Guide to emergency management and related terms, definitions, concepts, acronyms, organizations, programs, guidance & legislation

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So one dramatic change we've made in the wake last year's hurricanes and in anticipation of this hurricane season and whatever else is coming in the course of this coming year, is we're looking now at planning not only for managing the emergency in the location where the emergency occurs, but managing the emergency all over the country. (Chertoff, Remarks by Secretary Michael Chertoff at the National League of Cities Congressional City Conference, Washington, DC: League of Cities, March 2\14, 2006)


Catastrophe: “How is “catastrophic” different than all other major disasters? There are fundamental differences in all respects between disasters that impact a business, a group of businesses or even businesses across a region, and a disaster that involves all businesses to varying degrees across a nation and the world. As evidenced with major natural disasters including, Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, and the tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004, a natural disaster can quickly evolve from a local or regional event into a national or international tragedy in a matter of hours or minutes. These devastating major natural disasters demand planning and response capabilities far beyond most natural disasters. While these major disasters affected businesses well beyond their impact zone, their impacts still pale to the potential catastrophic effects from a major terrorist event with weapons of mass destruction or a pandemic influenza. There is a fundamental difference in the preparation, complexity, quality of effort, and scope of catastrophic disaster as opposed to a major natural disaster. For a catastrophic disaster, the CI/KR business not only must strive to sustain itself, but as impacts worsen it may be called upon to adjust and consolidate its typical essential processes so that it may survive as an economic entity. Yet, through good planning and an agile response, it will adapt and cope sufficiently to continue providing the most essential goods and services necessary to sustain the community and the nation.” (DHS, Pandemic Influenza CIKR Guide, 2006, p. 30)

Catastrophe: An example would be the 1985 Earthquakes in Mexico City and other Mexican cities. Thousands of people—estimates vary markedly—died and tens of thousands were injured. At least 100,000 building units were damaged; reconstruction costs exceeded five billion dollars (with some estimates running as high as $10 billion). Over sixty donor nations contributed to the recovery through programs coordinated by the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.” (Drabek 1996, Session 2, p. 4; citing Russell R. Dynes, E.L. Quarantelli, and Dennis Wenger. 1990. Individual and Organizational Response to the 1985 Earthquake in Mexico City, Mexico. Newark, Delaware: Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware)

Catastrophe: “…any disaster that overwhelms the ability of state, local, and volunteer agencies to adequately provide victims with such life-sustaining mass care services as food, shelter, and medical assistance within the first 12 to 24 hours.” (GAO, Disaster Management, 1993, p. 1)
Catastrophe: “Catastrophic events are different in the severity of the damage, number of persons affected, and the scale of preparation and response required. They quickly overwhelm or incapacitate local and/or state response capabilities, thus requiring coordinated assistance from outside the affected area. Thus, the response and recovery capabilities needed during a catastrophic event differ significantly from those required to respond to and recover from a ‘normal disaster’.” (GAO, Emergency Preparedness and Response, 2006, p. 15)
Catastrophe: Hurricane Rita caused a major disaster, Hurricane Katrina caused a catastrophe. The difference between the two was a matter of the scale of the natural phenomena, the size and vulnerability of the population at risk, the preparedness of the public and government, and the effectiveness of decision-making prior to and during the crisis stages of the event. Henry Quarantelli, the founder of the University of Delaware, has pointed out that a catastrophe and disaster are qualitatively different. A catastrophe such as Katrina damages the physical infrastructure systems, government systems, and social systems to the extent that local officials cannot function and mutual aid from neighboring communities and states is impossible.” (Harrald, 2005)

Catastrophe: “The term “catastrophe” in the property insurance industry denotes a natural or man-made disaster that is unusually severe. An event is designated a catastrophe by the industry when claims are expected to reach a certain dollar threshold, currently set at $25 million, and more than a certain number of policyholders and insurance companies are affected.” (III, Catastrophes: Insurance Issues (Update), Jan 2008)

Catastrophe: “…an event that causes $25 million or more in insured property losses and affects a significant number of property-casualty policyholders and insurers.” (Insurance Services Office 2000, 2)
Catastrophe: “One of the most important issues that Hurricane Katrina revealed…the difference between catastrophe planning and disaster planning. In catastrophes, there is a need for a more agile, adaptable and creative emergency management. Following the “rule-book” (bureaucratic pattern) will inevitably bring a slow response, problematic communication, and finally great frustration to the people for not meeting their needs and their expectations. Extreme events are better managed when responding authorities are able to adjust promptly their response efforts to the environment, fine tune their communication channels (according to the severity of the event), and also modify the decision making process for the immediate life saving interventions. That does not imply that the NRP should be ignored in the event of a catastrophe or that the ICS should be detoured. The challenging concepts of improvisation, adaptability, creativity and agility do not encompass anarchy or chaos (2). The structured control and command system will not be affected negatively; it will be simplified for better response and recovery. And these changes are indispensable for making clear that emergency responders do not manage catastrophes just as being simply big disasters.

