Small Wars Journal

disaster response

Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post Five (Post 13 of 14)

Tue, 02/07/2023 - 3:16am

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.

Japan EQ Tsunami 2011

An elderly couple searches through the remains of their home after 2011 Japan earthquake and Tsunami.

Source: Direct Relief (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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.”[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.”[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11] 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.

Endnotes

[1] Eric Klinenberg, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 141.

[2] Hilary Synnott, Bad Days in Basra: My Turbulent Time as Britain’s Man in Southern Iraq, London: I.B. Tauris, 2008, p. 221.

[3] 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).

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] Accion Contra El Hambre, “Urban Disaster Lessons Learnt,” undated, p. 21, https://silo.tips/download/urban-disaster-lessons-learnt (accessed May 24, 2022).

[9] Lexington, “See life,” The Economist 444, September 3, 2022: p. 26.

[10] Mario Alejandro Ariza, Disposable City: Miami’s Future on the Shores of Combat Catastrophe, New York: Bold Type Books, p. 54.

[11] 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.

Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post Four (Post 12 of 14)

Sun, 02/05/2023 - 3:05am

Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post Four (Post 12 of 14)

Russell W. Glenn

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

Baghdad Patrol

Iraqi and US Patrols Assess Community Concerns in Al Ghazaliyah, Baghdad, March 2006.

Source: US National Archives; Public Domain, NARA & DVIDS Public Domain Archive.

We’re on final approach here. This and two more posts will wrap up our discussions…at least for now. Hopefully some of you will find the greater detail, broader coverage, and additional insights and proposals found in my soon to be released Come Hell or High Fever: Readying the World’s Megacities for Disaster of value, or if not of value, than of interest. As I make clear in its opening pages, the book’s focus is on megacities. Those of you who partake of the book will find I define “megacity” somewhat differently than is the norm. Yet the material in Come Hell or High Fever applies to all urban areas…and to some extent rural environments as well, as have several of our key points thus far and others yet to come.

As is our habit, here is the rollup of key points noted through our first eleven 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.

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.

This key point is close kin to our #9 (Look backward to look forward). It is worth reminding ourselves of the past’s value, however, as mankind has sometimes been a tad remiss in accepting history’s offerings when it comes to managing post-catastrophe recoveries. Three examples of the same mistake lend credence to that claim. The examples are ones with direct application when dealing with urban governments, police, and fire personnel among others. Though military in nature, the insights are also applicable to NGOs and other organizations operating in urban environments.

Three different military units at three different times fell back on the habitual way of their marking boundaries between ground units: denoting them by distinguishable terrain features. It makes sense under most circumstances. Knowing they must operate twenty-four hours daily and in whatever conditions nature throws at them, specifying unit boundaries along waterways, major roads, extended tree lines, wadis in deserts, and ridgelines in mountainous terrain means soldiers on the ground and those in the air can better identify the delineations in the dark or when conditions otherwise limit visibility as well as in good light. Why is that important? Military doctrine dictates that not only are soldiers from one unit not to cross over into another’s area without coordination (for they might be mistaken for enemy). They are also not to fire weapons across a boundary without that coordination given the chances of mistakenly killing or wounding their comrades in an adjacent organization. That is why well-designed plans never draw a boundary along a river or roadway without specifying exactly where responsibilities change. A good boundary does not go down the middle of a waterway or highway, for then those to its either side don’t know whether to expect a group approaching in the fog are friendlies or otherwise. Better that the delineation is along one side of said waterway or street so that only one unit “owns” it.

And now to those three instances of questionable decisions when marking military boundaries in urban areas. Commanders and their staffs arriving in Los Angeles during and in the aftermath of the 1992 riots to assist local authorities and law-abiding members of the population drew boundaries between military units in the traditional manner. A unit coordinates activities within its own boundaries with their own members (of course) and, depending on the tasks involved, with pilots, artillerymen, and others supporting them from outside those bounds. As explained above, actions outside those limits requires communicating and carefully coordinating activities with the owning unit. It wasn’t the first time an American unit made life more difficult for itself than was necessary. (Nor, surely, has it been only US units). In the aftermath of WWII in Germany, US Third Army failed to recognize the wisdom of the British and French, both of which drew boundaries for their military governments along those of German administrative lines.[1] It wasn’t the last time either. US units initially moving into Baghdad in 2003 after defeating Saddam Hussein’s forces likewise gave primacy to physical over administrative boundaries.

There are times when following the “normal” military boundary-setting procedure makes sense in an urban area. Relying on obvious terrain features does so when the primary task is defeating an enemy and coordinating with civil authorities is of secondary importance. When such is not the case, or when priorities change, an alternative approach is called for. The problem with reliance on obvious terrain features is that the results do not coincide with urban officials’ areas of responsibility (police and fire precincts, for example). That means those military units—and the civil authorities with whom they need to coordinate their activities—multiply their liaison burdens several times over, requiring more people, more equipment, an increased volume of communications, and more distractions from primary concerns. Better: drawing military boundaries that align with those of the primary organization(s) with which they need to coordinate. The military reduces the number of police precincts, county officials, or others with which it must interface. In turn, those fire stations and other entities have fewer organizations calling on their time, no small advantage when the focus should be assisting recovery rather than excess administration. A perfect solution? Hardly. Police, fire, and other local authorities will not always share boundaries even amongst themselves. The outsider unit might be too small or too big to align with only one or a few civil jurisdictions. Imperfect perhaps, but an improvement nevertheless.

As said, other external organizations such as NGOs can benefit from these examples as well. They too need to coordinate with local authorities as well as each other and other relevant parties. While administrative boundaries will generally prove the better choice, picking up on some military habits such as that of ensuring boundaries are drawn such that one organization “owns” a road or other feature will be valuable during post-disaster recovery. This would include, for example, even mundane activities such as picking up garbage until municipal authorities can reassume that responsibility and others that benefit from clear distinction of who is responsible for what where. 

National representatives lending international assistance can also profit common interests of several organizations, including themselves. British diplomat Hilary Synnott provided an example drawing on his early 21st-century experiences in southeastern Iraq. Writing in his insightful and sometimes humorous Bad Days in Basra, he described how other nations’ coalition augmentations could be more effectively employed if they were to concentrate their resources within areas overseen by a single coalition lead element instead of several. Synnott rightly concluded that had the Japanese representation been working exclusively with the British, the two parties could have better synchronized their resources to meet local needs.[2] Applying the same lesson to large urban areas potentially has considerable value. There is much to be said for cohesion rather than unnecessary fragmentation of available capabilities.

Previous practices can also advise those trying to keep corruption under control or seeking to fund only more productive recovery efforts. Confronted with both the threat of corruption and an absence of local authorities after combat operations in 2003 Iraqi urban areas, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) introduced an additional level of local governance into some government organizations, at least temporarily, to assist in allocating the large amounts of financial support being distributed. This level fit between provincial councils and villages. It was manned by unpaid volunteers who received funds to allocate for local projects. An organization that spent its money well received more. Those performing otherwise benefited from additional consultation.[3]

Endnotes

[1] Nadia Schadlow, War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory, Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2017, p. 69.

[2] Hilary Synnott, Bad Days in Basra: My Turbulent Tine as Britain’s Man in Southern Iraq, London: I.B. Tauris, 2008, p. 122.

[3] Synnott, Bad Days in Basra, p. 89.

The previous installation of this series “Responding to Urban Disasters, Post Three (Post 11 of 14),” appeared on 03 February 2023.

Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post Three (Post 11 of 14)

Fri, 02/03/2023 - 3:26am

Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post three of six (Post 11 of 14)

Russell W. Glenn

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

EQ Tsunami

2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami Reconstruction,

ILO Asia-Pacific (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Our key points provided 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

The wisdom of taking a systems approach to urban undertakings would seem a given. Yet addressing challenges in terms of separate components is too frequently the norm. The reasons are many. At times they have some modicum of legitimacy. That is more often not the case. Politics, competition for resources, organizational jealousy, and self-interest are only a few among the many less justifiable reasons.

