Archive for catastrophe management

Four Lessons on Emergency Preparedness in Cities

The twin tremor-induced disasters in Christchurch and Sendai, taken in contrast to hurricane Katrina and other disasters, provide at least four lessons for cities and urban residents.

First, in a real city-wide disaster, however much preparation is done, it won’t be enough.  People will still die, others will struggle to find food, water and shelter, and many will get sick or injured either from the quake or the effects of it.  There was no way for Sendai to be ready for a 9.0 quake and a 30′ (10 metre) tsunami minutes later.  But…

Second, it will be far worse if a city and its residents are unprepared.  Look at New Orleans during and after Katrina–and that disaster could be seen coming for days and yet neither the city nor the country were ready to rescue, feed, clothe and house people in the days and weeks that followed.  Or look at Port-au-Prince and other cities in Haiti where sheer poverty of the nation, the city and most people prevented much in the way of adequate preparedness.

Contrast this to Christchurch where local and national emergency crews were on the scene right away.  Still…

Three, everyone in any city–earthquake zone or not–needs to be ready to look after themselves and their family for at least 72 hours (3 days) if not a full week.  As well documented in Christchurch, the city’s water system, sewage system and electrical network were severely damaged.  Neither clean water nor electricity was available for many people for days.  And just being ready yourself isn’t really good enough…

Four, as the Japanese have been brilliant at, you need to be ready to help others too, and the city has to have supplies stockpiled in places people can reach it.  In Sendai incredible stories have emerged of how people pooled and shared the clean water and food that they had.  Because the Japanese are prepared for earthquakes, many places likely had decent amounts of supplies stockpiled.

After a disaster it is probably easy to share something you have enough of.  I worry what might happen in North American cities if many residents are not ready and have nothing to eat, drink or use as shelter in the hours and days following.  Will the disaster bring out the best in people as happened in Japan, or show an ugly side as happened in New Orleans with looting and violence.

Seems that being prepared–as cities and as people–might make all the difference.

What else can we learn from these disasters? Do you feel your city is ready? are you?

The wacky and weird of living in an Olympic host city

Having the Olympic Games in your city at first sounds exciting, exotic and somewhat cool.  As the Vancouver Olympic Games approach there have been — and are sure to be many more– elements of that.  For example, I went skating on the Olympic Speed Skating oval with my four year old son — what a fast ice surface; that was cool.   Top Canadian and global musicians and entertainers will be in town, often performing free shows.  I may try to catch one or two.  Buildings are blanketed with 100 foot high images of athletes — I’ve been staring at Clara Hughes from my office for months.

And then there are the unexpected, strange and bizarre things.  Here are a few:

  • Large military aircraft suddenly make low speed passes through town; or a military helicopter circles above your house for hours.
  • It’s a tent city!  Giant white tents are everywhere — pavilions for various places and organizations.   Nunavut has one, Canada has it’s own, etc.   Millions have been spent on them.
  • Lost mounties: hundreds (thousands) of RCMP officers are here to help with security.  Vancouver doesn’t use the RCMP normally as its police force, so most have never been here.  Helped some mounties on bikes (rather than horses) find their way the other day.
  • Starbucks has new door signage everywhere, with “Welcome” written in at least 10 languages and 5 different alphabets.
  • Time for residents, businesses and other organizations has three distinct phases in 2010: “Before the Games,” “During the Games,” and After the Games.  All projects have deadlines before or sometime well after the Olympics.  We all talk to each other with “what are you doing during the Games” (as in are you leaving town, renting out your place, staying, attempting to go to work, etc.)
  • Garbage will be picked up in the middle of the night (roads will be too busy during the day).
  • For many businesses, the Olympic 2 weeks will be  a test run of “catastrophe management” — they have had to invest in technology so everyone can effectively do their jobs from home (as would have to happen should an earthquake or terrorist take out a bridge or two, cutting off parts of the city).

I’m sure there will be more.  Anyone else care to add something?

What the Olympics teach us about urban health

During the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, incidents of hospitalization for asthma declined by 41% according to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The air quality in Beijing over the past two weeks has apparently been better than it has in decades.  One day had an index reading of 12, down from an all time high in December of last year of 500 (according to this report on Price Tags)

In Atlanta, the city dramatically curtailed private automobile use.  In Beijing both private automobiles and manufacturing were shut down in order to improve the air quality.

