About The Resilience Institute

The Resilience Institute is part of WWU Huxley’s College of the Environment. It facilitates scholarship, education, and practice on reducing social and physical vulnerability through sustainable community development, as a way to minimize loss and enhance recovery from disasters in Washington State and its interdependent global communities.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Triumph in Bangladesh

News of Cyclone Sidr is slowly spreading beyond Bangladesh. This powerful cyclone swept across the low-lying country on Thursday and Friday. While the cyclone was a category 4, more powerful in some measurements to Hurricane Katrina, the current death tolls in slightly over 3000 and it looks like they may ultimately remain below 10,000.

So why is this a triumph? Certainly casualties from predictable natural hazards, especially ones that allow for some early warning, are not something to celebrate. However, this current death toll is utterly dwarfed by a similar cyclone 16 years ago. In 1991 a cyclone caused 140,000 deaths. Since then, aid organizations and national disaster risk reduction efforts have worked tirelessly to build early warning systems, elevated evacuation shelters and to educate people on how to respond before during and after such an event. Bangledesh's efforts in this regard clearly show the effectiveness of these efforts. The fact that they achieved such a large reduction of casualties in the context of a populous, developing nation certainly sets a high bar for all of us.

Bangladesh Toll at More Than 3,000, New York Times article.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Insurance: To Buy or Not To Buy?

Today Crosscut has a story about whether or not local insurance agents, geologists, and emergency managers take out earthquake insurance for their home. (The Seattle PI did a similar story a while back.) The verdict? Looks like insurnace agents and geologists tend not to buy the extra insurance:

"In general I'm [USGS geologist Joan Gomberg] not a fan of insurance," she said via e-mail. "However, I do think it's essential in the Pacific Northwest to have some sort of 'insurance' for earthquakes, and we have chosen to retrofit our house to accomplish this. We've only lived here a little over a year and just bought an old house that needs to have the structure tied to the foundation. Even though it's a major expense I feel it's a better investment than buying earthquake insurance. I want to be sure the house stands when an earthquake happens and that the damage is minimal enough to be reparable – then I'll be comfortable that our safety is insured and our investment."

While emergency managers do:
For what it's worth, local emergency management bosses apparently are more prone to take earthquake coverage. Barb Graff, the city of Seattle's emergency-management chief, said she added it to her homeowner's policy, "practicing what we preach."

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Vulnerability and gender

A colleague asked me to recently review a disaster plan checklist. One of the checklist items was ensuring that the needs of "disabled family members, the elderly, small children and women" be taken into account as needed.

I understand the sentiment, and think it is important to highlight how vulnerability, capacity and disaster experience may change across social groups. For women who are in communities that are ignoring their experience, obviously its critical that they become equal partners in disaster risk reduction. In Bangledesh floods, women have died because they were at home during a flash flood and lacked a familial male escort to evacuate to a safer location. During Hurricane Katrina, the elderly died in higher percentages. Many could not evacuate due to medical conditions; others died due to the tremendous stress all survivors faced. Following the Northridge earthquake, emergency shelters were provided for single men and families. Single women were not initially considered as a group needing their own shelters. Social vulnerability must be carefully considered in disaster risk reduction, emergency response and recovery planning.

Yet, I also cringed when I read "women." This is a category that I would be placed in but it feels very strange
to be put in a list of vulnerable people, especially a category so large as "women." I have no desire to be viewed as someone within a vulnerable group who needs pity. The list of "disabled family members, elderly, small children, and women" gives the unintended impression that all these "poor" and "weaker" members of society need special protection and help because they are powerless to help themselves.

Sometimes these groups are more vulnerable, but there are also a lot of cases where these groups may be better equipped to deal with or reduce disaster threats. Sometimes it is the physically-capable, male who is most at risk from a hazard, due to cultural gender norms that lead them to not ask for help or to engage in dangerous emergency response activities. Other times, it may be men who are most exposed to a hazards.

In the long run, it behooves us to remember that those most at risk may not appreciate being labeled as "vulnerable." It may make more sense to speak to people about their vulnerabilities and capacities or to focus on particular activities or aspects that make a group more vulnerable, allowing for variation among that group. In the short term, perhaps including "men" as a category of people who may have special needs, vulnerabilities and capacities would make the point about gendered vulnerability more broadly and do so without the implicit stigmatization. Doing so means we should include the needs of the "elderly, disabled, children, women and men" wherever appropriate.

For those interested in disasters and gender, there is the Gender and Disaster Network (GDN).

