Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Human Resilience

We talk about a community’s ability to cope with and recover from disasters in terms of resilience, but for the most part fail to extend the definition to include how to better mentally and emotionally prepare the people who will be affected. Disaster impacts are quantified by physical damage done to homes, infrastructure, and the total economic losses that result. While these factors are central in determining the severity of an event, it’s a sterile way of classifying the scope of something that exacts a heavy human toll.

According to a Gallup poll, the clinical diagnosis of depression in zip codes heavily affected by Sandy increased by 25% in the weeks following the storm. This coming at a time when Health and Human Service organizations that remained operational were stretched thin and left to deal with the overwhelming number of storm-related needs. What the poll didn’t measure were the number of individuals who were on medications for a pre-existing mental illness that stopped taking them due to facilities being taken off line, medication being lost in the storm, or not being able to contact their case worker due to lack of power, public transportation outages, and an absence of reliable information. 

In addition to the challenges posed by a lack of medications and reliable information, many substance abuse clinics worried/worry about the rise in abuse and relapses as a result of Sandy-related stresses. But the worry extends beyond substance and drug abuse, PTSD in adults and children, acute stress-related behaviors, flashbacks, hoarding, and a host of other personal mental issues continue to plague the survivors in their ability to recover. 

While organizations like the Staten Island Mental Health Society, Long Island Mental Health Services, and other nonprofit human service organizations have setup support groups, free crisis counseling, and other Sandy-related programming, the scale of the ongoing trauma point to an area needing urgent attention, understanding, and additional resources to adequately ensure support is there for those who need it. 

The greatest challenge facing those who preach preparedness is that there is no way for a person to understand how they will react in the face of an event until they're faced with an event. Training can help, but for the average person, training isn't realistic. Up to this point, check lists like the one put out by the American Psychological Association, the Disaster Distress Hotline, self care, and having a strong network of friends and family have been the promoted best practices to help individuals prepare for post-event psychological trauma. To enhance our knowledge of the short and long term psychological affects natural disasters have on people, the Feinstein Institute was recently awarded a $600,000 grant from the CDC. Over the next 2 years, a study will be conducted aimed at deepening our understanding of how to better prepare people to cope with the impacts of natural weather events that are forecast to become more common. 

As a stronger emphasis is placed on whole of community response, stronger advocacy will be needed to ensure that human resilience is made a key value and takeaway as a result of Superstorm Sandy. While building codes can uniformly address needed changes to how we protect ourselves, and flood maps will tell us how high to build, resilience in people is a far more dynamic and individualistic challenge, one that will require ongoing thought and resource to ensure that the communities we're working to make stronger can weather the next storm.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Speed of Long Term Recovery

Normandy Beach, NJ   Credit: Jeremy M. Lange
Today marks the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy making its historic landfall in the mid-Atlantic region. There are numerous articles commemorating the event by examining the causes and impacts ranging from meteorological to psychological, in an effort to better understand what’s been done and what’s left to do. Regardless of the cause or reason, each article revolves around the theme that while steps towards recovery have been made, real issues continue to plague families struggling through the recovery gauntlet. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Sandy impacted millions of people, and did incredible damage to infrastructure and the fabric of communities, so where is it written that 364 days later everything has to be fixed? Most articles question the progress, or lack thereof and ask “what’s holding up the recovery process?” While valid, in reading those same articles I ask if anyone has stopped to consider that it may be dubbed “Long” Term Recovery for a reason, and that it could be due to the fact that holistic rehabilitation takes time.

Because recovery is unique to the community impacted, it’s tough to measure progress without benchmarks. And creating generic benchmarks can’t be done because in each community different demographic sets were impacted--differently. All you can do is track what’s been done on a timeline so that in the future you have something to measure against, to create community-specific recovery data that can be the beginnings of benchmark creation. The long-term recovery of a town or county is a herculean task, when you multiply that by the size and population density of Sandy impacted areas, the scale of recovery needed for the mid-Atlantic region borders on Sisyphean.

I don’t bring that up as a scapegoat for broken programs or inefficient bureaucracy, I bring it up because it’s easy to lose sight of the enormity of the task when reading about how “little” has been done. So instead of adding to the cacophony of damning stats and stories of those still battling the federal government for recovery dollars, I choose to look at the two schools of thought that have added to the complexity of the recovery efforts and have helped set its tempo.

The dueling narratives at work in the mid-Atlantic region are not surprising, one focused on speed and the other trying to be more thoughtful in its approach to recovery. What is surprising is how they have the ability to spur progress and what directions that progress takes.

Restore the Shore
The cries that no act of god or mother nature will keep us from our homes are common as a community dusts itself off and sets about putting the pieces of their lives back together. Following Sandy the phrase “restore the shore” was adopted across NJ and could be felt in many other coastal communities as an unofficial mantra. For NJ building back along the shore wasn’t a question, the question was how quickly it could happen. This fixation on speed was amplified by statements committing resources to building back in the midst of early recovery chaos; oftentimes these proclamations of civic hubris are more about political theater than actually implementing recovery programming, but, it fed the mentality that there was no other course than to build it back, and to do so as quickly as possible. Part of the impetus for speed is due to many of the seaside communities relying heavily on tourism to keep their doors open and the boardwalk and other nostalgic throwbacks are what draw people to the shore year after year.