What all this suggests to me is that irrespective of concerns about global warming, our urbanizing planet needs to cut pollution now simply to look after the health of its citizens.  Or, if you want to think about the economy, consider the lost productivity from people unable to breathe.

Two lessons from a massive CBD power outage

Last week in downtown Vancouver a main electrical cable underground caught fire.  At approximately 10 AM, Monday morning, half of the CBD lost power including the building where I work.   BC Hydro could not fully restore the power for several days, although some buildings were back on the grid within about 6 hours.

In perspective, this event was an inconvenience.  No one died.  No real catastrophe happened.  But it did offer some valuable lessons, here are two.

Lesson #1: office towers require a lot of energy to remain comfortable.  While on the one hand I knew this, I’d never experienced life in an office building with no power.   Within 45 minutes of the power going off, my office was becoming uncomfortably hot and the air tasted stale.  And this was in a north-facing office in Vancouver on a mild summer day with highs only expected to hit 23 degrees c, or about 75 F.   I can’t imagine what it would be like in an office tower in places like Dallas or Phoenix or Atlanta on a hot summer day with no power — 5 minutes to get out before you slowly start to cook?

Clearly, it takes a lot of energy to keep that building comfortable.

The broader lesson: As energy becomes more expensive, office buildings in hot climates are going to become very costly to operate.  I’m not sure I’d be as bullish as Forbes last week on places like Phoenix.  If you can’t build up because of energy costs, and can’t build sprawl because of high gasoline costs, where are people going to work.

Lesson #2: I’m not ready for a major disaster (are you?)  What if this had been an earthquake knocking out power?  I had no comfortable walking shoes nor appropriate clothing for urban survival after a disaster, not to mention no water bottle.

I intend to remedy this in the next week.

Stackable, affordable, fast — and green — housing

The first challenge in building higher density housing these days — or any housing, for that matter — it that it take so long to construct. If a city has a critical shortage of homes, faster solutions are needed.

A second challenge is that it’s becoming ever more expensive to build townhomes and condominiums. Concrete, copper, and other materials continue to escalate in price (and in some cities labor costs are rising too).

Enter a solution: re-use shipping containers and convert them into homes. Okay, at first this sounds cheap and sub-standard — like stringing together “portables” as school classrooms. However, some creative designers have demonstrated that shipping containers can make beautiful and functional housing, and at lower costs that concrete or wood construction.

Containers are typically 20′ X 8′ X 8.5′ or 40′ X 8 X 8.5′. 8′ ceilings are typical in homes, so this is a perfect height.

And two containers can be connected to create a 40′ X 16′ space, or 640 square foot unit (or the 20′ versions offer a 320 square foot home — about the same size as the smallest studio condos). They can also be stacked to offer lofts and two storey units, as well as multi-storey buildings made of containers.

Shipping containers only cost a few thousand dollars each, so they offer a low-cost base. And containers no longer being used for shipping can have a second life as a house — a green option.

While I’m not sure that shipping containers will catch on as “permanent” housing, they could be a very effective way to build temporary homes, fast. This would be valuable in communities facing a sudden critical dwelling shortage owing to an economic boom or a natural disaster.

For example, the town of Whistler, BC, is considering a container housing project for worker housing. Real estate prices are so high in the booming resort community that the typical employee cannot afford to live there, creating acute labor shortages. A stacked container village could be created quickly, offering much better options that living in cars, and other highly dangerous, substandard options employees are using now like living in unventilated condo storage units.

Container housing might also offer an option for migrant workers of all income levels. For example, movie sets in isolated places could import a pre-fab container village to offer everyone from lead actors to grips and production assistants a nice home away from home. The Olympic Games has thousands of “gypsy” workers who move from host city to host city every two years. What if their home could move too? (Of course, finding a site for a container village might be tricky…)

5 noteworthy happenings of 2007 for cities

In no particular order…

1. The bridge collapse in Minneapolis. This tragedy illustrates the crisis in urban infrastructure funding around North America, driven by the fact that higher levels of government control funding to maintain and upgrade the major highways and bridges on which city life depends. The bursting of levies in New Orleans following Katrina, or in Reno this week offer further examples. This issue will be with us for a long time (and I hope will be discussed as an election issue).

2. The growing number of mortgage foreclosures in the United States and the related decline in housing values in many cities. The fact that not every city is experiencing a significant decline in home values is also noteworthy. Not only is the world spiky, but America’s economic fortunes are as well.