Previous divisiveness between the NYPD and FDNY in New York City and lack of cooperation between police, military, and other elements responsible for portions of Tokyo’s security tell us even the most notable and influential of world cities have areas in need of improvement. The same less-than-desirable recognition and exercise of interdependency characterize other urban functional, social, economic, and additional sectors as well. A city is a symbiotic entity. It is far greater than the sum of its parts. The same is true of an urban area’s relationships beyond its borders.

The tangled web of interconnections within and between urban areas—and their immediate and more distant surrounds—means the tremors of decisions made during recovery and rebuilding will reach far in terms of time and numbers affected. Those decisions and resulting actions are rocks cast into a pond. Appropriate ones cause mere ripples that little disrupt the surface, pleasurably rocking canoes and gently shifting sands to more favorable locations. A more appropriate metaphor when the urban area is a megacity is many separate ponds, each representing not only nearby rural areas, close-by towns, or small regional cities but much of its country and world beyond given these cities extraordinary influence.

Let’s consider economics for a moment. Dangers of post-disaster inflation are real and often realized. In keeping with our understanding of cities as systems and components of larger systems, these dangers can be urban-area wide, limited to only some communities or sectors of its economy, or reverberate well beyond the city itself. Too much money injected too fast or into some segments of the population and not others drives prices and emotions up. The first makes money worth less and thus can waste and diminish the value of aid. The second can deepen existing social divides or undermine backing from previously supportive communities. Such disaster-spawned impacts are larger stones cast into the above ponds, disrupting smooth sailing and scarring shorelines. That the consequences of disasters are so great and influences so many means specific second- and higher-order effects can be particularly hard to forecast.

Social mores in urban areas can also be notably hard to determine. First, the city might be in country with which an outside aid provider has limited experience. Secondly, larger cities tend to have more heterogeneous populations, the result being social expectations and practices that differ between communities and even individual households. Melding outsiders’ knowledge with those who can improve their awareness of local customs helps an international partner to determine how best to handle corpses, for example. While some diseases such as cholera and hemorrhagic fever favor rapid cremation or burial, risk of infection from the dead is overall generally low. Rapid burial makes later identification difficult and can deny families cultural obligations in treating their deceased.[1] Aid providers will other times have to find ways of working around potentially deadly practices such as sharing a last meal with the deceased as was the case with highly contagious Ebola in 2014 West Africa.

Deciding who to rely on for accurate information can be more challenging than one might think. Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) leaders arriving on Guadalcanal in mid-2003 were aware that the island country’s population did not trust local officials. Locals were happy to deal with Australian and other military representatives as well as coalition police but not with their own law enforcement due to corruption and factional infighting. Only over time—and after purging many of the police on the force at the time of RAMSI’s arrival—did the situation improve.[2]

Knowing what local expectations are and who amongst the local population will significantly influence those perceptions is important when deciding on what projects and other initiatives should have priority. Smaller projects with impact in a matter of days or weeks are the smart move when expectations of recovery include immediate results. Yet the case of purchasing diesel generators in 2003 Basra, Iraq (that in a country that was a net importer of diesel) demonstrates that those initiatives must consider the sought-after end goals just as should any other actions. Blindly addressing today’s needs without considering how they might support longer-term efforts or be integrated into larger projects with completion dates of months or even years down the line risks financial, political, and coalition support. A desirable state of affairs worth pursuing: integrating smaller, shorter-term projects into larger ones as fingers fit into a glove.

Expectations should not be taken as a given. US Army Corps of Engineers representative Lieutenant General Carl A. Strock found Iraqis unrealistically believed the coalition could quickly bring them 24-hour power despite the years of neglect Baghdad had practiced in that sector. Strock soon came to realize that the Iraqis weren’t asking for immediate all-day power. Eventually perhaps, but in the short run they wanted predictability so that they knew when they would have power and could adjust their schedules accordingly.[3] (This same “Can you just tell me when I’ll have power” was a source of frustration in post-WWII Berlin, one that has plagued many other post-disaster populations since.) Early tensions in Iraq might have been mitigated with an information campaign explaining coalition plans to restore—even improve—various services and what role members of the population might take to assist. Difficult it will surely be, but incorporating the goal of predicable power availability into disaster planning and recovery is a worthy enterprise.

Expectations and assumptions on the part of outsiders also require scrutiny. Other projects in Iraq saw $18.4 billion dollars committed to building 147 Iraqi medical facilities. The structures were completed and filled with state-of-the-art equipment. Unfortunately, there were not enough people in nearby communities who knew how to maintain the equipment. Elsewhere there were no staff to train the personnel who would have to run the facilities.[4] Costly in terms of money? Surely. Also in terms of the coalition’s reputation for good judgment? Very likely.

Key Point #26: There is always a need for centralized and effective anti-corruption oversight.

There is money—lots of money—to be made in disaster’s wake. There will never be an absence of the unsavory wanting to take advantage of that truth. Potential abusers include—but are by no means limited to—members of government, local and international NGOs (or those posing as NGOs), and contractors. Money is sticky; a bit (or more) stays in the hands of the unscrupulous at every level it passes through. Savvy donors may refuse to accept a local government manager for setting procedures and distributing money if they believe the cost of getting aid to those in need comes at too high a price. Making the problem even worse: some of the waylaid funds can be routed to those causing an urban disaster (terrorists or warring factions, for example) or result in key power brokers actively seeking to perpetuate crises given the profits to be made.

Decisions made to contain the worst of corruption can be very difficult ones. Refusing, limiting, or terminating aid can harm innocents, to include deaths. Yet blindly providing funds can worsen the injury, to include numbers of innocent dead. Outsiders seeking to assist Ukraine’s recovery will confront this unfortunate reality if they are not doing so already. The example of the Azovstal factory in Ukraine’s port city of Mariupol provides insight into the challenges. It was one of the biggest steel plants in Europe at the time of Russia’s invasion on February 24, 2022. Its 11,000 workers previously poured more than 4 million tons of steel a year. Azovstal lay in ruins three months later. It was but one reason the country’s physical damage came to $104 billion by the end of May according to the Kyiv School of Economics. Estimates of the total cost to the Ukrainian economy range from $200 billion to $500 billion or more. Restoration of Ukraine’s steel manufacturing is certainly desirable. But can Ukraine handle the funds necessary to address that and other recovery needs? Ukraine has historically lagged only Russia on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index for European nations. It may have improved since a new government replaced that of 2014, but donors would be foolish to think there are not many ready to direct recovery funding for personal gain. Relying on (and monitoring) foreign contractors with proven records in managing large infrastructure projects might help, but anti-corruption authorities will need to be vigilant regardless.[5]

Only an international problem? Certainly not. Post-9/11 and Hurricane Katrina spending saw private interests seize on cash flows to provide new high-end residences, office space, and other commercial buildings. Anxiousness (arguably over-anxiousness) to hasten recovery saw federal monitoring and fund allocations waived such that requirements for “public oversight,” “means testing,” and “public benefit” fell by the wayside.[6] A scandal involving a high-profile former National Football League star seeking to direct recovery funds to pet athletic projects is gaining attention at the time of my writing these lines.

Part of the challenge in seeking to contain the worst of corruption’s abuses is harder when the environment is an urban one. Urban complexity means there are innumerable ways of making a buck or otherwise twisting the system to one’s own use. Some post-9/11 landlords in NYC obtained recovery grants, raised rents on their properties as allowed by the grants, and then refused to renew leases for low-income renters who could not pay the increased amount, thereby opening the properties to those who could.[7]

Our bugaboo of ineffective bureaucracy can hamstring urban recovery as well. Once the Department of Homeland Security assumed responsibility for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a disproportionate percentage of funding for local preparedness went to terrorism-related challenges to the extent of $2 billion allocated to anti-terrorism grants and only $180 million for natural disaster readiness.[8] The consequences for recovery effectiveness are obvious.

Key Point #27: Some problems will be unavoidable even with excellent planning, clear policies, and a brilliant disaster response. Identifying them pre-event when possible opens the way to finding solutions or mitigating negative impacts.

