Disasters at work: Daniel Kaniewski

PodcastMarch 19, 2021
sunken house

That’s always the challenge, to get individuals’ attention before something bad happens, right? Preparing for what we may view, as professional emergency managers, as the inevitable.

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In this episode of the Decision Corner, Brooke speaks with Daniel Kaniewski, former Deputy Administrator for Resilience at FEMA and currently Managing Director, Public Sector at Marsh McLennan. Daniel has been involved in managing some of the worst disasters in American history, through various roles at the White House, with FEMA, and in the private sector. He draws from his experience to provide us with fascinating insights about government and individual decision-making in times of crisis. Surprisingly, human behavior is one of the more predictable elements of disaster management, so if you’re keen to learn more about how governments handle emergencies and mobilize their citizens to react appropriately, tune in!

Some of the topics discussed include…

  • The early phases of a disaster or emergency, how a response is mobilized and why salience and intensity play a big role in shaping our reaction.
  • Communicating during an emergency, balancing a need for calm and reassurance while getting people to do what they need to do to stay safe.
  • Practical ways that we as citizens can support emergency response, without getting in the way of the professionals.
  • The ‘ramp-down’ and recovery phases of an emergency, and why they’re as, if not more important, than the initial response.
  • How the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike any disaster we’ve faced before, but the lessons we’ve learned will stand to us in the future.

The conversation continues

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Sneak peak

Salience and the Availability Bias in emergencies
  • “The last pandemic was over a hundred years ago, one that killed hundreds of thousands. And that obviously was a very salient thing after 1918 and the ’20s. But now, a hundred years later, people, individuals were largely caught unprepared and unfamiliar. So yes, it absolutely is a challenge to keep that salience. I mean, it’s a hard enough challenge just to keep individuals focused on hurricane preparedness during hurricane season, if there haven’t been hurricanes in the last few years.”

Why social media has changed everything
  • “And I’ve got to tell you, that’s something very different today than it was 15 years ago when we had Hurricane Katrina, for example. There really wasn’t, for one, much social media, but two, if you recall in Hurricane Katrina, the communications infrastructure was destroyed. So there was a lack of situational awareness for emergency responders who were outside that area, up to and including the White House. A lack of awareness of what was going on, on the ground.”

How a federal agency makes itself relevant
  • “If you’re not tailoring that message based on current conditions in that local area; you’re going to lose the attention of the population.”

Risk-perception determines action
  • “If that community is risk-aware, they’re going to likely be much more supportive of that project. Otherwise, you’ll have a situation where there might actually be federal funding available and the community opposes it, for any number of reasons.”

COVID 19 – from response to recovery 
  • “But I would leave it with this: We have to remain vigilant. We have to continue mask-wearing and social distancing and doing all the things that we know we’ve learned over the past year are just so important until herd immunity is achieved. And when that date comes, we can all rejoice, I guess? But we don’t yet know when that date will be.”



Brooke: Hello everyone, and welcome to the podcast of the Decision Lab, a socially-conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, research director at TDL, and I’ll be your host for today’s discussion. My guest is Daniel Kaniewski, managing director at Marsh McLennan, and former deputy administrator at FEMA. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about professional life inside a crisis. I know that might sound banal in 2021, but we’re going way beyond COVID and work-from-home here. We’re heading for the eye of the storm, and I mean that quite literally. Dan, thanks for joining us.

Daniel: Brooke, thanks for having me.

Brooke: So before we launch, tell us a bit about yourself, what you’re up to these days, and how you came to be where you are.

Daniel: You bet. Well, it wasn’t something I could have predicted when I was a firefighter-paramedic in northern Minnesota. I just wanted to help people. And I’ve had an opportunity now throughout my entire career to do just that in the federal government, and I’ve been able to support the U.S. government in a number of responses to major natural disasters. And again, not anything I could have predicted, but something I’m grateful to have had the experience doing. And as you mentioned, I was the former deputy administrator at FEMA up until about a year ago. And for the past year, I’ve been at a firm called Marsh & McLennan, which is a large risk management and advisory firm.

How Emergencies Start

Brooke: So, you’ve had a lot of experience with emergencies, obviously. Walk us through what the atmosphere feels like when we’re getting into an emergency. How do we know when we’re in one? How is that decision made, that we go from normal times to emergency times?

Daniel: Sure. I think to answer that question, it really depends on the individual. I mean, it’s the individual who’s experiencing some sort of disruption in their daily life. Now, an emergency to me might mean a major natural disaster, or a hurricane, or a flood, or an earthquake. But think about it, we all experience little emergencies, probably every day. It could be your car breaking down unexpectedly. That’s an emergency. It’s an emergency for the individual.

