Small Wars Journal

Readying for Urban Disaster, Post Two

Mon, 01/16/2023 - 3:47pm

Readying for Urban Disaster, Post Two

Russell W. Glenn

The second of a series of blog posts on Urban Disasters: Readiness, Response, and Recovery by Russ Glenn.

Urban Density

Urban Density, Iraq. Photo by Dr. Russell W. Glenn


This is the second of four posts addressing the topic of readying urban areas for disaster. The first introduced this series, concluding with the initial key point of what will be many more addressing the categories of readying for, responding to, and recovering from urban catastrophes over what will be a total of fourteen posts.

Key Point #1: Preparation for any urban disaster helps to prepare an urban area for catastrophes regardless of cause or type.

We address a second key point herein, one that is a direct extension of the first:

Key Point #2:  Urban disasters are more alike than different.

Recognizing this similarity can ease planning, save money, reduce training requirements, and broaden opportunities for innovation and identifying insights that might inform contingencies seemingly little-related to those from which they are taken. We will employ two examples to demonstrate this cross-disaster commonality. The first is the 1896 heat wave that struck New York City. Seemingly irrelevant after a century and a quarter? Writing twenty years ago, Eric Klinenberg observed, “in the United States, more people die in heat waves than in all other extreme meteorological events combined.”[1] The same was true in 2021.[2] It is a situation worthy of special note given the increasingly evident consequences of climate change.

Example 1: Summer 1896 NYC heat wave.

The eventual death toll numbered nearly 1,300…more victims than the 1863 New York City draft riots or the 1871 Great Chicago Fire.[3]

The consequences were not measured in loss of life alone. Businesses suffered from lack of customers as large numbers stayed home. Stores laid off or forced employees to take vacation. Those working in vocations involving physical labor were particularly at risk whether outside or cooped up in buildings. Those buildings, often tenements, became ovens the temperatures in which frequently did not decrease appreciably even during night hours.

Brick, stone, concrete, asphalt: all absorbed and held the heat, reradiating it in those evening hours as workers returned home to hovels with few if any windows. Temperatures in some would reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit and differ too little from such values for over a week.[4] Air conditioning was little more than a concept; its invention was half a decade away. The best the suffering could hope for was ice. Officials did little to provide it or address the high prices charged by Charles Morse, a Mainer who controlled most of the city’s ice provision in 1896 and charged prices that effectively kept it from the poor. Charities tried to fill the need.[5] In another initiative, the Department of Public Works’ commissioner, Charles Collins, adapted his workers’ hours. They were to report an hour earlier than normal at 7 AM, break from the day’s worst heat between 11 and 3, then return to complete the day at 7 PM. Collins’ decision was unfortunately an exception; it is very likely many lives would have been saved had others followed suit.[6] Others did seek to lessen the suffering. President of the city’s Board of Police Commissioners, soon to be Rough Rider and US president Theodore Roosevelt, directed that police wagons be used when hospital ambulances could no longer keep up with calls for help. It was in hospitals that ice baths were available, baths that could save many of the stricken. Yet even this police augmentation fell short; one-third of ambulance calls still went unanswered. Other vehicles joined the makeshift fleet, struggling not only to assist ill humans but remove the extraordinary number of dead horses lying in the streets.[7] Men, women, and children slept on rooftops, fire escapes, and piers in hope of relief; deaths due to rolling off these places of rest while slumbering became commonplace.[8] Black streamers affixed to slum dwellings denoted an adult death, white a child. Mothers would walk dawn-lit streets in hopes of creating enough breeze to cool a child in arms.[9]

Lives continued to be lost. Economic sectors suffered. The poor suffered disproportionately. The heat disrupted social, transportation, government, and other vital services. Physical systems failed. Even today’s hyper-sophisticated technologies cannot keep pace when nature or misjudgment put them at risk. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) recently tested in New York City during a particularly hot week collapsed exhausted no less than did horses in 1896. (Reinforcing our key point here. Klinenberg wrote that “thousands of cars broke down in [Chicago] streets” during Chicago’s 1995 heat wave and “train rails detached from their moorings.”)[10] Power sources routinely buckle under excessive loads during heat waves while backup generators cough their last as flood waters overwhelm those foolishly placed in basements or other flood-prone locations. Poorly placed generators, circuit breaker panels, and other critical power system components fall victim to flood waters with a regularity little short of amazing. New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, New York City in the aftermath of Sandy, and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster north of Tokyo all provide cases. Nor is power generation the only system with its parts routinely ill-advisedly positioned. At least one company in New Orleans lost access to its business files when waters claimed its computers. Sheri Fink’s excellent retelling of a medical tragedy in the same city, Five Days at Memorial (now also a limited series on Apple TV+) relates how vital supplies stored in lower building levels of that hospital were subject to rising waters. The same happened to irreplaceable medical study resources in 2012 New York City during Hurricane Sandy’s visit, as it had to thousands of lab animals during tropical storm Allison in Houston the year before.[11] Such examples reflect that readying for urban disasters extends to far more than planning, training, and conducting rehearsals.