3. In the Greater Toronto Area more condominiums were purchased last year than single family houses. This is a profound shift for a metro region that has been struggling with sprawl as well as solid economic and population growth. If Toronto — one of North America’s largest metro areas — can make a shift toward more sustainable urban development, there is hope for many other places. This shift is of course related to the steadily rising price of single family homes. But it shows that rather than move to more distant Barrie or Ancaster, some people are choosing a smaller home.

4. Canadian cities’ infrastructure needs gained attention and funding. The Conference Board of Canada published “Mission Possible” articulating the importance of cities to the national economy (65% of new jobs generated in cities, for example). Subsequently, more federal government funding announcements began to happen in cities like Toronto, Edmonton, and Vancouver.

5. Oil neared a record $100/barrell (and surpassed it early in 2008). Cities run on oil. It’s used to make roads, fuel cars, heat homes and businesses and generate electricity (in some places). Oil also causes a lot of pollution, damaging our local and global environments. Assuming this trend continues into 2008 and beyond, it will begin o impact how people live in cities, and urban policy.

…feel free to add your thoughts on the most lasting developments for cities of 2007:

September 11 – Remembering cities attacked

The firestorm [was] incredible, there [were] calls for help and screams from somewhere but all around [was] one single inferno… suddenly, I saw people again, right in front of me. They scream[ed] and gesticulate[d] with their hands, and then — to my utter horror and amazement — I [saw] how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground. Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of lack of oxygen. They fainted and then burnt to cinders. (Margaret Freyer)

We saw the burning street, the falling ruins and the terrible firestorm. My mother covered us with wet blankets and coats she found in a water tub. We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and from, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from. (Lothar Metzger)

These are first hand accounts of the fire bombing of Dresden Germany in 1945 by American and allied forces (taken from Wikipedia.) In that one night, 50% of the city’s housing was destroyed, 80% severely damaged.

Historic buildings dating back centuries were also damaged or destroyed.  In fact, the bombing and subsequent fire also destroyed 56% of the non-industrial and non-residential buildings.

September 11 is a day when everyone remembers where they were when they heard about the World Trade Centre attacks.  I was in Dresden, Germany.   We’d taken a day off touring historic buildings that still looked like they were bombed yesterday (I hear most have now been restored, but in 2001 the plan was just getting underway) and reading the morbid details. 

Instead, we spent the day hiking in Saxony and on the boat trip back up the Elbe river, chatted with some Americans with the Indy car race scheduled for a few days later.  In Eastern Germany in Sept 2001, we found few English speakers, so you tended to chat with anyone you met. 

In fact, that’s how we found out what had happened.  Some New Zealanders heard our voices and accents at the hostel.  We were joking around and sounding too care free to be Americans who knew their country had been attacked.  The Kiwi’s asked if we were American – “No, Canadian” we replied.  “Well, anyway…” they said, ” did you hear what happened to America today?”   “No,” we replied - and they told us what little they knew.  We thought of the American race car people, but didn’t know where to find them.

We then went and joined the Germans crowded around their TV and saw a few clips of planes hitting buildings.  Everything was in German, and most Germans in Dresden spoke limited English.  But suddenly some people at our hostel who had never tried to speak English to us, tried.  They knew enough words to explain a little more and charades helped too.   They felt a compelling need to communicate with us.

For the next 6 weeks in Eastern Europe, we saw gestures of sympathy for Americans everywhere.  People who clearly had limited resources left flowers in front of the US embassy in Prague.  In every capital city, we wandered past the US Embassy and the same outpouring of flowers and notes spilled onto the street.  Every tourist place had a sign in English expressing sorrow and grief.  Many attractions allowed Americans in for free (particularly while they were stranded in Europe because of closed airports).

People in Eastern Europe know grief and tragedy.  Whether they remembered World War II personally, or only knew of it from stories, the evidence of the hardship was everywhere as under Soviet influence and communist rule, little rebuilding took place in many cities.  People in Eastern Europe had also experienced conflicts during the communist era and its downfall.  They felt connected to Americans on that day in ways that they probably never had before — or have felt since because of subsequent political choices.

As I think about that day in Dresden when I learned of the terrorist attacks on the United States, the bigger picture takes over in my head. 

Cities can bring joy and opportunity, but also tragedy for civilians.  Because cities symbolize a society’s accomplishments, values, and possibilities they also become the targets of warfare.

