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Disaster recovery planning: how to get 1.8 million people home without distress

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Part 2

"A practical disaster recovery plan is one that is proactive, well planned, and most importantly, in place and well tested before a disaster strikes"

Surely something for which FEMA can strive. The preparation for handling contingencies and disasters has many names: contingency planning, disaster recovery, business continuity, continuity of operations, or business resumption planning. Whatever its name a contingency plan will have an emergency response plan, a backup operations plan, and a post-disaster recovery plan.

Time is overtaking this note as the swing of Rita to the north from Texas into Louisiana had awaken authorities to 1.8 million displaced people who now see no danger and want to return home once the fear of looting an intact home overtakes fear of damage by water and wind. It will tax the ingenuity of federal and state authorities to control the return so as to not immediately again overrun resupplies of fuel and food, not to mention annoying a large number of voters. As we think that an outright barring of citizens to return to an undamaged area is electoral poison for state and local politicians, our thinking here is to control the means of fuel resupply both in positioning and cost, e.g., wait till Day X and a certain number of gallons are free.

As the Department of Justice's Systems Development Life Cycle notes:

One of the most important aspects of successful contingency planning is the continual testing and evaluation of the plan itself. Developing test plans which adequately and reliably exercise the contingency plan itself require considerable skill and great care to meet the objective of providing tests which are entirely realistic while still economically feasible. Care must be taken to see that the tests involve the most important systems to be supported in the contingency environment.

But as previously noted, politically mandated tests rarely fail as then someone would have to receive blame. Shortly before Katrina suspended government operations in the New Orleans area, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) queried agencies nationwide as to their preparation for a natural disaster:

The answer, from the 85 agencies that responded to OPM's 2005 Emergency Preparedness Survey, was a resounding yes. All 15 cabinet-level departments responded to the survey as well as many smaller agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Small Business Administration and Federal Reserve Board. OPM said the results of the survey, conducted in April, "reflect very high levels of emergency preparedness." According to the agencies surveyed, they were ready to take care of their own in the event of a disaster, such as Katrina. The idea, according to OPM, was for agencies to "be able to maintain business continuity" and keep running the country, even during times of disaster. The survey's questions were based on the recommended minimum criteria agencies should meet for emergency preparedness. More than 90 percent of the agencies surveyed said their facilities had an up-to-date Occupant Emergency Plan. An OEP lays out agency guidelines in terms of designating emergency personnel, contingency work plans, evacuation procedures and more. More than 95 percent of agencies said their facilities had conducted evacuation drills in the past year. The same percentage said they had designated emergency personnel to serve as points of contact and leaders.

When stressed in real world conditions, these plans then fail, often catastrophically. Witness this enough times and one accepts as a truism that when any low-level auditor from GAO, DoD or private industry is given a checklist, the powerful incentive to mark 'comply' overtakes every question regardless of capacity. (Marking 'comply' obviates the need for further work and defers blame, generally to someone else, when the catastrophe ensues.)

One wonders if FEMA can look to energy firms such as Valero that are combining good business with humanitarian relief. Valero earns loyalty from its workers and their families as it makes money against its refinery competitors by getting its plants back on line sooner. After holding its company stores open on the eve of Katrina to provision workers evacuating the plant, Valero is now setting up temporary housing facilities on or near plant grounds for workers and their families. Food, gas, ice and basic necessities are again being stocked to provide a backbone of infrastructure to the local community while humanitarian and charitable donations are being distributed to the needy. Valero set up a 24-hour call center for its workers in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi to "find out how they were faring, where they were located and what they needed." The firm immediately put some 20 satellite phones and 40 cell/radio phones to communicate between its refineries.

It is another truism in fields as diverse as plant security and disaster recovery that the process works and is self sustaining when everyone has a stake in the outcome. Everyone at Valero and its environs had a stake and an incentive for nimbleness and creativity in restoring some normalcy to daily operations. In such instances the system tends to be efficient and self-healing. Such characteristics are difficult to build and to sustain from a distant bureaucracy.

Part 4

'It Was Like the End of the World,' One Texan Says
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post
September 24, 2005

As energy industry struggles, companies and workers must make do
September 21, 2005
By Brad Foss
The Associated Press/Shreveport Times

Agencies' disaster recovery plans get a real-world test
By Karen Rutzick
GovExec.com
September 7, 2005

NATURAL DISASTER RECOVERY PLANNING
ROGER BREWSTE
Conference on "Built Environment Issues in Small Island States"
University of Technology, Kingston, Jamaica
2- 6 August 2005

Preparing for the Worst: A Best-practices Guide to Disaster Recovery
Robbins-Gioia, LLC
27 June 2003

Gordon Housworth



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