Out of the Whirlwind is a new book by Philip J. Palin that offers a unique perspective on disaster response, resilience, and recovery. It tells the story of how pre-existing supply chains for food and fuel roared back in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s catastrophic hit on Puerto Rico. The book tells this story through a combination of data, analysis, and narrative. Implications for future catastrophic events are strategically obvious and operationally challenging.
Homeland Security Today, in cooperation with publisher Rowman & Littlefield, is pleased to offer an exclusive peek into Out of the Whirlwind with a three-part series including today’s interview with Palin and chapter excerpts in the next two installments.
About the author
Philip J. Palin is the son and grandson of grocers. He has researched and engaged a wide range of extreme events including the 2011 Triple Disaster in Japan, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Hurricane Haiyan (Yolanda) in 2013, hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria during 2017, and hurricanes Florence, Michael, and Yutu during 2018. He works with federal, state, local and private sector leaders to prepare for and respond to both notice and no-notice events. Palin has served as the principal investigator for Supply Chain Resilience with the Institute for Public Research at CNA and as staff consultant on Supply Chain Resilience with the Resilient America Roundtable at the National Academies of Sciences. Palin serves as a subject-matter-expert with the FEMA-National Integration Center Supply Chain Resilience Technical Assistance Program. He is the principal author of the Catastrophe Preparation and Prevention series from McGraw-Hill. His writing has been published several times in the Homeland Security Affairs Journal. He is a longtime educator and entrepreneur.
HSToday: Why did you write Out of the Whirlwind?
Philip Palin: Complex problems. Treacherous interdependencies. Long distances. Fear, courage, failure, profound insight, deep ignorance, good luck and bad. I needed to make sense of it. I hope it will help others make sense of what happened and did not happen. I hope the book will help others be better prepared for this year’s hurricane season, the next big earthquake, the next catastrophe regardless of cause.
HSToday: Why narrative? Out of the Whirlwind reads almost like a short novel. Why not a detailed report?
Palin: I’ve written several long reports with lots of footnotes. Which would you rather read? More substantively, the human mind is a narrative engine. Reality full-blown is too much for most of us. The reality of a high-4 or CAT-5 hurricane pummeling three million-plus people is just too dense. We are constantly reducing reality to some sort of story – more or less true. I tried to write a story that takes the evidence and sifts it for essential lessons-learned: operational, strategic, and more.
HSToday: What are those lessons?
Palin: Sun Tzu said: “Know others and know yourself, then you will not be imperiled even in a hundred battles. If you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one. If you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” We very seldom know ourselves and others.
HSToday: For those who have not read the book, what are the specific operational and strategic lessons?
Palin: The lessons are the biggest surprise of the book, don’t you think? Outside the narrative the lessons can sound stupid. Inside the narrative, the lessons are anchored in actual human experience and become innately credible, even compelling. A good narrative is always reductionist, but context rich. It is the lessons-in-context, grounded in reality, that have value. People should read the book.
HSToday: You’re writing about supply chains.
Palin: I write about human needs and networks that supply those needs.
HSToday: FEMA has started referencing Lifelines.
Palin: Lifelines help FEMA organize around who needs what, when and where. This is a significant strategic shift. FEMA is adapting a set of mostly internally focused Essential Support Functions to an externally focused consumer service paradigm. Sears was focused on the private sector analogs of ESFs. Walmart made the strategic shift to supplying Lifelines at lowest possible cost. Amazon started the shift to fulfilling Lifelines at high speed directly to the home. Demand and supply networks operationalize the strategic insight behind Lifelines. This focus on the complexities of consumer demand is fundamentally different than longtime logistical or critical infrastructure angles. Recognizing that demand now pulls supply has crucial implications for disaster management, cybersecurity, macroeconomic policy, and more.
HSToday: Out of the Whirlwind is mostly about the private sector operating in Puerto Rico. Why not more attention to the role of FEMA and other responders?
Palin: FEMA played a crucial role in Puerto Rico. Another book could absolutely focus much more on the creativity and effectiveness of FEMA’s impressive generator mission or early injects of more delivery trucks. The FEMA, Corps of Engineers, really whole-of-government effort to restore – well, rebuild – the grid has been, even continues to be, fundamental. One of the heroes of this story is a FEMA leader. But in terms of food and fuel, there were some very interesting private-sector surprises. For food and fuel networks there was a hidden reality barely seen, like a ghost story, Sherlock Holmes mystery, or The Matrix. So, it’s a story worth telling.
I’ll give you one more lesson: good thing food and fuel networks were so resilient, because for those 3.4 million survivors living many months off-the-grid, no one else had – or will ever have – the core capacity to deliver what was needed. But this should not be a surprise. We have seen this in almost every extreme event, from the Triple Disaster in Tohoku, to Superstorm Sandy, to the less extreme events that happen every year. What I found surprising was how and why these networks were so robust and resilient in Puerto Rico. Understanding this deeper part of the story is, I suggest, important if we are going to helpfully adapt the Puerto Rico lessons to, say, Puget Sound after Cascadia. The core story is only 80 pages long; my publisher pushed me to add pages mostly to give attention to Network Science principles. I hope supply-chain management students and professionals buy the book and find those additional 20 pages meaningful. But for your emergency management and homeland security colleagues, just skim the first 80 pages. What does this post-Maria story tell you about who and what you want to know before a similar catastrophe hits your jurisdiction? If Out of the Whirlwind tells an important truth, how do you practically engage this truth where you live? This is a story of personal, practical, persistent engagement.