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.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Make a recovery plan....or not

I recently read a short article in Disasters by David T. Flynn entitled The Impact of Disasters on Small Business Disaster Planning.

Interestingly, Flynn's research suggests that businesses that have experienced disasters may be less likely to create a plan than those who only watch others misfortunes. In a survey of businesses that had experienced the 1997 severe flooding of Grand Forks, ND, and those that started operation after the flood, he found just the opposite. For the group that experienced the flood, having a disaster recovery plan went from about 5% before the flood to about 11% after the flood. But, businesses that started after the flood had double this rate, 24%, a significant difference.

Flynn offers no suggestions for why this may be.

Did the businesses that experienced this extreme flooding event decide that they had survived and could do so again? Did they reap the benefits of federal disaster aid and see no need for such plans? Is there something in the way the surviving businesses operate that is inherently resilient and already incorporating disaster recovery planning concepts? Was the flooding so catastrophic that those who experienced now believe that no plan would have made any difference? And what of the businesses who came along afterward. Are painful lessons easier to incorporate when you see them happen to someone else?

It is generally assumed that disaster recovery plans help business deal with disruptions and more quickly recover from disasters and help reduce their financial losses. Flynn's research and the prospect of looking into small business damage and recovery to flooding here in Washington State has got me pondering all this. Perhaps disaster recovery plans are not useful in the way disaster professionals promote .... and these Grand Forks businesses have figured it out. This definitely calls for some qualitative research.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

This is Preparedness, Pre-Disaster Memorials

This video, while humorous, has a lot of truth in it. It is all to often that government's budgetary allocation bypasses disaster mitigation/preparedness activities. It seems that since the probability of a disaster happening is statistically low, funding for mitigating such disasters follows the same suite. Luckily for all of us the government in Folsom County, California has developed a concept that will solve every government's disaster mitigation funding issues.

See video below to see what Folsom County, CA is doing to deal with a potential dam failure.

Preemptive Memorial Honors Future Victims Of Imminent Dam Disaster

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Is Safeway the Safe Way?

Rebekah and I went to the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region's Critical Infrastructure Resilience Summit today.

It was a stat-filled day about various aspects of the Pacific Northwest's critical infrastructure. I learned things like how many automobile bridges we have in Washington State (2900), the average age of our bridges, (41 years), and how many bridges are structurally deficient (82...though I was unclear if that included the Hood Canal, Evergreen Point, and Alaskan Way Viaduct bridges). I learned that 80-85% of critical infrastructure is privately owned (a US figure). I heard that it took around 8 hours for the city of Centralia to reroute wayward cars and frieght out of their downtown after I-5 was shut down by flooding....

But my favorite bunch of stats given are about Safeway and their just-in-time (JIT) inventory system. This is what I had time to jot down:

  • The majority of products delivered to the stores are from outside the PNWER region
  • Every store receives 2 deliveries a day on a 12 hour cycle
  • 120-150 trucks make deliveries in a day
  • Deliveries are made 6 days a week
  • Around 1.2 to 3.2 miliion pounds of food are delivered to stores a day
  • 90% of trucks are on the road (i.e., not at the store or distribution center) at any one time
  • There is no communication system on board the trucks to link them to distribution centers
  • Alaska and Hawaii get deliveries from the Auburn, WA distribution center
  • Their most critical infrastructure (in rough order) is:
    1. Transportation
    2. Fuel links
    3. Electricity
    4. Telecommunications
    5. Water

  • Each distribution center has no more than 3 days of fuel on site
  • A fork lift battery will last 12 to 24 hours without needing to be recharged
  • Water is required to operate the compressors of the refrigeration systems

At the end of the session, they had us write our questions on a card and hand it up to the moderator for asking. My question never got asked:

Assuming JIT, wasn't invented/designed to be disaster resilient, what would a distribution system look like that was?
What did the distribution system of Safeway look 50 years ago and how did it perform in past disasters?