Who owns a plot of land in Los Angeles is seldom in question. Such is the case in most of the United States. This clarity meant knowing who was responsible for making recovery-related decisions for a given property was generally straightforward after the 1994 Northridge tremors. The physical nature of lots in the Los Angeles area and throughout most of the United States also simplifies recovery. Individual home properties tend to be somewhat large with significant space between adjacent structures in many urban areas. Even where they are not, access from a reasonably wide street or condominium agreements help in allowing admittance or specifying permissions needed. Authorization to access a property in such cases relies only on owners or cooperative owner agreements. Unlike the case of the 1994 Northridge quake, property issues were less clear when Osaka-Kobe was badly shaken a year later. Greater building densities, laws allowing overlapping responsibilities for a given plot of land or structure, and competing levels of influence meant healing was more complicated.[9] Similar trials can arise when multiple authorities share rights to a piece of land or the strata below and above ground.

Mega-disasters in major urban areas could leave tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions homeless (think Tokyo and surrounding areas had the Fukushima radiation cloud not drifted eastward out over the Pacific). For lesser contingencies, authorities might address this challenge by:

  1. Putting policies in place that allow use of long-term unoccupied residential properties to house those rendered homeless post-disaster, perhaps encouraging pre-disaster agreements with property owners via tax or other breaks and assurances of post-recovery reimbursement for needed restoration/repairs once “tenants” have left (with exercise of eminent domain being a fallback when insufficient volunteer properties are available).
  2. Maintaining a frequently updated list of such vacant (often investment) residential spaces, under-utilized hotel spaces, and the like with additional relevant information such as the number of individuals or families that might be accommodated. (As of 2018, almost a third of Midtown Manhattan apartments between Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue and 49th and 70th streets were vacant for ten or more months a year. Hong Kong and London are likewise popular with wealthy real estate investors. COVID may have opened additional space, to include commercial spaces now vacant or underutilized.)[10]

Such potential residences would complement those owned by friends, relatives, and volunteers willing to house those in need (to include Airbnb property owners, as has fortunately happened during recent disasters). The millions of dollars that would otherwise be needed for tents, trailers, toilet facilities, feeding stations, and other support could be put toward reimbursing those allowing use of their properties. It won’t be easy. Real estate companies and politicians will join property owners in screaming foul when proposals for regulations requiring sharing come under consideration. The form of urban government will influence the ease of employing such initiatives. New York City mayors have powers not usually found in other major urban areas while the government of Los Angeles disperses power across county officials, a city council, and a major.[11]

Endnotes

[1] D. Sanderson, Clarke P. Knox, and L. Campbell, “Responding to urban disasters: Learning from previous relief and recovery operations,” ALNAP lessons paper, 2012, https://www.alnap.org/help-library/responding-to-urban-disasters-learning-from-previous-relief-and-recovery-operations (accessed September 23, 2018).

[2] Russell W. Glenn, Counterinsurgency in a Test Tube: Analyzing the Success of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), Santa Monica, CA, 2007, p. 127.

[3] Carl A. Strock (LTG, US Army, ret.) interview with Dr. Russell W. Glenn and Dave Dilegge, Frederick, MD, July 29, 2011.

[4] Peter Chiarelli (General, US Army), interview with Dr. Russell W. Glenn, Pentagon, Washington, DC, November 9, 2011 as appears in Russell W. Glenn, Core Counterinsurgency Asset: Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan for United States Army Corps of Engineers Leaders, study sponsored by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, May 31, 2012 (revised December 8, 2016), pp. 273-281.

[5] “The $500bn question: Rebuilding Ukraine,” The Economist 443 (June 18, 2022): pp. 45–46.

[6] Kevin Fox Gotham and Miriam Greenberg, Crisis Cities: Disaster and Redevelopment in New York and New Orleans,” Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. ix.

[7] Gotham and Greenberg, Crisis Cities, p. 116.

[8] Gotham and Greenberg, Crisis Cities, p. 67.

[9] Robert B. Olshansky, et al., “Opportunity in Chaos: Rebuilding After the 1994 Northridge and 1995 Kobe Earthquakes,” Department of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Illinois paper, March 2011.

[10] Kevin Baker, “The Death of a Once Great City: The fall of New York and the urban crisis of affluence,” Harper’s Magazine, July 8, 2018, https://harpers.org/archive-2018/07/the-death-of-new-york-city-gentrification/ (accessed July 19, 2018).

[11]  “Hey, big spender: California primaries,” The Economist 443, June 4, 2022.p.  21.

The previous installation of this series “Responding to Urban Disasters, Post Two (Post 10 of 14),” appeared on 01 February 2023.

Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post Two (Post 10 of 14)

Wed, 02/01/2023 - 3:18am

Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post Two (Post 10 of 14)

Russell W. Glenn

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

NZDF

New Zealand and Japanese Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Teams 2011 Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Efforts, 2 March 2011. Source: New Zealand Defence Force (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ)

No change to our list of key points here as the first recovery post focused on background for the five to follow. 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.

It might seem like we are beating a dead horse with this repeated emphasis on keeping a mindset that is looking well forward in time at every step of preparing for, responding to, and recovering from urban disaster. Like some of my teachers in years past, let the repetition serve the same purpose as their foot stomps when discussing an upcoming test: This is important stuff.

Warsaw in the immediate aftermath of WWII reflects many of the observations made in the previous post. The Polish capital suffered greatly during the conflict. The tragedy of the Jewish ghetto has been well documented by other authors. Less known is the August 1944 uprising during which Polish patriots sought to liberate their city from Nazi occupiers. A reported twenty thousand Nazi troops were killed or wounded, but as seems inevitable when war visits a city, it was the noncombatants who suffered most. Ground combat and aerial bombardment would leave 150,000 of them dead. Retributive punishment meted out by the occupiers sought to level the capital. Over 85 percent of the historic center lay in ruins before the Germans departed.[1] (The parallels with Russian “sour grapes” attacks on urban areas retaken by the Ukrainian army are obvious.)

As mentioned in our first recovery blog and again seen in post-war Warsaw, debates ebbed and flowed regarding how to recover, some favoring leaving vast expanses of the city untouched as a memorial and relocating the capital. Varsovians (Warsaw residents) chose instead to reconstruct. They turned to the cityscapes of Venetian painter Bernardo Bellotto (1722-1780, also referred to as Canaletto after a more renowned uncle) as a reference. Portions of the rubble became materials for the rebuilding; surviving fragments of historical buildings found renewed life in their ancestors’ reconstruction. It was common men, women, and children who aided in resurrecting their city as they worked alongside construction workers and other specialists (though to call them “common” seems to under-appreciate their grit). Material from nearby punished cities joined that native to Warsaw when existing rubble did not suffice. Author Daryl Mersom wrote, “‘The entire nation builds its capital’ became the city’s rallying cry.”

The question of whether to rebuild or repair is one faced at the level of individual structures as well as entire cities. Landlords will often favor starting tearing down and starting from scratch; it can be cheaper and quicker to simply remove what is left of a previous structure. The result often displaces former residents; new structure rents may be too expensive for previous occupants. Repair offers the alternative of letting the displaced live in those portions of buildings damaged but still habitable, maintaining community cohesion, and suppressing construction costs. No differently than in preparing for or dealing with an in-progress disaster, keeping an eye on the big picture and overarching systems effects in its aftermath increases the chances of ultimate success. Just as taking a breath before forging ahead during recovery helps balance short- and longer-term city needs, avoiding undue haste in awarding building contracts aids in sidestepping poorly advised construction.[2]

Returning to our example of Tokyo and the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake aids in further understanding the challenges inherent in urban disaster recovery. We know the destruction was vast; nearly 13 square miles (33 million square meters) of homes, shops, government buildings, and more lay in ruins. Recall Gotō Shinpei, former mayor of Tokyo who became Home Minister the day after the quake. Gotō believed Tokyo should seize the day and build a brand new city. Showing a bit more restraint in his passions than did Konstanty Gutschow (quoted in the previous post), Gotō nonetheless sent a message but hours after assuming office, sharing with his predecessor that “now is our best chance to completely remodel and reconstruct Tokyo.”[3] Warned that both economics and politics would throw obstacles in his path, Gotō demonstrated an optimism that our earlier discussions demonstrate was unrealistic. “I will get as much money as I need,” he declared. Within three months he came to realize such was not to be.

