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On Poor Management, Or, Did You Know There Was Another Deepwater? June 16, 2010

It is by now obvious that even after we stop the gentle trickle of oil that’s currently expressing itself into the Gulf of Mexico (thank you so much, BP) we are not going to be able to get that oil out of the water for some considerable length of time–and if you think it could take years, I wouldn’t bet against you.

While BP is the legally responsible party, out on the water it will be up to the Coast Guard to manage the Federal response, and to determine that BP is running things in a way that gets the work done not only correctly and safely, but, in a world of limited resources, efficiently.

Which brings us to the obvious question: can the Coast Guard manage such a complex undertaking?

While we hope they can, you need to know that the Coast Guard has been trying to manage the replacement of their fleet of ships and aircraft for about a decade now…and the results have been so stunningly bad that you and I are now the proud owners of a small flotilla of ships that can never be used, because if they go to sea, they might literally break into pieces.

It’s an awful story, and before we’re done you’ll understand why Deepwater was already an ugly word around Headquarters, years before that oil rig blew up.

“I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news –
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

–William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance

We’re going to try to keep today’s story relatively short (we won’t succeed, I’m afraid), and that means I’ll be a bit tighter with words than I would be normally, so let’s get right to the heart of the matter:

The US Coast Guard (USCG) works its ships and aircraft too hard, with inadequate downtime; as a result an old fleet is even older than its years.

Just like an old car, you have to work harder at maintenance, but things keep breaking down, and the costs really start to add up.

It’s not entirely their fault: they have more and more to do, especially after September 11th; they’re also expected to operate farther from home, and the tours of duty are longer.

At the same time the money they get to do it all keeps going down.

This circle had to be squared.

A decision was made to begin planning for the modernization or replacement of pretty much everything USCG owns that operates out in the deep water (that’s more than 50 miles from shore), and that’s how the Deepwater program was born.

Total assets involved: roughly 90 large ships, over 100 small boats, about 250 aircraft, and not quite $25 billion dollars.

USCG was convinced that they did not have the ability to manage this sort of program on their own, and they decided to procure everything from one prime contractor, a Lockheed/Northrop Grumman partnership.

The idea was that they would tell the contractor what they wanted the finished product to be able to do (in this case, the product was a fleet of ships and aircraft that could interact as a system), and the contractor would determine how to manage the program to completion.

With the “management” part of the process out of USCG’s hands, all the Admirals would have to do was “supervise” the contractor to make sure things were on time and on budget.

They did that by creating teams that would each watch over a small portion of the bigger picture, coordinating with each other and USCG senior management.

The next step was to determine what ships and aircraft to build; today we’ll concentrate on just four elements of the system, which should be enough to make the picture clear.

–The Coast Guard owned a number of 110 foot patrol boats, and they decided to refurbish them, to provide new capabilities within a 13-foot longer hull. This required the ships to be cut apart, and then reassembled.

As it turned out, that idea sucked.

One way to interpret the results would be to say the first eight newly-delivered craft were so unseaworthy (the hulls of the “brand-new” ships were actually cracking), so full of electrical problems, and so unable to protect classified communications that they never entered service, and they will be scrapped.

Another view: for quite some time Baltimore was continuously guarded by eight Coast Guard vessels, and the city was incredibly safe—as long as none of them had to actually leave the pier or do anything.

The loss: about $100 million. USCG is trying to get the money back.

“It’s going to be difficult to counter the bad publicity we’ve had despite the best efforts of our communications team,” admitted J. Rocco Tomonelli, director of Coast Guard business development at Northrop Grumman.

–From the article Coast Guard May Face Rough Seas as it Takes Control of Deepwater, National Defense Magazine, October 2007

–USCG needed a big ship with the ability to operate as far away as the Middle East, and the National Security Cutter was it.

The job required that the vessels delivered had to be structurally sound for use in the North Pacific’s very rough seas for 30 years. The contractor was convinced the ships were sound, the Coast Guard was not, and the Navy was brought in to settle the argument.

USCG won, the taxpayer, again, lost.

An odd, but not surprising, solution was found. If USCG would just agree to not ask that the ships be so annoyingly capable, everything would be fine…so they did; this was done by assuming the ships would be at sea fewer days every year.