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Gore and Pachauri speeches

Under Democracy Now's "Weeks' top stories" at http://www.democracynow.org/ you can listen to or download Monday's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speeches in Oslo by Al Gore and Rajendra Pachauri (chair of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).
Pachauri's is accessed by the 'next item' link on the Gore page. Both are worth the time.

Gene Myers

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Who has it worse?

I found myself having an interesting conversation last night with a person, whom I will call Sally. We began discussing the record breaking flooding here in Washington State, flooding that severely impacted local farms and dairies in the Chehalis river valley. Several farms have lost almost all of their herds and now are owners of flood-soaked homes, destroyed equipment, and fields covered with a thick layer of rapidly hardening sludge.

I remarked that the destruction was very much like New Orleans, albeit on a much smaller and more dispersed scale. Sally countered that this event was so much worse for the farmers because they had something to lose, they actually had livelihoods. And, she added, it was worse because it was the middle of winter and so miserable to be without a home now.

The remark momentarily threw me off guard, but did not really surprise me. Sally vocalized an implicit empathy for people with whom she felt more of a commonality and which she was geographically closer. This can positive thing. Local communities are often in the best position to help survivors in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. A strong sense of empathy with ones neighbors, at the local and regional scale, has certainly contributed to the strong outpouring of supplies, offers of housing, and voluntary clean-up crews that have developed during and immediately after the Chehalis flooding. Locals and people with which one has a commonality may also give the most appropriate aid.

However, implicit in Sally's remarks was also the vocalization of stereotypes many have come to believe about New Orleanians. There is an implicit racism, an "othering" of Katrina survivors, that has shaped response.

The depth of this differentiated understanding of pain and loss is disturbing to say the least, and has resulted in significantly delayed recovery for low-income African-Americans in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. You can read more that in an article I wrote for the December issue of Disasters and in an editorial posted here.

What struck me most about Sally's remark was, firstly, the disturbing comparison of loss of cattle herds to the excruciating losses of over 1000 human beings. There is also unwarranted assumption that New Orleanians "didn't have anything to lose." The hardest hit Lower Ninth Ward was a neighborhood with high African-American homeowners (much higher than national averages) and many established small businesses. Residents had much to lose, including mortgage free homes and close-knit family networks of support. And even beyond the wrong assumption that "those" people in New Orleans were too poor and unemployed and marginalized to really lose anything valuable, is that really the criteria for empathy? Research has show that it is the poor that have the hardest time recovering to pre-disaster levels. When you have much to lose, you also have many resources by which to regain your losses. The whole conversation rather rattled me.

Its so easy to distance ones self from the experiences of people who do not look or act like us or may be in some distant place....whether that be on the other side of the world, the country or the proverbial train tracks.

I don't think its even logical to compare the destruction along the Gulf Coast and the drowning of New Orleans with flooding here in Washington State. The destruction of cattle herds and the destruction of the entire economy of a city are very different and the recovery trajectory will show this. But, on the other hand, at the individual scale, physical loss, depression and the economic struggle that set in after a disaster are very similar for the families and individuals that experience them. I wouldn't want to be in any of their shoes.

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"It was supposed to be OK; they told me it was in a 100-year flood plain"

The title quote of this post was taken from the this article in The Olympian.

I read this article because Crosscut linked to it saying that it implicated development as the reason for the intense flooding in Thurston County, WA (similar to this article for Lewis County, WA). And folks interviewed definitely do:

"They've got to stop building where the water is supposed to go," Judy McWhinney said. "They say don't blame Wal-Mart; I blame Wal-Mart." ... Others pointed to silt-filled creeks, clear-cutting of timber and ill-placed dikes as the culprits.

Everyone knows not to build in the floodplains, right?

"Flood plains are beautiful, rich, fertile land, good for agriculture," Snyder said. "Really, nothing much else works on the flood plain."