When Moore, OK was struck for the 5th time in just over a decade by an EF-5 tornado, people were throwing walls and trusses together to get on with their lives as soon as they could—just as they always had. However, it was only until some questioned whether repeating the storm/construction cycle that contributed to the loss of life and property was the best course of action, and asked whether changes should be enacted to building codes to mitigate future loss of life and property, did people pump the brakes on recovery. However, in the face of intense pressure, no changes to Moore’s building codes have taken affect, so all those who have rebuilt are not subject to any changes that would make their homes more resilient in the face of the next storm. Build it back and get on with life dictated the tempo in Moore and while I don’t wish a repeat storm, I don’t know what it will take for people to wake up.
Bob Bielk/The Asbury Park Press, via Associated Press
In September of this year the rebuilt boardwalk in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights, NJ burned down taking significant sections of commercial property along with it. The cause of the blaze was faulty wiring. Investigators found that wiring that had been completely submerged by the storm surge had not been replaced and was overlooked in the rush to reopen the boardwalk. While the loss of the newly built boardwalk and iconic businesses are tragic, some believe that instead of re-rebuilding a boardwalk that would get washed away in a future storm, maybe this is would be an opportunity to explore options that preserve the shore as an economic driver while also incorporating measures that would mitigate the damage form a future storm of equal or greater magnitude. Those hoping for a pause on construction were disappointed when Governor Christie promised additional recovery dollars to be earmarked for boardwalk construction in an effort to get ready for next year’s summer season.

While getting families back in their homes and re-opening businesses are the foundational elements of community recovery, the above are two higher profile examples of how haste can work against the underlying efforts driving recovery. 

Resilient Communities
The other narrative at play, one that’s not quite as popular as it doesn’t have a catchy slogan is the idea that seaside communities have been given an opportunity to rethink their future. That instead of building back to pre-storm conditions, new construction techniques and approaches to planning can make communities less susceptible to storm surges and high wind events, while fulfilling traditional civic needs. Some, like retired coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey take a stronger stance, urging people to retreat from the coast in advance of what will be stronger storms and rising seas. While Mr. Pilkey may be in the minority, there is a growing call for substantive action on the part of those in charge to restore natural marsh and wetlands. These natural sponges absorb storm surge and many were filled in for property development. Their return would be a natural mitigation measure that would lessen future storm impacts while improving the eco-systems of coastal habitats that help drive tourism. Another well-received natural measure is the creation of dunes to mitigate the impacts of high winds and storm surge. In addition to these natural solutions, there are design contests and other actions tied to the receipt of federal dollars that are trying to shake communities out of the build it back mentality.
Credit: CT Audubon Society
While the resilient approach to reducing impacts of future Sandy-like storms that will be the new normal seem like the only way forward, much of the call for building resilience into recovery has only been talk up to this point.

So how do you measure the speed of recovery? And whose benchmarks are you going to use? These questions are central to how the next 12 months will play out along the mid-Atlantic region. Many homeowners just want the ability to go home and are pushing for dollars to achieve that end, while others worry that the home they go back to will be at risk the next time a storm rumbles up the east coast.

Like most things in disaster response and recovery, there is no clear way forward. It’s up to those entrusted to oversee the process to strike a balance that works in getting people back in their homes while incorporating as many mitigation measures as possible to reduce future storm impacts.

Which side makes the most sense to you? 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast -- Sandy Recovery

Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast. In theory this beautifully crafted statement would be the tagline for Long Term Recovery. Unfortunately, the reality that many renters, homeowners, and municipalities face during the Long Term Recovery process can be characterized as anything but ‘smooth’ or ‘fast’. You needn’t look further than any one of the stories that the news media has published in light of Superstorm Sandy’s 1-year anniversary for evidence of this fact. Recovery dollars are delayed; homeowner’s continue to wrangle with FEMA, their insurance companies, and contractors on money owed or how best to proceed in the face of the ever-changing landscape that is Long Term Recovery on a wide scale.
Staten Island, NY - Midland Beach Area (Credit: Natan Dvir/Polaris)
Given the lasting social, financial, and political impacts Sandy has had on the Mid-Atlantic region, one post devoted to understanding where things stand didn’t seem appropriate. With that said, I’m going to spend this week looking at Sandy through a number of different lens and explore:

The speed of Long Term Recovery
Within hours of Sandy’s passing communities were calling to be rebuilt, urging for the expeditious return to pre-Sandy conditions. At the same time though, another narrative surfaced, one with a focus on building back stronger and smarter to create more resilient communities. These opposing views are at odds with one another and have created environments strained by competing interests, which is affecting recovery speed and responsiveness.

The Mental Impacts of Disaster
While much of the impacts of disaster are quantified by the physical damage done to communities, there are mental impacts that disaster brings that don’t get attention because they’re usually silent. The passage of Sandy was a traumatic event, creating, uncovering, and exacerbating mental illness, adding to the strain of an already difficult situation. The mental toll Sandy exacted on families already struggling isn't a story often told, but one that has impacted everyone who went through the storm in some way.

Nonprofits in Long Term Recovery
In the aftermath of response, images of armies of volunteers doing cleanup work, distributing meals, and generally giving everyone a warm fuzzy feeling were everywhere. In the interceding 12 months the volunteer interest has waned, and many of the groups that descended on the mid-Atlantic region have long since packed up and moved on. So, what role do nonprofits play this far into recovery operations? What challenges are they facing? And how is a balance struck between contractors looking for work and Nonprofits providing similar services for free?

The Future of Long Term Recovery
What have we learned, and will we as a collective conscious care when it happens again in a smaller community? Will the pressure be as intense? If every community that experiences a disaster will go through the trials and tribulations of long-term recovery, how can we make them better prepared so that the speed of recovery is no longer a problem?