As in Warsaw, others also desired to forge ahead and impose a new Tokyo on residents, one that

would allow the state to better manage its subjects on social, ideological, economic, and political levels. These individuals believed that new Tokyo’s urban space and state facilities would reflect and reinforce values that the government and its reform-minded allies sought to instill among it subjects. They included health, hygiene and physical fitness, frugality, sacrifice, diligence, temperance, orderliness, and community.[4]

Such bold plans by others failed because of an insensitivity to local opinion and the tug of history and tradition in addition to economic factors.[5] (Recall our Key Point #7: “Urban residents are key to successful disaster response. It follows that they are key to successful disaster preparation.” It applies no less to recovering from a calamity.) Unlike in post-WWII Germany, initiatives to deliberately extend the extent of destruction by removing surviving structures failed to gain traction in Tokyo. Public opinion favored quick rebuilding to meet housing and other needs. In-place property rights and the always present financial considerations also impeded such overly bold proposals. More successful propositions saw the need to incorporate residents’ perspectives and what were recognized as needs (or desirables) before the disaster. Those pre-war shortfalls included requirements for more open space (to include parks), wider streets, and sidewalks, all of which would both enhance quality of urban life and serve as firebreaks in a city where devastating fires were only a matter of when. Contemplating Tokyo’s post-disaster evolutions, academic Carola Hein observed, “though buildings disappear easily, lifestyles have changed only gradually, and they keep traditional Japanese building elements alive.”[6]

Endnotes

[1] Daryl Mersom, “Story of cities #28: how postwar Warsaw was rebuilt using 18th century paintings,” The Guardian, April 22, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/apr/22/story-cities-warsaw-rebuilt-18th-century-paintings (accessed August 10, 2011). This and following discussion of Warsaw draws heavily on Mersom.

[2] Gilbert M. Gaul, “The Homes in Dorian’s Path Are in a High-Risk Area. Why Do They Cost So Much?” New York Times, September 3, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/04/books/review/gilbert-gaul-the-geography-of-risk.html (accessed October 21, 2019).

[3] “The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923,” http://www.greatkantoearthquake.com/reconstruction.html (accessed August 10, 2022). Other material regarding Tokyo herein also draws on this resource unless otherwise noted.

[4] “The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.”

[5] Carola Hein, “Resilient Tokyo: Disaster and Transformation in the Japanese City,” in Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella, eds., The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 226 (uncorrected advance reading copy). This paragraph draws on insights from Hein’s offering.

[6] Hein, “Resilient Tokyo, p. 230.”

The previous installation of this series “Responding to Urban Disasters, Post One (Post 9 of 14),” appeared on 30 January 2023.

Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post One (Post 9 of 14)

Mon, 01/30/2023 - 1:39pm

Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post One (Post 9 of 14)

Russell W. Glenn

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

Recovery 1

Marines and Sailors Receive a Briefing on Disaster Recovery During Navy Week, New Orleans, 2015. Defense Visual Information Service. Public Domain.

With our readying for and responding too urban disasters posts complete, we turn to a half dozen offerings on recovering from these catastrophes. Though a far cry short of the extent of material covered in Come Hell or High Fever: Readying the World’s Megacities for Disaster (January 2023), the fourteen posts (eight done, this being the first of the remaining six) should provide a concise reference for those who might benefit (or help others benefit) in the weeks between now and the book’s release…and, perhaps, thereafter as well.

As has become habit, we start with a listing of the key points presented thus far:

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.

Introduction

Our previous discussions should provide readers with a solid introduction to the challenges present as authorities transition from disaster response to recovery. It is by no means a sharp transition but rather a gradual evolution that will take place across time, space, and functions as conditions demand. This evolution is maybe best thought of as an oozing, intermixed, and blurred movement toward sought-after ends. Nevertheless, it is important to always keep those desired goals in mind, goals that might require adapting over time as conditions themselves evolve. (Recall once again our Key Point #11: “Plan for the end, then the now.”)

So our previous offerings provide an initial idea of the types of challenges ahead, but no list of catastrophes or lifetime of reading can cover the complete scope, depth, character, dynamism, or nuance of tests yet to come. We will start our remaining set of posts with a sampling that provides a sense of this variety in preparation for then contemplating potential insights during urban disaster recovery. This post will provide no key points. Rather, its purpose is to provide readers and practitioners with a variety of examples that give them further understanding regarding the wide range of challenges that lie ahead when addressing urban recovery from disaster.     

One such subtlety is the nature of subterranean spaces in urban areas. The situation with bridges—their roles as transportation features and bearers of pipelines and power cables—is child’s play in comparison. London authorities recovering from WWII’s bombings leaned toward setting priorities in repairing damage to underground infrastructure from the bottom up. This meant frequently starting six meters beneath surface level and dealing with sewerage, telephone and power cables, gas and water mains, and eventually the road surface.[1] Working on this infrastructure layer cake and its demands for various types of expertise is complex even when the repairs are necessary only due to routine issues. Imagine instead having to deal with Tokyo’s sub-ground utilities and other spaces in the aftermath of a massive earthquake as described by Jun Hongo in “Tokyo underground: taking property development to new depths” where he notes,

the Tsukiji-Toranomon Tunnel is buried about 2 meters underground and is separated by just 30 cm—roughly the width of a Japan Times Sunday page—from an underground utility conduit jointly operated by gas, water and telecommunications companies, among others, that runs beneath it. The conduit, meanwhile, is also located 30 cm above the Toei Mita Subway Line.[2]

As for the extent of damage, Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945 serves as something of an extreme example of the extent and type of damage an urban area might have to deal with after a catastrophic disaster. Extreme it might be historically, mankind’s “progress” in terms of weaponry and the exacerbating effects of climate change suggest what was extreme in 1945 might be found less so in coming years. One bomb—small by current standards of weaponry, volcanic eruptions, or cyclones’ power— completely or partially damaged 90 percent of the city’s 76,000 buildings. In the words of one author, “of the 33 [million] square metres of land considered usable before the attack, 40% was reduced to ashes…. With the exception of a handful of concrete buildings, Hiroshima had ceased to exist.”[3]

Recovery

Even given such devastation, however, residents’ resilience and others’ willingness to assist quickly moved them to restore services and treat survivors. City municipal employees numbered roughly one thousand before the attack; eighty would report for duty on August 7th. Bank of Japan’s Hiroshima branch reopened on August 8th though tellers worked roofless in their damaged concrete building, employing umbrellas when necessary and sharing their space with eleven other banks whose properties had been destroyed. Individuals from nearby towns and cities came to the stricken urban area to lend assistance. Their assistance was needed. Reminiscent of Mexico City’s core destruction due to its 1985 earthquake, fourteen of Hiroshima’s sixteen primary hospitals were gone. Two hundred and seventy of those facilities’ 298 doctors were dead as were 1,654 of 1,780 registered nurses. Shantytowns constructed of debris sprouted near the epicenter. What sanitary facilities existed were shared by multiple families. Yet all homes reportedly had power restored by the end of November 1945.

All but destroyed but never ceasing to be a city, debates soon surfaced regarding what to do with its physical remnants: how authorities should address that component of the ongoing recovery. Familiar to any involved in the debates pertaining to New York City’s 9/11 site, portions of the population urged that there be some manner of preserving memory of the losses while others suggested that every modicum of the tragedy be forever removed. The result would be a compromise with construction of a now famous memorial during renewal of the city at large.

Fast-forwarding to January 17, 1995, Japan’s city of Kobe and much of the surrounding area experienced the devastating Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake.[4] Nearly 6,500 died. Some 44,000 were injured. Streets, expressways, rail lines, water/power/gas lines, and communications infrastructure lie twisted, damaged, or otherwise rendered inoperable, combining to hinder rescue, response, and recovery efforts. The after-event population flow in this case was primarily out of the worst-affected areas thanks to the availability of relatives willing to host victims, rental properties, or other forms of temporary housing. The longer-term effect was to hasten the already in-progress trend of shifting population toward Kobe’s eastern side, that closer to Osaka. Resultantly deprived wards suffered a proportional commercial slowing.

