Small Wars Journal

Responding to Urban Disasters, Post One (Post 5 of 14)

Sun, 01/22/2023 - 11:13am

Responding to Urban Disasters, Post One (Post 5 of 14)

Russell W. Glenn

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

Hurricane Michael

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Special Operations Group (SOG); 

Mexico Beach; SOG, Urban Search and Rescue 046, Hurricane Michael, 17 October 2018,

 FWC Photo by Tim Donovan (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This is a second set of four posts regarding disasters in urban areas. The first—addressing efforts to ready for urban disasters—provided the key points listed below. The second, focusing on responding to such disasters, takes a similar approach, identifying additional key points with historical examples often in support.

The key points from the four “readying for disaster” posts:

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.


Author Josef W. Konvitz, writing in his The Urban Millennium: The City-Building Process from the Early Middle Ages to the Present, provides an insight at once both disturbing and reassuring: “It would seem that society has made more progress in limiting the risks associated with natural disasters than with man-made catastrophes, of which war remains the supreme example.”[1] That mankind is so adept at destruction is surely disturbing. Yet we can once again return to key points 1 and 2 to give ourselves some reassurance that though mankind seems intent on showing up Mother Nature in its willingness to wreak havoc, there are men and women whose efforts to prepare cities for natural catastrophes have also done much to aid us when it is mankind itself that is to blame. Our first four posts set the foundation for this and others to follow. Now is the time to consider the challenges inherent in executing those executable plans hopefully developed prior to disaster’s visitation.

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

For example, a bridge is a bridge but can be so much more. Those with responsibilities for urban citizens’ security need to prepare for two futures when it comes to bridges even if they themselves have no intention of dropping a span—one with the bridge intact, a second with it lying submerged beneath the river’s flowing waters or scattered at the bottom of a gorge. Nature and the enemy always have a vote. A bridge’s survival is not dependent on one side’s interests alone. Are there other sources of water and power if a span falls, one that previously provided both to a community via pipes and cables on its underside? If not, how will residents (and one’s own fighting forces) be provisioned?

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

“Appearances can be deceiving” is a common saw. It is one that can take on special meaning as an urban area responds to disaster. Mosul faced the horrors of war in 2016–17 as Iraqi military forces sought to free the city’s residents of the plague that was ISIS. Were the misfortunes of combat not enough, thrill-seekers posing as nongovernmental organization (NGO) members insinuated themselves into relief efforts. Some had little if any medical training though they professed to be so qualified. Slapping a Red Cross armband on their arms, they inserted chest tubes into wounded residents. One reportedly tore off the bandage from a sucking chest wound for the benefit of a camera crew. Whether the ambition is thrills or money, urban disasters provide both as aid funds flow into organizations legitimate and otherwise. There remains a need to better vet providers and develop policies such that parties capable of conducting the vetting can be readily called on when the host nation cannot or will not.

Key Point #14: Expect the unexpected:

[Basra] was an awful place to drive in. Drivers leaving the palace had to negotiate what was affectionally known among the soldiers as “RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] alley.” … The common belief was that if you drove fast your vehicle was harder to hit…. Yet going at high speed presented its own dangers. The thick metal manhole covers that punctuated the streets had become prized spoils of war among local people and many had been stolen. And when not dodging holes in the ground—a particular hazard at night when there were no streetlights—the speeding motorist had to avoid slow-moving donkeys.[2]

Common sense would seem to dictate getting out of town when danger approaches. Thousands upon thousands left London during the Blitz. Populations in Hiroshima and Tokyo were among those in Japan moving from city to countryside during WWII, the latter declining an estimated four million in population due to displacement (from 6.8M to 2.8M).[3] The same type of movement was true of Germany’s Hamburg.[4] Yet what seems common sense to the distant observer may not be so to the man or woman on the ground. Thousands of those many thousands returned to London before the Blitz ended, the cost of family separations or other factors felt to be higher than the risk in the capital. Recall any warning of a major storm approaching a metropolitan area and television images of bumper-to-bumper traffic fleeing the urban area come to mind. Images of those fleeing storms are often accompanied by tales of residents who refuse to depart. American soldiers engaging enemy in Iraqi cities sometimes found, to their amazement, that civilians would walk unconcernedly into the line of fire, apparently sure that the sophisticated weapons employed would not endanger them or, perhaps, blissfully unaware given that the opposing sides might be separated by several hundred meters. Other behaviors are not so easily dismissed. Crouched down and silent among many hiding in a restaurant during the siege of The Taj Hotel in 2008 Mumbai, one individual suddenly raised a camera and took a flash picture as a terrorist walked by in an adjacent hallway. A high-ranking public figure elsewhere in the hotel spoke on his phone, apparently giving an interview to a television reporter. “We are in a special part of the hotel on the first floor called the Chambers,” he said. “There are more than 200 important people: business leaders and foreigners.”[5] All of which leads us to another key point, one going hand-in-hand with #14:

Key Point #15: Sometimes common sense isn’t common.

You might smile at the above, but I’m guessing few of you are surprised after reading—if not experiencing firsthand—the bizarre discounting of science and refusal to get COVID vaccines during the recent (or ongoing, your pick) pandemic. The dismissal of science—of common sense—was a ratcheting-up of the similar rejection seen in 1995 Chicago during its heat wave as described in a previous post. Politics or willful ignorance sometimes explains the seeming illogic. Cultural mores can at other times play a role. Despite pleas from health authorities, families in 2014 West Africa insisted on sharing a last meal with highly contagious corpses of recently departed Ebola victims. Seemingly inexplicable behavior? Yes, until one realizes such meals are normal practice for some groups in the region. What comprises common sense is not constant across all cultures.


[1] Josef W. Konvitz, The Urban Millennium: The City-Building Process from the Early Middle Ages to the Present, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985, p. 168.

[2] Andrew Alderson, Bankrolling Basra: The incredible story of a part-time soldier, $1 Billion and the collapse of Iraq,” London: Robinson, 2007, p. 14.

[3] Dylan J. Plung, “The Impact of Urban Evacuation in Japan during World War II,” The Asia-Pacific Journal 19 (October 1, 2021), (accessed September 28, 2022).

[4] Keith Lowe, Inferno: The Fiery Destruction of Hamburg, 1943, New York: Scribner, 2007, p. 228.

[5] Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel, New York: Penguin, 2013.

The previous installation of this series “Readying for Urban Disaster, Post Four,” appeared on 20 January 2023.