hearings and Congressional Record detailing the threats to the electric grid? (Read them HERE.) But there must be a plan for this right? Nope. Click on this slide from a FEMA presentation last year. The U.S. has no plan for “very long term or extremely wide spread power outages.”

What getting unplugged looks like

So what happens when a society grows dependent on the electric grid and suddenly, it is unplugged? There are some recent cautionary tales.

In Hurricane Maria, much of Puerto Rico lost power for months. Incredibly, despite the massive assistance and resources the U.S. brought to bear, much of the island was also without potable water for months! The Milken Institute of Public Health estimated the “excess deaths” (i.e., attributable to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria) at 2,975. The New England Journal of Medicine estimated the “excess deaths” at 4,645. We may never know for sure, but it is clear that the loss of power and the problems that accompany a loss of power caused thousands of deaths. (The official death count remained at 64 until August 28, 2018 when the Government of Puerto Rico revised it to 2975 based on the Milken Institute study.)

Venezuelans are forced to obtain water from the sewer system during blackouts
(Photo: Fernando Llano, AP)

The March-April 2019 blackouts in Venezuela serve as another disturbing example. Within a short period of time, people had to resort to getting water from the sewage canals, cities experienced anarchy, hospitals had no power or water and food rotted without refrigeration.

For days and nights, unruly crowds sacked 523 stores in Maracaibo as residents stood on their porches wielding weapons to guard against looters. Dozens died in hospitals. Bodies decomposed in the morgue. And what little food remained in refrigerators rotted away as the nation went hungry.

New York Times, March 15, 2019

To most of us, our experience with power outages is that they last a few hours, or a few days at most. The cavalry is coming. We can bring in utility trucks from Illinois. Somebody will rescue us. We have become complacent.

What if the cavalry is not coming?

There are 35,000 towns and cities in the United States. If substantially all of them are the “disaster area” in a national-scale power outage, where is “help” going to come from? Remember, we have NEVER experienced a national-scale disaster in this country – even Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Maria were regional in scale and we could bring in massive resources from elsewhere in the country (i.e., from outside the “disaster area”).

If substantially the whole country is the disaster area, your town will be on its own for a long period of time. Perhaps weeks, perhaps months or longer. But today, we are generations removed from adversity, generations removed from self reliance. Generations removed from having to worry about surviving the winter.

We have become extremely vulnerable.

Remember the Americans?

Americans have accomplished great things. We built the transcontinental railroad. We invented airplanes. We landed humans on the moon. We invented much of the industry and technology that exists today. Through sacrifice , grit and determination, our “Greatest Generation” won World War II. We do not have to be helpless. And we can no longer ignore the threats. Remember the Americans? They took action.

As Americans, we need to take action on two things:

  • Hold our federal and state governments accountable for protecting the electric grid.
  • Prepare our communities for catastrophic disasters by building a culture of preparedness in the U.S.

You can take action. If enough of us take action, we can make a difference. Visit the TAKE ACTION page to see what you can do.


Click To Take Action!



Building a Culture of Preparedness

Note: Last year, I wrote a letter to FEMA about building a culture of preparedness by bringing back civil defense. This year, I wrote a letter to FEMA…


Click Here for a PDF Copy of Letter


March 28, 2019

Pete T. Gaynor, Acting Administrator
Daniel Kaniewski, PhD, Acting Deputy Administrator
Federal Emergency Management Agency
500 C Street S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20472

Subject: Building a culture of preparedness in the United States

Dear Mr. Gaynor and Mr. Kaniewski,

On March 7, 2018 (over a year ago), I wrote a letter to FEMA on how we could build a culture of preparedness in the United States. I never received any response.