In addition, success or failure of managing a catastrophe is based largely on leadership. In the case of Katrina, the lack of presence of a leader who was or seemed to be in control of the situation, who showed interest in getting the best to people, following a code of values-ethics and indicating unquestionably integrity was obvious; and that stigmatized the gloomy picture of the devastated New Orleans. What is needed is a leader who will have those qualities and competencies to agonize the Scylla of overwhelming disasters and the Charybdis of media. A leader who “recognizes the threats” in time, “prioritizes those threats appropriately” and “mobilizes effectively” is not a leader who will be blamed for failure (3). A leader who puts people first, builds very good teams by getting the “right people on the bus” (4), establishes good communication networks in multiple levels, promotes a learning process from past events, evaluates and improves the system on an ongoing basis, and is not reluctant when it comes to self criticism, is the one who can guide and introduce the required changes that need to be adopted for improving the emergency management system.” (Kastrioti, 2006

Catastrophe: “Despite no consensus on definitions for these terms, experts report that emergencies, disasters and catastrophes differ on more than just scale. Each requires unique response strategies as a consequence of their impact on communities and how emergency responders and resources must be mobilized. The most challenging of events are catastrophes.
Catastrophes stand apart. During catastrophes, most or all infrastructure is damaged and may be

inoperable. Residents in impacted communities – including emergency responders – are unable to undertake normal roles. Large numbers of residents and responders are victims. Most or all traditional functions – including government operations – are completely or partially shut down. Local mutual aid strategies are ineffective, because of the distribution of impacts on neighboring jurisdictions and communities. The loss of water and sewer services and local law enforcement and interruptions in the supply of shelter, food and medical care create additional victims even beyond those impacted by the original event.


Catastrophes require different operating procedures. The loss of functional infrastructure halts the use of traditional communication, transportation and power networks. Local responders familiar with community needs and resources often are unavailable, necessitating reliance on external responders with little knowledge of local geography, cultures and possibly languages. Resource demands far outstrip supplies, creating competition and political pressure for scarce response capacity. Reliance on an expanding circle of mutual aid networks results in far more complex management challenges to integrate disparate areas of expertise, equipment, policies and procedures, and response strategies. The scale of impacts and the number of responders involved increases errors in assessments and conflicting information regarding needs and resources.

Catastrophes require regional, statewide or federal authority. The scale of impacts during catastrophes, the number of responders required, the political jurisdictions affected and the range of organizations called upon to respond, require a regional, statewide or national authority to manage. Local officials generally cannot manage catastrophic response because the authority needed to do so exceeds their jurisdiction.” (Little Hoover Com., Safeguarding…, 2007, 14)

Catastrophe: “Catastrophes, by definition, tend to occur in large metropolitan regions due to the concentration of people and infrastructure. For example, a category 5 hurricane striking an undeveloped coast will generate less damage than a category 3 hurricane hitting a major city. Recent catastrophes include the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake (San Francisco), the 1994 Northridge Earthquake (Los Angeles), Hurricane Hugo (1989), Hurricane Andrew (1992), Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005), the Midwest Floods of 1993, and the September 11 attacks of 2001.” (Moss and Shalhamer, The Stafford Act: Priorities for Reform…, 6Sep2007, p. 14)
Catastrophe: “Unfortunately, one of the biggest shortcomings of the Stafford Act is that it only recognizes two levels of disasters – emergencies and major disasters. Emergencies are normally smaller, limited scale events. The second category - major disasters – is intended for larger events, but this can run the gamut from a blizzard in Buffalo to a major earthquake in California that impacts millions. A third category should be created to differentiate catastrophes from major disasters.” (Moss and Shalhamer, The Stafford Act: Priorities for Reform…, 6Sep2007, p. 15)
Catastrophe: An event of such impact upon a community that new organizations must be created in order to deal with the situation. (Quarantelli 1987, 25)

