Friday, January 31, 2014

How Local Governments Hinder Our Response to Natural Disasters

Read this article: "How Local Governments Hinder Our Response to Natural Disasters" by Mr. David Wachsmuth; it could potentially be construed as heresy in some circles, but there is also a degree of truth in the observations he makes. Wachsmuth looks at the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and talks about how the Mayor's office usurped the power to lead following landfall favoring improvisation instead of the plans the OEM had created.

One of the more interesting takeaways from the article is this:

"Collaborations need to be achievable to be useful. The sociologist Lee Clarke argues that disaster plans are "fantasy documents"—tools for building trust in an organization rather than actual, implementable plans. This was certainly true in the response to Sandy. More modest plans, which take account of political realities and power relations, are more likely to be useful than comprehensive but unachievable fantasy documents." 

A lot of time, effort, and money goes into disaster planning and yet I've seen firsthand, as I'm sure many of you have as well, the ad hoc nature of response environments. Even when the best curated plans are exercised ad nauseam, challenges remain. This is not to say that planning can account for every facet of a disaster, but it would seem that two opposing forces are being pushed simultaneously, the need for rigidity in planning that ICS and the command and control mentality require, and the push for greater community involvement to build resilience and self-reliance. 

How do you reconcile the rigidity that is often seen in municipal planning with the inherent ad hoc nature of grassroots community response? What does that look like in a plan for a city? As it stands many plans don't account for emergent response activities but with the role Occupy Sandy played following Sandy, that will hopefully change.

If the idea that the Mayor's office totally disregarded OEM's plans seems can read about how Michael Brown, (you may remember him as "brownie"), disregarded the newly minted National Response Plan following Hurricane Katrina...plan-averse public officials it seems, are nothing new.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

To declare, or not declare...that is the question...

Washington, IL November Tornado Source: imugr
While never having had the responsibility of sitting in a County Executive's position or position of even greater responsibility at the state level, I would imagine that when a disaster strikes, they are conflicted: on the one hand they worry about the safety of their constituents, and on the other, they want the event to cause enough damage so that their jurisdiction can qualify for federal assistance. In a time when cities are declaring bankruptcy and tax bases are eroding, elected officials have to navigate the emotional fallout of a disaster as well as figure out how to pay for the subsequent response and recovery.

Although the disasters of 2013 didn't have the gravitational pull that Superstorm Sandy had, the Oklahoma Tornadoes, The Rim Fire in California, and the Colorado flooding all caused significant damage and all received Major Disaster Declarations.

However, 2013 also had several events that didn't qualify for Individual and/or Public Assistance, adding new voices and national coverage to growing discontent on how exactly the declaration process works. While some sort of declarations were given to the Yarnell Fire in AZ, The Fertilizer Plant explosion in TX, and the November Tornado outbreak in Illinois, in each instance there was an outcry that more should have been done to support the communities and survivors of those events.

Even though the above events didn't meet designated thresholds that would have triggered the full breadth of federal assistance, a Bill (H.R. 3295) was introduced in the House of Representatives with the intent of amending the criteria under which resources are offered dubbed the: "Fairness in Federal Disaster Declarations Act of 2014."

This Bill, which was introduced on January 21st, would amend the criteria used to evaluate a request for a major disaster declaration by weighting the factors used to determine Individual and Public Assistance, as well as request that economic factors of the impacted locality and the state's financial situation be taken into account when determining eligibility.

When the Congressional Act of 1803 was passed, considered the first piece of disaster legislation, it provided assistance to Portsmouth New Hampshire, a town recovering from a major fire. Prior to that localities were left to fend for themselves in the wake of a diaster. The premise on which our Emergency Management infrastructure is based is that events are to be handled at the lowest level of government possible. By amending the rules on how federal assistance is meted out, would we be making more events eligible? Would it work against the goals of creating resilience and bolstering preparedness in communities? Would the Bill ultimately end up paying for deferred infrastructure improvements? Not only that, but who's paying for the additional dollars given to disaster survivors?

While the current criteria used to trigger federal assistance following an event may have its flaws, I believe more questions and a more thorough investigation of Bill H.R. 3925 will need to be undertaken as it seems to pose more questions than it answers.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Recovery of American Samoa

NOAA American Samoa Tsunami from Ed McNichol on Vimeo.

The South Pacific is a geologic hotbed of activity where earthquakes are a way of life and the threat of Tsunami's are all too real. In 2009, just under 2 years before the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami changed life for hundred of thousands of people, there was a Tsunami that struck the U.S. Territory of American Samoa as the result of a M8.1 quake--the largest in 2009.