Kobe city authorities established a Headquarters for Reconstruction and organized a Committee for Recovery Planning within three weeks. A Kobe recovery plan issued less than three months after the quake focused on six recovery factors: “reconstruction of infrastructure, revitalization of economy, support for small busi­ness, housing recovery, urban planning, and recovery of livelihoods.”[5] Dictates directed severe restrictions on any development in affected areas for two months as officials worked on physical reconstruction plans. The two months was a self-imposed deadline, one that included incorporation of local residents’ concerns and attainment of a consensus. Unsurprisingly, reconstruction was to include new standards of earthquake resistance.

Reinforcing the point that preparing for urban disasters requires more than plans alone, those Kobe communities with active community development activities in place prior to the tremors were able to immediately initiate recovery actions. Neighborhoods were encouraged to form community development councils and work with officials to come up with a recovery plan that was in turn shared with the broader community with a solicitation for comments. Revisions were made and the process repeated until a polished draft plan was ready for submission to the mayor. Residents thereafter participated in aiding their community in recovery as planned.

The process often did not go as smoothly as one might have hoped. Initial plans formed before the general public’s input often met resistance. Over time, however, willingness to participate during further planning iterations rather than merely resisting the original proposal improved. Details mattered, details that might have been overlooked were it not for the public participation. New public housing for low-income residents entered plans. A less obvious need was that to avoid burdening homeowners with double loans. Those with outstanding amounts to pay on their home loans would be taking on an additional loan to rebuild. The amount needed could be inflated by new building standards to improve earthquake resistance. The government stepped up by offering low interest on new financing or providing funds equivalent to outstanding loan interest.

A select review reveals officials’ understanding that urban recovery is not the sum of its parts. Rather, recovery is consequent of an understanding that it is a symbiotic process orchestrating physical infrastructure needs, social concerns, economic considerations, and melding of immediate and long-term objectives. Public housing helped to settle homeless survivors. But that housing often displaced recipients farther from their places of work or previous living communities. Government representatives therefore assigned welfare coordinators to assist in community development. Businesses received local government money to reestablish their enterprises. Condominium financing assisted those who could not rebuild on their original land. A bureaucracy understanding the systems nature or ecosystem character of urban areas did much to aid recovery. One instead taking a compartmented approach—looking at physical infrastructure as separate from that social, for example—would likely have been considerably less effective.

What of situations where dramatic changes in the political system completely alter an urban area’s status? It is a worthy question considering the flood and ebb tides seen during this year’s fighting in Ukraine. Looking back at the tsunami-effect of Europe’s post-WWII political tensions might help us gain a sense of challenges lying ahead. Hamburg suffered significant damage to its ports and other economic infrastructure in addition that social. Physical damage can be repaired, even with a shortage of building materials and labor.[6] But Hamburg’s economic status as a centrally located port on the continent of Europe disappeared with the erection of the Iron Curtain. It was well to the west in what was its former economic sphere;[7] the curtain severed ties to previous markets and suppliers farther east. The Rhine-Ruhr region rose to greater prominence after the 1957 creation of the European Economic Community. Unlike the damage to its physical infrastructure, that to the city’s economic status was not so readily fixable. London too, like Hamburg, had to adjust to a changed geopolitical environment as centers of world power shifted and colonies gained independence.[8]

That is not to say that recovery of physical infrastructure was not without significant challenges even as materials and labor became available. The decisions faced post-WWII might differ from those confronted by urban authorities after an earthquake or other devastation today, but (again as noted with our Key Point #2: “Urban disasters are more alike than different”), there is much to be learned from challenges now nearly eighty years old. What communities (social, economic, or physical) get priority for recovery? In the immediate days after a disaster, survival and treatment of residents will take precedence. Debates will flare very soon thereafter. Do funding and other resources continue to favor resident recovery in the form of a focus on social challenges, or do they instead get reoriented to spur economic recovery locally (e.g., funding the renewal of small businesses) or more broadly (to reestablish the city’s regional or worldwide status and thus renew the influx of money such status provides to an urban area)? Remaining with our example of Hamburg in 1945, one author summed up debates as follows: “The city had to shoulder enormous expenditures to improve the desolate housing situation or to rebuild schools. The port had to compete for resources. Advocates from the port economy argued that ‘Hamburg’s finances so far have not been ruined by spending “too much” on the port,’ but spending too little could seriously hurt its position.”[9]

Most post-disaster recovery undertakings follow some progression along the lines of (1) immediate relief (during which time the focus is on saving the lives of those trapped beneath rubble, urgently in need of medical attention, or otherwise at dire risk); (2) initial recovery (includes getting food and other needs to residents and the initial cleanup of debris among other activities; and (3) rebuilding/reconstruction. The three are sequential to an extent but overlap considerably. As the comments regarding Hamburg suggest, it is when dealing with the consequences after the event that the toughest challenges often present themselves. Interested parties will be numerous, their interests eclectic. The position of what we might call the “Phoenix element” is already clear; their “tear down what remains and begin anew” attitude couldn’t be clearer in the comments of one German bureaucrat viewing the “opportunities” presented by Allied bombing:

Operation Gomorrah, the week-long Allied bombing campaign that leveled Hamburg in July 1943, served [architect Konstanty] Gutschow's purposes. "This act of destruction will be a blessing," the architect said of the horrific fate which had befallen Hamburg and its residents. "The Führer's prophesy that the ruined cities will rise again more resplendent than ever applies doubly to Hamburg," he said, adding: "We won't shed any tears for the vast majority of the destroyed buildings.”[10]

Representing another extreme perspective, an alternative view saw opportunity not in re-creation but rather forwarding a social and political agenda with no little component of self-service:

Squatters, often belonging to far-left clandestine housing communities, developed a pragmatic approach to reconstruction. Having chosen West Berlin as a way to avoid the military service of the Federal Republic of Germany and live an alternative urban ideal, the squatters occupied damaged and abandoned buildings. They developed strategies to make them livable and political narratives to contest the urban strategies of the administration. Their idea of reconstruction throughout the 1960s and 1970s stood in stark contrast to the destructive reconstruction promoted by the administration.[11]

We will conclude this post by looking at a very pragmatic aspect of recovery. Where does all the debris go once war, earthquake, volcanic eruption, hurricane or typhoon, or another catastrophe departs? (Or during a disaster. In 1944 and 1945 Tokyo, women, students, and even boys and girls were recruited to clear firebreaks before and remove debris after bombings. Some 7,000 students so mobilized to tear down structures while clearing firebreaks were killed in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945.)[12] Who moves the millions of tons of destruction? Much didn’t go far in post-WWII Germany. Model airplane buffs enjoy Stuttgart’s Grüner Heiner, a hill made of wartime rubble. Berliners called their many mounds of former factories, houses, shops, and other buildings “rag mountains” ("Monte Klamotte"). One, Teufelsberg ("Devil's Mountain") is the city’s second highest point and was used by the US military as a site for listening devices to monitor transmissions from the other side of The Wall during the Cold War.[13] Those images of Berliners, Londoners, Tokyoites, and others hauling debris away in their carts reflect what was reality. It is locals under varying degrees of guidance who moved much of what was previously their homes or other familiar structures.

How much did they move? In West Germany the rubble was enough to build a wall seven meters high and two meters thick along the western border of the country. That doesn’t include the 30 percent of historic buildings leveled as part of renewal efforts. Reconstruction continued into the 1980s. Only later did regrets for the loss of many vestiges of the past build. Authors Von Romain Leick, Matthias Schreiber, and Hans-Ulrich Stoldt summarized the growing recognition of that loss as follows:

Urban planners are rethinking their ideas, and the radicalism of the early postwar era is being replaced by cautious renovation and, in some cases, rebuilding. A third phase of Germany's renaissance is gathering steam and, paradoxically, it is characterized by a growing nostalgia and yearning for history, tradition, focal points and urban centers that provide orientation and a sense of identity within the metropolitan morass. Historical old cities are more popular than ever…. That initial, chaotic recovery phase after 1945—when the most important goal was just to clear all the rubble away and give people a roof over their heads—was not completely successful from an architectural and city planning point of view. Things had to be done quickly, which rendered them more improvised than thought-out. The desperate demand made mistakes easy to disregard.[14]

Recovery from urban disaster will always be complicated. The extent to which it is a “morass” will depend in part on the extent to which pre-disaster preparations, response decisions, and residents and authorities can agree to cooperate in finding an agreeable balance between preserving the old and introducing new.