But when we look at it on a national scale like I would look at it at FEMA, there were certain thresholds, let’s call them, where at a certain level, clearly it required federal intervention. That the federal government needed to help those citizens, those communities, those states in need of assistance. And so here in the States, there’s a formal process for that, when a state- and by the way, in our federalist system here in the U.S., the governor is in charge of natural disasters. So the governor is in charge of managing those disasters in his or her state. And when they get overwhelmed, they request the president to declare a major disaster in their state, and there’s a formal process for that.

Brooke: So you mentioned this idea that there were small-grade emergencies and various grades of emergencies happening a little bit all over the place, all the time. So is it really just a salience issue? Is it about some kind of break from normal?

Daniel: Yeah, I think it is a break from normal, but the salience obviously differs depending on the scale of the disaster. The example I gave about your car breaking down, that creates probably a bad day for an individual, but it doesn’t create a bad week or a bad month for that individual, and it also doesn’t directly impact that community. When we say a disaster, which I would say is a higher-level emergency. In fact, in U.S. government parlance, an emergency means one thing, and a higher-level is a major disaster. We could even go further and  say a catastrophic disaster, maybe even further. But from a legal standpoint, in the U.S., the president can declare an emergency, and the president can declare a major disaster. So yes, salience, I think, has to do with how much it impacts an individual, to what scale and over what time period, as well as how does it impact the community around that individual?

Brooke: So, that speaks to the intensity aspect of it. What about the qualitative aspect to it? So obviously, natural disasters are something that FEMA is very closely associated with. I think in the last year, and you’ve written about this, obviously pandemics and health disasters are another dimension of that. So thinking about presidents of the United States, past and present, both have sort of brought focus on walls as a response to a disaster. Now, Trump talked about walls in the context of an immigration disaster, and Biden is now talking about walls in terms of a sea level rise and climatic disaster. What are the various flavors of emergencies and disasters that are out there, distinct from intensity?

Daniel: Yeah, I think that there’s certainly different geographic areas that experience different disasters. Said a different way; risk can be viewed through many different lenses. You mentioned the intensity. Certainly there’s different intensities of hurricanes. But realized from a geographic standpoint, there’s only a relatively limited portion of the United States that is focused on that particular risk. Other parts of the United States are focused on different risks. So geography has a huge part in this, and that feeds into; “What risks should we be prepared for?”

Well, it depends where you live, to some extent. If you’re in California, you’ve got to be much more focused on earthquakes than hurricanes, obviously, but yet Florida and California both experience wildfires. From an emergency management standpoint, what we would say is, “Emergency managers take an all-hazards approach. We as emergency managers need to be prepared for anything at any time.” That said, with a risk-informed way of looking at emergency management, we know that state emergency managers and local emergency managers…hopefully all the way down to the individual citizen, are aware of the risks in their particular area.

Response Coordination

Brooke: And so, these bodies that you’re talking about have a really important coordinating role to play. So when the emergency or the disaster crops up in the first place, there’s going to be this break from normal for the people who are directly impacted by it. So their attention will be sort of pulled into this event. But with that idea of salience, the emergency catalyzes more attention being drawn to it, which is of course important because we need various actors to play different roles in responding to this emergency. So how is salience generated among those stakeholders who are not directly at the face of what’s going on?

Daniel: Yeah, largely that will come through the media. I mean, especially today, it’s not just the traditional media, it’s social media. And I’ve got to tell you, that’s something very different today than it was 15 years ago when we had Hurricane Katrina, for example. There really wasn’t, for one, much social media, but two, if you recall in Hurricane Katrina, the communications infrastructure was destroyed. So there was a lack of situational awareness for emergency responders who were outside that area, up to and including the White House. A lack of awareness of what was going on on the ground.

Also, there was potentially a lack of awareness with those either impacted or those on  the fringe of being impacted, because there was no media that was reaching the site. There was no media that was able to transmit those images out. And then when we all saw those images, the famous flyover over New Orleans, it was a jaw-dropping event for many. Whether you’re a professional emergency manager or someone who had friends and family there or you were in the impact area itself, because a picture’s worth a thousand words. There’s nothing more salient than seeing something like that, in a crisis.

Brooke: And for an organization like FEMA, you’ve been rehearsing and practicing these routines to respond to various kinds of disasters, but once you’ve got the attention of all those actors that you need to coordinate, how do you go about that coordination piece? Like, okay, people are listening now, how do you get them to take the right kind of action when you,  as the central coordinating body, are practiced at this kind of thing, but the people that you’re trying to coordinate are probably not?

