Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post Five (Post 13 of 14)
Russell W. Glenn
The thirteenth of a series of blog posts on Urban Disasters: Readiness, Response, and Recovery by Russ Glenn.
An elderly couple searches through the remains of their home after 2011 Japan earthquake and Tsunami.
Our key points to date:
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
Key Point #21: The hurt is different in an urban disaster
Key Point #22: Urban underground locations can be a boon or deathtrap.
Key Point #23: Transition to recovery began yesterday.
Key Point #24: As with targeting during urban combat and judgments when responding, it is important to consider both the short and longer-term implications of decisions and actions throughout urban disaster recovery.
Key Point #25: Recovery is a system comprised of sub-systems interacting with other systems
Key Point #26: There is always a need for centralized and effective anti-corruption oversight.
Key Point #27: Some problems will be unavoidable even with excellent planning and a brilliant disaster response. Identifying them pre-event when possible opens the way to finding solutions or mitigating negative impacts.
Key Point #28: History has valuable lessons for those who read it. No, really.
Key Point #29: Monitor progress…or lack of it…both in the interest of current disaster recovery effectiveness and that during others to come.
Determining what works, and what does not, informs not only ongoing urban disaster recovery. It also provides lessons for future such undertakings. Corruption provides an example. US funding for many projects in 2003+ Iraq was squandered due to inappropriate measures of supposed progress (the number of dollars spent being a prime example, a metric of “effort” rather than “effect,” the latter actually reflecting what bang for the buck the coalition was achieving). Tens—likely hundreds—of millions of dollars went to little effect other than building mansions and otherwise benefiting crooked contractors, politicians, and others. Studies were done; lessons identified…only for some of the same mistakes to be made in Afghanistan. Want a very specific urban example of a poor measure of success? Eric Klinenberg, introduced in our second post, reported on a metric taking effect at the time of Chicago’s 1995 heat wave: “Public programs were beginning to measure their effectiveness according to the number of employees they had cut from the roles rather than the number of people they had lifted out of poverty or distress.”
Appropriate metrics are key. So is designing related procedures for data collection. An example from Iraq provides a stumble in this regard. US authorities in Baghdad assumed all coalition members would easily adopt the lead nation’s accounting procedures. Untrue. The British were among more senior coalition partners working with the United States. They assumed responsibility for oversight of operations in much of southeastern Iraq. The United Kingdom’s representatives in Basra were taken aback when the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) directed common accounting measures under the assumption that all partners could easily comply. Hilary Synnott, the senior British diplomat identified in an earlier post, recalled,
I observed that we British unfortunately had no experience of American accounting procedures, and hence we were unfamiliar with the various regulations and acronyms to which Sherri had referred. Indeed, most of us had no experience with accounting procedures of any kind; therefore, it might prove difficult for us to conform to the Office of Management and Budget’s wishes.
No familiarity with accounting procedures—and certainly not those dictated by CPA staff in Baghdad—obviously meant there was little if any ability to provide requested metrics data. Other ill-advised policies reflected additional ignorance of conditions on the ground, further hindering progress. Those working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) were not allowed to visit project sites in military vehicles, the “logic” being that doing so would reveal that a government other than that of Iraq was providing funding and that it might thereby expose personnel associated with the project to insurgent attack. (It was widely known amongst the population that it was the coalition and not Iraqi government that was the source of money.) Yet USAID representatives lacked sufficient vehicles to visit sites on their own, as did the State Department for whom USAID did most of its work. Further hamstringing USAID project management efforts: restrictions precluded their personnel from riding in security contractor vehicles. The obvious result: money went to contractors for projects on sites the contracting agency (USAID) could not inspect. Unmonitored projects provided ample opportunity for false reporting and collection of next-phase funds based on those reports. Fortunate coincidence and innovative minds sometimes, but too rarely, managed to overcome these regulatory conundrums. One Irish contractor working for USAID found a US Army unit not too far from one of his project sites. The unit had unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and agreed to fly them over the location to check on progress.
Key Point #30a: Residents must be part of successful urban disaster recovery.