Addendum: After writing this, I saw Maureen Fordham's invited comments on Social Vulnerability and Capacity in the Natural Hazards Observer, November 2007.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

John Stewart on the Cycle of Emergency Management

Criticism is good. We, as scholars, educators, and the merely curious, can all agree on that, right? So in that spirit, I want to link to John Stewart and The Daily Show, who have done an amusing job of criticizing emergency management in the United States. Of course, they have focused primarily on FEMA. One segment in particular, which I use in class, focuses on a general concept of traditional emergency management: the CEM or cycle of emergency management:

And he's right of course: The impact and costs of disasters have and continue to increase. Thus, we need to remind ourselves that much of what we are doing isn't working! We need (and are in the process of experiencing) major shifts in thinking about disasters and how to reduce their likelihood.

We hope criticism, such as above, will be a jumping off point for IGCR, our colleagues far and wide, and citizens of the world for a cultural shift toward disaster risk reduction.

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Climate Engineering; Risk Reduction or Amplification?

Okay, so you probably haven't even heard of climate engineering. But of course, engineering is never far behind science and you have heard of climate science. Climate engineering then is taking our growing "understanding" of climate and applying to methods and tools to manipulate it. (I put "understanding" in scare quotes because human knowledge is always situated and evolving.) So now there are tools and methods, which arguably we could employ immediately, that we can use to modify our climate.

I mean, duh, we're doing it by accident already!

But now we can do it on purpose. But should we? What if we knew it could give some time to reduce our CO2 emissions and reduce some negative climate change impacts? But what would the side effects be? Ultimately would it increase or decrease our climate-related disaster risk?

If this peaks your interest, then a) you're a Luddite (you think about the effects of technology and engineering) and b) you should watch this talk by David Keith on www.ted.com:

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

New MCEER Technical Report

MCEER just posted a technical report authored by myself and Stephanie Chang entitled "A Simulation Model of Urban Disaster Recovery and Resilience: Implementation for the 1994 Northridge Earthquake". Unfortunately there is no direct link but you can find it by searching here. The publication number is 07-0014.  

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CRHNET a Great Success!

I attended and presented at the 4th Annual Canadian Risk and Hazards Network Symposium in Vancouver, BC.  There was a lot of talk about how CRHNET should be the Natural Hazards Workshop of Canada.  Well, I think it is well on its way!  The conference was a great success, with an impressive diversity of practitioners and researchers from all over Canada and the globe.  I was particularly impressed by the inclusion of a World Cafe (a method for deliberative dialogue) in the program, organized by Laurie Pearce.

Now if only the next one would be so close to Bellingham...

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When cultural assumptions meet with disaster

Our culture and past experience profoundly shape how each of us experiences a disaster. Yesterday Mark Howard, the Strategic Advisor to the Seattle Office of Emergency Management, spoke of one such example here at Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA when he described how people died in the Hanukkah Eve Wind Storm of 2006.

The unusually heavy rain and wind of the storm felled power poles and trees throughout the Puget Sound Region. Over 1.8 million residents and businesses lost power, some for longer than a week. When power had still not returned days later, residents began using gas-powered generators to light their homes, prepare food and provide desperately needed heat. Despite heavily advertised warnings not to bring these generators into enclosed areas, some residents did so anyway.

The rash of carbon monoxide deaths and illnesses that followed was concentrated in the region’s immigrant communities. In these communities, cultural assumptions and new hazards met in a deadly mix. Immigrants from Africa, Latin American and Southeast Asia came from regions where families often used in-door fires, stoves and generators. Yet, in these regions, homes were built to allow air to flow through open windows and heat to escape. Gases emitted by indoor stoves or grill, while having serious long-term health effects, did not build up in concentration and bring the threat of immediate death. Here in the cold and damp Puget Sound Region, homes are well-sealed. They are designed to retain heat, but are also efficient at retaining carbon monoxide when gas generators or cars are operated indoors.

In the long days with out power that followed the Storm, the Seattle Times posted a front page, multi-language public safety warning. The local Red Cross placed safety tips on their website. Leaflets were posted throughout neighborhoods with high immigrant populations; multi-language public service messages were read over local radio stations.

While the public education was prominent and swift, it was not enough. Eight people died from carbon monoxide poisoning, five from a single Vietnamese family. Over 60 more people had to be treated for severe carbon-monoxide poisoning. Most were Somali immigrants who had brought their charcoal grills inside.

Disaster risk reduction and emergency planning comes with its own cultural assumptions about how and when to help people. In the wake of this event, emergency managers like Mark Howard are considering their own assumptions. What is the best way to inform immigrant communities about hazards? What channels will they trust? What more might they need to know compared to other parts of our community? Where will they seek help?

As a profession we must become more adept at understanding all our diverse communities and including them in emergency planning and preparedness. In doing so, we can help them adjust not only to new opportunities in our cities, but to new hazards.

Additional interesting readings on the interplay of culture in the preparation for, experience of and recovery from disasters.