Daniel: Yeah luckily in the U.S, this system is quite well-practiced, and there are systems in place. As you mentioned, FEMA is the coordinating body. It’s the coordinating body at the federal level. And so, FEMA has a bunch of different roles. One is, as that coordinating body, to coordinate across the U.S. federal government with all of those agencies that have unique capabilities that they could bring to the disaster, to the disaster response, and make sure the federal government is providing those in a coordinated manner, in an effective manner.

But at all times, FEMA is working in support of the state. And so a second really key role for FEMA is they’re the primary connection between the state and the federal government. They’re hearing from the state, predominantly the governor and the governor’s emergency manager. So there’s a state emergency manager in every state; the FEMA director equivalent. And they’re laying out the requirements. In other words, they’re saying, “Here’s what we need, and here’s what we could really use help with.” And FEMA will coordinate that request, and not just provide it from a FEMA stockpile or a FEMA resource or a FEMA responder, but see what capabilities exist throughout the entire federal government to provide that.

Now that’s, of course, a pretty rare event, where a state is overwhelmed and says, “We need help. We need this extra assistance from the federal government.” But hey, it happens. And we saw just recently here in the last couple of weeks in Texas, with the blizzard. The state required assistance beyond what it had. And Texas is a very big, capable state. So for Texas to ask for help, we know it’s really a big disaster.

Citizen Response

Brooke: And what about the citizen response? The other government bodies that you’re helping to coordinate, obviously they have some training and practice in these routines as well. But what is it that you need to get citizens to do in terms of individual level decision-making, household decision-making? How do you coordinate that kind of thing?

Daniel: That’s a great point. First of all, there’s only so much the government can do in a disaster. And whether that be the federal government, a state or provincial government, or a local government; the government’s capabilities are inherently limited. The government can’t surge to support every citizen in every disaster. It’s just not how the system is set up.

So yes, individuals need to take responsibility, ideally before a disaster strikes, to prepare. But during a disaster, individuals need to help each other. Families need to come together and help each other. You need to take in your neighbors if they don’t have somewhere to stay. You need to volunteer and do whatever you can. Neighbor helping neighbor is probably the first response. We talk about first responders as being firefighters and paramedics and police officers, but the first responders to a crisis, it’s always going to be the individual.

Brooke: And so given that critical role that they have to play, and the lack of experience and practice fulfilling that role, how is it that governments effectively message to citizens, and how does FEMA effectively message to citizens how it is that they can engage productively in that effort?

Daniel: Yeah one of the biggest challenges, and you’ll see this often following a disaster, is a government agency will say, “Please do not come to the incident. Don’t self-deploy.” You may even have a specialized skill set. You might be a doctor or a nurse or a construction worker who can come help and wants to help, but oftentimes, that’s the worst thing you can do because people going into a disaster scene, whether it be just one house that experienced a disruption, a disruption could be a flood or a fire, or it could be an entire neighborhood or a whole city. Going to that location, by self-deploying, you’re making it more difficult for the first responders, for the professionals to actually do their job.

So, what can you do? Well, again, ideally this would happen ahead of time. Here in the U.S., we have something called Citizen Corps, where you can sign up and play a role in supporting the professional responders to an incident. And again, it doesn’t have to be a mass disaster. It could be something like a house fire. You can join an NGO, a non-governmental organization, the American Red Cross or many, many other NGOs that are out there. It is a great way to be engaged before, during, and after an incident, because you’re part of an organization.

As far as an individual, even without any training or any experience, there are simple steps you can take. For example, here in the U.S., we have a website called ‘ready.gov’ You can go to ‘ready.gov’ and you can see by incident type, in other words, by disaster, and you can see what simple steps you should be taking before, during, and after that disaster. And so even if it means something has just happened and you go to ready.gov, make sure you go through that checklist and say, “Hey, here are some things that I can even do in the heat of a disaster. Even though I might be unprepared, here are some things that I can do in the immediate aftermath.”

Brooke: You mentioned citizens who are external to the disaster and the coordination challenge that they can pose if they self-deploy and arrive on the scene. Just in passing, it reminded me of a favorite quip from a friend of mine who’s an emergency room doctor who likes to say, “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Think about how this is going to affect the entire ecosystem of care, of what’s going on with this individual, and pay attention to the signs, because indeed, that coordination piece is actually at times one of the most challenging. Just having enough resources is not always the biggest problem.

But what about for those citizens who are already there in the eye of the storm, sometimes quite literally? How is it that FEMA can effectively communicate to those individuals what it is that might not be already there on a stock website which they may or may not have consulted ahead of time?

Daniel: Yeah, and if you are in the direct impact zone, it’s a different calculus. You’re part of this disaster and you need to take care of yourself and your family, and hopefully your neighbors and your community members. Again; different calculus. So one, it’s not going to usually be a federal agency that’s going to communicate what is best for you to do in that situation. Oftentimes, FEMA will put out general guidance, but the guidance that certainly I would say, and I’m sure every FEMA official will say in the future, is ‘listen to your local authorities’. Follow those local authorities’ advice.

