A Thousand Twangling Instruments: the 3 Phases of Disaster-relief Programs / by John Schlichter


by John Schlichter

The week after hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, we sailed down to the Caribbean and met with stakeholders across the region.  Programs that respond to disasters like these have three phases:

Phase 1:  Immediate disaster response.  Phase 1 occurs immediately after the occurrence of the disaster event, and has emphasis of emergency response activities such as saving lives; rescuing disaster victims in imminent danger; and getting emergency food, water and shelter to survivors.  Time is of the absolute essence in Phase 1.

Phase 2:  Disaster relief.  Phase 1 efforts will begin to transition to Phase 2 when the immediate danger has passed and activities turn to dealing with victims and refugees from the disaster.  Phase 2 involves managing sometimes large displaced populations, identifying temporary shelter, and making mid-term provisions for food, water, medical treatment and other necessities (e.g., sanitation activities to avoid or mitigate the spread of disease).  Cleanup activities begin in Phase 2, but only to enable disaster relief.

Phase 3:  Reconstruction.  Phase 3 involves the long-term efforts associated with restoration of society after the disaster, including, as necessary, restoration of political, economic, physical, and information infrastructures. 

The myriad of uncoordinated relief efforts is like Shakespeare’s thousand twangling instruments on an isle full of noises.

These phases are linked, and there is overlap between the phases. One key enabler of effective response is the availability of descriptive and prescriptive tools and frameworks that allow decision makers and organizers to characterize the current state of response efforts across the full range of the situation.

In the short term, one of the most difficult tasks (in addition to the response activities themselves) is getting a handle of what is actually going on in the response space.  What is the status of the effort?  Who is involved?  Where are they?  What are they doing?  What problems are being experienced?  Collecting, organizing, and distributing this information all pose serious problems.  In many cases, the information is available, but not structured and difficult to assemble or understand. The myriad of uncoordinated relief efforts is like Shakespeare's "thousand twangling instruments" on an isle full of noises.

In the current situation, news reports and particularly emerging media (e.g., social networking sites, Twitter, etc.) and other open-source data sources have played a role in getting information out about elements of the situation. These diverse and unstructured sources are particularly difficult to rationalize into a coherent picture, but mature capabilities exist to explore these varied information sources and, using technology such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) frameworks, build useful and responsive pictures of what is going on in space and time, including the discovery of relationships and networks between different organizations and activities.  Such capabilities can be put to work right away to start characterizing the status of current/ongoing response activities.  Once built, this picture can be used to build shared situational awareness and facilitate the discovery of challenges (e.g., hospital A is out of antibiotics) and solution alternatives (e.g., organizations/individuals who can help with hospital A’s problem).

In Phases 2 and 3, response organizations have more of an opportunity to design and/or grow the relief and reconstruction efforts – especially in Phase 3, which is usually the result of a deliberate planning effort.  That said, these phases can be extremely challenging due to the scale and diversity of partners involved (and the range of agenda/visions/missions that are present), the complexity and interrelatedness of the relief/reconstruction activities, and the lack of a unified “chain of command” among the participants. 

How do organizations that have the resources and sealift/engineering/logistics capabilities to respond to large scale disasters work with relief groups? Uncertainty – whether from an inability to gather and/or distribute information or from the rapid pace of change in the situation – places a premium on the ability to manage/influence the response effort (what we would call a complex endeavor).  Decision making must be enabled at appropriate times and organizational locations, supporting interaction and collaboration among participants in the endeavor, and ensuring information is distributed in ways that create shared awareness of the situation.

OPM Experts LLC has frameworks that can be applied both to characterize the “as-is” response effort as well as to prescribe actions or resources that would be most effective at increasing the efficacy of the response effort through enhanced coordination and collaboration among participating entities. Our models identify the key drivers that enable endeavors to move from one level of maturity to the next, and they have been applied in a range of real-world disaster-relief circumstances. Use of such frameworks helps to benchmark relief activities and guides leadership decisions about how to organize and manage/influence relief/response work. This is especially appropriate for Phases 2 and 3 but could be of great value during Phase 1 to help identify low-hanging fruit that could pay disproportionate dividends in an extremely austere environment, e.g., the use of 802.16-based technology to establish a temporary information infrastructure quickly to de-conflict and then coordinate activities.

All the people whom we have met on our tour of the region are either eager to help or eager to be helped. While many have moved to Phase 2 (disaster relief) and Phase 3 (reconstruction), some continue to grapple with Phase 1 (immediate disaster response).

“The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; but, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.”
― William Shakespeare, The Tempest