Fast forward to March 1, 2019 and Emergency Management Magazine published an article entitled: “Report: We’ve Failed Miserably at Preparedness.”[1]

The report is FEMA’s January 2019 “Building Cultures of Preparedness: Report for the Emergency Management Higher Education Community.”[2] FEMA’s new report states that recent efforts have improved the first responder preparedness and government capabilities, but:

Attempts to enhance levels of preparedness among individual households, communities, and various organizations which lie outside the emergency management profession’s immediate sphere of control have shown little to no sign of improvement.[3]

Further:

Preparedness experts state that what is needed is a bottom-up approach, and that past efforts to apply one-size-fits-all solutions have ended in failure.[4]

The report says that what is needed is a bottom-up approach and that “one-size-fits-all solutions” haven’t worked. A year earlier, my letter noted that we have to build the culture of preparedness “from the bottom-up, based on the community’s needs.”

Maybe it’s time FEMA listened to “the bottom”

I believe I qualify as “the bottom.” I am a regular citizen who devotes a substantial amount of my own time (and resources) to writing about and trying to train people in emergency preparedness. I have written a book and maintain a blog about community preparedness and critical infrastructure protection,[5] and I have been giving presentations all over New England about community preparedness.[6] In the coming weeks, I am scheduled to present at four emergency preparedness conferences in New Hampshire and Maine.[7]

In short, I am trying to “build a culture of preparedness” yet only one person from FEMA – a lower level regional employee has ever reached out to me on their own. Any other correspondence I have had with FEMA, I initiated and the responses I’ve received – if any – were almost entirely perfunctory.

I can’t help but feel that FEMA has neither valued nor supported local efforts at building a culture of preparedness in the past.

We must focus on preparedness for a “worst-case” disaster

Too many emergency managers think that Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Katrina constitute “worst-case” scenario disasters. They do not. These disasters – as horrible as they were – were best case scenarios. I say this because in Maria and Katrina, outside resources were available and abundant. A “worst-case” scenario disaster would be one where communities were on their own, such as a national-scale loss of the electric grid. In other words, the cavalry is not coming.

If we want to build a culture or preparedness, we need to focus on preparing for a worst-case disaster – which fits perfectly with FEMA strategic plan goal #2.

In my March 7, 2018 letter, I pointed out that the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017[8] requires that the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security:

(1) include in national planning frameworks the threat of an EMP or GMD event; and[9]

(2) conduct outreach to educate owners and operators of critical infrastructure, emergency planners, and emergency response providers at all levels of government regarding threats of EMP and GMD.[10] [Emphasis added.]

On March 26, 2019, President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13865 entitled “Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses” [11] in which FEMA was specifically tasked:

Within 180 days of the date of this order, the Secretary of Homeland Security, through the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in coordination with the heads of appropriate SSAs, shall review and update Federal response plans, programs, and procedures to account for the effects of EMPs.

Because any national-scale disaster would likely either be caused by or would cause a wide-scale loss of power, it is very logical that we should focus on preparing communities to be able to “rescue themselves” for long periods of time in an environment of a complete loss of power. This is, in fact, an all-hazards approach. Earthquakes, hurricanes and pandemics cause power outages, as well as cyberattacks, EMP, GMD and physical attacks. Most major disasters we have experienced in the past involved the loss of power.

Yet, on May 24, 2018 FEMA admitted that: “Current planning does not include any contingencies for very long term or extremely wide spread power outages.”[12]

I would posit that this is a major reason for our lack of a preparedness culture in the United States today. Unless the people of the United States – and the federal, state and local governments – understand that we face existential threats, it is difficult for them to see the value in preparedness. Perhaps our culture now can be best described as a “somebody will rescue me” culture.

The reasons that we had a better culture of preparedness under the old “civil defense” system are simple. The first aspect is that everybody understood that we faced an existential threat (i.e., global thermonuclear war.) The second aspect is that we trained civilians in what to do and prepared as communities.

Our lack of preparedness came into dramatic focus on January 13, 2018 when residents of Hawaii received this alert:

Hawaii false missile alert - building a culture of preparedness

What I found most disturbing was the response of a resident as reported by CNN:[13]

“Clearly, there is a massive gap between letting people know something’s coming and having something for them to do. Nobody knew what to do.”

Well said.