Endnotes

[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.

[2] Jun Hongo, “Tokyo underground: taking property development to new depths,” The Japan Times, April 12, 2014, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2014/04/12/lifestyle/tokyo-underground/#.XDp77M9KgWo (accessed January 12, 2019).

[3] Justin McCurry, “Story of cities #24: how Hiroshima rose from the ashes of nuclear destruction,” The Guardian(April 18, 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/apr/18/story-of-cities-hiroshima-japan-nuclear-destruction (accessed August 10, 2022). Material addressing Hiroshima and its recovery here comes largely from this source.

[4]Michiko Banba and Rajib Shaw, “Postdisaster Urban Recovery: 20 Years of Recovery of Kobe,” in Rajib Shaw, et al., Urban Disasters and Resilience in Asia, Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2016, p. 227, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-802169-9.00015-X (accessed August 2, 2022). This is the source relied on for material discussing the recovery from this devastating event.

[5] Banba, “Postdisaster Urban Recovery,” p. 230.

[6] David Adams and Peter Larkham, The Everyday Experiences of Reconstruction and Regeneration: From Vision to Reality in Birmingham and Coventry, Milton Park, UK: Routledge, 2019, p. 27.

[7] Christoph Strupp, “The Port of Hamburg in the 1940s and 1950s: Physical Reconstruction and Political Restructuring in the Aftermath of World War II,” Journal of Urban History 47, 2019: pp. 354-372. Our discussion of Hamburg’s challenges relies significantly on this resource.

[8] Strupp, “The Port of Hamburg in the 1940s and 1950s,” p. 359.

[9] Strupp, “The Port of Hamburg in the 1940s and 1950s,” p. 360.

[10] Von Romain Leick, Matthias Schreiber, and Hans-Ulrich Stoldt, “Out of the Ashes: A New Look at Germany’s Postwar Reconstruction,” Der Spiegel, August 10, 2010, https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/out-of-the-ashes-a-new-look-at-germany-s-postwar-reconstruction-a-702856.html (accessed July 21, 2022).

[11] Denis Bocquet, “Reconstruction as a complex process: reflections on post-1945 Berlin,” undated, https://whc.unesco.org/document/175512 (accessed August 2, 2022), p. 9.

[12] Sheldon Garon, “Defending Civilians against Aerial Bombardment: A Comparative/Transnational History of Japanese, German, and British Home Fronts, 1918-1945,” The Asia-Pacific Journal 14, December 1, 2016, https://apjjf.org/2016/23/Garon.html (accessed October 3, 2022).

[13] Material in this chapter draws on Leick, et.al., “Out of the Ashes.”

[14] Leick, et.al., “Out of the Ashes.”

The previous installation of this series “Responding to Urban Disasters, Post Four (Post 8 of 14),” appeared on 26 January 2023.

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.

UndergroundEX

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.

Endnotes

[1] Jun Hongo, “Tokyo underground: taking property development to new depths,” The Japan Times, April 12, 2014, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2014/04/12/lifestyle/tokyo-underground/#.XDp77M9KgWo (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, https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/612141468176682794/pdf/WPS5648.pdf.

[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.

Come Hell or High Fever: Readying the World's Megacities for Disaster

Fri, 01/27/2023 - 6:03pm

Come Hell or High Fever: Readying the World's Megacities for Disaster by long-time Small Wars Journal contributor Dr. Russell W. Glenn has been released. The text is available for free download at The Australian National University/ANU Press and is also available in paper at Amazon.

Glenn

Reviews:

"Nations appear and fall, but cities endure and rediscover how to succeed. In this meticulously defined and researched book, Glenn presents ideas for minimising suffering during urban catastrophes. His urgency identifies risks held in urban areas by 3.5 billion people. These people are many of us: as urban populations occupying 3 per cent of our planet’s land area, drawing water from 41 per cent of the world’s ground surface, consuming 60 to 80 per cent of global energy and achieving 80 per cent of the world’s economic productivity. For Glenn, our resilience—through diversity in preparation, survival and recovery—includes comprehensive approaches that are sustained in duration, orchestrated in bringing all necessary capabilities to bear, layered in approach and early in application." — Major General Chris Field, Australian Army

"The time to prepare for the inevitable is now. Dr Glenn has written a book that should be read by all leaders, planners and responders who may be called upon in an urban disaster, whether natural or man-made. Military leaders should give it particular attention, as the human race is increasingly concentrated in its cities. Understanding how to wage war in dense urban terrain is essential, especially if a nation also seeks to hold the moral high ground. The fruits of any victory won among people that fails to consider the lessons in Come Hell or High Fever are likely to be very bitter." — Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, United States Army (retired)

About the Author:

Dr. Russell W. Glenn is a seasoned urban operations analyst. He served in a range of military roles, as an officer and after his retirement as a civilian. A graduate of the United States Military Academy, he served in the US Army Corps of Engineers, with combat tours in Iraq during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, as well as tours at the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS). His most recent position with the US Army was Director, Plans and Policy, G-2, at the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). He is a well-respected subject matter expert on urban operations and urban warfare and previously contributed to the Small Wars Anthology: Blood and Concrete: 21st Century Conflict in Urban Centers and Megacities.  

Russ is also author of the The Urban Disasters Series: Urban Disasters: Readiness, Response, and Recovery here at the SWJ Blog. 

ANU Press: http://doi.org/10.22459/CHHF.2023 .

Amazonhttps://amzn.to/3WOLKKS.

Source: Russell W. Glenn, Come Hell or High Fever: Readying the World's Megacities for Disaster. Canberra: The Australian National University/ANU Press. DOI: http://doi.org/10.22459/CHHF.2023. ISBN (print): 9781760465537; ISBN (online): 9781760465544. January 2023.

Responding to Urban Disasters, Post Three (Post 7 of 14)

Thu, 01/26/2023 - 3:32am

Responding to Urban Disasters, Post Three (Post 7 of 14)

Russell W. Glenn

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

Katrina Comms

Field Communications Unit; Hurricane Katrina/Hurricane Rita. Baton Rouge, LA, 24 May 2006. Public Domain, NARA & DVIDS Public Domain Archive.

This third of four posts regarding responses to urban disasters will extend our look at the role of command, leadership, and management. As with those previous, we begin with a list of key points so far noted.

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?

Armed forces can be bulls in the proverbial china shop when it comes to their participation in urban disaster response. This take-charge attitude sometimes has its place. Military forces, designed and trained to deploy quickly, are frequently able to arrive quickly with a similarly responsive logistical system. Military personnel are trained to be flexible, able to adapt to a variety of situations even when those situations are highly dynamic. It is not unusual for their men and women to stay for extended durations after deploying, meaning they can possess a superior understanding of the disaster environment than other outsiders who stay for more limited stints (but, perhaps, not as deep an understanding as some nongovernmental or intergovernmental organization representatives with even more time in the locale). And the presumption that the military’s is inevitably an overly heavy hand doesn’t withstand objective scrutiny. Then Major General Darryl Williams leadership in West Africa during the 2014 Ebola crisis was commended for its cooperative and supportive character (though following US military leadership at times was more in keeping with the overly intrusive stereotype). Such willingness to be part of a larger team and not necessarily in charge can be necessary to the establishment of trust. That trust, in turn, underlies successful implementation of a mission command approach (whether called “mission command” or some other term is used to describe the oversight system in which clear guidance is given without dictating the details of how subordinates are to accomplish assigned tasks. See the third post in this series for a fuller description of mission command.). Mission command properly employed can be effective even when the organization in question is rigidly hierarchical. Its potential is even greater when the organization in question is a coalition or alliance of largely voluntary participants willing to work toward a common goal but less enthusiastic about being told how to do so.

Who should lead? Ideally it will be the organization most qualified. Ideally that will be the in-place government (be it local, state/provincial, or national). Hopefully an able one remains in the aftermath of the disaster. If not, the lead organization might vary over time as requirements evolve not unlike the transition of authority and responsibility during military amphibious operations. As with other aspects of disaster relief, so critical a matter should be planned for and subsequently red-teamed during rehearsals.