We now know that USCG expected some of the ships’ structural components to only last three years in actual service.

In 2006 it was reported that the first two hulls may or may not be fixable, and may have to be scrapped.

The first ship delivered, the Cutter Bertholf, was not allowed to perform any missions for almost seven months after commissioning due to its own failure to perform as expected. In October 2008 Bertholf conducted its first “shakedown” cruise and officially entered operational service.

More of these ships are being built, with fixes hopefully in place. Two are in acceptance trials; a funding request exists that would expand the fleet to five.

Our cost?
At least $650 million per ship.

–USCG planned to buy a dozen Fast Response Cutters; the contractor wanted to use newfangled composite hulls, reportedly for longer life and less maintenance.

That idea also sucked.

Officially, and I quote: “…the cutter design satisfied contract terms but did not meet Deepwater mission needs.” The resulting ships were judged to be too heavy and lacking in performance.

It is suggested that the contractor wanted to build this type of hull because they had a new composite facility available and there was money to be made. We’ll discuss that in a minute.

The plan now is to build the ships with metal hulls.
USCG is not attempting to recover the lost money on this one.

–USCG wanted Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) for the new ships. A fancy-schmancy tilt-rotor design that was already somewhat developed had to be abandoned because they couldn’t afford to produce the thing.

Current thinking is to steal something from the Navy’s UAV development program, stick a USCG radar system on it, and call it good.

The GAO and the Congressional Research Service have been looking into all this, a lot; they feel USCG has failed to properly resource the teams that are supposed to be supervising this process.

Excessive workload, transferring people in and out, failing to put team members in locations that are close to other team members, and failing to fill leadership positions were all issues noted in the reports.

The idea that the contractor would “own” the whole process, might work against USCG interests, and that USCG would be at their mercy was also noted. (Remember those fiberglass hulls?)

We’re told that teams working on the National Security Cutter tried to warn USCG senior management about the problems with the first few ships, and that they were ignored.

Total cost of all the mistakes: more than $1.5 billion.

Frankly, this is all Admiral Stuff, and the Admirals at USCG have nothing to be proud of, based on this part of the record.

USCG is now trying to turn all this around by taking over management of the program themselves, and although there is reason to believe things may be somewhat better, even that “fix” is creating problems.

For example, it’s reported that USCG is moving ahead on acquisition decisions even though they haven’t fully decided what the designs should be.

At this point, however, USCG has little choice: they can’t wait several years to train up a new crew of contract managers, then design, then build.

That’s because, right now, things are very bad for the Fleet: of the first 12 ships USCG sent to help after the earthquake in Haiti…10 broke, at various times, and that kept them from conducting rescues until they were fixed. Two of those had to return to the US for major repairs.

And here’s where the circle closes.

Admiral Thad Allen, who’s running the show on the Gulf Coast, spent the past four years as Commandant of the Coast Guard, and before that as Coast Guard Chief of Staff…which means, for good or for ill, he’s covered in Deepwater all the way up to his Cutterman Insignia.

The question now is: was he the reformer who fixed this stuff when he finally got the chance, or was he part of the problem in the first place?

I could not get the answer to this most critical question, so all I can tell you is to watch very, very, carefully—and don’t be afraid to assume the worst, until we truly do know better.

WARNING – Blatant Self-Promotion Ahead: It’s Netroots Nation time once again, and the fine folks at Freedom To Marry have chosen me as a finalist for their Blog 4 Equality contest. If I am one of the chosen, it’s off to Vegas…in July. You can vote for that Don Davis guy here, which is my “in person” name, once every 24 hours, so vote early and often. Voting ends June 25th. Thanks very much, and we now return you to your regular programming.

 

On Assessing Risk, Or, Swine Flu: Is It Time To Panic? April 30, 2009

We are going to be talking a lot about swine flu over the next few weeks.

The conversation about the politics of the thing is already well underway, engulfing those who sought to remove funding for infectious disease control out of the “stimulus” bill.

We are lacking, however, an examination of the science of the thing, and that’s the point of today’s conversation.