American Samoa is a small island Territory with an area of just 76 sq miles, dominated by mountains running through much of its center, the topography of the island puts many of its 55,000+ inhabitants in close proximity to the ocean and at risk. While the familiarity with what to do and how to act in the event of an earthquake and tsunami prevented a large loss of life when the 4 15-20ft waves came ashore, the challenges of recovery were compounded due to American Samoa's unique geography and limited on island resources.

Because of its territory's status, FEMA was deployed to provide assistance, however, due to the indigenous system of land tenure that takes a more communal approach to land use, many couldn't prove "ownership" of their property which  added to the challenge of delivering financial assistance.

It's geography and topography, the indigenous land use system, the limited resources on island, and the number of individuals and families affected posed unique challenges to the Federal system setup to provide financial assistance and the network of voluntary agencies looking to provide help.

Given American Samoa's proximity to the Tonga Trench, an earthquake generating machine, and the challenges that the traditional response infrastructure faced, prompted FEMA to invest over $100 million to get American Samoa certified as TsunamiReady by NOAA. The criteria by which this certification is given are that:

  • A community must have a 24 hour warning point 
  • An Emergency Operations Center
  • Multiple ways to receive Tsunami warnings and alert the public -- a siren alert system has been installed
  • A formal Tsunami hazard plan
  • Conducting emergency exercises to promote public readiness through community education
The sizable investment made by FEMA to bolster resilience on island will hopefully work to mitigate the reliance on outside assistance in future responses. While the events that led to American Samoa receiving the TsunamiReady certification were tragic, the time, effort, and investment in resources have created a more resilient set of communities, ready when the next event happens.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Designing resilience into the fabric of our cities

In a similar vein to yesterday's post on the potential impacts the rapid increase in urban populations will have on our ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters, this article from the folks at Fast Company is about one vision that integrates resilience into our cities working with the space that's already available.

If the world did as Mr. De Chant's 'Per Mile Squareinfographic suggests and underwent a hyperdensification, stacking on top of itself to achieve NYC levels of population density, then there would need to be modifications made to that environment that promotes / reinforces the resilience we are currently striving to create. The real world application of what these resilience strategies would look like are explored in this article and are lumped together and classified as 'green infrastructure.'
Image © Gensler
Remember that if the world is going to live like New Yorkers do, then roughly the same wasted space would need to be accounted the case of NYC, that's roughly 5.3 million square feet of space, or roughly 92 football fields. This manifests itself in concrete traffic medians, vacant lots, and barren space that is waiting to be transformed. When you think of New York City, wasted space is not a concept that comes to mind, which is why this idea of transforming the "dead space" that is there into something that can work to promote resilience in the face of increased severe weather events is so cool.

When we think about cities, the prevailing mindset is that there is no room to do anything, overcrowding, poor sanitation, noise pollution, visual blight, and we've been programmed to believe that it stems from the model of our urban infrastructure. What it is though is a reluctance to invest in ideas that would transform that blight into opportunity. What Eric Tan of Gensler has done is to take existing "dead space" and repurpose it, so that it can help an overwhelmed municipal sewer system during strong deluges by creating absorbent surfaces that "eat" water. Or capturing solar energy in current "dead space" by building solar panels and charging stations to mitigate the need for power to charge mobile devices post-event.

These ideas are just that...ideas, but they open the door to what can be done to make our urban environments nicer places as well as places that work harder for us, helping us cope with a future of stronger and more frequent severe weather events.

Mr. Tan goes beyond the repurposing of existing dead space and explores what entire systems could look like from Storm Water Management, to Organic Waste Recyclers in a re-imagined urban setting. For more on his work check out:
Image © Gensler
While hyperdensification brings with it lots of added benefits of space utilization, mass transit, opportunity for resource growth, also would compound the challenges faced when responding to disasters large and small. More people means more resources needed to evacuate, more shelters, better messaging on what to do, and a host of access issues ranging from infrastructure to accommodating individuals with disabilities. As our total population grows, this idea of re-imagining how we use our space will go from abstract to RFP rather quickly.

