By Andy Jabbour
In the coming days, as the immediate aftermath of Harvey transitions to the longer-term recovery, media attention and interest will pass on to renewed protests, security issues, and a combination of Trump criticism and support and rants tying and denying climate issues and Harvey. As that inevitably occurs, it is important to pause and note the commendable efforts of our government and private sector partners in preparation and response to Hurricane Harvey.
- This is not an after-action report, and a much deeper dive in a number of areas will occur within local, state, federal and private sector communities, and many positive and negative actions will be identified.
- I did not vote for the President, nor Ms. Clinton, and this is not a politically-motivated post.
- This is neither supporting nor denying climate impacts relating to Harvey. The reality is that hurricane landfall, regardless of climate issues, have always been and will always be significant events for the impacted communities. In Texas and Louisiana, and in Florida, across the Gulf Coast and Mid-Atlantic, they are realities that must be prepared for. As the Pacific Northwest, California, and the New Madrid states must prepare for catastrophic earthquakes (and there are many other such known threats).
- The positive comments here regarding planning and response to Harvey are not to in any way to suggest that the very significant loss of life and damage to property are not tragic realities for many people.
I have had the privilege to be involved in preparation and response to significant events both in support to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the private sector community. Responding to hurricanes and tsunamis, terrorism and global cyber incidents, and health hazards like the Ebola outbreak, as well as a variety of other domestic threats and security concerns. Response never goes perfectly, often gets frustrated, and always offers abundant lessons to learn and improve from. There were definitely lessons learned and differences between what was experienced in Katrina verses Harvey. Some of that can be attributed to the storms themselves, and some should be given as credit to the State of Texas and the efforts of Texans to be better prepared and to better respond to a significant hurricane incident. Some of that is captured in this short read via NPR: “Harvey Feel Like Katrina Déjà Vu? Not So Fast.” This post focuses on just a few observations from the immediate preparation and response to Harvey and some important points that may be too easily overlooked.
Leading up to Harvey, DHS – in this incident with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) and the Office of Infrastructure Protection (IP) on point, as well as with the close coordination of state and local partners and the private sector community – leveraged the seasoned experience of leaders and staff and applied lessons learned from previous events to proactively begin coordination with the State of Texas and other government entities and with the critical infrastructure and broader private sector community. Some initial observations follow.
- Effective Intra-DHS Coordination Matters. When FEMA first became a part of the newly formed DHS, at times there seemed to be a struggle to understand and agree as to who was in charge and what were the correct roles and responsibilities of the different organizations. From the outside, that no longer seems to be an issue. FEMA and NPPD / IP seem to have worked hand-in-hand to coordinate and communicate effectively with the private sector community. Mutually supporting one another’s efforts and demonstrating a unity of effort to industry and State and local government partners is a credit to the hard-working staff that have supported numerous incidents over the years. DHS has been able to apply lessons learned from previous incidents to improve coordination and better support public and private sector partners in response and coordination. That effort has been bolstered by the unified integration of partners from across the federal government – from NOAA, from the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and many others.
- Leadership Matters. The above points, and much of the success of this response, are in no small part due to the leadership that is in place. That includes the new leadership at FEMA, where the Administrator’s history in public sector emergency management has clearly helped him prepare for and respond to this incident. In NPPD, the new Assistant Secretary at IP, has leveraged previous experience at DHS, and in the private sector community, to lead effective outreach and coordination to this incident. It is also largely due to impressive leadership and staff working at FEMA’s Private Sector Office and the National Business Emergency Operations Center (NBEOC), and the DHS National Infrastructure Coordinating Center. New leadership and veteran staff have made notable improvements and that is a great credit to them, and of critical value to the broader effort. It is also largely due to lessons learned and applied by seasoned leadership among the private sector community, including leaders supporting critical infrastructure cross-sector coordination. That includes cross-sector leadership provided from the Association of American Railroads and the National Council of ISACs, as well as individual efforts and cross-sector sharing such as demonstrated by Healthcare Ready, the National Health Information Sharing and Analysis Center (NH-ISAC), and a number of others. Individual organizations have worked together and with government to support information sharing and assisting with resource needs to facilitate effective response and recovery to the individuals and organizations impacted by Harvey. From both the public and private sector side, leadership has made a difference.
- Optics Matter. Whether you love or loathe the President, credit has to be given for early and abundant attention and communications in response to Harvey. The Administration communicated publicly and effectively on the threat and situation relating to Harvey and the President’s visits to Texas and other public appearances stand in stark contrasts to the optics relating to the Bush Administration’s response to Katrina. Despite some comments on first lady footwear (seriously, America?), so far, President Trump has avoided any “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” moments. The appearance of order and understanding of magnitude can themselves serve to enhance the response to such incidents. The Trump Administration has seemingly studied and learned from previous significant national events and has done a good job projecting understanding, empathy, and intent to support the impacted areas and victims of Harvey. During a more significant national crisis, that can make an important difference.
- Luck Matters… But So Does Applying Lessons Learned. The intensity and initial landfall were intense but better than worst-case scenarios could have been. That was good for the Trump Administration and good for the country. But this event – tragically impactful as it is for Texas, Louisiana, and many families and businesses – has served as a great opportunity for the Administration, the impacted States, the private sector community and the private-public partnership (and many observing State and local government officials), to learn and to exercise response and recovery. That could serve as an invaluable opportunity should another, perhaps more significant or complex, event occur under this Administration’s watch. Exercises are great, and critical to effective preparedness, but leveraging real events and taking the time to note both the successes and opportunities for improvement, are awesome opportunities to enhance preparedness and resilience (that applies at the national and organizational levels!). I trust DHS will soon lead a deliberate after-action effort to document lessons learned and continue to seek improvement for the next disaster.
That a very new executive team, from the White House to the individuals across the federal government – proactively responded to what appeared to be a potentially significant natural disaster and maintained effective communications and coordination during the response is a good story. Close coordination and integration of federal, state, local and private sector partners is a success story. That is not to say that many things may have been done differently, perhaps better, and that will be discovered in the after-action process that will certainly occur. But, it is evident that experience, leadership, and already applied lessons learned from previous events, have allowed an impressive response from the Trump Administration and leaders and staff across the executive team.
Time will allow a more thorough after-action assessment of this incident and there will be positive lessons learned and opportunities for improvement identified. That is already occurring at a variety of levels and will be done so more deliberately as immediate response requirements decrease. In the meanwhile, it is important to appreciate that many individuals have worked hard to proactively and seemingly effectively support the response to this incident. It is always easy to throw stones, but it is important to give credit where credit is due.
This post was written by Andy Jabbour, Gate 15’s Co-Founder and Managing Director. Andy leads Gate 15’s risk management and critical infrastructure operations with focus on Information Sharing, Threat Analysis, Operational Support & Preparedness Activities (Planning, Training & Exercise). Andy has years of experience working with partners across the critical infrastructure and homeland security enterprise to support national security and client business needs.
Featured image from the NASA Earth Observatory via Global News Canada
Bush, Brown photo from NBC News
Trump briefed at FEMA, CNN
Trump in Texas, AP via Talking Points Memo