Catastrophe: “Even two decades ago some researchers were saying that there were “disasters” and that there were “disasters that were beyond typical disasters.” The latter came to be called “catastrophes.”…. The distinction we draw between catastrophes and disasters is not just an academic exercise… What is crucial is that catastrophes require some different kinds of planning and managing than do even major disasters. This is true whether the focus is on the planning for mitigation, preparedness, response or recovery…. The differences that appear between disasters and catastrophes can be especially seen at the organizational, community and societal levels. For our purposes here, let us illustrate at least six general ways in which disasters and catastrophes differ. In a catastrophe compared to a disaster:

1. Most or all of the community built structure is heavily impacted…. In addition, in catastrophes, the facilities and operational bases of most emergency organizations are themselves usually hit.
2. Local officials are unable to undertake their usual work role, and this often extends into the recovery period. Related to the observation just made, local personnel specializing in catastrophic situations are often unable for some time, both right after impact and into the recovery period, to carry out their formal and organizational work roles. This is because some local workers either are dead or injured, and/or unable to communicate with or be contacted by their usual clients or customers and/or are unable to provide whatever information, knowledge or skills, etc. they can usually provide….
3. Help from nearby communities cannot be provided. In many catastrophes not only are all or most of the residents in a particular community affected, but often those in nearby localities are also impacted…. In short, catastrophes tend to affect multiple communities, and often have a regional character. This kind of crisis, for instance, can and does affect the massive convergence that typically descends upon any stricken community after a disaster. In a disaster there is usually only one major target for the convergence after a disaster. In a catastrophe many nearby communities not only cannot contribute to the inflow, but they themselves can become competing sources for an eventual unequal inflow of goods, personnel, supplies and communication….

4. Most, if not all, of the everyday community functions are sharply and concurrently interrupted.

In a catastrophe, most if not all places of work, recreation, worship and education such as schools totally shut down and the lifeline infrastructures are so badly disrupted that there will be stoppages or extensive shortages of electricity, water, mail or phone services as well as other means of communication and transportation…. In such kinds of situations, the damage to residential areas tends to be correlated with similar destruction of nonresidential areas. Among other things, it means that there are far more “social” facilities and activities that need to be restored to “normal” functioning after a catastrophe than after a disaster. Even in major disasters, there is no such massive-across the board disruption of community life even if particular neighborhoods may be devastated….

5. The mass media system especially in recent times socially constructs catastrophes even more than they do disasters. All disasters evoke at least local mass media coverage. Some major disasters can attract attention from outside the community media, but usually only for a few days…. In catastrophes compared to disasters, the mass media differ in certain important aspects. There is much more and longer coverage by national mass media. This is partly because local coverage is reduced if not totally down or out. There is a shift from the command point of view that prevails in disasters to an Ernie Pyle approach (“six feet around the foxhole”) in catastrophes, especially by the electronic media….

6. Finally, because of the previous five processes, the political arena becomes even more important. All disasters of course involve, at a minimum, local political considerations. But it is a radically different situation when the national government and the very top officials become directly involved. Even in very major disasters, a symbolic presence is often all that is necessary. In catastrophes, that symbolism is not enough, particularly for the larger society. Part of this stems from the fact that catastrophes as happened in Katrina force to the surface racial, class and ethnic differences that are papered over during routine times. It is easy to take partisan political advantage of such uncoverings especially when they go against widely held cultural values and norms in democratic societies. Another reason is that organizational weaknesses of responding organizations come even more to the surface. The structural weakness of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as a result of its subordinate position in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as some disaster researchers had predicted for at least three years, became a major problem in the response. The considerable expertise that still existed in the lower level professional ranks in FEMA could not make up for the badly organized FEMA-DHS interface.

“…the qualitatively different demands and needs that surface in catastrophes compared to disasters means that innovative and creative actions and measures will be required far more in the former than the latter. Actually any kind of crisis requires imagination in responding. But the most is required by a catastrophe because there will be more contingencies and unusual aspects in such occasions.” (Quarantelli, Catastrophes are Different from Disasters, 2006)
Catastrophe: “The difference between a disaster and a catastrophe is that while disaster is when

needs exceed resources, catastrophe is when needs exceed all ability to respond.” (Ramirez 2007)


Catastrophe: “The difference between a catastrophe and a disaster is crucial: State and local officials can be counted on to assess their needs and direct federal response to a disaster. A catastrophe, however, over-whelms state and local governments and requires a federal response that anticipates needs instead of waiting for requests from below.” (Rood, 2005)

Catastrophe: “…for a given society might be defined as an event leading to 500 deaths or $10 million in damages. These figures, however, are arbitrary since levels of impact mean different things to different people in different situations. Furthermore, we cannot ignore the element of scale. It would be a catastrophe for a small community if every building were totally destroyed by flooding (as occurred in 1993 in Valmeyer, Illinois), but at the global scale, it would be an insignificant event if only 350 houses were involved…Similarly, $10 million in damage to some communities would be devastating…, especially in less wealthy societies, but others would be able to cope relatively easily” (Tobin and Montz 1997, 7).