The Recovery of any community is a complex and drawn out process where competing interests lobby for how recovery dollars should be spent and opposing viewpoints clash over who should be leading the efforts. While the statement: 'slow is smooth and smooth is fast' would be a great way to characterize long term recovery, until communities are stronger and better prepared for dealing with the realities of what recovery entails, they will have to remain an aspirational ideal. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Matt Damon, Defender of the Universe

With so many charities out there it's easy to lose your way, to feel that you truly know who you're giving to and what they're do with your donation.
Source: House of Lies
That's why I'd like to introduce you to Damon's Children. Matt Damon, already known for his work in many philanthropic endeavors, is lending his name, his marksmanship, and his apparent ability to prescribe medicine to children around the world.

No stranger to getting his hands dirty, Mr. Damon has long been a staunch advocate for world health issues. His work in raising awareness around Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene issues was most notably promoted by his refusal to use a toilet. (below)

And while some may view Mr. Damon's tactics as unorthodox, with no clear connection between his unique brand of advocacy and work done on the ground I say, look at that smile, that smile wouldn't lie to you.

I would like to commend him for being so vocal, for being a visionary, and for refusing to stand behind his boyish good looks while fighting for what he believes in.

Have a good weekend.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Surviving a blackout

When the lights went out in NYC for a few hours there were inconveniences for people and losses for business. However, it was only for a few hours and people chalked it up to a once in a lifetime experience.

While many hope that's the case, the aging power grid and books like 'One Second After' point to the potential for a more protracted "lights out" scenario. 

American Blackout is a special that National Geographic will be airing on Oct 27th that explores what a protracted blackout scenario would look like. While I don't know if I'll tune in, I did checkout the interactive website. It breaks down what a 10-day blackout scenario would look like for an individual and I think the format is something that would be interesting to see applied to the broader world of preparedness. It's engaging, interactive, and kept me clicking. 

If you want to kill some time, check it out. 

Do you know of something similar? Leave a comment below, I would like to see what else is out there.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Drought, Fire, and Climate Change?

Earlier this year I posted on an unprecedented firestorm that overtook Tasmanian towns in "Fire on the Mountain." What was astounding about that event was the fact that there was nothing anyone could do to "fight" that blaze; the wind, the soaring temperatures, and the aggressive nature of the fire were more than conventional firefighting tactics could handle, and as such, the only thing people could do was to get out of the way and let it burn.

Six days ago what started as fires in the brush and farm lands around the Blue Mountains of New South Wales (NSW), a national park area roughly 60 miles from the heart of downtown Sydney, has mutated into 60 fires with 18 of them uncontained thanks to high winds, high temps, and low humidity. In addition to the environmental factors fanning the flames, the topography of the mountainous area in question and the high density of volatile eucalyptus, or "gasoline trees," are adding to the challenges of keeping an ever expanding fire front under control.
NSW brushfire 10.21.2013             Source: Brisbanetimes
And while all signs point to the an unholy trinity of environmental factors: high heat, low humidity, and high wind for fanning the flames of the current situation, Andy Pitman from the University of New South Wales believes that climate change is the cause of this current emergency and not the coincidental alignment of environmental factors. Pitman asserts that the 2nd warmest winter on record in NSW, part of Australia's warmest 12 month period created the environment in which the fires are thriving and that there is probably a larger link to climate change. Regardless of the root cause, Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons just wants it to end.

Wednesday Morning (AEDT) Rural Fire Service Media Briefing:

So the big question is...if fires have been a way of life in Australia for decades, would it not make sense to create a map based on fire behavior and historical fire data to inform where and how homes are built in the future? Like all large disasters, the cleanup and restoration of areas are often partially subsidized with taxpayer dollars. While you can't predict where a fire will start, I believe there is enough data to inform the designation of high risk areas where it would be likely to spread and why. Based on this information couldn't mapping of "red zones" or off-limit areas be compiled to not only reduce the scope of these destructive events, but to also alleviate some of the taxpayer burden, and reduce the anxiety of living in fear of fire?

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Bohol quake is about more than churches

October 17th marked the day of the Shakeout, an opportunity for people to run through the motions of an earthquake scenario to see how they would react in the event of a quake.

Last Thursday's simulation was made a lot more real in light of the 7.2 quake that shook the Philippines two days prior. In the last week there have been over 1900 aftershocks keeping tensions high and people on alert. The story that emerged from the Philippines in the days immediately following the quake was the damage done to many of the historic churches that dot the archipelago of islands. However, the human and community toll is just beginning to come into focus.

To give you an idea, the power released during a magnitude 7 earthquake is equivalent to that of 32 Million Tons of TNT; the largest US test of a Thermonuclear device only yielded the power of a Magnitude 6.0 Quake:
Thermonuclear blast from 'Castle Bravo Test' equivalent to 6.0 Quake
And while the Philippines is no stranger to shaking, having a front row seat along the Ring of Fire, coming on the heels of typhoon after typhoon affecting the north island of Luzon (think Manila), the country was already dealing with more than one crisis that has stretched the capacity and resources of its response capabilities.

Given the increasing impact and broadening of scope the quake has had on public/private enterprises and infrastructure, the Philippines isn't turning away the offers of international aid. However, in order to effectively utilize those offers of help, an understanding of the full scope of the quake remains the top priority. According to the latest sitrep from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council:
  • 186 are dead | 583 injured | 11 missing
  • Out of more than 600,000 families affected, 80,000+ have been displaced
  • Shelter populations: 96 Evacuation Shelters house 22,113 families
  • 45,641 homes have been damaged (10,020 destroyed / 35,621 partially damaged)
The sitrep is extremely detailed and while these numbers remain in a quasi-fluid state, given that its been less than a week and some of the areas have been cut off until recently, having detailed situational awareness early on will help focus attention and resources on areas where the needs remain acute.