The perfect example is an approaching hurricane. If you have a hurricane that’s coming towards where you live, the federal government is not in the best position to tell you whether or not you should evacuate. You need to follow the advice of the local officials, your local elected official, your mayor, your county commissioner, whoever it is in your local community. They will be telling you what you should be doing in that circumstance. And so, the message has to be tailored to the lowest jurisdictional level possible, because the impacts can be quite different, depending on the geography.


Hi there, and welcome back to the Decision Corner, the podcast of the Decision Lab. I’ve been chatting with Daniel Kaniewski about all things disaster relief, and the human behavior aspect of emergency response. So far we’ve discussed what it’s like at the outset of a disaster, the influence of salience and intensity on citizen response, and how governments communicate with their citizens in times of emergency. In the second half of the podcast, we dig into the ‘wind-down’ and recovery phases of an emergency, practical things that we as citizens can do to support emergency responders, and steps both governments and individuals can take to be better prepared for future catastrophes. We touch on the COVID-19 pandemic and Daniel gives us his opinion on how the recovery will pan out. Stay with us.

Maintaining the Response

Brooke: So, thinking about something like COVID and how that is so very different in so many ways from, for instance, a blizzard in Texas. A blizzard in Texas runs through, it’s an extremely punctual event. And then there’s a lot of cleanup and picking up the pieces. But fundamentally, the event itself has passed. The damage is, more or less, not continuing to occur. The damage has been done already.

So there’s a very different kind of cadence to that in terms of salience, you don’t need to ask people to continue doing things that can seem mundane and that are not cognitively very closely connected to the kinds of outcomes that they want. Like asking someone to wash their hands can be a harder sell in most instances than asking them to take in a neighbor, because we have all of those nice sentiments of bravery that come with helping out somebody in need who’s right there in front of us, whereas with washing our hands, cognitively, the disconnect is just way too much between something that may or may not be on my hands, that may or may not infect me, and I may or may not go on to infect other people. So with these kinds of cognitive challenges around a pandemic, how does an organization like FEMA have to adjust its playbook?

Daniel: Yeah, COVID is unprecedented in so many different ways. And one of those is exactly how you describe it, it’s a slow-moving disaster. It has terrible consequences in terms of lives lost and economic costs, et cetera, but it’s moving relatively slowly. And so FEMA, which would normally have an operation center that would stand up for a few days, maybe weeks for a really catastrophic disaster, but be there to support the state in a 24/7OPTEMPO following a major disaster. Would you believe that FEMA has had its op center activated for almost exactly a year now? So since March of last year, FEMA has had their op center activated.

One, that’s really tough on the workforce. It’s extremely hard to keep your employees motivated, to keep them focused on the mission at hand. But you know what? Thankfully, the FEMA employees that I’ve worked with, they have the right mindset and they’re doing their job. Even if it means being away from their family or stretched for really a year now, which is mind-boggling, quite frankly. But then the question about salience for those impacted or those you’re trying to still influence, I think you really have to be agile in how you’re messaging it. You can’t just continue to stay the same message over and over. Of course, it’s important for you to wash your hands and social distance and wear masks, but ideally, you would tailor that message, even if it’s only slightly so, based on the changing conditions that are being observed.

And I think that’s really key. And I think it’s a missed opportunity in some locations. Again, here in the U.S., it’s very much a state by state approach. Again, general guidance from the federal government, but the state and even county and local governments are the ones that are really the ones that are making these decisions about whether businesses are open or closed or mask mandates. And if you’re not tailoring that message based on current conditions in that local area, you’re going to lose the attention of the population.

Brooke: And do you have some thoughts on messaging around actions that are more cognitively distant from the effects that we want to be having? So, there are two aspects to the salience issue that I raised at first. The first aspect, which you’ve just addressed, is keeping salience high for a long period of time and, as you mentioned, adjusting messaging and having things be dynamic, not becoming too stale. That’s a key feature there. But what about this other issue of trying to motivate people towards actions, the consequences of which are really hard to associate back, like, “I’m not sure if it was when I washed my hands as I arrived home this morning that prevented some further infection, or whether it was the time that I put disinfectant on my hands as I walked into a grocery store.” With that big cognitive gap between the action and the expected or hoped-for outcome, what kinds of messaging strategies can we use to help to address those kinds of gaps?

