The emergency management system in the United States is mainly designed to respond to major disasters. The programs and organizations have been instituted in response to these disaster experiences, not to create resilient communities that can respond to any kind of disaster. Catastrophic disasters are characterized by unexpected or unusual size, disruptions to the communication and decision-making capabilities of the emergency response system, and an initial breakdown in coordination and communication. The National Response Plan (NRP) notes that a catastrophic event "could result in sustained national impacts over a prolonged period of time; almost immediately exceeds resources normally available to state, local, tribal, and private-sector authorities in the impacted area; and significantly interrupts governmental operations and emergency services to such an extent that national security could be threatened."
High performance in catastrophic disasters requires an ability to assess and adapt capacity rapidly, restore or enhance disrupted or inadequate communications, utilize uncharacteristically flexible decision making, and expand coordination and trust of response agencies. These requirements are imposed on conventional bureaucratic systems that rely on relatively rigid plans, exact decision protocols, and formal relationships that assume uninterrupted communications.
Our response to catastrophic disasters clearly evidences the different standards expected of the public sector in the twenty-first century-whether those standards were actually achieved in that event or not. Just as Hurricane Andrew closed the century and a chapter in the history of catastrophic events in the United States with the public's demand for radically better public-sector performance, 9/11 inaugurated expectations of new, substantially higher standards, while simultaneously exemplifying the incredible complexity of successfully managing the panoply of catastrophic disasters in the future. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), created in response to 9/11, has inherited these challenging expectations, which include the facilitation of a partnership of government, private, and nonprofit organizations as well as citizens. Catastrophic disasters require complex interactions of multiple-sector organizations in multiple jurisdictions. These interactions cannot simply be accomplished by investing in catastrophic planning. Local community capacity building is critical for successful responses to disasters.
Catastrophic and Routine Disasters
Emergencies come in different sizes: the top level is often called a major disaster, catastrophic disaster, or extreme event. Catastrophic disasters are occurrences that are notable, rare, unique, severe, and profound in terms of their impact, effects, or outcomes. They generally affect the natural, social, and human systems simultaneously, whether the "triggering event" is natural or human-made. Although catastrophic disasters are a class of emergencies and share commonalities with them, they are also distinct in four important ways:
* They are unpredictable and often quite unexpected. Ironically, routine emergencies are predicable and fit well into bureaucratized management protocols that increase the speed and quality of responses, while minimizing expenses. However, responses in catastrophic events substantially deviate from conventional emergency plans or protocols because of the size or uniqueness of the event.
* They disrupt normal communications channels, such as telecommunications and information technology infrastructures, yet routine operations as well as data collection for decision making depend on a stable communication system.
* They disrupt decision making, even as the need for important decisions increases because the distinctiveness or magnitude of the event causes special threats...