How dangerous is this infection?
Why is it killing people in Mexico but not here?
Exactly what is a pandemic?
Do those facemasks really serve any purpose?
And what about closing the border?

They’re all good questions; and they are all questions we’ll try to answer today.

“I’ve always been a hypochondriac.
As a little boy, I’d eat my M & M’s one by one with a glass of water.”

Richard Lewis

Why don’t we define a pandemic first, then move on to the “what we knows”?

A pandemic is a global event characterized by the emergence of a new virus that readily spreads from human to human. When humans are exposed to new viruses, the lack of previously developed antibodies means we lack biological defenses, making new viruses the most dangerous to human health.

(Vaccines are designed to safely expose humans to diseases. The body makes antibodies based on that exposure, making it better prepared for the next exposure.)

So here’s what we know: a swine flu outbreak that seems to have begun in Mexico has claimed more than 150 lives and sent more than 2000 to the hospital in that country as of Tuesday morning.

As of Wednesday, there are 91 laboratory-confirmed cases of swine flu in the United States, with 81 of them occurring in New York, California, and Texas. There has been one confirmed death in the US as of Wednesday, a child who had come to the US from Mexico to be treated for this infection.

In an ordinary year, the CDC reports, about 36,000 people die from influenza in the United States (during the 1990s, the number varied from 17,000 to 52,000).

There are a smaller number of infected individuals in numerous other countries.

The World Health Organization had, early this week, declared a Phase 4 alert, meaning that we have:

“…verified human-to-human transmission of an animal or human-animal influenza…virus able to cause “community-level outbreaks.” The ability to cause sustained disease outbreaks in a community marks a significant upwards shift in the risk for a pandemic…Phase 4 indicates a significant increase in risk of a pandemic but does not necessarily mean that a pandemic is a forgone conclusion.”

As of Wednesday that has been raised to a Phase 5 alert, which:

“…is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.”

We also have suspicions about a number of things.

We suspect that a pig farm near La Gloria, Mexico was the source of the outbreak.

We suspect (with very high confidence) that the number of confirmed infections will grow substantially as labs are able to complete the testing that changes probable and suspected cases to confirmed ones.

We suspect there will be additional deaths in the United States from this infection beyond the one that has already been confirmed.

Because at least 45 of the confirmed cases in the US are associated with a group of spring breakers just back from Cancún, we are suspicious that they might be the group responsible for introducing the virus into the country….however…the CDC reports that cases were first seen in San Antonio, Texas, and in Southern California in late March and early April.

Because the health authorities in Mexico might not have been tracking minor infections, it is suspected that the very high death rate currently associated with this infection in that country is overstated.

There is, as you might imagine, an entire list of things we cannot as yet explain.

The question of why young and presumably healthy Mexicans are dying at an alarming rate while citizens of other countries are not is first on that list. There are several possible explanations besides the potential statistical problems we note above, and one of those is the question of air quality in Mexico City.

The amazing level of air pollution in Mexico’s capitol city has created a childhood asthma problem of such long standing that it has now also become an adult asthma problem. It is known that people with compromised respiratory systems are predisposed to become victims of opportunistic respiratory infections, lending credence to this supposition.

It is possible that nutritionally compromised individuals in Mexico are becoming targets for more severe infections than individuals in the US who are getting sick but have more robust overall health due to better nutrition.

There is confusion due to an inability to accurately track the infection in Mexico. It is possible that new infections are still occurring, that the virus is in regression, that it is has mutated in new ways, or that another, as yet unidentified virus is now circulating; but due to a lack of reliable information it is impossible to tell which, if any, of these events are actually taking place.

The US public health authorities seem to be better able to respond to this health event than Mexican authorities have been. For example, there are reports, confirmed by Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordoba, that people who had close contact with individuals who have died from swine flu have not had access to medical or epidemiological follow-up…or access to antiviral drugs.

There have been questions as to whether border screening should be intensified to prevent infected persons entering from Mexico. In testimony before Congress Tuesday it was pointed out to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison that infected persons might not show any symptoms while crossing the border, rendering such screening techniques as temperature monitoring ineffective.