Daniel: Yeah, we really struggled with this on the topic of  flood insurance here in the U.S. In the U.S., very few people have flood insurance, unfortunately. Very few home-owners, very few renters have flood insurance. And there is a federal mandate that if you’re in a high-risk flood zone, that you’re required to have flood insurance. But anyone outside of that is not. And even within that high-risk area, it’s only if you have a federally-backed mortgage. So you can see, we’ve really whittled it down. It’s just a small percentage of Americans that are required to have flood insurance.

So with that as a backdrop, we say, “How do we reduce disaster losses going forward? How do we make sure that as many people in the U.S. have flood insurance as possible?” Well, the way that FEMA used to describe the risk you would face from a flood would be, “What are the chances in a hundred years or 250 years or 500 years that you’d experience a flood event?” And so the high-risk is one in a hundred years, and they call it the one-in-a-hundred-year floodplain. Well, that just doesn’t resonate. Either you think, one, that’s a very low probability, in fact, you could say, “Well, I just purchased my home, so I have 99 more years before I face a flood risk.” And some people believe that.

So what we at FEMA had to do is say, “We have to at least explain this in terms that we think would resonate with someone who’s considering a flood policy, or who doesn’t know they’re at risk.” So rather than say, for example, “You’re in a one-in-a-hundred-year floodplain,” we would say, “Over the course of your 30-year mortgage, you have a one-in-three chance of having a flood event. One-in-three.” Well, one-in-three, that gets my attention, a lot more than one-in-a-hundred does. But you know what? It’s the same thing, because it’s one-in-three over the 30-year mortgage, which is something people understand and can appreciate; like you said, tied to something, as opposed to this theoretical one-in-a-hundred number.

Wind-Down and Recovery

Brooke: So, the emergency is extended – it’s stretched out. Now things are starting to wind down a little bit. Let me backup just a little bit. I’m not saying that’s what’s happening with COVID, although I genuinely do hope that that’s what’s happening. That as case numbers are coming down, this is kind of the last time we’re going to see a major spike. I fear that may not be the case, but I hope that it is. But putting the actual COVID situation aside, let’s just talk about hypotheticals here. As an emergency looks like it’s winding down, how is the call made to start ramping down those emergency measures and those emergency supports?

Daniel: Well, it’s almost never a clear delineation between response and recovery, between the disaster and post-disaster. It’s more of a gradual transition where immediate priorities like rescue, shelter, food and water shift to longer-term priorities, like repairing homes and fixing public infrastructure. So, it’s not as simple as flipping a light switch. There’s no federal official that says, “Okay, we’re done with response. Let’s move to recovery.”

And again, in the U.S., it’s kind of a moot point because FEMA does both. FEMA does both the immediate response, and FEMA will be there for the months and frankly years afterwards to help that community recover and rebuild. So, it’s a bit of an artificial distinction between response and recovery. And it’s definitely a gradual ramp-down of response, and a gradual ramp-up of recovery.

Brooke: And how do the ramp-downs and ramp-ups get managed? Is there a natural flow that dictates that?

Daniel: You’ll see that, for example, if you think of the immediate aftermath, you’ll have response teams coming in; search and rescue teams, FEMA or otherwise, coming in and helping. They’ll be deployed immediately, but eventually they’ll be standing down. And they would go back and await orders to deploy to a new disaster. At the same time that their deployment operations are winding down, there are probably an equal number, and probably more, frankly, recovery officials coming in. Experts in, let’s say, engineering who would come in and look at the physical infrastructure and see the damage and see what could be done for either temporary repairs or to assess the damage to see what kind of long-term repairs. And then the same with accountants and other finance experts. They’re going to start coming in.

Again, as the response is ramping down, as the federal search and rescue teams are going back to headquarters, those other specialties are coming in. And they’ll set up a long-term office in that disaster area. So usually, they’ll take a vacated office building in the area and they’ll ramp up operations. And that building will be rented by FEMA for months of years afterwards. Potentially hundreds, and in some cases several thousand, FEMA employees would be down in that impact area supporting the long-term recovery for the area.

Brooke: So in keeping with this idea of salience, I was going to ask you, how do you message that it’s time to ramp-down the salience and to ease off the throttle a little bit? It sounds like the way that I had envisioned that question in my mind is a little overly simplistic. First, it’s not a ramping down of the throttle. It’s not an ‘emergency on/emergency off’ kind of thing. As you said, emergency fades gradually and imperceptibly into recovery. So that’s one thing, is it’s not just like throttle on, throttle off. It’s more like throttle here, throttle there. But it also sounds like there are different actors involved in terms of throttle among the emergency response and then throttle among the recovery group.

Those are two distinct groups in terms of the professional corps that are involved in this. What about the public? So coming back to the people who are affected directly by this disaster, how do you message that transition for them? Because they don’t have this luxury of just being an emergency-focused person now, and then walking away from the site and having a recovery person walk onto the scene or onto the site. So how do you message that effectively to the public to ensure that what they are doing at the most granular, grassroots level, is properly coordinated and aligned with what’s going on in the more professionalized and structured elements above?

