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, May 28, 2008

Homeless in New Orleans

Disasters are most disastrous for those on the "margins," whether it be a business struggling with debt or an individual struggling with chronic illness and poverty. That seems obvious. But the thing that folks don't often think about is how the "margins" expand with each disaster if we don't work to reduce their everyday vulnerability.

Here we see that the homeless population has nearly doubled in New Orleans post-Katrina while the efforts to deal with homelessness have not.

By one very rough estimate, the number of homeless people in New Orleans has doubled since Katrina struck in 2005. ...

New Orleans had 2,800 beds for the homeless before the storm; now it has 2,000...

So what happens after the next hurricane or heat wave in New Orleans?

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NYT's Andrew Revkin Keeps Asking Good Questions

In this blog post:

While California, thanks to wakeup calls in 1906 and 1933, has pushed to bolster schools and other vital structures, there, too, experts say, there are gaps, particularly in poorer school districts. In Oregon, the gaps are truly scary, according to Yumei Wang, the head of the state’s geohazards team. When the anticipated earthquake there comes, it could well be an 9.0-magnitude event.

If hundreds of the 1,300 Oregon schools estimated to be inadequately reinforced fall, will that be seen as a cruel twist of fate or somebody’s fault?

And if it’s somebody’s fault, who is the somebody? The person in office? The voters who don’t clamor for safe schools before a disaster strikes? State agencies that perhaps didn’t catch a contractor’s shortcut? Engineers or scientists who haven’t tried hard enough to explain what this kind of threat means? The media for focusing on politicians’ gaffes and celebrities’ stunts?

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Friday, May 23, 2008

FlypMedia on Future Earthquake Disasters in the US

Definitely check this out. Not only is yours truly quoted a couple times, flypmedia.com is a rich online magazine experience with some great writers.

(Full disclosure: The author of the piece is my USGS mentor's son.)

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

School Vulnerability in OR & WA

Been a bit too busy to catch lots of the good stuff in the NYT. I was reading along today and read the name of a friend, Yumei Wang, who wrote the NYT about seismic safety of school in the US and in particular Oregon. She answered this question for us:

I hope that the problem with seismically unsafe schools in the U.S. does not get overlooked. Although California has had school safety laws since 1933, other states have not. As you know, I work in Oregon. Last year, we conducted “screenings” on 3,300 public schools and emergency buildings. Our results, which are available online, indicate that 1,300 have high to very high probability of collapse. We will apply another screening “filter” to reduce that number; however, in the end, Oregon will need to mitigate about 1,000 school buildings.

And on the topic of Washington and their schools? She wrote, "They are still sleeping (except the city of Seattle has done stuff)."

Considering that Washington State's constitution states that "[i]t is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex" it would seem like seismic safety of all public schools, regardless of location, is also of "paramount duty."

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

China's earthquake- damage and rescue

I've been watching the news coming out of China for a week now and it feels so much like déjà vu. from the 1999 Marmara Earthquakes in Turkey. In Turkey, as in China, development had been achieved at a break neck speed. Rural people had poured into the major industrial cities of the Marmara regions -Istanbul, Kocaeli, Izmit, Duzce, Adapazarı and others.

With such a rapid increase of population, density was achieved through reinforced concrete construction. Replacing 1 and 2 story wood and brick buildings were towering concrete apartment buildings. It house the people, but so much of it was built before a robust and transparent building inspection process could be fully enforced. This looks to be the case in China as well.

In Turkey, much of the construction from 1960-1999 was also built illegally by self-builders who neither understood what made reinforced concrete earthquake resistant, nor understood the important of construction quality. That may not be the case in China. I'm sure it will be studied in great detail over the next few years.

In the mean time, a CNN video of the minutes after the earthquake was posted to the ENDRR-L list serve hosted by Prevention Web. The video is very dramatic, but also very telling. Survivors engage in a strong self-organizing response to rescue trapped victims, treat the wounded and find needed supplies. Watching the video, I look at it and empathize with the survivors. But I also find myself making a mental note of what supplies would be helpful in that sort of aftermath. Think I'll go check what I've got in my emergency supply kit...

