When dealing with a disaster, at least one expert believes the governing bodies should resemble a starfish, and not a spider. And, his intriguing theories about why are gaining momentum across the United States and around the world.

James R. Martin, director of Virginia Tech’s Institute for Disaster Risk Management, is basing some of his novel approach to mitigating disaster to the book, The Starfish and the Spider, by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, released in July of 2008, explores what it calls “the phenomenal and unstoppable new power of the starfish organizations” in the business world.

“A disaster is no time to exchange a business card,” Martin said, quoting these words that he first heard from a colleague, Brian Tishuk, executive director of ChicagoFirst. Martin continues to echo Tishuk’s words, and uses them as an excellent reason to propose this shared leadership concept to change the way the public and private sector now look at disasters.

Starfish have the ability to grow a new arm if one is cut off, and even more intriguing, the detached arm can develop into an entirely new body. By contrast, cut off the head of a spider, and death is immediate. Martin said these opposite biological events can be analogous to the various crises resulting from a disaster. If one responding agency is immobilized, the rest should continue to function seamlessly as in the case of the starfish.

As the business world enters into more organizational charts that look like starfish, instead of the more traditional top-down communities, stories of successes abound. Authors Brafman and Beckstrom cite Craig’s List’s crippling of the newspaper classified ad industry, Napster’s success in the global music world, and the community-based Wikipedia over the traditional Encyclopedia Britannica.

Martin, a professor of geotechnical engineering who specializes in the study of the construction of infrastructure such as roads and buildings for increased resilience to natural and human-induced or terrorist activities, is a strong proponent of community-based leadership to minimize disasters.

“The private sector sets up a balancing act between efficiency and public vulnerability,” Martin explained. As an example, he spoke of the phone company that wants to make its profit. Yet, past disasters prove that more switches are needed to handle the overload on communications networks that arrives with an unexpected event. If the company elects to trim efficiency to increase its profit, this decision “may make the public more vulnerable during the disaster,” Martin said.

“Disasters are multidisciplinary,” Martin said. “Our highly inter-connective complex world brings new vulnerabilities. We now depend on high tech solutions and efficient infrastructures. … Our center is looking at disasters in a holistic way. Hurricane Katrina had engineering, political, social, economic, and environmental issues.”

In a disaster, the government must coordinate efforts but the private sector must perform much of the work. As with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, construction utility, banking, and other institutions needed to interact, and it is well documented that many things did not run smoothly.

So, “to develop resilient solutions for the problems of the 21st century, where solutions come from many different people, in conjunction with policy makers, we need the leadership networks of starfish. Instead of one strong head, we need the transportation, water, power, and other industries to share the leadership,” Martin said.

Martin pointed to the creation of the All Hazards Consortium (AHC), a 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to re-engineering the way state governments are collaborating with industry, as the “first starfish” organized to handle disasters. AHC is comprised of eight Mid-Atlantic states plus the District of Columbia. According to its website, it visualizes the government as the owner of the problem, with the private sector owning most of the assets, technologies, and solutions. The universities provide the research and education to address the problem and the non-profit organizations provide access to information and people who are focused on a particular aspect of the problem.

Thus, AHC is attempting to bring together all of the stakeholders in a powerful environment of collaboration to solve the tough problems that require resources from every sector.

“AHC is working together in an unprecedented way,” Martin said. “The county government is on a level playing field with the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).”

The Institute for Disaster Risk Management at Virginia Tech has now partnered with AHC and is using this model in an attempt to persuade the federal government that there should be 10 such regions in the country.

And in an effort to enhance this model, Martin is investigating the use of computer simulations to model the various responses during a disaster. “With our simulations we can see the impacts. The key is no one is in control. The small company has as much influence as the big company,” he explained.

“This modeling component of the nation’s infrastructure is new,” said Martin who has worked on the building of numerous structures in areas where the probability of earthquakes is high.

To produce the model, he is working with researchers at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech. “Once we develop the system, a city manager could turn on the program and work through the sophisticated tools to manage his particular environment. The product will be a universal tool,” Martin said. In addition to the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, he is partnering with Virginia Tech’s Institute for Policy and Governance, the Center for Power Electronics Systems, and Space@VT, as well as the Brookings Institute of Washington, D.C.

“We are creating a foundation, and hoping to do something truly revolutionary. It’s a leap and definitely outside my comfort zone,” Martin said.

But the time seems right. As the Obama administration focusing so much of its efforts on the rebuilding and repair of the nation’s infrastructure, Martin was asked by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) to introduce the concept of “New 21st Century Disaster Vulnerability Challenges” at it recent statewide meeting in Williamsburg, Va. ASCE then asked Martin to supply his ideas to the Obama transition team. And in October of 2009, he developed a special session, “Infrastructure Investment and Sustainable Solutions” at ASCE’s 139th Annual Civil Engineering Conference.

“The synopsis of this session was the world is a smaller place, and the engineer’s role in designing infrastructure is evolving rapidly. Recent disasters, such as the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina, the Midwest flooding, the 2003 Northeast Power Blackout, and the collapse of the Interstate 35 West bridge in Minnesota, have exposed the far-reaching effects a local disaster can have on both a domestic and a global scale,” Martin said.

A year prior to the ASCE meeting, the Institute for Disaster Risk Management held a workshop at the National Regulatory Commission explaining its new paradigm for minimizing disasters. And Martin presented at the 2008 International Disaster Reduction Conference, held in Davos, Switzerland, and sponsored by the United Nations. This presentation was done in partnership with Virginia Tech’s Institute for Policy and Governance. Results of this symposium will be featured in a special issue of the Journal for Emergency Management on “Multi-Organizational and Networked Alliances.” Martin and Max Stephenson of the Institute for Policy and Governance are the editors of this journal.

Also, the Naval Post Graduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security published a special report on “Multi-Jurisdictional, Network Alliances and Emergency Preparedness” based in part on the work of the disaster rick management institute. FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sponsored the report, and in it, the DHS underscored the need for “building effective partnerships between all levels of the government, the private sector, international partners, and the general public. Research shows that multi-organizational partnerships can produce greater ability and timeliness in response and recovery, better communication and coordination, and reduce vulnerability and consequence.”

Martin is working with AHC, ChicagoFirst, and several other partners to bring this model to each of the 10 FEMA regions in the United States.

The Institute for Disaster Risk Management is working on a number of smaller projects, including: serving as a Disaster Recovery Center to a classified data provider for the Pentagon and other major clients; working on a landslide risk study in Romania and conducting analyses for a risk study for a major Romanian dam that is threatened by landslides; and conducting similar mitigation projects in Turkey, Italy, and Switzerland. The institute also provides training to major agencies such as FEMA, the American Society of Civil Engineers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about four times annually.

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