Daniel: Rest assured, you’ll still have the attention of those directly impacted. Until life returns back to normal, they’re going to be fully invested in bouncing back. They’re going to be calling FEMA or their local officials or state officials to make sure that they’re getting the assistance that they need, if it’s not being provided to them. And so in the messaging standpoint, it would go from, “If you need rescue, call 911,and your local first responders are going to be there.” And again, if additional assistance is needed, state and federal responders.

After a disaster, there will be other types of phone numbers you’re going to be calling. If you have insurance, you’re going to be calling your insurer. You’re going to want the insurance adjuster to come out as soon as possible to review your damage and to give you the opportunity to – If your home or your apartment is uninhabitable, to make sure that you have the opportunity to go somewhere else for the short-term; like to a hotel room that would be paid for by your insurance.

In the same way, those that don’t have insurance, they would get an 800 number for FEMA or log on to the FEMA website, and they’d register for assistance. And they would get some level of assistance, again, in the immediate aftermath, to provide that support they need in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. So whether it be a private sector company like an insurer or a public organization like FEMA, they are going to be in high demand in that recovery phase, and either the insurance or the federal agency or the state agency need to be there for disaster survivors.

Preparing For the Next Disaster

Brooke: I want to use that as a bit of a pivot point now, and the pivot that I have in mind is the following: that kind of ramp down needs to be especially smooth and well-perceived in order to sustain the confidence and goodwill of the public that will be needed for effective response the next time around. And that’s really what I want to focus on now, is preparing for the next emergency, the next disaster, perhaps in this instance, the next pandemic. Cognitively speaking, and there’s plenty of good evidence about this, the availability heuristic works wonders in this instance.

Right after a major earthquake or a major storm, or a pandemic, people have a very clear and vivid image in their mind, and they really take  the risk that something else like this could happen again more seriously. If you ask them, they will assess the likelihood of another pandemic in the next 10 years as being much more likely than they would have if you’d asked them 18 months ago, for instance. How do you transition that salience of today’s emergency into the investments of money and of time and energy and attention into preparedness for what comes down the road?

Daniel: Absolutely, and that’s always the challenge, to get individuals’ attention before something bad happens, right? Preparing for what we may view, as professional emergency managers, as the inevitable. An individual may not have any kind of risk awareness that they actually face that risk and should do something about it. Now, this is certainly something that we struggle with in emergency management, because unless someone is very risk-aware – And let’s say that risk-awareness was maybe the result of a disaster that happened either to them or their family members or to someone they know,we find that that individual will generally be more risk-aware. They realize, “Hey, look, my neighbor’s home flooded last year. My home can flood too.” That’s one way. If there’s some personal connection to a previous disaster. Again, it doesn’t have to be a catastrophic disaster. It could be a fire or a flood that happened to a neighbor or a family member. That’s one way, and that’s what we’ve found, especially when it comes to flood insurance, is one that really does have salience.If it’s someone that has not experienced a disaster or isn’t familiar with disasters in their region, that’s always going to be a challenge, and the earlier you can start – a, the lowest level of government that can engage here is going to do a better job than just a generic message by FEMA. Because again, in my former role, we could say all day long, “Go to ‘ready.gov’. Learn your risk. Learn how to prepare.” But I don’t think that has much salience, especially in a non-disaster situation.

But if you’re at your local church or your local school and they offer, for example, CPR training, you’re much more likely to engage in getting prepared if that’s offered in a convenient location, and one within your community. And the same for the Citizen Corps idea, the federally-sponsored effort that’s locally executed, meaning it’s a federal program, they give the training materials to those local governments, and then the local governments train the communities. They provide access to that training prior to a disaster happening.

Brooke: So, there seems to be a tension here that salience really happens at the community level, but a lot of that preparedness and capacity to respond needs to be developed at a higher political level. So for instance, FEMA is federal, it’s not local. So, how do we ensure that there’s the correct alignment of incentives? That people are sensitized at the local level for something that they actually need their federal officials to be caring about and reacting to?

Daniel: I agree. I mean, the scale of what you think are these challenges, like a major earthquake or a hurricane, that’s not something that a local community on their own could be fully prepared for. It’s cost-prohibitive, in many cases. So in the U.S., there are a number of federal grant programs which provide great incentives for local governments and communities to invest ahead of time;  in an example of what we would call hazard mitigation, or in the climate context, you would call it climate adaptation. These are grant dollars provided by FEMA to state local agencies to make those investments prior to disaster happening.