The Digital Rumor Mill

As was probably the case in India leading up to Phailin's landfall, the challenge of dealing with misinformation via social networks and SMS chains remains a challenge for those managing preparedness and recovery efforts. reported this message causing panic and confusion:

While subsequent messaging from government agencies was sent to refute this message as well as the rumors of a new Volcano forming in the region, unease among residents trying to begin on their road to recovery remains present.

In the face of the disaster rumor mill, ongoing aftershocks, remote areas continuing to need immediate assistance, and the capital city reeling from an intense Typhoon season, those who are responsible for dealing with the aftermath of last week's temblor have their work cut out for them.

After looking at what's happened and continues to happen to the people of the Philippines, waiting and wondering when the ground will settle down...I wonder if those who participated in the Shakeout drills considered how they would deal with a lack of information and what they could do to help prepare mentally for something so unexpected.

For those who have been impacted and those who are there to help, be safe.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Social Giving

I love it when it's Friday and I find an interesting infographic to share. I've shared infographics on the power of social media has during response activities, but as organizations involved in disaster it can be difficult to figure out if/whether/how these channels should be used to raise some cash.

While the below is interesting, it's sad to see that international aid is only 2% and that disaster response/recovery doesn't make the cut.

Do you and/or your organization utilize social media as a means to raise funds? How's it working or not working for you?

Thanks to the folks over at Blackbaud for putting this together.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

World Disaster Report 2013

Since 1993 the 'World Disaster Report' has been an annual examination of trends in humanitarian aid covering topics ranging from: Public Health and Ethics in Aid, to Urban Risk and Hunger & Malnutrition. Produced by the International Federation of Red Crescent Societies in partnership with Harvard's Humanitarian Initiative, this report aims to track trends, highlight facts, and analyze contemporary events and their impacts on populations worldwide.

The subject of this year's report focuses on the impact technological innovation has had on humanitarian action. It examines the progress made in reducing lives lost through the innovation and integration of tech. It also devotes a chapter to understanding two important assumptions: "that adding technology is inevitable and that doing so will generate progress." While not having read the chapter yet, I appreciate that there is an examination of the risks involved given the rapid transformation of how we use technology, and how those risks could potentially impact how humanitarian aid is delivered. With many new innovations, we tend to gloss over the bad in favor of the good, so the honest approach to both sides of the 'tech in aid' issue is welcomed.

I hope that after reading through the document that one comes away with a sense of optimism that technology can and will continue to play an important role in reducing loss of life and property due to disasters, and to remember that technology should remain a means to an end and not an end in and of itself.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Welcome to the future of preparedness

The sky turns black, the storm clouds roll in...the ominous blare of the warning sirens wait, those aren't sirens, that's emotionally uplifting classical music.

Cut to the truck driving up the river...awesome.

If you, your organization, or your state agency is looking to raise the profile a little bit, may I suggest one of whatever these vehicles are. Nothing says we're in control like a vehicle that makes the full-sized army hummer look like a compact. They're perfect for taking donors to impoverished areas, for using river beds as roads, and while you don't see it in the video below, they make a great a rental for when you want to make an entrance at the next big annual conference.

And talk about an easy sell to donors...nothing says fiscal responsibility like a giant diesel monster truck, just show them the video, I think it sells itself. Toyota is doing their 100 Cars for Good campaign right now...if you can make a special request, mine would be whatever brand of super truck this happens to be.

Welcome to the future of community preparedness.

Thanks to Aaron Mason for passing this piece of awesome along.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Great Shakeout

On Oct 17th almost 18 million people will participate in one of the largest organized annual preparedness events in the US, the Great Shakeout.

India's well coordinated preparedness and aggressive early recovery cleanup illustrates the power of having plans and how exercising those plans can reduce the loss of life and minimize confusion around roles and responsibilities in the aftermath of an event. The Great Shakeout is an opportunity to spend some time thinking through the "what if's" of an earthquake. It's a chance to take an honest look at your kit (if you have one) and figure out what still needs to be added, as well as going over the plan: where to meet and when, collecting copies of important documents, etc... I'm convinced that one of the main reasons people ignore preparedness is because it's uncomfortable to think about so it's pushed from our minds. This delay only works against our best interests when an earthquake strikes. While the event gives individuals a chance to take stock, it's also an opportunity for municipalities to go over their planning and think through how preparedness can be better messaged and what response and recovery will look like between local and state partners, etc...

The Shakeout is an opportunity to ask the "stupid" questions, to figure out what you'll do, and take some time to learn about what your village, city, or town plans to do to help minimize loss of life and property.

Are you in an area where there is the risk of and Earthquake? Are you ready?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Cyclone Phailin heralds the winds of change

It was as if the news media was so starved from a lack of Hurricane activity in the Atlantic that when Cyclone Phailin quickly intensified from a Category 1 to a 4 in just over 24 hours, the internet exploded at the prospect of dramatic news coverage. Never mind that Super Typhoons Utor and Usagi in the Pacific caused widespread damage earlier this year to little domestic fanfare. 