Yet another reinforcement for our key point #2 here: As in 1896 New York City, 1995 Chicago experienced ambulance requests “several thousand…above the norm. In thirty-nine hundred cases, no vehicles were available, so the city sent fire trucks to handle the calls.”[12] Theodore Roosevelt, were he alive in 1995, would have nodded in approval.

Example 2: Great Fire of London, 1666.

Fire broke out in Thomas Farriner’s shop on Pudding Lane late the evening of September 1, 1666. A contractor providing biscuits to the navy, Farriner would later claim he completely extinguished the blaze, but his house was consumed by flames just past midnight the following day.[13] Church bells rang during the catastrophe’s early hours, notifying those within earshot that something was badly amiss.[14] Those downwind soon discovered the nature of the threat; many would find themselves victims. The flames spread quickly, at one point reportedly consuming an estimated one hundred houses an hour.[15] Temperatures rose to the point of melting church bells; hinges, bars, and gates of prisons; and chains along the capital’s streets.[16] It was yet another horror for a city that had been devastated by the Black Death in 1665 and 1666, but never had there been a disaster quite like this.

King Charles II put the Duke of York in control of the response, also directing that fire posts be established around the city to restore order.[17] Order was surely lacking. Accusations of arson spread like, well, wildfire. Embedded prejudices made themselves known in unfounded claims that the fire had been deliberately set by heinous foreigners, Dutch and Frenchmen in particular being targeted by the rumors. Those manning fire posts soon found much of their time taken by having to protect these and others so accused.[18] Fortunately, an information champion of sorts emerged. The secretary for a senior member of government also managed the city’s Gazette, which published an account on September 10th. Its description of the conflagration, reporting of developments, and telling of the king’s representatives’ efforts to address the consequent troubles came to be widely accepted as the official summary, a welcome respite given a “diversity of reports” left the public unsure of the truth. The paper also included a synopsis of King Charles II’s measures to feed the unhoused.[19]

Some authorities met residents’ needs. Not all officials met their responsibilities. Disasters spawn shortages. On the upside, relief funds became available with near amazing speed given collections held in the month following the fire. Shortages also birth criminality and opportunities for the corrupt. Housing was immediately in short supply after the 1666 fire [as would be the case with WWII bombing of Hamburg; the trifecta of earthquake, tsunami, and fires that devastated Lisbon in 1755; 1923 Tokyo earthquake; and so on and so on]. London rents grew faster than bamboo as the embers cooled.[20] The city’s lord mayor, Sir William Bolton, was accused of redirecting some 1,800 British pounds for personal use. Forced to resign as alderman, he would nine years later be convicted of misappropriation.”[21]

Urban disasters have impact well beyond their immediate surrounds. In 1666, concerns spurred justified fears far from London’s streets; opportunity knocked in other locations; yet elsewhere initiative addressed needs:

The inhabitants of Norwich [a bit over 100 miles from London] were “at their wits’ end” because of the uncertainty about the future of the city’s trade with the metropolis, by far the principal outlet for its textiles. Anxiety of this kind was tempered by the realization that the goods received from London would be in short supply, allowing prices to be increased…. The rapid dispersal of suppliers and customers in the weeks following the fire made it difficult for them to find each other after contact had been lost…. A system was introduced whereby several people were designated to receive and disseminate new addresses. A house in Bloomsbury Square served as the clearing house for such information.[22]

Three hundred and thirty years later, the distant reverberations from New York’s 1896 heat catastrophe were of a different, delayed, and broader reaching sort. Theodore Roosevelt’s initiatives went beyond commitment of police wagons to assist movement of the suffering. While the city’s mayor didn’t call an emergency session of his department heads until the final day of the disaster, the then lesser-known Roosevelt advocated free distribution of ice to the poor. His response to the crisis informed and influenced his own understanding of living conditions in the country’s urban areas. It also raised the man’s early political profile, one that would later see him governor of New York state before his rise to President of the United States.[23] Together these very different, broader influences serve as a reminder of a component that should never be too important for disaster planners to overlook: identification of and accounting for urban disasters’ implications not only regionally but nationally and—perhaps—beyond.

