Small Wars Journal

Responding to Urban Disasters, Post Four (Post 8 of 14)

Sat, 01/28/2023 - 3:57am

Responding to Urban Disasters, Post Four (Post 8 of 14)

Russell W. Glenn

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


EU Civil Protection Exercise: Unified Response, Waterloo Station, London Underground; 2 March 2016 Photo: EU/ECHO/Jack Taylor (CC BY-ND 2.0)

This concise fourth post pertaining to urban disaster response (and eighth overall out of our eventual fourteen) is the last before we transition to recovery considerations. Key Points covering readying for such calamities and those in the first three response posts are as follows:

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

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

Key Point #3: Rehearsing/exercising plans—even in so simple a form as talking through challenges—is essential.

Key Point #4: Plans must be executable.

Key Point #5: No plan will survive contact with the disaster.

Key Point #6: Information is the currency of success

Key Point #7: Urban residents are key to successful disaster response. It follows that they are key to successful disaster preparation.

Key Point #8: The plagues of bureaucracy, poor delineation of responsibilities, and criminality are remoras on any disaster…except the relationship isn’t symbiotic.

Key Point #9: Look backward to look forward.

Key Point #10: Maintaining or improving post-disaster social infrastructure will often be harder than doing so for an urban area’s physical infrastructure.

Key Point #11: Plan for the end, then the now.

Key Point #12: What happens in urban areas doesn’t stay in urban areas…Las Vegas included.

Key Point #13: Not all is what it seems in a city.

Supporting Key Point #13A: Don’t trust appearances.

Key Point #14: Expect the unexpected.

Key Point #15: Common sense sometimes isn’t common.

Key Point #16: Command, leadership, and management are fundamental to disaster response success.

Key Point #17: Getting the response structure right is vital.

Key Point #18: Leadership is important, but who should lead when?

Key Point #19: Effective communications are essential to effective leadership.

Key Point #20: Data counts

As those who have responded to both urban and rural disasters are likely aware, the types of injuries (and wounds when the catastrophe involves combat) can differ in the former environment. That brings us to our twenty-first key point:

Key Point #21: The hurt is different in an urban disaster

Crush and thoracic (chest) injuries are more common due to building collapse. Disease spreads more readily in the densely populated environment. Overpressure injuries threaten when war visits. These can be due to weapons specifically designed to create excessive pressures to collapse buildings or kill as the thermobaric munitions release fuel in aerosol form that is then ignited it to crush anything beneath. Overpressure can also be the result of too-close proximity to large calibre weapons fired in tight spaces such as artillery operating within a walled courtyard. These overpressure injuries can be hard to detect. The sufferer may feel fine in their immediate aftermath and externally seem uninjured. Barring savvy medical types, the resulting injury to internal organs can go unnoticed until treatment is too late. Introducing intravenous fluids or transporting by helicopter can worsen patient conditions if they have suffered lung damage (the second due to changing atmospheric pressures as altitude changes). Different skill sets and equipment therefore need to be on hand (or perhaps in different ratios to other capabilities) than would elsewhere be the case when the environment is an urban one. These can include the types of surgical specialists and equipment providing ventilation support.

Key Point #22: Urban underground locations can be a boon or deathtrap.

Tokyo has roughly 63,000 underground areas. Subterranean paths, subway systems, and below ground shopping complexes account for 40 percent of the total.[1] Regardless of the urban area in question, putting backup generators, circuit breakers, computers, and other assets in basements or where they are otherwise exposed to flooding risks losing these vital functions. Flooding is not the only risk. Whether due to industrial accident or employment of chemical weapons during war, heavier-than-air gases obviously seek out such lower spaces no less than does water, making them dangerous—perhaps fatal—for occupants. Buildings weakened by earthquakes, combat’s violence, flood undermining, or otherwise likewise make their underground cavities a dubious choice regardless of use. On the other hand, those caverns, lower parking levels, or subterranean shopping areas provide shelter from view; protection from much of weather’s vagaries; shielding from many types of enemy fire or bombs; potential storage locations; and possible makeshift medical, maintenance, parking, assembly, or emergency operations facilities among other roles. This attractiveness means that authorities should consider prioritizing their possible uses when dangers from flooding or other threats do not exist or risks are deemed acceptable (if such consideration is not already part of pre-disaster plans).