Now let’s talk about this virus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, in the same hearing room, gave us a lot to worry about. He points out that this is an almost unique virus, in that it has, within its structure, genes from bird, pig, and human influenza viruses (the process of these genes combining themselves in new ways is called “reassortment”); and seeing a “triple reassortment” is highly unusual.

The H1N1 virus that is the basis of this new virus is inherently capable of human-to-human transmission, he tells us, which is particularly problematic.

We will talk about what drugs might be effective in a moment…but first, a word or two on uncertainty.

There is no way to know if the virus we are dealing with today will mutate into new forms, nor can we predict if the virus will become relatively more dangerous if and when new populations are exposed. (It is also possible that the virus might mutate into a less harmful form).

We have no way to predict whether this virus will return, even stronger, in the fall, which would not be uncommon.

We cannot predict what other influenza viruses might appear, or if the two other currently circulating “seasonal” viruses might mutate in ways that cause greater concern.

We cannot predict the potential for further reassortment caused by the current seasonal flu viruses that had been circulating before the emergence of swine flu interacting with this new virus.

We cannot predict where the virus (and its antecedents) will crop up.

We cannot say for certain that the virus will not develop resistance to currently effective antiviral drugs.

These are problems associated with influenza management every flu season, and they are not particular to this virus.

“Excessive calm…may be a symptom of swine flu.”

Stephen Colbert

Because things can change on literally a day-by-day basis, some of our comments on drugs will be correct as of today, but not necessarily correct in the future.

There are four antiviral drugs available, and two of them are rather ineffective in dealing with certain strains of influenza due to the fact that those strains have developed resistance to those drugs.

That leaves two useful drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza.

When deciding what drug to prescribe for someone who shows up at the doctor’s office, the doctor needs to have an idea what kind of flu you have. If you show up with swine flu, today, a doctor might be inclined to offer you Tamiflu…but if you showed up with an infection caused by the “seasonal” Type A H1N1 virus from 2007-2008, Tamiflu would be the wrong choice, as that virus is resistant to Tamiflu.

Why not just dose the entire US population with Tamiflu or Relenza right now, you might ask?

It’s partly a question of side effects and the damage they can cause, multiplied by 300,000,000 patients.

In the case of Relenza, there are significant side effects for those with respiratory diseases, and the drug is not normally recommended for those patients. The FDA recommends that patients who do use this drug have ready access to a fast-acting inhaled bronchodilator at the time it is administered. Some patients have experienced “transient neuropsychiatric events” (specifically self-injury or delirium) after using the drug.

Roughly 10% of Tamiflu users experience vomiting, and there are also patient reports of transient neuropsychiatric events with this drug (“confusion, paranoia, anxiety attack, nightmares” were among the listed symptoms). The use of this drug by children under one year of age is not normally advised, but on Wednesday an Emergency Use Authorization was issued for such use.

It’s also, to some extent, a question of uncertainty about this flu: will this virus turn out to be less harmful than the impact of those side effects? Will it, in other words, “just fade away”?

Beyond that, to try to prevent these viruses from developing resistance, we need to use these drugs as sparingly as possible; with that in mind, if we can avoid mass administration of these drugs it would be to our advantage.

The preferred approach would be to vaccinate…and it is hoped that by this fall a vaccine will be available…and it is hoped that the virus that is in circulation this fall will be roughly the same virus that was “designed into” the vaccine between now and summer.

Now a quick word on facemasks and respirators:

The CDC recommends facemasks for those in crowded settings…but they strongly suggest limiting the time in which you are in those settings more than they do the use of facemasks. They also strongly emphasize handwashing, covering your mouth when you cough, and washing hands after shaking hands.

It is also noted that airborne droplets can get around the edges of facemasks, rendering them fairly ineffective.

Respirators, on the other hand, can be effective, and are currently recommended for people who cannot avoid contact with infected persons. The “all-day” use of these respirators, however, is a challenge simply because of the increased effort involved in breathing while wearing such a device.

An artist asked the gallery owner if there had been any interest in his paintings on display at that time.

“I have good news and bad news” the owner replied. “The good news is that a gentleman inquired about your work and wondered if it would appreciate in value after your death. When I told him it would, he bought all 15 of your paintings.”

