Back in early 2010 I wrote the Concept of Operations (CONOP) for the US Army’s first cultural program, the Human Terrain System, about applying what, at the time, I was referring to as socio-cultural research, analysis, and mapping to emergency response and disaster management. This was done specifically for the founding Program Manager so that he had something to work with if US Southern Command asked for assistance from the program as part of the response to the earthquake in Haiti. I was tapped to write this for several reasons, but not least of which because I had been working (among others) for him on building out the conceptual basis for what we were actually tasked with doing for the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan and thinking ahead to other types of operations where having on site, real time socio-cultural support might be helpful. Another reason I was tasked with working on this was the conceptual/scholarly work I had done prior to going to work for the Human Terrain System, which included work on emergency response and disaster management.
In late 2009 I represented the program as an invited panelist at the St. Thomas University (Miami Lakes, FL) conference on disaster management and emergency response to terrorism, other man made disasters, and natural disasters (and yes, I was on the same panel with Max Mayfield). Some of the work I had done for that presentation made its way into the CONOP, including an analysis of where, what I would now in 2016 call, cultural operations and Engagement, would have been beneficial in the response to Hurricane Katrina. Ultimately this was written up in 2011-2012 into a longer treatment for the Army’s second cultural program – the Army Culture and Foreign Language Directorate – looking at how to apply cultural operations to facilitate humanitarian assistance, emergency management, and disaster response – regardless of the nature of the emergency or disaster – including several case examples such as the response to Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake of 2010.
Below you’ll find an excerpt from that 2011-2012 report. In Hillary R’s first post on Hurricane Matthew she referenced Amanda Ripley’s book on surviving disasters. And while Ms. Ripley wrote an excellent book and her observations about who did and did not survive are correct, what was outside of its scope, and the scope of Hillary R’s post, is that ultimately the lack of survivability of Hurricane Katrina was really about total systemic failure at all levels of the emergency management and disaster response process. And I think that’s important to understand and its equally important to remember that the loss of life in Hurricane Katrina was preventable, but failures at the municipal, state, and Federal levels ensured they would occur. I’m adjusting the language a bit – replacing socio-cultural research, analysis, and mapping with Cultural Operations and Engagement.
Disaster Management and Emergency Response: Three Phases
In the case of responding to disasters, whether natural or man-made, disaster management specialists have identified three stages of the response: emergency, rehabilitation, and restoration(9). Conducting Cultural Operations and Engagement across all three dimensions of context, dynamic, and location would be of great use in assisting and facilitating with these disaster management responses. With greater situational awareness available from the beginning of the response and management effort, it would be possible to engage in more focused and effective response leading to better outcomes for the affected populations.
In the emergency response phase the focus is on getting to the affected area, initially assess what needs to be done, and get to the work of the assistance and response as quickly as possible. It also includes a focus on life saving missions and the delivery of emergency supplies, including medical assistance. Phase two, rehabilitation, focuses on building off of the initial response and moving towards stabilization in order to facilitate long term restorations of essential services and a return to normal routine. The focus in this phase is on restoring the host nation country (or in the case of a domestic disaster the local and state authorities) to the levels of functionality that existed prior to the disaster. This is intended to get the required infrastructure back into place and running so that the host nation can begin to provide for the health and welfare needs of the population. The third stage, restoration, is concerned with capitalizing on successes from the first two stages, consolidating them, and then expanding on them by assisting the host nation and its population with building out its infrastructure, services, and facilitating disaster proofing through hardening of vulnerable sites.
Using Cultural Operations and Engagement, and the socio-cultural information it produces for decision makers and planners, can facilitate all three phases of disaster management. For instance, in the first phase, if a Cultural Operations and Engagement team(10) goes in as soon as possible after the disaster they would be able to collect the raw data and information, while assisting the humanitarian relief efforts. Such data is important in order to facilitate identifying where everyone is in time and space (socio- cultural location). Why they are sheltering in those locations and where they might have been sheltering prior to the disaster (socio-cultural context). And who the elites and notables are that need to be reached out to and leveraged to facilitate the relief efforts (socio-cultural dynamic). As the effort moves into the second or third phases the initial socio-cultural information is expanded and consolidated, providing further assistance to the decision makers and planners as they work to return the afflicted communities back to normal.
Conversely, if it is possible to conduct Cultural Operations and Engagement prior to a disaster occurring – either through data mining or because we have personnel working with host country partners or both, then the socio-cultural information can be used to create much more proactive responses. Socio-cultural information may make it possible for decision makers and planners to recognize at risk communities, by fusing geographic information pertaining to areas that are at risk for flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, avalanche with information about those who reside there. Having socio-cultural information during disaster response and emergency management planning would allow for a better understanding of the actual populations at risk by knowing if they are likely to or predisposed to evacuating, if they have the economic wherewithal to do so, if they have places they can go to to seek shelter, as well as who in the communities would need to be engaged in order to facilitate a safe and effective evacuation. Finally, it allows the planner to propose better locations to stage relief and assistance supplies as there is really no good reason to place them to quickly reach those that will either not be effected or will easily (or more easily) evacuate.