What captured everyone's attention is that Cyclone Phailin underwent explosive intensification, leaving little time for Indian Authorities to alert the densely populated coast where Phailin was due to strike. With memories of the 'Himalayan Tsunami' that killed thousands in June still fresh on everyone's minds, the prospect of a Category 4 Cyclone hitting the coast seemed impossible. Couple this with the fact that the US Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center was calling into question the reports the IMD (Indian Meteorological Department) was issuing, claiming they were downplaying the speed and the intensity of the storms potential impacts, and it looked as if a major humanitarian crisis were about to unfold before our eyes.

photo credit: Luke Villapaz 

In a bold move, the State government of Odisha publicized their intent to make Cyclone Phailin a 'zero casualty' event and conducted the mass evacuation of all citizens within 5km of the coast. Local leaders went through towns and villages aggressively moving close to 1 million individuals and families out of harms way to the network of shelters built after the 1999 Cyclone that killed 10,000.

The outcome is that the number of deaths reported are at 14 and expected to climb but not by much, major thoroughfares were cleared of debris within 24 hours, train service has been restored, and the power to much of the impacted states will begin to be restored on Monday. 

While damage assessments are ongoing and the true scope of Phailin's impacts are still being calculated, it would appear that India has managed to take lessons learned from the past and apply them to a current crisis and actually have it pay dividends. India has just proved to the world that investing in disaster preparedness is a worthwhile proposition. Even in the face of governmental turnover, political infighting, a massive geographic area in which to implement the plan, and over a decade to let disaster amnesia sink in, the rapid evacuation of close to a million people and what appears to be the speedy restoration of access and infrastructure point to the fact that India got it right.

As reports emerge about what recovery will look like, it'll be interesting to read how the increase in mobile technology aided in the delivery of critical information that helped expedite evacuations.

It also raises the question, while we're still less than a decade out from Katrina making landfall, how would we fare if faced with another Katrina-like storm hitting the Gulf Coast? Would we rise to the occasion, learning from the past or are we doomed to make the same mistakes again and again?

Friday, October 11, 2013

Quality vs Speed: Hitting the mark during rebuild

The joists are dry as are the studs, and the requisite inspections have been conducted which means that a once disaster affected house is one step closer to again becoming a home. This is where many families find themselves in the Mid-Atlantic region with organizations and contractors feeling the urgency to get the work done--quickly. While the ideal for every homeowner would be to hire a professional restoration / reconstruction contractor to bring their house back to pre-disaster conditions, many homeowner's face financial shortfalls that prevent this from happening. As a result, these individuals and families come to rely on donated materials and voluntary labor to help cover any gaps that exist during the repair/rebuild process. However, a unique confluence of factors: changing weather, a strain on human resources, and a lack of finances "to do it right," has created an environment where two schools of thought have emerged centering around the speed at which homes are completed vs the level of quality in the finished product.

Speed Demons
One side views quantity as its highest priority, rebuild as many homes as possible, as quickly as possible. In this scenario homeowners are framed more as victims needing saving than as equals in the process; having already dealt with so much: shady contractors, trying to unravel FEMA's grant programming, the permitting process, and insurance companies, the view is that any help given should be welcomed. After all, without the assistance of voluntary resources and donated material, the work done for homeowners in need may never take place. And because of that, the best efforts of those who came to help should be enough, regardless of the quality of the finished product.

Quality over Quantity
The opposing view asks what's the point of having "finished" 100 homes if the homes completed have problems, or because of the workmanship will need to be fixed in 3-5 years? Those who believe quality should not be sacrificed take a tougher stance, believing that homeowner's with need shouldn't be viewed as charity cases waiting for someone's best effort to come along to help them. They believe that the work done on behalf of an individual or family that has gone through the trauma of a natural disaster deserves the best possible and most professional result.

Who's Right?
This debate, like many that surround how best to approach holistic community recovery is one where there doesn't seem to be a "right" or "wrong" answer. Given that both have what they believe to be the best intentions of the homeowner in mind, it's difficult to declare one approach as wrong.

Another example of the quantity vs quality debate is in Moore, OK. After the EF-5 Tornado in May, a discussion around whether a change in building codes should be made so that all the homes rebuilt would be more resilient in the face of future events. While the approval of revised building codes remains unclear, the discussion spurred a push to rebuild back as quickly as possible and not for the obvious reason. If permits were pulled prior to any change in the building codes, homes could be brought back without having the added expense of being "Tornado-proofed". In Moore, speed was, and to a certain extent continues to drive recovery.

At a certain point though, especially in a place like Oklahoma where Tornados are a part of life, building back stronger to reduce the impacts of future events only makes sense. The quality of the structure and the steps taken to integrate better building practices may come with an upfront expense and take longer to institute, but the benefits of less property damage, cheaper and faster recovery, and a greater resilience in the face of future severe weather would be the benefits.

Having this debate is good because it advances the conversation on an important issue, but unfortunately it's happening in a vacuum, because when a family with no place to go has the option of having their home rebuilt to the way it was pre-event, and done so by a largely unskilled group of people as the quicker option, it's difficult to tell them that they should wait and potentially spend more money they don't have.

So what do you think? Is one approach more valid than the other? Is there a way we can find a middle ground that pushes build timelines while not sacrificing the quality of the finished product and do so without breaking the bank? And how would Long Term Recovery Committees/Groups work in this new hybrid model? Thoughts?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Dirty Weather Report

On October 22 & 23, The Climate Reality Project will host '24 Hours of Reality.' Dubbed "The Dirty Weather Report," this event aims to highlight the impact carbon is having on our world's weather systems and asking who's going to pay for the damage caused?