Key Point #23: Transition to recovery began yesterday.

What you do—what you decide to do—today will be felt months and years after disaster calls on an urban area. There is thus a need to “look long” in time when making decisions during a response no less than when conducting preliminary planning. This attitude underlies our key point #11 (“Plan for the end, then the now”) as well as reminding us to consider how decisions, actions on the ground, and existing missions and intents might influence standing plans or themselves require adaptation.

The below, written by a British Army officer serving in the southeast Iraqi city of Basra during Operation Iraqi Freedom, provides an example of the costs of not considering the longer term, in this case when addressing immediate power generation needs. It is representative of many similar decisions made by various external parties during operations in that country and Afghanistan during the early years of the 21st century:

The key question was how to co-ordinate its reconstruction in a way that was practical, sustainable, and fitted in with the needs of the economy…. For example, the military installed or repaired several diesel generators in Basra. This was a short-term engineering solution-what the military called a “Quick Impact Project.” Yet these projects were ultimately unsustainable, because Iraq was a net importer of diesel and the local director generals understandably didn’t want to spend precious operating budgets on expensive diesel fuel.[2]

Past lessons, some from urban contingencies, others not, once again demonstrate the wisdom in looking over our shoulders as we plan for, respond to, and consider the consequences of decisions related to urban disasters. For example, studies have concluded that charging even a small amount rather than giving away something for free often leads to better use of the resource received. Recipients rightly feel they have invested in the item or service, thereby giving it concrete value. Poorly thought-out aid can instead have a variety of unintended—often negative—consequences. Providing rebuilding funds even though original locations are in vulnerable areas reinforces views that it is okay to risk repeat events (decisions that will be increasingly costly as climate change continues to make its impact known).[3] The form of aid can also influence perceptions. When the state of a local economy and availability of essentials allow, many NGOs prefer providing cash rather than delivering food, diapers, medicines, and other forms of assistance. First, cash can be spent on items or services thought most needed by the recipient whereas other forms of aid risk not meeting needs or doing so less effectively. Cash delivery (or its equivalent) also tends to be cheaper and less logistically demanding. A US government estimate figures transport and other costs consume up to 65 percent of emergency food assistance. The same study concluded that almost 20 percent more people can get aid when it comes in the form of cash.[4] Arguably even better: funds in the form of cash cards rather than hard currency. Requiring a password to use and reducing the recipient’s risk of loss due to theft, the cards can be remotely topped up after designated periods, reinforcing the need to demonstrate discipline in spending. Monitoring expenditures can also help in reducing fraud or other forms of misuse. For example, distribution of cards to local NGO or government personnel only to find expenditures are less reflective of locals’ needs than those aid providers’ wants allows issuers to take actions reducing corruption. More sophisticated monitoring of expenditures could help identify a population’s recipients who need assistance in balancing dietary intake or, conceivably, provide early warning of essentials that might come to be in short supply due to high card-funded demand.


[1] Jun Hongo, “Tokyo underground: taking property development to new depths,” The Japan Times, April 12, 2014, (accessed January 12, 2019).

[2] Andrew Alderson, Bankrolling Basra: The incredible story of a part-time soldier, $1 BILLION and the collapse of Iraq, London: Robinson, 2007, p. 66.

[3] Abbas Jha, et al., “Five Feet High and Rising: Cities and Flooding in the 21st Century,” Policy Research Working Paper 5648, The World Bank, May 2011: p. 30,

[4] “Free exchange: Hard-nosed compassion,” The Economist 416, September 26, 2015, p. 70.

The previous installation of this series “Responding to Urban Disasters, Post Three (Post 7 of 14),” appeared on 26 January 2023.



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