And for those who don't believe the density issue will quickly be pushed to the forefront of preparedness and recovery planning need look no further than the Post-Disaster Housing Prototype Program launching in New York City. The density issue is already being felt in the world of disasters and as more bodies migrate to urban centers, the ability to retrofit the space we currently use or have available while aligning it with the needs of the population will be crucial as we adjust to our new urban reality.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Future of Cities and Disaster Response

The global population is exploding. More people means more space needed for food production, housing, economic development, etc...generally, more is needed to support more people. This growth however is putting people in harms way; vulnerable populations are living in places known to be at risk for increased impacts to natural hazards because there's no place for them to go (usually). While this rapid human sprawl takes place, industry is continually playing catchup, bending the rules or delaying the implementation of new rules to build faster and bigger in an effort to capitalize on the opportunity that the growth represents while ignoring some of the glaring signs that point to dangers in building economic centers or relocating population centers based on economic incentives without understanding or caring about the risks involved.

The graphic above illustrates the move taking place from rural communities to cities, this continued migration to existing population centers is something that requires a re-examination of how we consider planning our future urban developments and what we can do moving forward to make better use of the space we have.

In this great talk given by Vishaan Chakrabarti, he talks about the need for hyperdensification and how it will revolutionize our cities, accommodating for the increase in population sizes work to create more efficient and better organized systems that govern the people living within them.

One of the points made during Chakrabarti's talk is that much of the resource strain/insecurity we face stems from the inefficient way we've designed our surroundings, and that by re-designing  / re-thinking the way we live, embodied by the concept of hyperdensification, we would be addressing the problem of people living in vulnerable areas while expanding available space for additional resource growth and development. While the wholesale buyin to Chakrabarti's ideology isn't what I'm selling, I must admit I find merit and a lot of common sense in his hyperdensification argument.

Hyperdensity as a standalone solution may not seem compelling given the comfort of our lifestyle and the fact the suburbs are a way of life for many, so the below infographic, taken from Tim De Chant's 'Per Mile Square,' puts the challenges of our population growth into perspective. The graphic only pertains to the land use that 7 billion people would require, it doesn't talk about resource consumption. The way we design our cities is only part of the equation, the rate at which resources are consumed would be another major hurdle that would need to be cleared in order for this type of thinking to work. As it stands, if the entire world used as much resource as the US does annually...we would need 4.1 times the resources of earth to sustain the American lifestyle...
Just as the conversation around disasters has migrated from the abstract of "if" to the reality of "when," the challenges associated with accommodating our constantly expanding population will necessitate that changing the conversation around how we live and the way in which we consume resources. And if a move to a more dense way of life is achieved, what will that mean for disaster preparedness, response, and recovery? While Haiti is an extreme example of the impacts of a disaster on a high density urban area, the ongoing response and recovery operations have underscored an urgent need in redefining urban response to disasters. Areas of Christchurch are still closed off due to the continuing dangers the damage of the 2011 earthquakes.

Dense urban environments present their own set of challenges that compound the already difficult and chaotic response landscape, and if we are intentional in our move towards more densely packed urban environments, being structured in our approach to providing services pre/post disaster need to be taken into account as well.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Puerto Rico Earthquake Swarm

On January 13th news outlets reported a 6.4 quake along the northern coast of Puerto Rico, and just as the world recently became acquainted with the 'polar vortex' (previously known as a cold front), armchair seismologists were introduced to the Puerto Rico Trench. Lying just north of Puerto Rico, stretching roughly 800 miles, this topographical ditch in the Atlantic has been around for a long time, but a local awareness of plate tectonics and the forces at work that can produce earthquakes and subsequent tsunami's have not. Just as the unfamiliar term "storm surge" confused many in the Philippines and resulted in many staying in harms way as Super Typhoon Yolanda made landfall, a lack of familiarity with Earthquakes and Tsunami's in Puerto Rico mean that there is a lower level of awareness around quake preparedness. Then factor in that the last major earthquake to hit the island was in 1918 and you've got a recipe for an unmotivated public with no frame of reference when it comes to earthquakes.

And if you think that a one-off 6.5 quake isn't going to change attitudes, you're probably right, but what about the other 400+ quakes the region has experienced in the last week? While seismologists are quick to tell you that hundreds of earthquakes happen around the world everyday, the clustering and frequency of the earthquake activity around Puerto Rico has to make you wonder if something else is going on.

Compare the above to the earthquake activity in the last week in southern CA:

Does all of this seismic activity in Puerto Rico point to a larger earthquake event on the horizon? In most circumstances one would look to history for some context, but earthquake swarms, like the ones near Puerto Rico are not that well understood and answers to what is currently happening are not readily available by looking to the past. When a swarm generates a lot of small tremors, they usually fizzle out, but scientists don't understand why, so the answer to whether or not the Puerto Rico Trench is just getting warmed up remains to be seen.