Also telling are the injuries people sustained from non-structural damage....damage resulting from the shifting or collapse of personal contents or things like partition walls and light fixtures. Its a reminder of the importance to secure your furniture if you live in earthquake country.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Birch Bay Drill

As an intern for IGCR I had the opportunity to participate in an emergency drill in Birch Bay, Washington. The drill was created around the idea that a terrorist attack occurred at Camp Horizon. The scenario is as follows:

A terrorist attack has occurred at Camp Horizon in Birch Bay, Washington. A tank of isocyanate exploded injuring and kill many resulting in an order to shelter in place for all

As a player (pink arm band) and field observer (yellow arm band), I was able to explore the command center located at the local firehouse, the explosion site, and the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH).

First stop: the command center. Located at the firehouse, this was a place for tracking events (see photo at left) and exchanging information; authorities inside, media OUTSIDE. Even though this was a drill, the annoyance with the faux media seemed genuine. It was interesting to see that many found it difficult to find the line between reality and fantasy. At one point I was told I could not go into the field until it was declared "safe." Isn't the drill over when it is safe? The information flow was so constant that it was difficult to catch anyone's attention as they roamed from room to room. Somehow, I managed to get some vague directions to the site.

Upon reaching Camp Horizon, myself and a fellow Western student were greeted by a man with a large assault rifle and a smile; even the acting students with corpse-like make-up broke character. We were waved in safely thanks to our green arm bands. There were ambulances from near and far lined along the road to the entrance. I wondered if importing ambulances left towns vulnerable to their own disaster.

The actual site of the supposed explosion was teeming with marines and people in hazmat suits. In order to make the task of finding the injured and deceased, dummies with realistic injuries were thrown in trees on strewn across the grass. Actors were also integrated in the mix. Both were dragged on yellow boards to a tent where they were decontaminated (hosed off). A controller/evaluator commented that marines do not have medical training and do not practice the caution with the injured that they should. He also noted that the drill had an unexplained mistake. Less protected participants had entered the site before it had been declared clear. In reality, this could have posed a serious health risk.

The final stop was the fairgrounds where the MASH hospital was located. A less lively scene, a barn doubled as a hospital with rows of injured dummies taggged by injury. Injured people sat in chairs. Another decontamination tent was set up nearby. An injured man decided he would not like to be to decontaminated and was quickly taken down by three marines.

The drill ended with the landing of two black hawk helicopters in an open field of the fairgrounds. They arrived 3-4 hours later than expected which does not bode well for a real disaster. Six of the injured were helicoptered off the site.

The drill ended abruptly with the deconstruction of the decontamination tents and departure of fire trucks and ambulances. The great thing about a drill is you can pack up and leave, feeling a sense of adventure even. Ironically, the same set of events can occur in reality but setting off a the exact opposite range of emotions. Perhaps this says something for the ineffectiveness of raising awareness through morbid or disheartening images. If one doesn't experience the real thing, it is easy for the mind to discount it as fantasy.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

School Vulnerability... Not In Our Backyard!?

The New York Times has a good side-bar article about the vulnerability of schools around the world. They interview disaster luminaries Brian Tucker and Ben Wisner -- probably the most knowledgeable folks out there. (Part of the email interview of Dr. Wisner is in this NYT blog post.)

(Dr. Tucker won the MacArthur Award because of work he did related to earthquake risk reduction for schools, particularly in Katmandu in association with his organization GeoHazards International. Dr. Wisner has written volumes on disaster risk reduction, most notably on this topic is this report [pdf].)

The NYT article observes that...

[e]xperts on earthquake dangers have warned for years that tens of millions of students in thousands of schools, from Asia to the Americas, face similar risks, yet programs to reinforce existing schools or require that new ones be built to extra-sturdy standards are inconsistent, slow and inadequately financed.

Well, of course. That sounds obvious -- schools are vulnerable in places around the world that we associate with being most vulnerable. When the experts says schools are vulnerable in "the Americas," they mean Central and South America.



Well, and North America...

... the risks are not limited to poor or emerging countries. In Vancouver, British Columbia, parents’ groups have been agitating to accelerate a decades-long program aimed at bringing schools up to modern earthquake standards.

Because of the Sichuan earthquake, the Seattle PI is reporting on building vulnerability in Seattle, citing a report for the City of Seattle [big pdf] on unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings that was published in December 2007. The report notes that some of the URMs in Seattle are schools -- not surprising given the age of construction:

Among the more notable buildings on the list are West Seattle High School, John Marshall School in the Roosevelt area, First United Methodist Church downtown, and the Merchants Cafe and the Union Gospel Mission in Pioneer Square.