“That’s wonderful!” the artist exclaimed. “What’s the bad news?”

“The man was your doctor.”

–From Doctor Jokes at “Resources for Attorneys”

So what good news, if any, is there to tell?

As of right now we have no reason to believe that this flu is more likely to cause fatalities than the seasonal influenzas that we would normally see. (Keep in mind, however, that this could quickly change.)

If the pattern we have seen so far were to continue (and there is no particular reason to say it will or it won’t) we could end up with a virus that is widely transmitted but no more dangerous than what we are used to seeing in normal years.

Ironically, the virus’ wide dissemination would itself be good news; as it would expose more of us to this new virus, enabling us to develop antibodies to the infection even before a vaccine is developed for the fall.

We have covered a lot of ground today, so let’s wrap it up:

An influenza caused by a nearly unique virus is moving through the population of Mexico, that infection has spread to several other countries, and so far the number of fatalities worldwide has not exceeded 200. (We expect more than 35,000 deaths annually from influenza in the United States, by way of comparison.)

Because it is a virus to which humans have not been previously exposed, there is heightened concern among The Experts.

There is no reason, at this moment, to believe this influenza will be more lethal than the seasonal influenzas currently circulating among the US population.

This flu can currently be controlled by administration of either of two readily available antivirals. (By the way, don’t forget all that handwashing, covering your mouth when you cough…and handwashing….is pretty helpful as well.)

This type of virus (H1N1) is generically known for its ability to transmit readily from person to person, and not for its inherent lethality. (It is not yet certain, however, if this specific virus will follow that pattern.)

It is possible that a useful vaccine will be available for fall—and it is also possible that this virus will have morphed into a form that will be resistant to the newly developed vaccine.

Closing the borders isn’t logical, facemasks don’t really work, respirators do, but they’re not the sort of “all-day” accessory that a lot of us will enjoy…and avoiding crowded places is what the CDC today feels will work best.

There are a host of unknowns that could change all of this, and there are no predictive tools that can reliably give us reasons to be either sanguine…or scared to death.

All of this can and will change rapidly—sometimes on a day-to-day basis. In the time I spent putting all this together, the WHO raised the alert to Phase 4, then Phase 5, the number of US cases doubled, and the CDC has changed their recommendations for antiviral drug administration twice.

Put it all together, and at the moment things are nowhere near as bad as they could be, with a whole lot of uncertainty ahead.

Warning—commercial message ahead: I’m competing for a Netroots Nation scholarship, and I could use your support. Just head on over to the Democracy for America website, click on the “Add your support” link under “Grassroots Supporters”, and offer a word or two…and with that, thanks very much, and we return you to your regular programming.

 

On Mae West, Or, The Second Annual Disaster Planning Story December 11, 2007

So you’re sitting at home, riding out the big storm, and the next thing you know the power goes out.

It’s not just you, either. Tens of thousands of your neighbors are out as well, and you immediately know power won’t be restored for days.

This can be an utter disaster…or not that big a deal…depending on the things you did before the storm.

Because I’m watching Mae West movies as I write this, we have today a most unusual story: serious tips that can help improve the disaster experience greatly; and Mae West’s snappiest quotes to add just a spoonful of sugar to the medicine those tips represent.

“I’ve changed my mind.”
“Yeah, does it work better?”

–Mae West and Edward Arnold, in “I’m No Angel” (1933)

First things first: your friendly Department of Homeland Security tells you to be ready for three days of isolation-and I’m here to tell you that three days is nowhere nearly enough.

Be prepared for at least seven days.

Don’t believe me?
Check this out:

–The BBC reported 350,000 or more were without water for up to 14 days in the UK following flooding in July of ’07.

–Over 100,000 of the 600,000 households knocked off the power grid in St. Louis were still dark a week later after storms a year earlier.

–Residents of Eastern Maine learn to survive blackouts caused by events as disparate as high winds, ice storms-and even squirrels. In January 1998 power was out “for weeks” in parts of the State.

“Young lady, are you showing your contempt for this court?”
“No, I’m doing my best to hide it.”