While the causes and ultimate outcomes of the increased seismic activity remain a mystery, these quakes offer an opportunity to talk about the natural hazards Puerto Rico faces...especially earthquakes and tsunami's. One of the challenges in preparedness is to make people believe that the event in question can and will happen to them. For those in Puerto Rico, I hope that the attention the quakes are receiving will push these uncomfortable "what if" conversations that are generally avoided to the forefront of daily conversations. It's only when disasters are talked about that questions are asked and answers are sought. And while the constant rumblings of the earth make for sleepless nights, it's a reminder that we need to stay vigilant and continually press for greater engagement of our community partners so that when something does happen, people are prepared and communities are ready to recover.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Northridge 20 years later

At 4:31am 20 years ago residents of Southern California were jolted awake by a 6.7 magnitude quake that lasted for 30 seconds. What was soon dubbed the Northridge Earthquake was a reminder for many residents that Southern California is firmly between the cross hairs of the San Andreas Fault.

The ABC coverage above shows what happened: neighborhoods on fire, no electricity, no water, elevated freeway collapse, and a lot of uncertainty. But that was 20 years ago, that couldn't happen now...could it? 

In this article "Buildings Vulnerable 20 years after Northridge Quake" Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is quoted as saying:
"We're as well prepared as any city in America, which is to say we're unprepared...I don't think anybody in America is very well prepared ... There's always going to be an earthquake we can't be prepared for."
And while that isn't the resounding vote of confidence you hope for from the Mayor of a city with more than 12 million people a stone's throw from the San Andreas have to wonder, if the Mayor has this type of attitude, then why are hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent annually to fund Regional Catastrophic Planning Teams ($857,000 in 2011/2012 (see pg 106) and upgraded Emergency Operations Centers ($400,000)?

If you look at my completely unscientific method of earthquake prediction you'll notice that the last major earthquake before Northridge was the Sylmar quake in '71--a 6.6 in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Sylmar was roughly 20 years before Northridge and today marks the passage of 20 years since, and it feels like disaster amnesia has wholly enveloped Southern much so that the mayor seems to have a "well...what can ya do?" mindset.

Growing a culture of preparedness in a diverse region of 12+ million people is no small feat, but when a significant number of residential structures continue to remain at risk 20 years later, the supply chains and infrastructure that criss-cross the San Andreas remain vulnerable, and preparedness is a foreign concept to a generation of people that weren't alive in '94, it becomes apparent that there is a lot to do and it feels like we're living on borrowed time.

So unless you're an engineer or have deep pockets and can throw money at this, I encourage you to take a few simple steps to help prepare:
  • Buy some MRE's (Meals ready to eat)
  • Get some Water: 1 gallon / day / person (3-5 day supply -- more is better)
  • Flashlights and batteries (candles tend to burn homes down during aftershocks)
  • A hand crank radio for news updates and if needed, a charge of your phone
  • Have some cash, preferably smaller bills (not all ATM's will be knocked out but why take that chance?)
  • Extra Medication / eye glasses 
  • Know where your water and gas meters are and how to turn them off (fires will be a major problem)
  • Create a meeting point with your friends / family so that if you're separated you know where to go and when to be there
There is more you can and should do, but this is a start. Listen to the podcast below for 2 surprising facts about the most common injuries after Northridge and how you can prevent them from happening to you.

Being an alarmist never does anyone any good, but you also want to be ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Shelter from the sky

To reinforce the powerful role innovation plays in transforming how people receive and perceive aid, I wanted to share another innovative idea that I came across in December. Industrial designer Adem ├ľnalan won the Red Dot Design Award (I'd never heard of it either...but apparently it's a big deal) for what he calls "Lifebox":
Photo: Fast Company / Co.Exist
Lifebox is the product of talking to survivors of disasters and relief agencies to better understand if there was a solution that could fill some of the existing gaps in the delivery of aid following an event. The result of those conversations coupled with Adem's creativity yielded Lifebox and its 3 iterations: Air, Land, Water. Air can dropped from a plane with a built in parachute that doubles as the roof of the shelter, Water transforms into a raft, and Land is a straightforward tent (with the added benefit of a foam floor) that can be connected to other Lifeboxes to form larger rooms. The boxes are designed with 2 weeks of supplies for 4 people to cover the gaps that become exposed when critical infrastructure and access to areas are hampered by a disaster. 
Photo: Fast Company / Co.Exist. Lifebox: Land
While I like the idea and the fact that it's more of a holistic solution to an immediate need taking into account different methods of delivery, I believe that its "out-of-the-box" nature could create challenges in ensuring its equitable distribution amongst vulnerable populations. I could see Lifeboxes being hoarded or sold in the chaos and confusion of early response activities. However, given the potential upside of the product, I'm confident that figuring out an equitable distribution model is something that bright minds can come up with fairly easily. I would also consider regionalizing the rations contained inside Lifebox to ensure that its culturally appropriate for the populations its helping.