Well, not according to the title quote of this post... Apparently, some people think that being told that living in a 100-year floodplain means they are safe. Obviously, FEMA or the local government was successful in getting the word out that people were living in a 100-year floodplain. But this is a good reminder that communication is not just about transmission of words. Perhaps rather than telling people they are in a 100-year floodplain, we should show them a chart showing the number of significant floods in their area.

Be that as it may, it does sound like some people in Lewis County couldn't have known they were in the 100-year floodplain. Well, unless they moved there in 1982:

"The flood map Lewis County uses is a 1982 flood map," DePuis said. "Before anything else happens, Lewis County should adopt a 2007 flood map."

To what degree development has altered the floodplains in Thurston and Lewis Counties, I certainly don't know. But it does seem like floodplain delineation should be redone when there is major development in the existing floodplain. Maybe the delineation should be done before the development!

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Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Convenient Half-Truth

Excuse me for losing my cool, but man I'm sick of the climate-change scare-mongering like this recent post by the Sightline Institute's Eric De Place.

Sure, blogs are a casual venue, but organizations like the Sightline Institute or knowledgeable folks like Al Gore, who spuriously linked the Hurricane Katrina disaster to climate change in "Inconvenient Truth," should hold themselves to higher standards than these convenient half-truths.

Is climate change real? It's beyond discussion. Will climate change result in changes in global precipitation patterns? You bet. Will there be more precipitation in the Pacific Northwest? Maybe, maybe not. Would major floods occur in the absence of climate change? For sure.

And there are more immediate causes to flood disasters that are critical to address, especially in light of climate change. The half-truths of "[insert disaster here] was caused by climate change" does nothing to build this awareness. If anything it distracts from this awareness and serves to reduce the credibility of climate science that is based on entirely different (and more reliable) data, showing that CO2 emissions have and are changing our climate.

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Growth Management Increased Grays Harbor's Risk?

In the David Postman entry I cited below, he mentions something that I can't find more about:

Officials with the Grays Harbor Public Utilities District said that laws restricting how far back trees can be cut from streams and rivers left too many tall trees standing too close to electrical towers. When the winds and floods came, the trees hit the towers which "just crumpled like an accordion," said Richard Lovely, general manager of the PUD. He said five towers on the BPA line into the county were lost. "We just kept watching things collapse and collapse," he said.

He and others blamed the state law requiring buffers of trees between sensitive habitat and cleared land, whether for logging or a utility right-of-way. Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, told me that some trees that took down utility towers had been required to be left standing because they were designated habitat for the endangered marbeled murrelet.

Hm. If anyone reads or hears more about this and what the particular situation was, I sure would like to hear. I'm a bit skeptical that the Growth Management Act has increased risk. But perhaps there are some situations where variances are necessary to reduce some forms of particular damage due to flooding. (Actually, I would have thought if the Grays Harbors officials knew about the situation beforehand a variance would have been possible with Grays Harbor county.) So if this isn't just politicking, a review of the case should be made. But I need convincing...

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Behind the Scenes of a Disaster Declaration

David Postman over at the Seattle Times has a must-read write up on his blog about riding in the helicopter with Washington State politicians and various federal officials in the aftermath of the Western Washington floods.

If you've ever wondered what the purpose of politicians riding high in a helicopter after a disaster, Postman really puts you behind the scenes to understand what they're up to (or why they're up there):

I spent most of yesterday flying around southwest Washington as the state's top politicians viewed flood damage, made announcements of aid and thanks emergency officials and volunteers. But as I write in this morning's paper, this was a lobbying trip. Gov. Chris Gregoire, senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Congressman Norm Dicks were the well-known names on board the Washington National Guard helicopter. But much of the day's activities were aimed at convincing federal officials of the need, and the urgency, of federal flood relief.

The helicopter ride is not about response, it's about recovery -- trying to demonstrate that the damage meets criteria for federal disaster assistance. Not too surprising!