Recall Key Point #7 (“Urban residents are key to successful disaster response. It follows that they are key to successful disaster preparation.”)? Key Point #30 merely follows its logic: Soliciting and incorporating appropriate local perspectives is as important during disaster recovery as it was for preparation and response. Urban populations; their governments; the economic, political, and other relationships between residents; and interactions with others beyond the urban area are all part of a city’s social infrastructure. It is essential to incorporate these and other elements of social systems during disaster recovery.
Comparing Japan’s responses to the 1933 Sanriku tsunami and 2011 Great Northern Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor failure disasters serves as a reminder: Getting it right in the past is no guarantee of doing so in the future. As author Izumi Kuroishi summarized the comparison,
the post-1933 project made revitalizing housing (to improve people’s living conditions) the first goal; it also recognized small port areas to be as important as large port areas in protecting local industrial and social systems, encouraged local self-reliance and subjective engagement to the recovery planning, respected the habitual and social way of life in the area, and prepared escape roads rather than constructing protection walls. The 2010s plan, in contrast, created a ministry centered top-down system, consolidated many small fishing ports into a few large ports, constructed industrial sites to improve the area’s economic condition, connected the area to major cities, urbanized and modernized the lifestyle in the target areas, and constructed tall and extensive protection walls rather than escape roads.
Maybe logical from Tokyo’s perspective, the changes made in response to the 2011 event seem heavy-handed and uncaring of local communities’ desire to perpetuate their pre-disaster lifestyles to the extent practicable. Another issue to keep in mind when working with urban residents: Key Point #4 tells us plans must be executable. Part of that is that they must be understandable by any who will employ them. Urban residents need to participate in planning and be aware of the final product as it affects them. Author Peter Larkham referred to the case of the English town of Bedford when writing of post-WWII recovery plans. The 1952 plan was well thought out, so good that its reviewers thought it an example for others to follow. However, its supporting maps “appear to be rather too complicated for lay-people to understand.” Plans written in organization-speak are difficult for those unfamiliar to comprehend. Worse, the lack of clarity can undermine relationships between parties that must work together to execute the plans, leading to reduced effectiveness if not failure.
While attention given to immediate disaster response efforts tends to focus on the human dimension, media coverage regarding recovery efforts instead leans toward highlighting physical infrastructure repairs and improvements. Social infrastructure initiatives merit attention no less than that given roads, bridges, water supply, and other physical components. Moving community members to housing distant from that destroyed may dramatically increase the time needed to get to work. It may also disrupt ties vital to community mending. Preexisting social ties can serve as a magnet that reunites communities fractured by misfortune. Vietnamese Americans displaced by Hurricane Katrina reformed around their Mary Queen of Vietnam Church on return to New Orleans, pieces reuniting like an explosion shown in reverse. Here again, recognition that urban areas are systems, and highly complex ones at that, should tell us that focusing on the separate components of those systems alone without recognition of their inter-workings is like trying to construct a house from random parts of separate structures. The result may be a building, but one far from the home that once was. Getting residents back into houses quickly without thought to their once-community—locating them randomly and remotely from longstanding religious, commercial, club, school, neighborhood, and other social links—returns people but fails to reconstruct communities.
Maintaining community ties to the extent feasible can also help rebuild those physical structures thanks to social linkages. Recovery might be hastened further yet when members are not displaced too far from their original properties and those properties have debris of potential restoration value. Defaulting to bulldozing housing into unusable rubble means families cannot take materials from their previous residences to rebuild. Allowed to rebuild on their own, they are more likely to provide a structure meeting their needs than if they are forcibly allotted shelter provided by government authorities.
As with renters needing protection from landlords who capitalize on disaster to oust those poorer, tenants wanting to quickly restore their previous abodes to a reasonable form of shelter might need authorities to step in if overzealous owners seek to clear their properties without thought given to those once living there. Urban disasters unfortunately are often used by real estate speculators, politicians, and others as opportunities to seize lucrative properties. Landlord-politician ties in Karachi are notorious in this regard.
Key Point #30b: That is not to say the physical infrastructure can be overlooked.