As the above graph illustrates the cost of responding to and recovering from these events is getting more and more expensive. And while the debate will continue as to whether there's actually a link between carbon emissions and extreme weather, the fact that more attention will be given to the impacts severe weather is having on communities across the globe is a good thing. More coverage will hopefully mean more conversation, and more conversation will mean more opportunities to talk about the importance of creating resilience in communities. If stronger and more frequent weather events are our foreseeable future, using any opportunity to advance the cause of mitigating their impacts to decrease recovery time is a cause worth championing.

Given the strong debate on either side of the climate change issue, do you think there's enough room for community resilience and disaster preparedness to be a part of the conversation?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction

This Sunday, October 13th, marks International Disaster Risk Reduction Day. This year's theme focuses on 'Individuals with Disabilities and Disasters.' Given the approximately 1 billion people around the world that live with some form of disability, talking about how to better incorporate and account for them in the planning process is a critical and often overlooked aspect of disaster preparedness.

It's surprising that given the focus on building resilience at a local level as a means of reducing a community's dependence on outside resources following an event, that accounting for people with disabilities within community preparedness, or disaster risk reduction is not talked about more.

A recent example of this was the number of the aging population and individuals with mobility challenges stuck in high rises throughout the metro New York City area following Sandy. No plans were in place to ensure wellness checks were conducted or that needed food, medication, etc. would get to those who needed it. The result was an undisclosed number of people stuck without food, water, power, medications, or information about what was happening and few people realizing it. This oversight became life threatening when temperatures dropped and a nor'easter blew through Metro NYC on Nov 7th.

Help raise awareness around this important aspect of preparedness by lending your voice and going to: to learn more about how you can get the word out about this important aspect of community resilience.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Taxonomy of Decision Making

Over the weekend I questioned whether the steps being taken to prepare the Gulf Coast were overkill given the forecasted weakening of Tropical Storm Karen. It made me wonder how elected officials and those who fill the role of Emergency Manager work to maintain their position as a trusted voice in their community's without becoming the boy who cried wolf.

While the go/no go decisions are made by one person, the path that leads to the point of issuing a mandatory evacuation, or declaring a state of emergency, is one that needs buy in from stakeholders from various agencies who will play a role turning an order into action. Various municipal agencies need to be on board, the necessary resources available, and there needs to be money to cover immediate costs with reasonable assurances that it will be reimbursed at a later date. While the public only sees the press conference or gets a knock on their door, the steps that led to that point were set in motion long before.

To better understand the inner-workings of the connections that govern humanitarian activities, the Digital Humanitarian Network has created a matrix that illustrates a significant number of the positions involved in what is being dubbed the 'The Decision-makers Taxonomy':

As you can see it covers: Donors, The Private Sector, The Military, Individuals, NGO's, etc...go here for an interactive version this chart and you begin to get a sense of the layers of bureaucracy that exist from HQ to field level. After clicking through it's easier to understand why some things move slowly in the humanitarian world.

I believe this document is valuable not because of its ability to illustrate hierarchies, but because it provides a map. It gives people an understanding of who's out there, and unfortunately it doesn't include US-centric response structures: FEMA, DHS, State Emergency Management Agencies, NVOAD & State VOAD orgs, etc...

One of the biggest challenges in creating community resilience and bringing everyone onto the same page is having resources that illustrate how everything fits together. A matrix of this type begins to provide structure to the messy world of humanitarian response in a way that people can make sense of. A similarly US-focused resource could be used to map out players and help to provide an accurate landscape of the actors and their roles at the various levels in the disaster life cycle.

If any of you have resources, charts, etc... that would help demystify the Federal Family and the layers that exist, please leave a comment below. I think that having a US Response matrix of this nature would be a great tool in helping establish a common understanding of the response landscape, while bolstering resilience at a community level.

For those who want to learn more please go to:

Monday, October 7, 2013

Resilient Infrastructure

During the government shutdown I mentioned that the Governor of Colorado has employed the National Guard to continue to restore critical infrastructure without the financial support of the federal government. The reason is that without these critical conduits, a number of communities in Colorado would remain cut off throughout the winter, exacerbating the damage done and potentially reframing the options families and municipalities have when they do get back to assess the damage. Frozen water will warp houses and blowout foundations-so the need for gaining access is critical to salvaging what's left in those communities.

And it got me thinking...when we talk about community preparedness, we don't talk about our nation's infrastructure which seemingly go hand-in-hand. Within the dept. of homeland security there is an entire office devoted to the protection of infrastructure but it's unclear (to me) who is responsible for it's maintenance and upkeep? Some Federal Agency? Is it the State's responsibility? And as I thought about it in the context of response and recovery, building in resilience and the issues of upkeep/maintenance are crucial.

But before we go further lets get on the same page as to what infrastructure is. My narrow-minded view limited infrastructure to: roads, bridges, and rail transport...but it turns out it, there's much more to it according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Infrastructure ranges from: Aviation and Dams to Drinking Water, Energy, Hazardous Waste, Inland Waterways, Levees, Ports, and so much more.

To give you an idea of the enormity of the challenge associated with upkeep and maintenance, there are 600,000+ bridges in the US. and 1 in 9 of them is structurally deficient...and that's just bridges.

Given that we've defined infrastructure as basically everything that enables us to live the lives we're accustomed to--water from our faucets, goods in our stores, electricity at the ready, and schools to teach our children, how's all that infrastructure doing? Judging by recent history--not so good, remember The I-5 Skagit River Bridge Collapse in WA and the I-35W Mississippi Bridge Collapse? Of course that's only two events and bridge events at that, but when it comes to is too many and given all the elements that makeup our infrastructure, any deficiency in one area will have an impact in others.