The four near miss hurricanes that threatened New Orleans in 2004 provided disaster management and emergency response personnel with a wealth of data (not only about what might happen to the physical terrain of New Orleans), but also who would and would not evacuate the city.(11) As a result it was possible well in advance of the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to do a socio-cultural analysis of New Orleans relative to a potential catastrophic hurricane strike. The information was available about who would and would not evacuate. As a result it should have been possible to cross correlate that data based on ethnicity and socio-economic status, which would delineate why individuals would not evacuate (lack of available funds, lack of transportation, lack of relatives to stay with, disbelief of the threat). Such analysis would have also helped to identify the key community leaders and agents of influence who needed to be engaged in order to promote a timely and orderly evacuation. Sadly, there was no coordinated and coherent system for putting this information together, bringing it to the attention of the policy makers, and enabling more effective, more proactive, and more humane management of the preparations for the disaster and its aftermath.
If the planners and decision makers at FEMA, the State of Louisiana, and New Orleans Parish/adjacent parishes had robust socio-cultural information, derived from the cultural operations and Engagement process, available to them many problems could have been averted through the creation of a more effective preparation and evacuation plan. Additionally, high probability areas for natural disasters could be made into hardened targets in much the same manner as high value terrorist targets were hardened post 9-11. There is only so much that can be done geographically in the case of natural disasters, but the ability to improve on the effectiveness of disaster mitigation, response, resupply, and evacuation procedures is fruit that can be harvested. This can only be accomplished through a clear understanding gained by careful study of the socio-cultural and socio-economic terrain.
Access to proper socio-cultural information of greater New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina would have allowed the local authorities at New Orleans Parish and the adjacent parishes, Louisiana state officials, and FEMA to focus their relief efforts on those areas where New Orleans residents would not and could not evacuate and where they were most in jeopardy. Moreover, efforts could have been implemented well in advance of the hurricane to work with local elites and notables on creating an effective information operations (IO) campaign, rooted in the local socio-cultural milieus of New Orleans’ most vulnerable communities to push preparation for an evacuation. In this manner the first phase of disaster management, the emergency response, would have been in place and in play much sooner and much more proactively. The same goes in regard to the staging of relief supplies, equipment, and personnel. All of these could have been placed to be surged into safe areas adjacent to those deemed most at risk in order to facilitate both a more robust and orderly evacuation of the most difficult to evacuate communities in New Orleans, as well as much more effective movement of relief personnel and supplies into the worst hit areas. Finally, a better understanding of social behavior, and behavioral drivers, among people afflicted by disaster would have gone a long way towards disaggregating out those simply taking basic supplies or taking up arms for protection (regardless of community) for survival and those very few truly bad actors who took advantage of the disaster for their own enrichment. This would have enabled authorities to more carefully and successfully engage with those in need of assistance, while effectively moving against the small fraction that actually posed a threat. The implications of this are very important for two reasons: 1) it prevents the wrong reactions by the emergency responders towards the afflicted communities and 2) it prevents the commission of Information Operations fratricide by stepping on the appeals and request for emergency aid and donations.
Additionally, the proactive use of socio-cultural information would have made the actual reaction much better. Not only would the emergency response have been in place much sooner and likely been more effective, it would have had an important shaping function on the operational environment. By identifying, engaging, and working with the local communities that are at risk in advance, lines of communication are established, which has a positive Information Operations and shaping effect on the disaster response. Given that all communication is strategic communication, having established and positive communications with the right people sets positive conditions for conducting all three phases of the reactive response.
Given that none of this was done prior to Hurricane Katrina, socio-cultural information derived from the Cultural Operations and Engagement process could still have been of use in the aftermath and response to the disaster. In a reactive response situation, as opposed to a proactive prevention one, Cultural Operations and Engagement may be as or even more important. Robust socio- cultural information tethered to the Hurricane Katrina response would have allowed the disaster response managers to surge out teams of personnel with law enforcement and emergency responders in the initial emergency response phase to determine where the location of the affected New Orleans’ communities were in time and space, which elites, notables, and power brokers were either still in those communities and could be leveraged or who could be quickly brought back. This would have allowed for the facilitation of interactions between the emergency responders and the survivors, as well as determine the context – including the basics of shelter, nutrition, and hydration – of the wants, needs, and expectations of the various New Orleans’ populations going forward from the initial response. By having this information the disaster management response to Hurricane Katrina could have more efficiently and effectively moved through all three divisions of the response: emergency, rehabilitation, and restoration.
Finally, it is necessary to secure the information produced by the Cultural Operations and Engagement process in less vulnerable areas so that the hard won knowledge is not lost. Rather it is safeguarded and available to the emergency responders at the tactical and operational levels, as well as to the disaster managers at the high operational to strategic levels.
9 Nancy Mock and J.E. McGovern (undated power point). “Contingency Planning for Foreign Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief.” SOUTHCOM Lessons Learned From Recent Crises in Latin America. Center for Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance.
10 A Cultural Operations and Engagement team should be made up of a team leader with operational experience in emergency response/ disaster management, a research director to coordinate the cultural operations process, several research managers to facilitate data collection and analysis, and a number of field researchers and analysts – many of whom should speak the local language if deployed abroad. It is possible to combine the team leader and research director positions, as well as the field researcher and analyst ones if necessary.
11 Hurricane Pam. Global Security. http://www.globalsecurity.org/security/ops/hurricane-pam.htm.