Douglas, M. and A. Wildavsky (1983). Risk and Culture. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Green, R. A. (2005). Negotiating Risk: Earthquakes, Structural Vulnerability and Clientelism in Istanbul. Civil and Environmental Engineering. Ithaca, Cornell University.

Green, R. A. (2008). "Unauthorized Development and Natural Hazard Vulnerability: A Study of Squatters and Engineers in Istanbul, Turkey." Disasters (forthcoming).

Hoffman, S. and A. Oliver-Smith, Eds. (2001). Catastrophe and Culture. Santa Fe and Oxford, School of American Research Press and James Currey.

Oliver-Smith, A. (1986). The Martyred City: Death and Rebirth in the Andes. Albuquerque, New Mexico, University of New Mexico Press.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Privatizing emergency response

Here is a thought provoking article in The Nation on the privatization of emergency response in recent disasters. What are the implications of a society where privatized response dominates?

Rapture Rescue 911: Disaster Response for the Chosen
The Nation, post on-line November 1, 2007, in print November 19, 2007
By Naomi Klein

I used to worry that the United States was in the grip of extremists who sincerely believed that the Apocalypse was coming and that they and their friends would be airlifted to heavenly safety. I have since reconsidered. The country is indeed in the grip of extremists who are determined to act out the biblical climax--the saving of the chosen and the burning of the masses--but without any divine intervention. Heaven can wait. Thanks to the booming business of privatized disaster services, we're getting the Rapture right here on earth.

Just look at what is happening in Southern California. Even as wildfires devoured whole swaths of the region, some homes in the heart of the inferno were left intact, as if saved by a higher power. But it wasn't the hand of God; in several cases it was the handiwork of Firebreak Spray Systems. Firebreak is a special service offered to customers of insurance giant American International Group (AIG)--but only if they happen to live in the wealthiest ZIP codes in the country. Members of the company's Private Client Group pay an average of $19,000 to have their homes sprayed with fire retardant. During the wildfires, the "mobile units"--racing around in red firetrucks--even extinguished fires for their clients.

One customer described a scene of modern-day Revelation. "Just picture it. Here you are in that raging wildfire. Smoke everywhere. Flames everywhere. Plumes of smoke coming up over the hills," he told the Los Angeles Times. "Here's a couple guys showing up in what looks like a firetruck who are experts trained in fighting wildfire and they're there specifically to protect your home."

And your home alone. "There were a few instances," one of the private firefighters told Bloomberg News, "where we were spraying and the neighbor's house went up like a candle." With public fire departments cut to the bone, gone are the days of Rapid Response, when everyone was entitled to equal protection. Now, increasingly intense natural disasters will be met with the new model: Rapture Response.

During last year's hurricane season, Florida homeowners were offered similarly high-priced salvation by HelpJet, a travel agency launched with promises to turn "a hurricane evacuation into a jet-setter vacation." For an annual fee, a company concierge takes care of everything: transport to the air terminal, luxurious travel, bookings at five-star resorts. Most of all, HelpJet is an escape hatch from the kind of government failure on display during Katrina. "No standing in lines, no hassle with crowds, just a first class experience."

HelpJet is about to get some serious competition from some much larger players. In northern Michigan, during the same week that the California fires raged, the rural community of Pellston was in the grip of an intense public debate. The village is about to become the headquarters for the first fully privatized national disaster response center. The plan is the brainchild of Sovereign Deed, a little-known start-up with links to the mercenary firm Triple Canopy. Like HelpJet, Sovereign Deed works on a "country-club type membership fee," according to the company's vice president, retired Brig. Gen. Richard Mills. In exchange for a one-time fee of $50,000 followed by annual dues of $15,000, members receive "comprehensive catastrophe response services" should their city be hit by a manmade disaster that can "cause severe threats to public health and/or well-being" (read: a terrorist attack), a disease outbreak or a natural disaster. Basic membership includes access to medicine, water and food, while those who pay for "premium tiered services" will be eligible for VIP rescue missions.

Like so many private disaster companies, Sovereign Deed is selling escape from climate change and the failed state--by touting the security clearance and connections its executives amassed while working for that same state. So Mills, speaking recently in Pellston, explained, "The reality of FEMA is that it has no infrastructure, and a lot of our National Guard is elsewhere." Sovereign Deed, on the other hand, claims to have "direct access and special arrangements with several national and international information centers. These proprietary arrangements allow our Emergency Operations Center to...give our Members that critical head start in times of crisis." In this secular version of the Rapture, God's hand is unnecessary. Not when you have retired ex-CIA agents and ex-Special Forces lifting the chosen to safety--no need to pray, just pay. And who needs a celestial New Jerusalem when you can have Pellston, with its flexible local politicians and its surprisingly modern regional airport?