Since we've already determined that infrastructure is about much more than bridges, where do you go to better understand the current state of our infrastructure? You go to the Infrastructure Report Card put out by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Every 4 years the ASCE rates our infrastructure--this year, the US infrastructure received a D+ and the site above provides a very interactive way to why.

Regardless of whether you see the ASCE issuing this report as a massive conflict of interest or not, the fact remains that resilient infrastructure is an important building block to resilient communities. How will the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power, the utility overseeing the water infrastructure in Los Angeles, providing 3.9 million people drinking water through 11,000+kms of piping in a very seismically active area, deal with the service disruptions caused by the next big earthquake? Thinking through these types of scenarios and integrating innovation that will work to improve infrastructure resilience will ultimately deburden those responsible for its restoration during response/early recovery.

It's in our best interest to ensure that our "infrastructure" as broadly encompassing a word as it is, be as resilient and up to date as possible so that when they are tested by a disaster it can be up and running as quickly as possible and while we're making gains--we need to be doing better.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Tropical Storm Karen

Tropical Storm Karen is roughly 200 miles off the Gulf Coast and is forecast to make landfall in the next 24-48 hours. Governor's of Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi have already declared state's of emergency to facilitate the movement of personnel and physical assets, and have strongly encouraged that families along the gulf coast be prepared.

Anticipated Rainfall                                                                                     Anticipated Path
The Mayor of Grand Isle, LA has issued a mandatory evacuation order and evacuation orders have been issued for Lafourche Parish, much of Plaquemines Parish, and parts of southeast New Orleans, were told to be out of their homes before nightfall.

Here is a clip of Thursday's White House daily briefing where Spokesman Jay Carney said that FEMA is recalling personnel in preparation for the storm so that a response can be launched should the situation call for it.

The current forecast has Karen spinning with sustained winds of 45-50mph and dropping between 4-6" of rain. Localized flooding fueled by a 3-5' storm surge is anticipated in low-lying areas but this is nothing that the Gulf Coast and its residents haven't dealt with before.

As someone who advocates for a greater emphasis be put on preparedness, I'm happy to see that State's and municipalities are taking the threat of this storm seriously; however, given Karen's waning strength, the recall of FEMA personnel, and the mandatory evacuations, the general attention surrounding the storm seems incongruous with its forecasted impacts.

I imagine that one of the hardest things to balance in the position of an emergency manager or other position with decision-making authority, is knowing when to hit the panic button with enough time so that people can evacuate vs. when to lay back and play it conservatively. There are costs associated with declaring state's of emergency, for activating auxiliary personnel and pre-staging assets, and when budgets are already tight, incurring un-budgeted incremental costs can be tough to swallow. Then you have to factor in the gamble you're taking with the trust of the public, and as we've seen in the Mid-Atlantic region with Irene and Sandy, trust is difficult to create and harder to maintain if there are false alarms.

So, for the sake of the communities in Karen's path, I hope the massive mobilization of assets is not needed, I also hope that the public who evacuate and others who take prudent steps to protect life and property are forgiving if the impacts of Karen aren't as severe as originally forecast.

Good luck Gulf Coast, we're all watching and waiting along with you.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Mobile Apps in Disaster

Have you ever built an Avatar? That may exclude too many of you, so how about something more relatable--have you ever built a survey using SurveyMonkey? You know, where you're given a predetermined set of options to create a survey that you can customize to your hearts content?

Now, apply that 'drag and drop' idea to app creation for Droid phones. Have you done that? Good. Now read this article because the folks at MIT have done just that and they're excited about how it could impact early recovery in disaster response.

The operating table inside the app inventor
Remember when I posted about Disaster Response in the Digital Age? I talked about the potential issues the mass proliferation of web applications and digital data platforms could have on disaster response. Well I would like to lump this quantum leap forward in app creation in with that post. It's not because I'm a luddite, far from it--I'm hip, I tweet, I'm a redditor, a member of the of blogosphere, so why then am I so against the DIY app-building that this MIT tool enables?

First off, I shouldn't say that I'm "against," it, because I believe there's value in tools of this nature and that the smartphone will play a key role in the future of early recovery in disaster response. I guess I would rather issue, or re-issue a strong word of caution, because I foresee this tool creating quite a stir.

You know the old adage: too many cooks in the kitchen? Well what happens when, in our quest for the next version, the next update, the next _____, we create tools that lets everyone become a cook? What you get is a lot of food, but how good is the food, and more importantly, how many terrible dishes will you have to get through before you find one that's delicious?

When you create open source tools the goal is to get that tool into as many hands as possible, the concern, in this case is that you run the risk of too many people making crap and using it. Proponents say that this access spurs innovation and that only those who have a desire to create something will. While this may be true, I urge you to look at the number of tumblr's, blogs, and other inane things (this blog) that exist simply because the tools to create them were readily available and tell me if on the whole we're spurring innovation.

If google maps hadn't created an open source aspect to their mapping tool, we wouldn't have the collaborative work order system that is being used to aid in the coordination of nonprofit organizations active in early recovery -- so I understand and appreciate the upside. However, how many Facebook pages pop up after disasters? How many local groups spring into action without having a clear idea of what they're doing? When tools are created without addressing how they're meant to fit within the existing landscape of disaster response, they're not working towards addressing the challenges of creating more resilient communities, if anything, they're working to undermine the plans, procedures, and protocols that have been put in place by emergency management professionals.

