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Disaster Management in a Complex World
December 24, 2009

­When dealing with a disaster, at least one expert believes the governing bodies should resemble a starfish, and not a spider.

James R. Martin, director of the Virginia Tech Institute for Disaster Risk Management, is basing some of his novel approach to mitigating disaster on the book, The Starfish and the Spider, by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, which explores “starfish organizations” in the business world.

Starfish have the ability to grow a new arm if one is cut off, and in addition, the detached arm can develop into an entirely new body. By contrast, cut off the head of a spider, and death is immediate. These opposite biological events can be analogous to the management of 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.

The creation of the All Hazards Consortium (AHC), nonprofit dedicated to re-engineering the way state governments are collaborating with industry, is the first starfish organized to handle disasters. AHC is comprised of eight Mid-Atlantic states plus the District of Columbia. AHC 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.

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 AHC-like consortia in more regions of the country.

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