Besides the fact that there was a catastrophic failure of the emergency alert system which caused widespread panic, this quote says something much deeper and quite painful. “Nobody knew what to do.”

And this message applies to our whole country. We don’t know what to do. The last time I was in a “nuclear attack drill” as a civilian was in the early 70’s when I was in grade school in Ohio. We called these “tornado drills” but they were thinly veiled nuclear attack drills (which did also prepare us for tornados).

As an adult, I have owned houses in three states. Not once has anybody ever rang my bell to talk about emergency preparedness.

As a country, we are unprepared and complacent.  

The 2019 Report Reached the Correct Conclusions, But…

FEMA’s January 2019 report correctly concludes that our past methods have been ineffective and that a “bottom-up” approach is needed, but then notes:

This report and the workshop upon which it builds represent an effort to contribute to “Building Cultures of Preparedness” by facilitating collaboration and constructive dialogue among academic experts and scholars from diverse disciplines, FEMA officials and practitioners representing a wide range of specialties, all with a shared interest in preparedness and community resilience.[14]

So, to build a culture or preparedness we need “academic experts and scholars from diverse disciplines” and “FEMA officials and practitioners.” Is there somebody missing here? Oh yeah. The public.

This passage highlights not only why we have failed over the past decade, but why we will continue to fail as long as we limit our efforts to academics and “practitioners.” We know we can’t build a culture or preparedness from a building in DC or from academic discussions alone – yet that appears to be what our solution is. But we are adding a new buzz-word: Culture Broker. Unfortunately, academic study and new buzz word are not going to solve the public engagement problem.

Nobody Has the Mission.

In addition to the recommendations in my March 7, 2018 letter – which was written before FEMA’s Strategic Plan was released[15] and is attached here for reference – I also note that a major problem remains that nobody has “the mission” to build a culture of preparedness in a particular community. If we want this to happen, this has to be clearly on somebody’s radar as their responsibility. Right now, in 35,000 towns and cities across the U.S., this “mission” is on very few people’s radar as their primary (or at least a major) responsibility. Do our academics think that these so-called “culture brokers” are just going to spontaneously appear?

To whom should this responsibility fall? One thing in common in every one of the 35,000 towns and cities in the country (as well as many large corporations and government agencies) is an emergency manager. Building a culture of preparedness needs to be a function – and mission – of emergency management. (You may think it already is, but I assure you in most communities, it is not).

FEMA defines emergency management as:

Definition: Emergency management is the managerial function charged with creating the framework within which communities reduce vulnerability to hazards and cope with disasters.

Vision: Emergency management seeks to promote safer, less vulnerable communities with the capacity to cope with hazards and disasters.

Mission: Emergency Management protects communities by coordinating and integrating all activities necessary to build, sustain, and improve the capability to mitigate against, prepare for, respond to, and recover from threatened or actual natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other man-made disasters.

I propose that FEMA modify the mission of emergency management:

Mission: Emergency Management builds a culture of preparedness by involving all stakeholders including citizens, organizations, businesses and the government in all activities necessary to build, sustain, and improve the capability to mitigate against, prepare for, respond to, and recover from threatened or actual natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other man-made disasters.

FEMA Must Take Action to Facilitate Building A Culture of Preparedness

I refer you back to my March 7, 2018 letter and recommendations. We are still waiting. Of paramount importance, FEMA needs to tell us that starting a local civil defense program (either non-profit or government sponsored organization) is a good idea. Even better, tell us that it is what we should do. Communities are literally waiting for this guidance.

I have had countless conversations with people after FEMA’s strategic plan came out and for most, it remains FEMA’s strategic plan – not the nation’s plan. Many emergency managers are waiting for FEMA to tell them what to do (i.e., they are waiting for the “mission”). Many are also waiting for “resources” which they believe are necessary to “build a culture of preparedness.” Let me address both issues.