In addition to similarities between 1896 New York and 1666 London, there are also unfortunate parallels between later disasters in Tokyo and activities associated with London in 1666. Just as those of Dutch or French origins were baselessly blamed for the fire that ravaged England’s central city, Japanese attacked Koreans as the culprits when fires erupted following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. The “diversity of reports” plaguing 17th-century Londoners also had company some four and a half centuries later when in 2011 reports from the national government, utility company TEPCO, and newspaper sources regarding the disastrous combination of earthquake, tsunami, and failure of nuclear reactors at the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant north of Tokyo provided conflicting reports or failed to release critical information (to include, in at least one case, not informing those fleeing regarding the course of the resultant radiation cloud. The result: victims drove into rather than away from the radiation).

Value in preparing for urban disaster; inconsistency in the quality of officials’ responses; the helpfulness of consistently accurate and trusted information sources; corruption: These are only a sampling of elements common across urban disasters. They go far in demonstrating that there is reason to believe similarities can assist in creating base plans from which to adapt once details of a specific disaster make themselves known. Timely creation is vital. Researchers at the University of Washington and Harvard forecast that by 2100 heat exposure will increase by three to ten times in America and other mid-latitude regions. Cities with their heat island effects are sure to suffer disproportionately. Climate change is exacerbating the destructive effects of major storms. “The fear is that policymakers will wait until an extreme event occurs,” Economist writers surmise. “The closer it gets, the harder the task will become.”[24]

Effective urban disaster preparation also means having the correct (and heat-endurable) technologies on hand. Compatible inter-organization communications equipment arguably tops the list. UAVs, unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and means of detecting survivors beneath rubble (and, in unfortunate circumstances, others) are among them. Some assets will span response requirements regardless of the type of catastrophe. Firefighting resources include ladders and cranes, water transport, axes, decontamination/washing stations, patient-handling resources, and many more directly of value when responding to fires but likewise helpful if responding to chemical releases, floods, earthquakes, and more. The value of effective disaster-response equipment has long been known. As Stephen Porter reports in his book The Great Fire of London,

A ready supply of equipment was essential and was achieved by requiring the parishes and livery companies to keep a specified number of buckets, ladders, and fire-hooks. In the early 1640s each of the larger companies was asked to hold three dozen buckets, two ladders, two ‘great hooks with chains’, pickaxes, spades and shovels, and one fire-engine.[25]

The best plans are like these multi-purpose items: valuable across a broad spectrum of disasters, but also of utility when specific needs arise.


This post first appeared as Russ Glenn, “Readying for Urban Disaster, Post Two.” LinkedIn, 17 October 2022,

[1] Eric Klinenberg, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 17. (Emphasis in original.)

[2]“Hot and not too bothered: Fast-warming cities,” The Economist, 444 (September 3, 2022): p. 20.

[3] Edward P. Kohn, Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1876 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt, NY: Basic Books, 2010, pp. x and 257. Like Klinenberg, Kohn recognizes the dangers posed by heat: “Today, heat remains the most deadly natural killer in the United States, on average killing more Americans than floods, earthquakes, tornados, and hurricanes combined.”

[4] Kohn, p. 55.

[5] Kohn, pp. 91-92.

[6] Kohn, pp. 101-102.

[7] Kohn, pp. 138-37 and 140.

[8] Kohn, p. 112.

[9] Kohn, p. 76.

[10] Klinenburg, p. 1.

[11] Derek Lowe, “Lab Animals Wiped Out in Hurricane Sandy,” Science (November 1, 2012),, and Mark Sincell, “Flood Ravages Houston Labs,” Science (June 11, 2001), (both sites accessed September 16, 2022).

[12] Klinenberg, p. 5.

[13] Stephen Porter, The Great Fire of London, Port Stroud, UK: The History Press, 2009, p. 26.

[14] Porter, p. 41.

[14] Porter, p. 28.

[16] Porter, p. 47.

[17] Porter, pp. 32-33.

[18] Porter, p. 33.

[19] Porter, 48-49.

[20] Porter, p. 62.

[21] Porter, p. 66.

[22] Porter, pp. 61 and 67.

[23] Edward P. Kohn interview with National Public Radio, “The Heat Wave of 1896 And The Rise of Roosevelt,” August 11, 2010, (accessed September 23, 2022).

[24] “Hot and not too bothered;” p. 21.

[25] Porter, p. 16.

The previous installation of this series “Readying for Urban Disaster, Post One,” appeared on 14 January 2023.




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