“…a catastrophe not only disrupts society, but may cause a total breakdown in day-to-day functioning. One aspect of catastrophes, is that most community functions disappear; there is no immediate leadership, hospitals may be damaged or destroyed, and the damage may be so great and so extensive that survivors have nowhere to turn for help (Quarantelli, 1994).5 In disaster situations, it is not unusual for survivors to seek help from friends and neighbors, but this cannot happen in catastrophes. In a disaster, society continues to operate and it is common to see scheduled events continue…” Tobin and Montz 1997, 31).
Catastrophe, Routine: “…tornadoes, most floods, forest fires, and the like – which inevitably adversely affect many Americans in every part of the country throughout every year. (FSR,
Nation Unprepared, 2007, 3)
Catastrophe Bonds: “Catastrophe bonds are risk-based securities that pay relatively high interest rates and provide insurance companies with a form of reinsurance to pay catastrophe losses, such as those caused by a major hurricane. They allow insurance risk to be sold to institutional investors in the form of bonds, thus spreading risk.” (GAO, Natural Disasters: Public Policy Options…, Nov 2007, 43)

Catastrophe-Linked Bonds: “…unsecured obligations that pay substantially higher interest rates than government or high-grade corporate bonds of equivalent maturity, but whose principal or interest is cancelable upon certain events or “triggers”: those based on catastrophe claims paid

by the specific insurer (indemnity CAT bonds) and those based on some general indicator of catastrophe losses (index CAT bonds). The cancellation feature is what gives the insurer protection and can make the bond the functional equivalent of capital or reserves. The issuer puts the proceeds of the bond issue “in the bank”, as it were, and doesn’t have to pay the money back if a catastrophe trips the trigger.” (Financial Services Roundtable Nation Unprepared 2007, 50)

Catastrophic Disaster: An event that results in large numbers of deaths and injuries; causes extensive damage or destruction of facilities that provide and sustain human needs; produces an overwhelming demand on State and local response resources and mechanisms; causes a severe long-term effect on general economic activity; and severely affects State, local, and private-sector capabilities to begin and sustain response activities. Note: the Stafford Act provides no definition for this term. (FEMA, FRP Appendix B, 1992)
Catastrophic Disaster: “A Catastrophic Disaster is defined by: a sudden event which results in tens of thousands of casualties and tens of thousands of evacuees; response capabilities and resources of the State and local jurisdiction will be overwhelmed; characteristics of the precipitating event will severely aggravate the response strategy and further tax the capabilities and resources available to the area; and life saving support from outside the area will be required, and time is of the essence; and likely to have long-term impacts within the incident area as well as, to a lesser extent, on the Nation.” (Maxwell, Report to NEMA on Disaster Operations Catastrophic Disaster Planning, October 2007, 1)

Catastrophic Disaster: “…the term `catastrophic incident’ means any natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other man-made disaster that results in extraordinary levels of casualties or damage or disruption severely affecting the population (including mass evacuations), infrastructure, environment, economy, national morale, or government functions in an area;…” (Public Law 109-295 (120 Stat. 1394), Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2007, p. 40)

Catastrophic Disaster Planning Initiative, FEMA: “The Catastrophic Disaster Planning initiative is focused solely on catastrophic disasters and, in cooperation with affected state and local governments will identify the highest risk areas and examine loss estimates, current response capabilities, anticipated response shortfalls, and comprehensive planning strategies for addressing the shortfalls, to include new legislative and executive action if necessary…. Information technology and modeling are being leveraged as part of the project to develop interactive tools, services, and products to assist federal, state, and local officials in catastrophic planning and operational response. Products will include incident-specific response plans for pre-selected geographic regions, based upon loss estimating models and capability inventories of affected local, state and federal responders, as well as planning templates that can be used for planning for catastrophic incidents in other areas.” (Maxwell, Report to NEMA on Disaster Operations Catastrophic Disaster Planning, October 2007, pp. 1-2) [See CDRP Initiative]
Catastrophic Disaster Response Group (CDRG): “The Catastrophic Disaster Response Group