Mission: FEMA needs to clearly give every emergency manager – public and private sector – the mission to:

  1. Build a Culture of Preparedness, and
  2. Ready the Nation for Catastrophic Disasters.

FEMA can do neither of these things alone – they must be done from the bottom-up. And this has to be clearly on the radar of every emergency manager that this is their mission – getting into living rooms, not simply putting together great looking binders of plans.

Resources: While the third point in FEMA’s strategic plan (“Reduce the Complexity of FEMA”) can be of great assistance here, we need to emphasize to emergency managers that they cannot wait for resources – they must take action now. In most cases, the resources they need already exist in the community.

I tell emergency managers this: imagine if you woke up this morning and there was a non-profit civil defense organization in your community. The group’s mission statement:

The mission of the [your town’s name] Civil Defense Corp. is to educate and promote individual, family, and town preparedness for disasters; to provide disaster assistance and relief to town residents in the event of a disaster; and to educate and provide planning and resource options to the town for preparation and response to a “worst-case,” long-term catastrophe affecting the town.

In this organization there are subgroups working on key aspects of the town’s survival in case of a long-term catastrophe, such as:

  • A subgroup of EMTs, paramedics, doctors and nurses stocking supplies, equipment and planning for how medical services could be delivered in a worst-case scenario.
  • A subgroup of HAM radio operators and engineers working on ways for the town to communicate internally and externally.
  • A subgroup working to stock and produce food for the community, as well as educating the public on ways to be more food independent.
  • A subgroup working on methods to ensure that potable water is available and safe in a disaster.
  • A subgroup working on methods of providing alternative power for critical facilities and services.
  • A security subgroup working with the local police department to provide resources and man-power.
  • A safety, health, and sanitation subgroup working to prevent disease and injury as sanitation services are interrupted and people are forced to do non-traditional tasks to survive.
  • An outreach subgroup focused on training and education – teaching the public preparedness, homesteading skills and self-reliance.
  • A finance subgroup soliciting donations, grants and organizing activities to fund the civil defense program.

And other subgroups based on your particular community’s needs. What a resource multiplier! With a civil defense organization like this, your community is moving rapidly towards a true culture of preparedness and true pre-disaster mitigation.

Of course, you didn’t really wake up—this is just a vivid dream. But if we are men and women of action, we can turn this dream into reality for our communities.

Conclusion

In my March 7, 2018 letter, I outlined key concepts for bringing back civil defense as a means of building a culture of preparedness in the United States. A year has passed with little progress, but we now have a great opportunity with the March 26, 2019 Executive Order (EO 13865) to increase our nation’s resilience. I hope we can start making progress and not waste another year – and possibly risk many lives.

We need FEMA to act with a sense of urgency if we want the nation to adopt the same sense of urgency.

I would be happy to meet with you to further discuss how we can build a true culture of preparedness in the U.S.

Sincerely,

Michael Mabee


Click Here for March 7, 2018 letter to FEMA


Footnotes:

[1] Emergency Management Magazine. “Report: We’ve Failed Miserably at Preparedness.” March 1, 2019. https://www.govtech.com/em/preparedness/Report-Weve-Failed-Miserably-at-Preparedness.html (accessed March 24, 2019).

[2] The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 2019. “Building Cultures of Preparedness:  A report for the emergency management higher education community.” Washington, DC: FEMA. https://training.fema.gov/hiedu/docs/latest/2019_cultures_of_preparedness_report_10.22.18%20final.pdf (accessed March 24, 2019).

[3] Ibid. Page 6.

[4] Ibid. Page 8.

[5] My blog is located at https://michaelmabee.info and my book, “The Civil Defense Book.” ISBN-13: 978-1974320943, 2nd Edition October 17, 2017 is available https://www.amazon.com/Civil-Defense-Book-Emergency-Preparedness/dp/1974320944 (accessed March 24, 2019).

[6] One of these presentations at New England College is available here: https://michaelmabee.info/the-cavalry-is-not-coming/ (accessed March 24, 2019).