So for example, if a community is particularly vulnerable to flooding, let’s say from the sea or from sea level rise due to climate change, funding is available to strengthen the flood wall that may exist, or put a flood wall up where one doesn’t exist. And that provides some level of protection, additional protection, to that local community. Now, these are not small projects or inexpensive projects or short-term projects. They take a lot of effort and a lot of planning.

And here’s where it really comes together, which is to “just build a flood wall”. It sounds quite simple, if not expensive, of course. But you need to have the community buy-in. You need to have the community say, “You know what? My view of the ocean might be partially obstructed by this flood wall,” that they might otherwise oppose. But if that community is risk-aware, they’re going to likely be much more supportive of that project. Otherwise, you’ll have a situation where there might actually be federal funding available and the community opposes it, for any number of reasons. So you need to get their buy-in.

Brooke: So sustaining momentum once you’ve got it is a big challenge here.As I mentioned before, right after the emergency situation subsides, the memory is very alive in people’s minds. They’re very responsive to messaging that picks up on something that’s so salient to them. But how do you sustain that as the intensity of that memory fades?

The reason that I ask this question is that there are certain countries that seem to have really sustained the momentum quite effectively after the SARS outbreaks; was that in 2003, is that right? So those countries that managed to really learn important lessons from SARS and sustain the attention that they were putting into preparedness, have coped better with COVID, now 15 years or 17 years further down the road. How do we ensure that that kind of momentum is sustained and that, for instance, we don’t say after one pandemic, “It’s critical that we establish a federal source for PPE”, but then as the years go by, we allow stuff to expire, we allow stocks to deplete because they’re expensive to replenish and no one’s paying attention to it. How do we get some traction on that issue?

Daniel: Yeah, I think unlike many of the countries in Asia that have experienced epidemics and outbreaks from time to time over the past 20 or so years, in other words, there are plenty of adults in Asia who have experienced the effects of a contagious disease, here in the U.S., it really hasn’t been the case. The last pandemic was over a hundred years ago, one that killed hundreds of thousands. And that obviously was a very salient thing after 1918 and the ’20s. But now, a hundred years later, people, individuals were largely caught unprepared and unfamiliar. So yes, it absolutely is a challenge to keep that salience. I mean, it’s a hard enough challenge just to keep individuals focused on hurricane preparedness during hurricane season, if there haven’t been hurricanes in the last few years.

And I’ll give you an example. Here in the U.S., we went through a bit of a hurricane drought. For a decade or so after 2008 to about 2017, there weren’t any major land-falling hurricanes in the continental U.S.. So people let their guard down, and even worse, they let their insurance lapse. They take all kinds of actions that they think are rational at the time because they haven’t experienced this disaster in the last year, two years, three years. By the time you get to 10 years, people can be relatively unprepared. And then what happened in 2017? Catastrophic hurricanes back, to back, to back, in the Gulf Coast and in the Atlantic. And again, relative unpreparedness for an area that, frankly, you could say should have expected something like that to happen.

Brooke: So, we try to hang on as long as possible and stretch out that salience as much as we can after the last disaster. Given what you’ve said so far, I feel like I know the answer to this question already, but I’ll ask just in case there’s a surprise coming. How hopeful are you that you can actually develop salience from a zero-momentum situation, that you can actually get this onto people’s radars, if they’re not thinking about it already?

Daniel: Yeah, it is really hard if you’re starting from scratch. If there’s no base, no shared experience among the individuals you’re trying to influence, it’s very challenging. And the best you can do are these standard federal messages, like you might see a public service announcement that comes out. Again, here in the U.S., from ready.gov, there’ll be a commercial, like, “Hey, be prepared for earthquakes,” and that’ll be targeted to a specific geography.

And I think that’s about the best you can do at the federal level is to provide this information and combine that with federal dollars to support communities and states based on their regional and local risks. I think that’s the key; is that tailored approach in supporting the risks that those communities face. But that’s not a panacea, and that’s not going to have the salience that an actual disaster occurring would, no question. But short of an actual disaster, it’s hard to keep this on people’s radar.

What Will the COVID-19 Recovery Look Like?

Brooke: All right, as someone who has really been at the center of a lot of responses, gaze into your crystal ball and tell us all what we’re hoping to know about how COVID unfolds from here on out.

Daniel: Well, I would say that the recent increase in velocity of vaccinations is encouraging. And so, the more vaccines you see going out, the more shots in arms, every time we see those numbers going up, that is really encouraging. But we all know the challenges associated with just getting up to this point. We know the struggles of the supply chain, even after the vaccines were developed. And so, we should expect there could be stumbles again in the future. We see a virus that’s, frankly, evolving, and that’s very concerning.