(CDRG) — represents all FRP signatory departments and agencies at the senior headquarters policy level.” (FEMA, US&R Incident Support Team Training (Instructor Guide Module 1), p.7; see also, USACE, Response Planning Guide, 1995, p. 1-4)

Catastrophic Disaster Response Plan/Planning (CDRP): “HQUSACE will:Establish policies and procedures in support of requirements for Catastrophic Disaster Response Planning (CDRP) for scenario specific events.” (USACE, Response Planning Guide, 1995, p. 1-2)

Catastrophic Disaster Response Planning Initiative: The “FEMA Catastrophic Disaster Response Planning Initiatives are currently focused on four specific geographic areas: Southeast Louisiana, New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ), the State of Florida, and the State of California.” (FEMA, “Catastrophic Disaster Planning.” FEMA Disaster Operations Directorate, May 10, 2007)
Catastrophic Disaster Response Planning Initiative: “Using funding appropriated for catastrophic planning in Fiscal Year 2006 and 2007, FEMA implemented a Catastrophic Disaster Response Planning Initiative (Initiative) that is designed to ensure that FEMA and its Federal, Tribal, State, and local partners plan and prepare to effect an appropriate, timely, and efficient response to a catastrophic disaster. This Initiative will significantly enhance Federal disaster response planning activities by focusing on catastrophic disasters: those disasters that by definition will immediately overwhelm the existing disaster response capabilities of Tribal, local and State governments. In cooperation with State and local governments, this initiative will identify high risk areas, develop loss estimates for such incidents, assess and inventory current disaster response capabilities, anticipate response shortfalls, and develop comprehensive planning strategies for addressing such shortfalls and enhancing capabilities. Products developed by the Initiative will include incident-specific response plans for pre-selected geographic regions, based upon loss estimating models and capability inventories of affected Tribal, local, State, and Federal responders.” (FEMA, Statement of Glenn Cannon, December 3, 2007, p. 1)

Catastrophic Earthquake National Policy, 1982: “It is the policy of the United States to develop systems and plans to reduce the loss of life, destruction of property, economic instabilities, and the adverse impact on our national defense capability that would result from a catastrophic earthquake. The program can reduce the effects of a catastrophic earthquake by improving earthquake prediction, hazard and risk assessment, warning systems, public education and awareness, response and recovery; by developing further and applying earthquake resistant design and construction techniques, and land use planning. The initial action will be focused on California, but attention will be focused later on other regions in consideration of their relative risk from an earthquake. The program will increase capabilities to:



  • Evaluate current earthquake prediction activities, foster the application of advanced scientific and engineering techniques for prediction and mitigation, increase and accelerate basic and applied research efforts;

  • Develop a coordination and integration mechanism between Federal and State governments;

  • Identify and allocate financial, medical, transportation, shelter, communications, and other resources necessary to assist recovery operations;

  • Reduce the negative effects on military installations and defense related industries;

  • Ensure more effective public awareness programs to equip all levels of the populace with specific information to help them survive;

  • Promote international cooperation to increase scientific and engineering knowledge in applying mitigation measures;

  • Provide for the preparation, implementation, and exercising of preparedness procedures; and

  • Ensure the adequacy of current Federal legislation and regulations to facilitate an effective response.” (White House, NSDD-47, July 22, 1982, pp. 8-9)


Catastrophic Emergency: “Any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government functions.” (HSC, National Continuity Policy Implementation Plan, August 2007, p. 60; DHS, FCD 1, Nov 2007, p. P-1))

Catastrophic Emergency: “Catastrophic Emergency’ means any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government functions.” (White House, HSPD-20, May 9, 2007)

Catastrophic Event: “For purposes of this plan [NRP 2004], a catastrophic event is any natural or manmade incident, including terrorism, which leaves extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage and disruption severely affecting the population, infrastructure, environment, and economy. A catastrophic event results in sustained national impacts over a prolonged period of time; exceeds resources normally available in the local, State, Federal, and private sectors; and significantly interrupt governmental operations and emergency services to such an extent that national security could be threatened. In contrast to a Major Disaster or Emergency as defined in the Stafford Act, a catastrophic event is characterized as an incident of low or unknown probability but extremely high consequences.” (DHS, National Response Plan (Draft #1), February 25, 2004, p. 60)




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