Postman goes on to describe the political machinations that go on during a disaster -- many of which are simply extensions of the machinations that go on without the disaster. I'll hit on a couple more points in a follow up posts...

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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Hummers: Our response to climate change?

Naomi Klein writes in The Nation today about two "growth industries" -- green technology and homeland security -- noting that last year, by revenue, they were neck and neck, and this year homeland security is seen as the better investment:

The market, however, appears to have other ideas about how to meet the challenges of an increasingly disaster-prone world. According to Lloyd, despite all the government incentives, the really big money is turning away from clean energy technologies and banking instead on gadgets promising to seal wealthy countries and individuals into high-tech fortresses. Key growth areas in venture capitalism are private security firms selling surveillance gear and privatized emergency response. Put simply, in the world of venture capitalism, there has been a race going on between greens on the one hand and guns and garrisons on the other--and the guns are winning.

According to Venture Business Research, in 2006 North American and European companies developing green technology and those focused on "homeland security" and weaponry were neck and neck in the contest for new investment: green tech received $3.5 billion, and so did the guns and garrisons sector. But this year garrisons have suddenly leapt ahead. The greens have received $4.2 billion, while the garrisons have nearly doubled their money, collecting $6 billion in new investment funds. And 2007 isn't over yet.

Klein notes that there is more profit in continuous protection, recurring escape, and privatized emergency response -- just what we need: a "pay to save" emergency management program! -- than in investing to mitigate the hazard and reduce risk. This is similar to the argument that pharmaceutical companies focus on developing drugs that treat symptoms, rather than eradicate disease.

This "disaster capitalism" trend (as Klein calls it) is summed up well by HOPE: Hummer Owners Prepared for Emergencies. Buy a Hummer so you can save people from the floods resulting from the more severe and frequent storms caused by high CO2 emissions from your Hummer!

I do agree with Klein's general argument here. But one thing she leaves untouched is the fact that even those who are investing in "green technologies" are taking a similar for-profit, silver-bullet approach, rather than "investing" in behavior changes that require no new technologies and won't make much money for anyone (but will still reduce our risk of disaster).

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Monday, December 3, 2007

Some New Old News About Sumatra

I just got back from the International Conference on Urban Disaster Reduction in Taipei, Taiwan. The plenary talks were above average, focusing on climate change, disasters in developing countries, and putting research into action (though I will say that organizers should have given more time for Q&A). There were several noteworthy talks, which I hope to mention here.

The first one was given by Cal Tech Professor Kerry Sieh about longstanding work he's been doing in Sumatra, which has been covered in the news before. The upshot is that there is much more stress to be released on the fault that caused the Banda Aceh earthquake in 2004. He showed a graph of strain over the past several hundred years, illustrating that the 2004 event was likely the beginning of strain release on the fault similar to centuries past. Amazingly, the magnitude of the earthquake that would result from complete rupture of stress in the fault segment in question would be the same or greater as the 2004 event. Worst of all, the nearby cities of Pedang and Bengkulu are much larger than Banda Aceh, and equally vulnerable to tsunami. Professor Sieh sounded rather pessimistic about the ability to mitigate against another catastrophe in these areas, but clearly put the challenge out there to do so. It's certainly an opportunity to apply lessons learned about disaster risk reduction from a similar context and try to shift focus from reponse to risk reduction.

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The Role of Rentals in Recovery

Relatively speaking, recovery after the 1994 Northridge earthquake was quick and complete, though certainly unequal across space and demographics. One of the main reasons for this was the high vacancy rates for apartments and other rentals at the time of the earthquake. This made it easy to provide temporary and long-term housing for those who lost the service of their residence.

The New York Times today has a story about the severe lack of available rental units in New Orleans and possibly related effects like increased homelessness. Obviously there are many differences between Northridge and New Orleans -- a moderate earthquake and a catastrophic storm surge. But in the seemglingly national push to convert apartments to condos, I think we shouldn't forget the role of a flexible rental stock in recovery and resilience.

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