Sovereign Deed could soon find itself competing with Blackwater USA, whose CEO, Erik Prince, wrote recently of his plans to offer "full spectrum" services, including humanitarian aid in disasters. When fires broke out in San Diego County, near the proposed site of the controversial Blackwater West base, the company immediately seized the opportunity to make its case. Blackwater could have been the "tactical operation center for East County fires," said company vice president Brian Bonfiglio. "Can you imagine how much of a benefit it would be if we were operational now?" To show off its capacity, Blackwater has been distributing badly needed food and blankets to people of Potrero, California. "This is something we've always done," Bonfiglio said. "This is what we do." Actually, what Blackwater does, as Iraqis have painfully learned, is not protect entire communities or countries but "protect the principal"--the principal being whoever has paid Blackwater for its guns and gear.
The same pay-to-be-saved logic governs this entire new sector of country club disaster management. There is, of course, another principle that could guide our collective responses in a disaster-prone world: the simple conviction that every life is of equal value.

For anyone out there who still believes in that wild idea, the time has urgently arrived to protect the principle.

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Monday, November 5, 2007

The Media and Communities Resilient to Wildfires

This week, the media has covered the many facets of the 2007 California wildfire experience. Fortunately, national media coverage of these events did not focus solely on personal suffering, human vulnerability, and heroism, importantly as these stories may be. This week, reporters from a range of national news agencies dug deeply into the individual and community decisions that went into the making of this Californian disaster.

In “Rethinking Fire Policy in the Tinderbox Zone” Johnson and McKinley’s article in the New York Times suggests that with 1.5 million acres lost to wildfires in the last four years may indicate a failed state and national policy of fire-suppression policy. Rather than reducing wildfires, they argued that suppression reduces the natural process of underbrush burn out, thereby priming the forest for large-scale wildfires that cannot easily be controlled. On Tell Me More, Ron Lester, a democratic pollster suggested that bad land use management contributed to the damage experienced in both Hurricane Katrina and the current 2007 California Wildfires.

Max Moritz, a fire ecologist at UC Berkeley, told National Public Radio (NPR) offered a different perspective. He suggested that better environmental stewardship like prescribed burns and vegetation management is crucial, but not the full answer. Both the fire suppression and the forest management models create the lure of a “safe forest.” Many of the newest development in the state has occurred in that danger zone where urban architecture infringes upon wild space. Rather than carefully placing buffer zones between compact communities and forests, these developments often are about the very forest that can threaten them.

Along side environmental stewardship, building code regulations are also a crucial part of reducing vulnerability to wildfires. Strikingly, James Smalley of Firewise told NPR listeners that patterns of individual home destruction are clearly evident from aerial photographs of the region. In many places, combustible housing materials has made homes more likely to burn than the surrounding vegetation. Yet, even the best built home – the one with clay tile roof, heat resistant siding and implosion resistant windows, sprinkler systems and careful configuration of decking, vegetation and venting – will likely burn if the homes on either side do not have these measures. Max Moritz cautioned that homes may be only as safe as their neighbors. It will be years before the majority of the housing stock in the area incorporates these features, but these stricter requirements are a positive outcome of these earlier tragedies.

After years of wildfire destruction, some communities are incorporating fire resistant concepts into their community development. Jeff Brady of NPR reported on experimental “shelter-in-place” communities with well placed golf courses and other fire breaks integrated into the land use plan. These communities - where all buildings have tile roofs and strict rules on planted vegetation are enforced - were left undamaged. Nearby neighborhoods without fire-resistant building and land use planning measures burned.

After many disasters, we highlight human missteps. In People News, Jamie Lee Curtis acknowledged that the residents like her - people who wanted to live at the interface the urban-wilderness interface without considering wildfire threats - were to blame for the disaster. Yet often we rebuild in a way that recreates our own vulnerability to future events. The 2007 fires will likely strengthen policies like fire-resistant building code regulations enacted after earlier fires. It may also lead to new adoption in communities that has thus far balked at the few percent increase in construction cost.

As consensus grows in regards to the truly human origins of these particular wildfire disasters - not just among those of us who work in disaster risk reduction but also among the public – communities must continue to move from understanding fire vulnerability, to taking actions and enacting policies that will individually and collectively reducing vulnerability to these natural hazards.

Combining strict land use planning, building code requirements, and effective environmental stewardship will save lives, save homes, and vastly reduce the expense of managing and recovering from these events in the future. The media has a vital role to play in reminding us that the burnt out homes and the disrupted communities, were not a direct result of a raging wildfire, but of the choices we make about where and how to live as individuals and as communities. We all need to affirm, repeat and act upon this perspective.

Some national media coverage of the 2007 California Wildfires, focusing on disaster reduction through environmental stewardship, land use planning and codes.

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