[7] I have been invited to present “The Cavalry Is Not Coming” at:

[8] Public Law 114-328, enacted December 23, 2016. Note: Section 1913. EMP and GMD Planning, Research and Development, and Protection and Preparedness. https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-114publ328/pdf/PLAW-114publ328.pdf  (accessed March 7, 2018).

[9] 6 U.S.C. § 321P (1). Note: the terms “EMP” and “GMD” are defined in 6 U.S.C. § 101.

[10] 6 U.S.C. § 321P (2).

[11] Executive Order 13865, section 5(e)(i): https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-coordinating-national-resilience-electromagnetic-pulses/ (Accessed March 27, 2019).

[12] FEMA. “Private and Public Cyber Security Issues in Rural America.” National Preparedness Symposium, May 24, 2018. https://training.fema.gov/nationalpreparednesssymposium/_assets/2018/2018%20Private%20&%20Public%20Cyber%20Security%20Issues%20in%20Rural%20America.pptx (accessed March 27, 2019).

[13] CNN “Hawaii agency behind false missile alert getting death threats.” January 15, 2018. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/hawaii-agency-behind-false-missile-alert-getting-death-threats/ (accessed March 28, 2019).

[14] FEMA 2019. Page 5.

[15] Federal Emergency Management Agency. 2018-2022 Strategic Plan. Released March 15, 2018. https://www.fema.gov/news-release/2018/03/15/fema-releases-2018-2022-strategic-plan  (accessed March 24, 2019).


Click HERE for attachment (March 7, 2018 letter to FEMA)



The cavalry is not coming

The cavalry is not coming

Michael Mabee presented “the cavalry is not coming” at the New England Long Term Power Outage Summit in Hennikjer, New Hampshire, November 10, 2018.

FEMA’s Strategic Plan.

FEMA’s Strategic Plan has three goals:

1. Build a Culture of Preparedness
2. Ready the Nation for Catastrophic Disasters
3. Reduce the Complexity of FEMA

Building a culture of preparedness is a local issue. It starts with you. The government cannot “build a culture of preparedness” – this must be done by individuals, families and communities.

All Roads Lead To Civil Defense.

Civil defense is the organizing and training of civilians to play key roles in a community’s survival. Another term for this, coined by Civil Defense Virginia, is “continuity of community.” The concept is simple: A community’s citizens, in partnership with their emergency management and local government, planning and preparing for disasters and having the ability to take care of their own. This is something that currently is not in common practice – and this needs to change because in a national scale disaster, the cavalry is not coming.

Current FEMA Administrator Brock Long and former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate – emergency management leaders serving in vastly different administrations – have both told Congress essentially the same thing. It has been rare to see bipartisan agreement on any subject in the past decade, so we should all pay attention.

On November 30, 2017, current FEMA Administrator Brock Long told Congress:

We have to do more pre-disaster mitigation. Pre-disaster mitigation is the key to becoming more resilient and reducing disaster impact. We have to ensure that state and local governments…have their own life sustainment commodities capabilities and the federal government is not shouldering the entire burden…The key resiliency is held at the local level of government…it’s going to have to be a whole community effort on the pre-disaster side.

On March 30, 2011, then FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told Congress:

Government can and will continue to serve disaster survivors. However, we fully recognize that a government-centric- approach to disaster management will not be enough to meet the challenges posed by a catastrophic incident. That is why we must fully engage our entire societal capacity, leveraging trade associations, non-governmental organizations including those that represent different linguistic and ethnic minority groups, faith-based organizations, private industry, and social and fraternal organizations. These are the organizations that provide the bulk of services to communities every day, and to the extent that they are able, they should continue to be the primary provider of such services in a disaster. The quicker these entities are able to get back on their feet, the faster communities as a whole will be able to recover.

FEMA’s underlying message has not changed in the last two administrations: survival is a local issue. This is especially true if we suffer a national-scale disaster in the United States. If we are preparing for a “worst-case scenario” this message means we need local government and communities to be able to take care of themselves for long periods – weeks or months – when no outside assistance is available.

Take action now!

The cavalry is not coming