To my knowledge, the State of Washington has not publicly disclosed schools in the state that are seismically vulnerable, particularly URMs. I'm not even certain if they have them inventoried. Obviously, this is a first step in mobilizing political will to retrofit or replace these schools.

Anyone know about a school seismic-safety inventory in WA?

Other states?


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Monday, May 12, 2008

If True, It'll Leave You...


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Red Cross on the Death Toll from the Sichuan Earthquake

From the BBC.

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News on the Sichuan Earthquake

It's a bit of paradox looking for news in the immediate aftermath of any large hazard event, since the bigger the event the more difficult it will be to get reliable information quickly (or at all), but alas that's the world we live in. So far, the New York Times seems to have the most insightful coverage -- particularly the audio interview (left hand side) include with this story.

The reporter interviewed makes a very good point about the indicators of the scale of the disaster -- the heads of state went immediately to the region:

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who arrived in the earthquake region on Monday night, described the situation as a “severe disaster” and called for “calm, confidence, courage and efficient organization.”

President Hu Jintao ordered an “all out” effort to aid people in the earthquake region and soldiers were dispatched for disaster relief efforts.

The government also has released significant fatality estimates (certainly not actual counts), in contrast to the 1976 event where the Chinese government tried to cover up the more than 200,000 deaths to the world media. This is surprisingly common. I remember after the 1999 Izmet earthquake that the Turkish government was denying any major death toll while at the same time it came to light that they had ordered thousands of body bags.

It's a good lesson to remember: As consumers, maintain low expectations for news in the near aftermath, but producers should not try downplay what they already know.

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When Can't You Recover?

Apparently, according to this story, when your town is a Superfund site, like Picher, OK where the EPA was in the process of buying out homeowners as part of their CERCLA cleanup effort:

Because of Picher's Superfund status, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is unlikely to grant assistance to homeowners to rebuild in the town, said Oklahoma Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood. But he echoed Henry's assurances about the federal buyout program, which is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency.

So what happens if your neighborhood becomes a Superfund site as the result of a hazard event?

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Information Disasters

The New York Times has another to-the-point editorial about the Burma (Myanmar) disaster. (The other one.) This one deals with issues of information flow and freedom of the press and reinforces our understanding that there is no such thing as a natural disaster:

If information can flow as freely as nature’s elements, the consequences of many calamities — be they earthquakes, floods, droughts, hurricanes or storms — are manageable and even preventable. Absent such freedom in news and information, all “natural” disasters are ultimately man-made.

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Thursday, May 8, 2008

Hold on to your hat, here come the disasters...

While at an OECD sponsored conference on Financial Literacy, I had the opportunity to present with Dr. Erwann Michel-Kerjan from the Wharton School's Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. He was presenting their newly released MANAGING LARGE‐SCALE RISKS IN A NEW ERA OF CATASTROPHES: Insuring, Mitigating and Financing Recovery from Natural Disasters in the United States. The report is a great read, especially for those interested in the financial aspects of disaster management.

While Dr. Michel-Kerjan was a bit too pessimistic in his assessment of disasters....he saw rising disaster costs as a unassailable trend, not seeing that recent hurricanes in the Gulf have also led to implementation of building codes that could, eventually, help bring disaster costs under control....he showed a great graph from his recent work looking at the politics of disasters. The graph shows disaster declarations over time, highlighting election years.

Its clear that disaster declarations are on the rise. And they are heavily influenced by our election cycle. If the trend holds, being in an election year, we should expect a higher number of declarations than recent years. Chances are that most countries have means of funneling development money to favored communities based upon assumed or hoped for electoral support. In Turkey, amnesties for illegal building are regularly handed out in exchange for political support. Here, transportation and urban renewal funding have also used in this way. I suspect we are in an era where DHS terrorism grants and, to a lesser extent, recovery funds that come with disaster declarations are a growing and preferred method of getting a bit more of the pie to one's constituents.

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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Burma's Vulnerability

What are some root causes?

The New York Times editorial sums them concisely:

[The junta's] repressive policies contributed greatly to the the disaster. Crushing poverty left many coastal communities more vulnerable to the storm than they otherwise might have been, and, as Laura Bush observed, the government-controlled news media failed to issue timely warnings. The fear now is that the generals may create obstacles to the rescue operation, which will require moving volumes of supplies as well as large numbers of aid workers, many from countries hostile to the regime.

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