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After the Storm – Thoughts on the June Derecho

With the recent heat waves and storms that have impacted millions of people throughout the United States, much is being written (and will continue to be written) about the nation’s inability to prevent and recover quickly from destructive events. The wildfires in Colorado and the storms, heat and widespread destruction of power distribution systems in the East will likely have the “nattering nabobs of negativism” spewing their wrath at utility executives and homeland security officials wherever they can be found. (RIP Judy Agnew, wife of former Maryland Governor and Vice President Spiro Agnew who popularized this phrase.)

I am not yet ready to start placing blame on anyone because I know there are lots of things I should have done to be prepared better than I was when the electricity went out. Individual responsibility leads to community preparedness, and there are things I can improve in my own preparedness posture.

That said, the following thoughts keep floating through my mind:

- This country was founded by men and women of vision, grit and perseverance without the benefit of air conditioning, gasoline or grocery stores. I admire them more with each hour that passed without power.

- This is kind of what it would look like if we experienced a small EMP attack.

- Utility companies should not let public affairs representatives be interviewed on the radio unless their voice can convey “empathy.” Good communication requires clear and honest messages. But when there is a disaster situation, the sound of an “empathetic” person is far more comforting than a person who, like Dragnet’s Jack Webb, just conveys “the facts.”

- Of course, whether a voice conveys “empathy” (or its lesser grammatical cousin, “sympathy”) is not an objective matter. It is highly personalized to the listener. To my ear, the spokesman for BG&E came across as far more “empathetic” than the spokeswoman for Dominion Virginia, who came across as cold and sterile.

- Smart meter installation may not solve all problems when power lines go down, but they would provide far better information than existing systems and allow more rapid assessment and response. The technology exists; the political will does not. We need to get beyond this.

- I plan to buy a battery-powered fan. Not sure where I can find one that is bigger than a hand-held, but there is a market for these fans if the right price point can be found.

- It is unexplainable why, in the aftermath 9/11/2001 and the billions of homeland security grants that have been handed out, any 911 Emergency Management System (especially the one in Fairfax County, Virginia) would not be functional to handle emergency calls. I don’t trust the Fairfax County politicals to provide a thorough answer because my suspicion is that they share some of the blame for not adequately supporting the EOC (though I don’t know all the facts and my suspicions may be off base). On the other hand, I do trust the Police and Fire Chiefs and I hope they will be candid in their after-action report. The public has a right to know all of this story – warts or not.

- On the radio, WTOP provided the best overall coverage, but the upstart WNEW was pretty good too. WNEW seems to be more Maryland-centric to my ear. Then again, I live in Virginia so I may not be the most objective listener. Since the power was out, TV and cable were not available to me – and I suspect that was the case for almost everyone else without power.

- As a source of information, Twitter has now become an indispensable conduit as far as I am concerned. (And yes, some information is not accurate, but that is the risk in any “fog of war” type situation.) I received more information in a more timely way via Twitter feeds than I did any other source. This was similar to last year’s earthquake situation. First responders need to know how to take advantage of this growing communications channel to quell rumors and convey accurate information.

- The countless stories of neighbor-helping-neighbor convey a very different image of the Washington, DC-area than most Americans have at the moment. When a natural disaster strikes, there really is not a partisan political response and I, for one, am very glad of that.

- Almost everyone I talked with inside DHS says this was a very good, full-scale “dry run” exercise for what could happen when we experience a terrorist attack.

We need to learn from this incident and be better prepared for that day, which will eventually come if the experts are to be believed. We don’t do enough realistic exercises involving private sector companies and real-life citizens, and collectively we don’t have a mentality of preparedness – yet. A truly resilient community, which should be our goal, will say that we can learn something valuable from this experience. The operative question is not what we say, however, but what we actually do.

When the next incident occurs, we will know that answer to that question. Until that time comes, I’m headed to the store to restock.

David Olive focuses his blogging primarily on the “business of homeland security” — the interaction of the private sector with the Department of Homeland Security and other national security agencies. Read More