–Mae West to Addison Richards in “My Little Chickadee” (1940)

A growing number of us are deciding that the generator is the perfect solution for disasters, but there I’m here today to offer other options.

Why?

Consider that in the worst of power outages, the gasoline your generator requires might not be available-gas stations also need power. Some states have tried to address this, notably Florida, but there is little consistency to the effort.

Then there’s the cost.

The larger propane-fueled generators consume about .9 gallon of propane per hour at half load, and propane is currently priced at $2.46/gallon. That’s about $50/day for electricity.

Gasoline generators?

This Briggs and Stratton 11hp, 6000 running watts unit is fairly typical: 13 hour running time at half load. That’s somewhere around $40 a day.

If your generator’s providing more than half load, it’s more expensive.

And don’t forget…if the power fails, the ATMs do too.
Getting cash to pay for that fuel may be a problem.

“Goodness, what beautiful diamonds”
“Goodness had nothin’ to do with it, dearie.”

–Mae West to Patricia Farley in “Night After Night

So how do we replace the lost services if we have no generator?

Let’s start with heat:

Kerosene heaters are an effective option when the power goes out. When it’s in the 20s-and even lower-one of these heaters can keep three rooms very cozy for about $10 a day. Put up a blanket and close off the hall, bring in the sleeping bags, and it’s “campout in the family room” time.

Cooking?

Who doesn’t have one of those Weber grills out in the yard? Get a couple of bags of charcoal now and put ‘em away, because you can cook everything in the fridge and freezer on a Weber.

I have personally made cornbread, corned beef and cabbage, and even meatloaf during times of no power-just make darn good and sure you do not ever do this indoors….or out in the garage.

As for the food: frozen food will survive for a day or two-maybe even three-if the door is kept closed; but if it’s constantly below 40 F. (4 C.)….well, the world is your refrigerator. You just load up a cooler, and all is good.

Entertainment?

Here’s where your car’s ability to charge things will come in handy. Use rechargeable things (iPod, portable DVD player, CD player); throw ‘em in the car as you go about your daily business, and recharge like crazy.

As a backup, go out right this minute and buy all the AA and D batteries you can lay your hands on….you’ll need them.

“Where is that man, that.…that officer?”
“Why he left….he had to leave sometime.”
“Oh, you sent him away?”
“No….he left under his own power.”

–Mae West and Jack La Rue in “Go West Young Man” (1936)

Of course, if all else fails….you’ll be doing some reading.
This logically brings us to how will you provide…

Lighting?

Two basic choices are available: the old-fashioned oil lamp, and the newfangled battery operated lamp. For reasons of fire safety, I prefer battery, and we have a lovely “camping lantern” with two fluorescent lamps (the thing requires eight D batteries, however), and numerous smaller LED lamps.

However, just this weekend, at Costco, I purchased the handheld millions of candlepower rechargeable lamp (it reports 20 hours of operation per charge); and I am here to tell you that the thing is not only extremely bright, but at a range of three feet or less, it makes an excellent personal heater.

That said, beware of rechargeable. You can only charge so much in a car in a day, and you need backups. If power is out for more than a few days, it may be time for oil lamps. (Just so you know, the larger the bottle of lamp oil you buy the cheaper….and there is a significant difference in price here, so look for large bottles or cans.)

Two more pieces of advice:

–You might want to leave a trickle of water flowing from your outside faucets…or head to the hardware store and get insulating covers, and if power fails you might want to do the same indoors (all of this is intended to keep from freezing your plumbing and splitting a pipe somewhere).

–It’s going to be easier to keep everyone warm if everyone has clothes for cold weather. Consider hitting the thrift shops now and getting yourself and the kids snow and ski clothing that you can keep in the attic until you need it. I have two ski coveralls, purchased at thrift shops in the middle of summer, for which I was truly grateful last December when we lost power for a week.

Bad weather is coming, and if you do some of this today it will make life so very much better if the power should vanish for a few days. And you’ll save a ton of money, too.

Best of luck; be ready, and most important of all-have some fun with it.
It’s not: “Damn, the power’s out!”
Instead, think of it as “camping out in the living room”.

To complete the effect, you can even go outside and make s’mores on the grill over the charcoal.