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

Effective communications allow disaster response managers to orchestrate their resources much as a conductor leads an orchestra to create music instead of cacophony. Communications are complex, a complexity sometimes overlooked by those not intimately involved in a response. Yes, organizations’ leaders need to communicate with the subordinates and vice versa. But inter-organization communications are also vital, as is their nature. Communications between members of different organizations might be possible via direct contact regardless of the echelon if language and systems (e.g., phones, radios, or computers) are compatible. Often that is not the case. One of the tragedies associated with 9/11 in NYC was that New York City Police Department (NYPD)-New York City Fire Department (FDNY) communications were not nearly as effective as they could have been had equipment, procedures, and other factors been addressed before the event. The result: many fire personnel did not receive situation reports and evacuation warnings broadcast via NYPD channels. The result was many deaths that might have been avoided. Shortcomings were clear before 9/11. Fire and police department radios were found wanting during the response to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center (WTC). FDNY radios had not worked well within WTC towers. As was to prove the case again eight years later, police and fire cooperation had been less than desirable.[1]

Communications redundancy is hyper-important during urban crisis response. Communications systems may fail due to destruction of physical infrastructure, electromagnetic pulse, overburdening, or for other reasons. Having second, third, or even additional means of exchanging information can be vital. Preliminary planning and practice can help. Some emergency responders may be unable to reach their primary places of work due to disrupted public transportation, destroyed personal vehicles, flooding, debris, fires, or due to other causes. Primary report locations (where a responder should move to as designated in initial response plans, for example) will sometimes less need their services than do others elsewhere. Designating second and third alternate reporting locations before an event constitutes good planning. Being able to adjust those designations during a response because conditions render plans no longer applicable reflects the flexibility any good plan has built into it. But how to get word out that someone or some organization should report to their alternate or supplementary location? Establishing a sequence of communications means before a disaster is a great leap toward solution. As standing plans designate where individuals or organizations should report, no communication is generally necessary if responders are to proceed as designated. Communication is only needed when changes are called for. Plans can specify cell phones, landlines, radios, email, or other means as backups while also noting which type is to be employed in what sequence. Given that bandwidth or other limitations might make communication difficult, plans and rehearsals can also dictate ways to minimize the duration of messages. For example, a message might simply signal “2” to intended recipients, informing them that they are to report to their alternate location. Acknowledgment of message receipt could be “Ack” (for “Acknowledge”) or “2ack” to confirm the designated location as well.

Key Point #20: Data counts

The same databases that provided input during planning and rehearsals can be fine-tuned to address specific needs once calamity strikes. Census information, tax records, marketing survey results, those important property records: some, all, or others can feed the voracious appetite for information depending on the nature of the crisis, location, demographics, gaps in local capabilities, and aid provider resources. (The reason property records are so critical—and a reason insurgents or criminals deliberately target them for destruction—is that land ownership or lack of it proves a boon to any who can convince a government they own a plot or want to undermine a government by causing it to appear as the power stealing from rightful owners.) If patients have waived release of relevant medical information or local policies permit access regardless, medical data can tell aid providers who needs what treatment, medications, where someone lives, and what challenges exist (mobility limitations, deafness, asthma, need for insulin, reliance on home respirators, or psychiatric problems, for example). Pharmacy information provides less comprehensive but potentially still valuable insights. The potential to save lives begs the question of whether policies are in place to make such information available during a catastrophe; granting individual or collective permission to access the information before a crisis speeds response, especially if damage to an information infrastructure is such that attempting to collect it post-calamity denies access. Pre-disaster rehearsals and other exercises should point to additional information that health care providers could include as release-in-times-of-emergency data. Does the home respirator for a given patient have battery backup? If so, how long will the charge last? If not, does the residence have a backup generator? If so, how much fuel is stored at the location? What other type of battery or backup power source is on site? (Crankable? Rechargeable? None?)

We shouldn’t forget that disease can either be the primary cause of an urban disaster (plague in 17th-century Europe for example or, to a far lesser extent, COVID in 2020) or derivative thereof. During World War II, London’s Islington saw a 35 percent increase in pulmonary tuberculosis in 1943 as compared to the value five years before. The spike was 40 percent for non-pulmonary tuberculosis.[2]

The above are only some of the data that can help responders’ effectiveness thanks to their knowing what needs at-risk individuals have and where they live. If cellular systems are still operating (as well as the power infrastructure needed to recharge phones), cell phone data can be notably helpful given its real-time character. Emergency responders have used call time and cell tower locations data to track malaria outbreaks in Africa. They could similarly help trace the flow of commuters found to have been exposed to biological, radiological, or chemical contamination during a terrorist attack, accidental exposure, or chemical leak. Testing public sewage has already provided early warning of disease, another means of giving responders a headstart in detection and, potentially, interdicting spread.

Endnotes

[1] Louis Menand, “Disgraced: What happened to Rudy Giuliani?” The New Yorker, September 26, 2022: p. 75.

[2] Philip Ziegler, London at War: 1939-1945, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, p. 260.

The previous installation of this series “Responding to Urban Disasters, Post Two (Post 6 of 14),” appeared on 24 January 2023.

Responding to Urban Disasters, Post Two (Post 6 of 14)

Tue, 01/24/2023 - 2:41pm

Responding to Urban Disasters, Post Two (Post 6 of 14)

Russell W. Glenn

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

Gr round Zero

FDNY Deputy Chief Exercising Field Command at World Trade Center,

“Ground Zero” After 9/11 Attacks. Public Domain, US National Archives 9/11 Collection

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.

Introduction

Building on our previous post, we should note that instances in which individuals demonstrate a lack of common sense during urban disasters are regrettably not limited to members of the public or politicians. Too many public figures, medical personnel, and members of first responder organizations demonstrated similarly inexplicable behavior at the height of the COVID pandemic. In contrast, over seventy years before, members of the public and authorities alike stepped-up during New York City’s 1947 struggle with smallpox:

The public was treated as an ally. [Medical historian Judith Levitt recalls,] “in two weeks, five million New Yorkers were vaccinated.” Coercion was used elsewhere: “The drug companies were a little less cooperative until Mayor O’Dwyer locked them into City Hall and said you are going to produce more vaccine, and you’re going to do it very quickly, or you’re not leaving this building, and they surprisingly agreed…. It was a voluntary vaccinations program…. Public compliance was incredibly high. Now I don't have to remind you that this is immediately post-World war II, and that did have something to do…with the level of organization in the city and the cooperative effort.”[1]

Why highlight on this point? Though we like to think ourselves and fellow citizens savvier today than those generations ago, such an assumption is ill advised as we plan for and respond to urban disasters today. Why the seeming backward slippage in common sense?[2] The examples below will show that the type of urban disaster has an influence. Timing can as well. As noted in the quotation, America’s citizens in 1947 were used to sacrificing for the public good whether as military personnel or civilians on the home front. Part of it was also the quality of the nation’s command, leadership, and management at the time.

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

There is pretty good support for an argument that most urban disaster failures have their roots in command, leadership, and management shortfalls. Bureaucracy plays a vital role. Qualified, capable, well-intentioned, and effective organizations and individuals are essential. Put differently, good government and good governors are a good—a very good—thing.

Preparations for and response to the September 11, 2011 attacks on the United States provide a relevant example, unfortunately in the sense of demonstrating the costs when one or more of the above is lacking. The horror of the day is evident to any who was there, watched from a distance, or followed subsequent events, but the extent of the destruction in the vicinity of Ground Zero is worthy of note because it in microcosm reflects what urban victims of the 1666 London fire, 1923 Tokyo earthquake, 1945 bombings of Hamburg and Dresden, and many other disasters throughout history have experienced on much grander scales. The title of Jay D. Aronson’s Who Owns the Dead? The Science and Politics of Death at Ground Zero hints at some of the troubles confronted during the response to and recovery from that dreadful day. He also notes just how disorienting urban disasters can be—have repeatedly been—since fires, tremors, raids, volcanos, or other forms of devastation have visited since humankind first created urban areas. “People who were on the scene just after the towers collapsed,” Aronson observes, “report being awestruck by the devastation with which they were confronted. Life-long New Yorkers found themselves completely disoriented on streets that they had walked innumerable times before.”[3] And this regarding what was at most a postage stamp-sized area on the envelope of America’s most populous urban area. Imagine the disorientation when a metropolis suffers widespread devastation akin to our previously noted cases.