But you also see the governments and the vaccine manufacturers trying to get out ahead of it, already developing vaccines for the most advanced variants that are coming out. So that’s, again, encouraging, so that if we do have a more difficult situation in the fall, we should be better prepared. But I would leave it with this: we have to remain vigilant. We have to continue mask-wearing and social distancing and doing all the things that we know we’ve learned over the past year are just so important until herd immunity is achieved. And when that date comes, we can all rejoice, I guess? But we don’t yet know when that date will be.

Brooke: Right. And so, sticking with your earlier points, that you don’t just pack up and go home, COVID is a slow-burning disaster, but I would say based on the way that you described it earlier, we’re still in the response phase.

Daniel: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Brooke: We’re not in the recovery phrase yet.

Daniel: Yeah, and you can see these going on, on a parallel track. You can see active-response, which I would call vaccinations and hospitalizations. I mean, go to any hospital that’s experiencing a large caseload, they’ll absolutely say they’re in response mode. At the same time, remember, just like any disaster, there’s not a clear delineation. So in this case, you’ll see that many countries, the U.S. included, are providing a significant amount of federal funding to stimulate the economy.

So I would almost consider that more of moving towards the recovery phase, like how can we make sure that these businesses that have been directly impacted by the pandemic, how can they stay in business? How can the individuals who’ve been directly impacted, how can we make sure that they can sustain themselves and their families in the long-term? And so yeah, I would say it’s a mix between active response and short-term recovery. The long-term recovery is still to come, which we still don’t know the impact that this is going to have, for example, on the world’s economies.

Brooke: Yeah. Obviously the world has changed a lot in a hundred years, but if we think back to the Spanish Flu, for instance, lasted a few years, and then we had the Roaring Twenties that came after that, where the economy absolutely boomed, before quite notably busting, of course. But what’s your prognosis in terms of timelines for this? Is there some kind of ratio of how long a disaster lasts to how long the recovery lasts? Is there some idea that you’ve got in mind about this?

Daniel: I think, again, just like the other disasters that we talked about, we compare this to the hurricanes and the earthquakes, where you can see that it can take years to recover. And in fact, there’s still funding being provided by the U.S. federal government to those communities impacted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We’re 15 years past that. And so there, it’s largely infrastructure being rebuilt. And so, that’s not necessarily an analogous situation to what we’re experiencing now, because there’s not infrastructure being damaged that has to be rebuilt, it’s economic damage. It’s those businesses and individuals who have been impacted by the financial consequences of this disaster.

And so, I certainly hope it doesn’t take 15 years to recover from this. And there are indications, as you mentioned, that it won’t, that we will bounce back. And you can look at the stock markets, for example, that seem to be full steam ahead, growing in this environment. And so, I want to remain optimistic as, let’s say, the market is or as all of us hope to be, to return to normal soon. And I don’t think you can directly tie this to the other types of catastrophic disasters that we’ve experienced that do take sometimes decades to recover from.

Brooke: Dan, you’ve been a voice of reason and calm in talking us through this. Thank you very much for your time and your insights today, and I hope that we can discuss it again soon.

Daniel: Thank you, Brooke.

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About the Guest

Daniel Kaniewski

Daniel Kaniewski is Managing Director, Public Sector at Marsh McLennan Companies. In this role he works with over 75,000 experts in risk, strategy, and people across Marsh McLennan, Guy Carpenter, Mercer, and Oliver Wyman, serving clients in over 130 countries. Daniel draws from his extensive public sector experience, most notably his role as Deputy Administrator for Resilience at FEMA in the US, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As FEMA’s second ranking official, he managed the agency’s pre-disaster programs and was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate in September 2017. He also served as Chair of the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) High Level Risk Forum, a group of risk managers from 36 OECD countries

Prior to FEMA, Daniel led the Global Resilience practice at AIR Worldwide, and was a Senior Fellow at the Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. He was Special Assistant to the President for Homeland Security under George W. Bush, and Senior Director for Response Policy, where he managed over 200 Presidential disaster declarations at the White House.

Daniel holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration from George Washington University, an M.A. in National Security Studies from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and a B.S. in Emergency Medical Services from George Washington University. He continues to serve as a member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council, as well as Chair of the Committee on Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate at the National Institute of Building Sciences. 

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck portrait

Dr. Brooke Struck

Dr. Brooke Struck is the Research Director at The Decision Lab. He is an internationally recognized voice in applied behavioural science, representing TDL’s work in outlets such as Forbes, Vox, Huffington Post and Bloomberg, as well as Canadian venues such as the Globe & Mail, CBC and Global Media. Dr. Struck hosts TDL’s podcast “The Decision Corner” and speaks regularly to practicing professionals in industries from finance to health & wellbeing to tech & AI.

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