Thursday, April 10, 2008

Review: The Edge of Disaster

I've decided to incorporate a new element of the blog: reviews of books on homeland security topics. I've done this on a couple of occasions before, but I'm going to try to do a more systematic job of it.

I'll start with a book that's about a year old, Stephen Flynn's The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation (2007). I consider Flynn to be one of the stronger voices in the homeland security field. His general argument, which he has made many times, is that the U.S. can do a much better job of preparing itself for the threats it faces. Flynn favors a kind of aggressive defense, a concept which has always resonated with me.

I've always thought of homeland security first and foremost as a local issue. Nobody knows our own neighborhood better than us. The first and most basic way of keeping ourselves secure is to take care of our neighborhood.

In The Edge of Disaster, Flynn extends the argument he made in his 2005 book, America the Vulnerable. In the new book, he writes:

Despite all the rhetoric since September 11, 2001, and some new federal spending on homeland security, America remains dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to acts of catastrophic terrorism on U.S. soil. ... Managing the risk associated with predictable large-scale natural and man-made disasters remains far from the top of our national priorities.
The difference between the two books? The devastation of Katrina and the increasing recognition of our vulnerability to pandemic flu forced Flynn to re-calculate the risk-management equation, with an increased emphasis on natural disasters. As such he adds an all-hazards focus to his argument, focusing not only on reducing our vulnerability to terrorism, but on boosting our resiliency to all types of adverse events:
America needs to make building national resiliency from within as important a public policy imperative as confronting dangers from without.
With a stated aim of creating "a more resilient nation," Flynn uses the first half of the book to outline some of the threats we face, and the second half to describe some possible remedies.

In describing potential threats, Flynn tends to gravitate toward worst-case scenarios, imagining, for instance, that a suicide truck bomber will be successful in puncturing pipelines at an oil refinery, setting loose a plume of deadly anhydrous hydrogen fluoride. While it's a plausible terrorist scenario, it relies on the terrorists getting everything just right and getting lucky besides.

While I don't advocate overstating or understating the terrorist threat, I do agree with Flynn that it's not possible to truly address the risk in the absence of greater candor with the public:
The only way to muster the political will to reduce our exposure to malicious acts is to acknowledge our weaknesses and to openly discuss the options for addressing them.
Still, I get stuck on the questions involved with the terrorist scenarios Flynn describes. For instance, would a terrorist team be able to puncture the hull of an LNG tanker and ignite the gas? It's never been attempted before - would they risk failure in trying this attack, or would they choose an attack that's more certain?

That's why I find Flynn more compelling when he writes about our vulnerability to potential natural disasters - for instance, the risk that an earthquake could shake loose the earth dams that hold back the water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, throwing California's agricultural economy and water system into turmoil. Or the ongoing risk that a major hurricane will wipe out massive swaths of expensive new housing developments along our Atlantic and Gulf shores.

These risks are much more knowable, and I agree with Flynn entirely when he writes:
Natural disasters will happen, and not all terrorist attacks can be prevented. However, what is preventable is the cascading effects that flow from these disasters and attacks.
Flynn's concept of resiliency is built on this idea - that you configure your society and your infrastructure in such a way as to reduce the risk of a catastrophic incident; and when a catastrophic incident inevitably occurs, you prepare the systems to recover from it.

Flynn then levels a blistering attack against our current preparedness regime, arguing that the political will to prepare is lacking - and in some cases, we are pursuing policies that make us much more vulnerable to catastrophe than we ought to be:
This lethal combination of natural and man-made factors suggests that the gravest source of danger for Americans derives not from acts of God or acts of terror; it is largely our own negligence that has placed us on the edge of disaster.
"Our own negligence" includes such short-sighted moves as developing extensively in hurricane- or flood-prone areas and in adopting a "just-in-time" economic model in businesses that require surge capacity, such as hospitals. Flynn points out that:
[T]he entire inventory of staffed hospital beds within the United States is 970,000.

In 2005, half of the nation's 4,000 emergency departments were routinely operating at or over capacity.

In the 1990s, 198,000 hospital beds were eliminated to reduce overhead costs.
Is it possible to imagine that this system will be prepared to respond to the inevitable flu pandemic, when it finally comes?