But what I like most about the Lifebox is that it reminds me that just because things are the way they are...doesn't mean they have to stay that way. Change doesn't come easy, especially when people are comfortable in "the way it's always been done." There is power in innovation and sometimes all we need is a little nudge to get us headed down that path...I hope that "The First 72 Hours Challenge" and the uniqueness of Adem's Lifebox solution get your creative juices flowing to re-think how we do things and explore a the potential of doing things differently.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

In disasters, 72 is the magic number...

The First 72 hours following an event, depending on the size of the impacted area and the severity of the event itself, are usually a black hole when it comes to information and action. The only activities that are taking place are search and rescue, and that falls to (depending on size, scope, geography) a handful of professionals, friends, family, or passersby of those in need. This is a time fraught with uncertainty on almost everything: number of dead / injured, missing persons, damage estimates to public and private structures, impacts to critical infrastructure, greatest unmet needs, which organizations are sending personnel where, credibility of information through formal and informal channels, etc...

It's in the first 72 hours that the level of preparation of those impacted and those responsible for organizing a response comes into play. For individuals and municipalities with lower levels of preparedness, the first 72 hours are chaotic and disjointed and the black hole analogy usually applies. For those that have a history with disasters or have taken steps to strengthen their levels of preparedness, the first 72 hours are a time where people take their places; the emergency management machine whirs to life and the activities of response kick into gear.

It's no coincidence that much of the preparedness literature tells you to have supplies for 3's because that's how long it usually takes for services to reach those impacted. Just look at San Francisco's preparedness campaign:, it's based around the 72 hour milestone. Due to the 'just in time' supply chain models that many grocery stores employ to save on warehousing costs, 72 hours is usually the amount of time before shelves run bare. In the case of Super Typhoon Yolanda, the scope of the event made the provision of aid a challenge that took 10 days or longer in some areas to solve. Remember that it's during this time when most communications and cellular infrastructure is down or overloaded, and the power to charge the batteries on which those devices rely, is in short supply. 

The bottom line is that even with our advances in technology and early warning systems, the first 72 hours after an event represent a challenge for preparedness and response practitioner's, and it's with that attitude in mind that unicef and socialab created "The Global Innovation Challenge: The First 72 Hours." 

This challenge is open to any and all with ideas on how to address the needs of Children and Families following a humanitarian disaster, with a focus on one of the following 4 areas:
  1. Energy
  2. Healthcare
  3. Information Communication
  4. Water / Food
The idea/solution can be a product, a new technology or process, or an improvement on existing technology or process.

If you have a brilliant idea that can help crack the nut that the first 72 hours following a disaster represent, logon and share it...who knows, you may win $15,000 in seed capital and an opportunity to work with unicef and socialab to bring it to life.

Thanks to my Chilean Startup friend Mr. Darren Camas for bringing this unique contest to my attention.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A front row seat for destruction

As the technology to record every moment of our lives grows in its ubiquity, an unfortunate byproduct are those who choose to put themselves in harms way to capture something that most would (and should) be running from. The results are often dramatic and usually come at the risk of the individual behind the camera.

Examples of this can be seen in the growth of Tornado chasing, the insistence of weather personalities reporting from coastal areas as hurricanes make landfall, the people who flock to the beach to see a tsunami, or as the below image illustrates, those who want to see a phenomenon called a Tidal Bore...

What is it about the power of a storm that makes us lose our minds? What is it about wanting/needing to see the destructive power of nature, even after watching videos of what the true power of nature can do?

Why are there people hanging out in the yard of the school as the ocean surges?

I'm not sure I would've had the presence of mind to take a video

These people went to the beach to watch a tsunami come ashore! While the wave height was not forecast to be large...they're called disasters for a reason...

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Happy New Year!

A happy 2014 to all of you out there in the blogosphere.

I realize that it's been a few weeks since my last posting and want you to know that my radio silence is due to there not being enough hours in the day.

I hope everyone had a great holiday season and are looking forward to a happy, healthy 2014.

More to come...