Disorientation gave way to disorganization and inter-organizational competition around Ground Zero. Like our earlier-noted shortfalls in vetting NGOs in 2016-17 Mosul, Aronson reported lack of a credentialing process until five days after the attack, meaning “large numbers of unnecessary personnel became involved in the search and rescue effort, making it difficult to work efficiently and potentially putting peoples’ lives at risk”[4] as well as expanding the number of those exposed to later respiratory or other ailments. One (seemingly obvious) lesson for urban authorities planning for large-scale disasters: identify needs, allocate responsibilities, train personnel, and put procedures in place that will be necessary once catastrophe comes to call before it does so. The New York Police Department’s lack of in-house expertise when it came to gathering biological samples and related information led to confusion as forms pertaining to the identification of remains failed to request all needed data. Multiple forms were at times filled out for the same person, making identification and notification further problematic, this in addition to other (perhaps less avoidable) errors such as wrong reporting of birthdates or spelling of names.[5] FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and US Army Corps of Engineers assisted local authorities, but the federal government never nationalized the site. Oversight of rescue, recovery, and other operations consequently devolved to the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), a supremely dedicated but interested party given the high number of firefighters lost in the Twin Towers collapse. This lack of an official, overarching manager left no one to address inter-organizational tensions that arose as response and recovery work progressed.[6]

Also telling: Rivalry between the NYPD and FDNY had been allowed to influence the degree of cooperation and compatibility of the two organizations in the years prior to 9/11. The two organizations competed for funding and other resources, a situation that reflects on management by city authorities at higher echelons and in-place policies.[7] Among those leaders whose pre-event decisions raise questions was New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Advisors resisted his efforts to move the emergency operations center (EOC) located at a well-equipped and secure facility across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan to 7 World Trade Center. He nonetheless pushed for the relocation, emphasizing his desire that the EOC be within easy walking distance of City Hall. Convenient perhaps, but unwise given a result that put multiple crisis-crucial sites within a too-short distance of each other.[8] It’s not as if the mayor did not have the opportunity to learn from urban disasters elsewhere. The 1985 earthquake that struck Mexico City knocked out many facilities that were vital to an effective response given their over-concentration in the central part of the megacity. Among those were twenty-seven hospitals destroyed or damaged and a resulting 40 percent of the city’s medical capacity disrupted. Damage to a single downtown building also interrupted local, national, and international telephone service.[9]

Anyone familiar with bureaucracies knows that critical decisions by select individuals are often key to overcoming flawed bureaucratic policies, procedures, and personalities during a crisis. Personal relationships are as crucial during response as they are to effective preparations and recovery. Such individuals and such relationships blow through or manage workarounds to obstacles stolid officialdoms put in place.[10]

A parting observation: the larger the urban area and greater the disaster, the more likely assistance will come from individuals and external organizations less familiar or unfamiliar with the city’s governing structure and its key decision-makers. Plans and crisis response procedures should acknowledge this eventuality. Hosting authorities need to ensure high-quality liaison personnel and coordinating organizations assist those lending a hand.[11]

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

As command, leadership, and management are fundamental to success, it is essential to have a functional and supportive organizational structure for orchestrating an effective disaster response. One benefit in most post-disaster cases: local and higher-level governments will still be in charge. Even governments less than desirable in terms of capability and commitment can help given their understanding of local conditions, expectations, location of important records, and the identity of community and influence leaders both formal and informal. It is an advantage in many but unfortunately not all cases.

While it is in most cases desirable to work within the structure of an existing (or previous) government, those responding in disaster’s aftermath need not slavishly adhere to in-place configurations. “It may have sounded great in theory to follow the Iraqi system,” Andrew Alderson observed when writing of Basra, Iraq early in the 21st century, “but one of the reasons why the centralized Iraqi government hadn’t worked well was precisely because they had nineteen different groups reporting into the centre to be told what to do.”[12] Flawed government structures can be inherently inefficient if not ineffective. Those deliberately bloated or otherwise hindered by unneeded hierarchical layers also burden responding organizations with excessive liaison responsibilities. Both immediate response efforts and long-term urban health may be helped by working with urban authorities to modify pre-disaster structures when alternative approaches look to prove inadequate. The timing and extent of changes should be carefully considered, however. Overly ambitious alterations in the days immediately following an urban disaster can exacerbate rather than mollify crisis conditions.

Even a government as sophisticated as Japan’s found itself struggling to orchestrate the response and recovery to its 2011 earthquake-tsunami-reactor calamity.  The national government established the Ministry of Recovery to collaborate with local and prefectural governments. Yet overlapping responsibilities between the Ministries of Industry; Agriculture, Forest, and Fishery; and that of Land and Transportation hindered urban and rural responses alike. Similar to the funding shortfalls that plagued London in 1666 and Tokyo in 1923, Ministry of Recovery funding never equaled its leaders’ ambitious response plans.[13] Bureaucratic structures suitable for day-to-day operations in times of routine can crack and break when disasters visit. Effective responses may demand changes difficult to make under the best of circumstances and virtually impossible to accomplish if not considered in pre-response planning and exercises.

Endnotes

[1] Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, New York: Penguin, 2010, p. 128.

[2] While there has certainly been slippage in some aspects of urban disaster decision-making, medical and political personalities’ absurd responses to the post-WWI flu pandemic in the United States and responses during other historical calamities provide close company to dubious 21st-century choices. For example, see John M. Barry, “How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/journal-plague-year-180965222/.

[3] Jay D. Aronson, Who Owns the Dead? The Science and Politics of Death at Ground Zero, Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2016, p. 28.

[4] Aronson, Who Owns the Dead?, pp. 28-29.

[5] Aronson, Who Owns the Dead?, p. 31.

[6] Aronson, Who Owns the Dead?, pp. 32, 37, and 38. Aronson reports, for example, “Firefighters offered differential treatment to their own victims compared to other uniformed service victims and civilians. Each time that remains of a firefighter or firefighting gear was located, the entire Ground Zero recovery effort ceased. All workers at the site, whether uniformed service personnel or civilian construction workers, paused and saluted the fallen firefighter. If remains were recovered, they were wrapped in an American flag and paraded through a lineup of Ground Zero workers. These remains were immediately sent to the OCME [Office of the Chief Medical Examiner] via ambulance rather than being placed in a refrigerated trailer on site for later transport to the OCME.” He goes on to write, “people familiar with the recovery effort say that FDNY could have benefited from more professional anthropological and archaeological expertise on site,” to include anthropologists who volunteered their services.

[7] Jay D. Aronson, Who Owns the Dead?, 33. Aronson is but one of several sources bemoaning lack of greater cooperation between the two organizations. It has reportedly improved in subsequent years.

[8] Louis Menand, “Disgraced: What happened to Rudy Giuliani?” The New Yorker, September 26, 2022), p. 75; and Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, p. 213.

[9] Diane E. Davis, “Reverberations: Mexico City’s 1985 Earthquake and the Transformation of the Capital,” in Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella, ed., The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 261-62 (uncorrected advance reading copy).

[10] Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, p. 125.

[11] Hilary Synnott, Bad Days in Basra, New York: I.B Tauris, 2008 provides an excellent and at times entertaining example in this regard. Synnott writes of having to deal with the Coalition Provisional Authority during international efforts in early twenty-first-century Iraq.

[12] Andrew Alderson, Bankrolling Basra: the incredible story of a part-time soldier, $1 billion and the collapse of Iraq, London: Robinson, 2007, p. 64.

[13] 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: p. 345.

The previous installation of this series “Responding to Urban Disasters, Post One (Post 5 of 14),” appeared on 22 January 2023.

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.

Introduction

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.

Endnotes

[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), https://apjjf.org/2021/19/Plung.html (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.