But ... business is business. And you can't blame businesspeople for making decisions that either boost their profits or keep them economically viable in a competitive market. And you can't fault them for not adopting security measures when the market doesn't reward this behavior. Flynn sees danger in a persistent drought of public-private sector engagement on emergency preparedness and response:
More worrisome [than inter-governmental collaboration] is how much room there is for improvement when it comes to the public sector working with companies and business leaders to deal with a statewide or regional emergency.
Flynn argues that, although private sector involvement is vital, we cannot expect the private sector to act on its own. Without a mandate or a compelling business case (and, preferably, a combination of the two), businesses will be reluctant to act. Sharing information is critical toward compelling the private sector to act:
[T]here are other understandable reasons why the private sector resists making security investments when the government is out of the picture. One significant barrier is the difficulty of obtaining information about the threats they are trying to secure themselves from. Government agencies collect this kind of information, but they don't like to share it. This leaves CEOs in a tough spot. Without a clear sense of both the probability and character of potential threats, making practical decisions about investing in countermeasures becomes little better than guesswork.
There is a lot of room for improvement in terms of sharing information with the private sector, which controls most of our critical infrastructure:
The consensus among corporate security officers I have met with since 9/11 is that information sharing with federal law enforcement is too often a one-way street: the companies provide specific information when asked but receive little information of value in return.
The solution, as Flynn sees it, is to apply a risk-management methodology to our preparedness. I have to say I agree:
[O]ur ability to overreact can produce more harm to our way of life and quality of life than terrorists are able to inflict. ... What we can aspire to do is to keep [the risk of terrorism] within reasonable bounds by preventing it when we can and minimizing the risk that terrorist acts will have cascading consequences when we can't.
To that end, Flynn argues for a re-ordering of priorities:
Our top national priority must be to ensure that our society and our infrastructure are resilient enough not to break under the strain of natural disasters or terrorist attacks.
Flynn provides a prescription for action, a wide-ranging set of proposals that ranges from the smallest scale (e.g., encouraging personal preparedness for every family) to the largest (e.g., an increase and reallocation of federal expenditures, including reducing funding for and dependence on the Department of Defense as the primary defender of national security, the establishment of new federal entities whose focus would be on building national resiliency, and wide-ranging incentives and partnerships to encourage and/or require private sector preparedness, especially in critical infrastructure sectors).

While there can be disagreements about Flynn's specific policy proposals, I agree strongly with his basic premise. Our government and economic systems too often reward short-sighted behavior and fail to reward long-term preparedness. As a result, we leave ourselves at greater risk than necessary.

It's not possible to prevent a Katrina, and it's not possible to prevent all potential terrorist attacks, but we can certainly do more to prepare for disasters that may occur and to limit their effects.

What's required is the will to discuss and recognize the problem and the commitment to solve it.


Jimmy Jazz said...


Thanks for the review. I'm a big fan of Flynn's work myself, and have ordered this book to acquaint myself with it.

As a side note, I'm amazed at the popularity of the word "resiliency" as of late (in last couple of years). I imagine it's because of the abject failure to rebound, on any large scale, from Katrina, though I wonder if you have any feelings on that.

In any case, thanks again,

John Bowen said...


I've noticed that, too. But I think it's more than Katrina that has driven the concept of "resiliency." I think there has been a painfully gradual recognition that our infrastructure is brittle (e.g., the east coast blackout, the Minneapolis bridge collapse).

I worry, though, that "resilience" becomes just be another meaningless buzz word, universally applied but not backed up by the hard work (and money) that it takes to be truly prepared.

The problem as I see it is in maintaining the political will to fix what's broke - because in many cases it doesn't SEEM to be broke. Most bridges don't fall down; most days the electricity stays on; most days we can get an ambulance or see a doctor.

And kicking the can down the road is the easiest thing in the world to do.

After you read the book, I'd be interested in what you think about Flynn's take on the state of public health preparedness. He devotes the better part of a chapter to it and gives it a scathing review.

Bob Baylor said...


Great review! I'm actually goind to use "The Edge of Disaster" as one of my textbooks.