Communiqué: Crisis Leadership in Action

February 10, 2014
Communiqué: Crisis Leadership in Action
The gymnasium in Rikuzentkata, Japan, where hundreds had taken shelter, was destroyed by the tsunami on March 11, 2011. (Courtesy: Arnold Howitt)

Ash Scholars Assess Emergency Response in Boston and Japan

By Jessica Engelman – Communiqué: Winter 2013, Volume 13

Researchers from the Ash Center’s Program on Crisis Leadership (PCL) are intensively probing two recent, major — but quite different — emergency events to develop lessons about preparedness, crisis operations, and disaster recovery.

The Boston Marathon Bombing

This past April, the running of Boston’s iconic marathon was tragically interrupted by two bomb blasts at the finish line that left three people dead at the scene and dozens grievously injured.

With remarkable swiftness, the wounded were stabilized and transported to area trauma centers, where emergency medical workers saved the life of every victim. The bombing also triggered a massive law enforcement effort — involving local, state, and federal agencies over five days — to collect evidence and identify the suspects. A shootout with the two suspects left one dead and the surviving one was apprehended following an intensive manhunt, during which about 1 million residents of the Boston area, at the request of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, were voluntarily “locked down” in their homes and businesses were closed.

Overall, the emergency medical response was highly effective; and, while there were definite rough edges around the police response, the degree of cooperation among law enforcement agencies — and between them and the public — was unprecedented.

PCL co-directors Dutch Leonard and Arn Howitt, working with Christine Cole, executive director of the HKS Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, attribute these results to dramatic improvements over the past decade in the Boston region’s preparedness for emergencies at large-scale, fixed events such as the Marathon. Detailed planning, training, exercises, cross-organizational collaboration, and the experience of regularly running major events such as the Fourth of July celebration, national political conventions, and professional sports championships, all have fostered skills and cooperative relationships that paid off during the Marathon crisis. The researchers are also diagnosing issues in the law enforcement operations that leave room for further improvement.

The Great East Japan Earthquake: The Triple Disaster of March 11, 2011

Immediately following a 9.0 earthquake off its eastern coast, Japan suffered a catastrophic tsunami — as high as 20 meters and penetrating as far as 5 kilometers from the shore — along 650 kilometers of coastline. At the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the tsunami knocked out the reactor cooling system, which led to overheating of fuel rods and explosions, spewing radiation significant distances from the plant and into the sea. Eventually, residents were evacuated from their homes within a radius of 30 kilometers of the plant — areas that remain unoccupied to date.

A PCL team comprised of Arn Howitt, Assistant Director David Giles, and Research Fellow Hiromi Akiyami spent two months in Japan each of the past two summers extensively interviewing officials in the national government, the three most hard-hit prefectures, and several cities along the coast that suffered from the tsunami. They have been learning how the emergency response was conducted in the harrowing days and weeks after the disaster—how survivors were rescued, sheltered, and cared for, and how the 20,000 dead were found and identified. In addition, the researchers have been studying the methods and effectiveness of the multilevel disaster recovery efforts in the stricken Tohoku region.

PCL expects to follow the recovery efforts in one more summer of research, ultimately writing a book that assesses the response and recovery process. Several papers are in preparation, as well as a teaching case study on the emergency operations.

Leonard and Howitt have published preliminary results of the Marathon bombing study in two papers: “Boston Marathon Bombing Response” and “The Medical Response to the Boston Marathon Bombings.” Early results of the Japan project are also available in “An Incident Management System for Japan?” and “Systems Failure.” These papers can be downloaded at In addition, Howitt delivered a seminar at the Harvard Asia Center on Japan’s emergency response to the triple disaster, which is available at