Disaster management: cyber-threats

Cyber-threats? Nasty. Different. And a focus at this year’s World Conference on Disaster Management.

Let’s start with some background  – a little more than usual.

Struggling to cope with volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, drought, and storms? Looking for advice? Wondering what experts think? Or simply curious? You’ll find separate, extensive literatures on each of these topics. Some of the material is of the practical, self-help variety. Landslides: five facts your family should know. Earthquakes: ten steps to prepare your community. Some is academic: Coastal community experience with repetitive storm loss. The contribution of ethnicity and gender to flood risk—Bangladesh and the United States compared. Depending on the hazard, some of the material comes from different federal agencies … from, say, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), or the United States Geological Survey (USGS). The titles here are notional, made-up…but they give you a flavor.

And that’s just natural hazards. What about industrial accidents? There’s a separate literature for them…addressing oil and chemical spills, factory incidents, releases of toxic plumes into the air, and the like. Think of last summer’s BP oil spill or the release of radiation from those Fukushima nuclear reactors. The reports, articles, papers, and even books number in the thousands. At the federal level, new agencies come into the picture like EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

What about disease outbreaks? They’re the province of a yet another federal agency – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and of an additional scholarly community…the world of public health.

Still other categories of hazard are addressed by yet other governmental and international bodies. Famine, complex emergencies, genocide, etc. and the huge refugee populations they create? These are treated separately, by entities other than those mentioned so far – the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and its subsidiary, the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). Another community of practice, another community of scholarship. 

This diversity of efforts shouldn’t come as a surprise. Remember – we live on a planet that does much if not most of its business through extreme events. It’s therefore natural that a large numbers of us be thus preoccupied. Furthermore, hazards differ quite a bit in their nature and their impacts. Some, like riverine floods or hurricanes, we can sometimes see coming from a long way off. Others, like earthquakes, occur with little or no warning (although we know in a general way which areas are vulnerable to such threats). Some (again, those riverine floods) can be fairly frequent; others, such as volcanic eruptions, can be quite rare. Some (like tornadoes) hit the built environment; others (think forest fires or crop blight) strike at ecosystems. Diseases leave buildings untouched while devastating the occupants. Moreover, many of these hazards have been with us not just years or decades, but a century or more. Some go back to the dawn of civilization. Many have originated or are prevalent at distinct locations, so that any commonalities might not be so immediately evident.

Hence the large number of distinct clusters of natural scientists, social scientists, engineers, policymakers, and practitioners tracking such events, making a study of them, attempting to identify and adopt best approaches. [and note: we’ve only scratched the surface of how this work is subdivided; each of the categories listed above has subspecialties.]

Specialization offers advantages. In each case, focus reduces management overhead, frees up resources, translates into speed. Independent efforts can come up with a variety of promising coping strategies, instead of just one. But there are also advantages to more comprehensive studies – studies that span the full range of natural, ecosystem, and social extremes. It makes sense to look for underlying similarities, to seek unified concepts and theories ideas for emergency response and for mitigation or prevention that are generalized, that can cut across the specific threats[1].

One powerful motivator for such comprehensive, hazard-spanning work? More penetrating tests of what we conjecture are general truths. Take for example, questions such as: do disasters bring people together? [Answer? It depends…Sometimes all survivors knit themselves together into ad hoc community; in other instances those most impacted somehow attribute their vulnerability to pre-existing inequities caused by others. ] What is the role of poverty? [Answer? The poor can be more vulnerable…but in some instances because their daily lives are disaster-ridden, they cope better than others who had been better off.] Study of just one type of disaster, or disasters in a single culture, or at a particular point in history can lead to wrong views on questions such as these.

Natural sciences are founded upon observation versus laboratory experiment; we count on nature to “twist the dials” and change the experimental parameters – thus providing a range of data points. This same perspective is even more useful when it comes to multi-disciplinary efforts such as disaster management, which combine a range of disciplines, technologies, and skills.

The World Conference on Disaster Management, which convenes every June, is one effort to bring together such diverse groups, look for, and share, new insights that span the entire field.  The Boulder-based University of Colorado Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center (NHRAIC) also provides resources for this larger community; they run an annual workshop every July.  In addition, you can find agencies that cut across this entire space, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, (FEMA).

How about willful acts of terror? After September 11, 2001, an entirely new, largely separate literature emerged, as did new agencies focusing on this one set of threats. The natural hazards research community was surprised by this turn of events. They’d (not unreasonably) anticipated that the world would discover that decades of study of the social and natural causes responsible for natural catastrophes had many insights for coping with the terrorist challenge. And agencies such as FEMA might also have expected to grow in scope and importance.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the attention and the work went to companies from what sometimes has been referred to as the military-industrial complex. Large corporations with considerable books of business with federal agencies stepped forward and said, in essence, “Oh we forgot to tell you that we are also expert in terrorist- as well as nation-threats? Our bad!” The government work flowed, not unnaturally, to the companies where agency leaders and officials at all levels had a history – past inter-personal connections and a reserve of mutual trust and understanding. And agencies like FEMA and uniformed services like the Coast Guard found themselves swept up into the newly-established Department of Homeland Security.

The result, from the pre-9-11 hazards community perspective, was harmful in at least two ways. The anti-terrorism community rediscovered, slowly, and at great expense,  a great deal the natural hazards community felt they had already learned…and federal dollars and resources were focused on the terrorist threat to the exclusion of others forms of risk.

Department of Homeland Security? The name certainly sounds comprehensive, all-inclusive. Surely if a new threat comes along, the United States will react by beefing up DHS, rather than creating a separate, additional enterprise, right? Ask yourself: is there any calamity, or class of calamities, that might prove so novel, and so catastrophic, as to drive Congress to establish yet another apparatus to counter it today?

Your vote? You might consider cyber threats.

More in the next post.

[1]Physics has its own analog to this. Physics has many branches: mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, and more. But overarching principles demand overarching approaches. For example: gravitational potential energy is not conserved. Neither is kinetic energy (the energy of motion). Nor is electrical energy. It’s the sum of all forms of energy that is conserved. No, wait a minute…that’s not true either, strictly speaking. Sometimes matter is converted into energy, or vice versa. So it makes sense to learn as much as we can about each of the branches of physics, but to balance that with study of physics viewed more comprehensively.

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