I'm not advocating that we discount or attempt to limit the power of motivated individuals and groups who play a much needed role in early recovery activities, quite the opposite. I'm one of the biggest advocates for increasing their involvement, I just want to make sure that when greater access to the building blocks that empower people to play a greater role within early recovery is enabled, that we do so with an eye towards the bigger picture. Technology without context will not contribute to situational awareness, it will merely give license to people to put themselves into potentially dangerous situations trying to capture images and video to add to this mobile app data tapestry.

Creating tools that empower is a step in the right direction; however, I would suggest that when this tool is launched, an educational module be incorporated that prepares individuals and groups for what happens after the emergency phase ends. By providing that context and the role that individuals can play by creating and using their apps, we're creating a shared understanding and a common goal, two key elements in creating community resilience and empowering individuals to take role in their communities recovery.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Govt shutdown and disaster response

I talked about the new reality we face as practitioners in yesterday's post, the world where more frequent and stronger weather-related events impact greater numbers people than ever before. Well a new wrinkle has been added to our unique operating environment--a partial government shutdown. The impacts of this shutdown will take time to fully understand, but I've read a lot of conflicting reports about what this means exactly to community response and recovery.
Source: Larry Downing/Reuters
There's a worry about whether FEMA-related programming will continue, and the answer is, yes they will i.e. Individual Assistance and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). And according to Dan Watson, a spokesman for FEMA:
“There are more than 1,000 FEMA workers on the ground in Colorado responding to the floods. They are not being impacted by the shutdown."
So there will be the administrative personnel to ensure that the recovery machine keeps moving. This brings a sigh of relief to the residents in Colorado who are beginning to understand the impact the floodwaters had. Colorado State government on the other had will spend between $40-$80,000/day keeping 120 National Guardsmen focused on the rehabilitation of critical infrastructure that would otherwise have stopped.

However, for the city of Moore, OK the shutdown looks like it could delay a 4 Million dollar reimbursement check FEMA needs to cut for reimbursing cleanup costs. And for those on the east coast, the shutdown looks like it will slow down the dispersement of available grant funds fueling long term recovery. Even though money has been allocated for Sandy Relief, there's the problem with staffing. For instance, of the 749 employees in HUD's Community Planning and Development office which handles grants to cities and states for recovery, only 13 employees will go to work everyday during the shutdown. Long Term Recovery is a slow process to begin with when fully staffed and all the kinks worked out, I believe the reduction in staffing will have a ripple effect that will be felt for months to come and work against the gains made in advancing recovery in communities impacted by Sandy.

Because funding for long term recovery comes from a diverse range of federal entities, making exceptions to keep people working in the various agencies on behalf of impacted communities during the shutdown would've required a herculean effort that did not materialize. It seems that disaster specific dollars are available, the question that remains is whether or not there are enough people to provide the oversight needed to keep things moving.

Environmental Protection Agency
You can't have disasters without some sort of environmental impact, which is why the EPA plays a critical role in helping to define what that impact is and how best to address it.

The EPA states that those who are engaged in activities that:

"ensure continued public health and safety, including safe use of food and drugs and safe use of hazardous materials; those who protect federal lands, buildings, equipment and research property; those who conduct law enforcement and criminal investigations; and those who provide emergency and disaster assistance" will continue working.
While good to know, it remains unclear at this time as to whether or not the work the EPA was doing in Colorado to define the extent of the potential environmental impacts the floodwaters had on the Fracking wells continues or not. With 94% of the EPA's employees not working and reports that the amount of oil spilled as a result of the flooding has topped 40,000 gallons, I sincerely hope that the EPA has boots on the ground. 

I don't know about you, but I'm not overcome with a sense of calm, I guess it's because I keep thinking about what would happen should another event take place? Say a major hurricane makes landfall, would FEMA be able to deploy resources? In theory, I imagine they would because the funds used to implement PA/IA programming come from the Disaster Relief Fund; however, actually implementing those programs may be impossible due to furloughed personnel. 

Partial or total, a shutdown of our government will have serious ramifications that impact communities recovering from disasters--I hope that common ground can be found so the business of helping communities recover can begin in earnest once again.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

How 'bout this weather...

Last week was a big week to talk climate policy and to have heated debates on whether or not climate change is actually happening.

Released amid much pomp and circumstance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, issued the first phase of their 2013-2014 reporting. The report makes the assertion that "it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause" of global warming since the early 50's, going on to state that rapid sea level rise and expedited glacial melt are the anticipated outcomes if current carbon emission trends are not abated.

A release that didn't get much coverage is the opposing camps viewpoint. At roughly the same time the NIPCC, or Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change issued their report, citing quite the opposite: “the human impact on climate is very small, and . . . any warming that may be due to human greenhouse gas emissions is likely to be so small as to be invisible.” While many attack the validity of the NIPCC's report and the groups credibility, there are many who hurl similar charges at the IPCC claiming a lack of transparency and exerted influence by sponsor governments.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue of causation as it relates to climate change, the fact remains that we are a global community divided. We are paying an astounding price for whatever is causing the increased frequency and intensity of recent weather-related events. Whether it's in lives lost, property damaged, increased food prices, mitigation projects to protect low-lying urban areas, or loss of environmental habitats...I hope we can agree that the price we're paying is too high to sit by and be a spectator on this. Read up, educate yourself, and do something. Nothing will change until we can agree on the cause of the problem, and not having an informed opinion will only protract the debate. 

Until we find a common ground we need to be doing a better job of adjusting to our "new normal" in getting communities prepared for whatever mother nature throws at them. As the graph below clearly indicates, that whatever the reason, it seems those of us in the business of preparing for and responding to natural catastrophes will be increasingly busy.