Urban disasters are going to damage and destroy physical infrastructure. That is unavoidable. The extent of that damage is often worsened by mankind’s negligence (allowing garbage to be thrown in drainage channels, building on wetlands that moderate the worst effects of tidal surges, or destroying natural weather mitigators such as NYC’s oyster beds via over-farming or water pollution, for example). It is estimated that storm surges in New Orleans once ranging from ten to twelve feet have increased to between eighteen and twenty feet due to the destruction of marshes and other tidal lands near the city. Hurricane Sandy’s abuse of NYC was worsened because of the city’s negligence in preserving those oyster beds and its tidal wetlands.
Savvier urban leaders and caring organizations are acting. Those oyster beds in New York once represented half of the world’s oysters by some biologists’ estimates. Manhattan was encircled; others lined the shores of Brooklyn and Queens. The Billion Oyster Project is a nonprofit group that seeks to return that number to NYC’s harbor by 2035. In addition to their storm-mitigating benefits, adult oysters can filter some fifty gallons of water daily.
Decentralizing select infrastructure offers another way of potentially reducing the worst of a disaster’s effects. Relying on large nodes—power plants, distribution stations, or water supply facilities might be among them—offers economies of scale. It is generally less expensive to build and maintain a few of these bigger facilities than many smaller ones, and likewise easier to maintain them. In times of rising sea levels, stronger storms, and other of climate change’s effects, examples of past devastation bode ill for any urban area casual about reviewing the vulnerability of existing resources, some of which might be in what were once safe areas but are now flood vulnerable. Urban building and pollution combined with high temperatures related to climate change are sometimes the culprits; these together have already done much to exacerbate Miami’s soon-to-be-legendary flooding challenges.
Again and again a lesson presents itself: a systems approach to urban disaster preparations, response, and recovery is essential to success. That means looking at social and physical infrastructure not as separate entities but rather as inextricably intertwined components of city ecosystems. Disaster readiness should be a collective effort. Just short of three-quarters of Dhaka’s slums benefit from services provided by nongovernmental organizations. Those organizations are an invaluable asset. Such other-than-formal-authorities can be overlooked during plans and operations to assist response and recovery. Their offerings can instead be even more beneficial when orchestrated with government assets in every phase when confronting urban disasters.
 Eric Klinenberg, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 141.
 Hilary Synnott, Bad Days in Basra: My Turbulent Time as Britain’s Man in Southern Iraq, London: I.B. Tauris, 2008, p. 221.
 Russell W. Glenn, et. al, Evaluation of USAID’s Community Stabilization Program (CSP) in Iraq: Effectiveness of the CSP Model as a Non-lethal Tool for Counterinsurgency, Washington, DC: United States Agency for International Development, 2009, pp. 16–17, https://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PDACN461.pdf (accessed October 6, 2022).
 Izumi Kuroishi, “Social Resilience in Disaster Recovery Planning for Fishing Port Cities: A Comparative Study of Prewar and Twenty-First-Century Tsunami Recovery Planning in the Northern Part of Japan,” Journal of Urban History 47, 2021, pp. 332 and 349.
 Peter J. Larkham, “British Urban Reconstruction after the Second World War: the Rise of Planning and the Issue of ‘Non-planning,’” Journal of Architectural and Town-Planning Theory 54, 2020: p. 23.
 Wei Li, et. al., “Katrina and Migration: Evacuation and Return by African Americans and Vietnamese Americans in an Eastern New Orleans Suburb,” The Professional Geographer, 2010, p. 116.
 Accion Contra El Hambre, “Urban Disaster Lessons Learnt,” undated, p. 21, https://silo.tips/download/urban-disaster-lessons-learnt (accessed May 24, 2022).
 Lexington, “See life,” The Economist 444, September 3, 2022: p. 26.
 Mario Alejandro Ariza, Disposable City: Miami’s Future on the Shores of Combat Catastrophe, New York: Bold Type Books, p. 54.
 Nazrul Islam, AQM Mahbub, and Nurul Islam Nazem, “Urban slums of Bangladesh,” The Daily Star, June 20, 2009, https://www.thedailystar.net/news-detail-93293 (accessed August 25, 2019).
The previous installation of this series “Responding to Urban Disasters, Post Four (Post 12 of 14),” appeared on 05 February 2023.