The Minneapolis Bridge Collapse: Sign of anachronistic times?

Cities in North America and around the world face decaying infrastructure that is often controlled by other levels of government. The costs of repairing, upgrading and expanding a highway network are high, and beyond the typical budgets — not to mention political mandates — of most metropolitan governments.

If the mayor and council are unsuccessful in lobbying for upgrades, the situation can become serious.

Regardless of whether aging infrastructure or a construction crew mistake caused the Minneapolis incident, this same tragedy could have happened in dozens of cities because the highways were not built to last this long without upgrades nor to handle the larger vehicles of the 21st century, as detailed in this New York Times article.

Maybe this will serve as a wake up call across the USA. In Canada, a similar collapse in Montreal in Sept 2006 generated renewed attention on urban infrastructure, particularly in the province of Quebec, but also nationally.

While politicians on both sides of the border scramble to find funds to be seen as doing something, what no one is doing is proposing to give cities the funds to maintain and develop their own infrastructure. Nor is anyone suggesting that cities and metro regions need more control over the infrastructure that allows them to function.

Cities in both countries need a new deal — a new city-centred relationship with higher governments is required. Cities are now the economic engines of regional and national growth.

Having the national budget control their infrastructure is an anachronism — or the tail wagging the dog.

Urban vulnerability reminder

A series of fierce storms dumped record amounts of rain on the Vancouver area over the past two weeks and especially in the past two days. This resulted in strong creek and river run offs into the drinking water reservoirs, churning up silt and mud — what the scientists call turbidity. The water coming out of the tap is brown with a hint of green. Toilets look like no one flushed. Turbidity interferes with the choloration process.

Turbidity interferes with the cholorination and general cleansing process for the city’s water supply. Moreover, mud and silt can cover dangerous cloriform bacteria, preventing them from showing up in tests.

So, 2 million people are now under a “boil water advisory“.

And suddenly, I realize that I don’t have much bottled water around. This is a wake up call for me. Vancouver is along an earthquake fault – a major disaster could happen without warning, creating conditions much worse than from 2 weeks of steady hard rain. In fact, quakes on this fault happen all the time, we just don’t always feel them because they are smaller or away from populated areas.

Fortunately, we have power (unlike thousands of others) so I can boil the water out of the tap. And I did hit the local Santa Barbara supermarket an hour ago to pick up some of the last bottles of water.

Time to re-assemble an emergency kit. In the age of terrorist attacks and with the memory of images from hurricane Katrina’s wrath still fresh for many North Americans, every city dweller should make sure they have a 2-4 day supply of water along with emergency medical supplies and food to survive several days without help.

The fall out from these rain storms is minor compared to what could happen.

Dresden Germany on Sept 11, 2001 – Urban Memory

The site of the former World Trade Centre towers in New York remains a hole in the ground. Controversy abounds over what to do with the space — how to remember the past and honour the dead, as well as how to move the city and nation forward.

Today, I thought back to where I was on September 11, 2001 — Dresden, Germany –the most bombed city of World War II. Dresden is in Eastern German (and the former-communist DDR). In February 1945 in one raid by the allies over 25,000 people were killed (perhaps much higher). 80% of the housing was damaged or destroyed. The historic, picturesque baroque buildings lay in ruins.

In 2001, much of the destruction of the historic town centre had yet to be rebuilt. The charred remains of many bombed historic churches, civic and community buildings looked like they hadn’t been touched for decades. New scaffolding blanketed a few sites indicating restoration was just getting underway.

Leaving Dresden alone, not rebuilding it, carried a message to the citizens who daily viewed the destruction. That message was to remember what the allies did — the Americans and the British (the pillars of Capitalism in the cold war). The wounds were left open, to fester, for nearly 45 years. Unlike in other parts of Germany, it seemed many in Dresden were suspicious of outsiders, particularly those speaking English, maybe this is some of the reason.

Leaving the site of tragic loss in its destroyed state has happened in countless cities around the world. Whether intended or not, it serves as a reminder of what happened. In Managua 15 years after a catastrophic earthquake, the portion of the city destroyed remained empty, a reminder of how former dictator Somoza embezzled all the aid money sent to help. Surely this reinforced the new government’s claim to legitimacy (“look what the last guy left you with.”)

Leaving the hole where the World Trade Centre towers used to stand reminds everyone of the harshness of that day. I’d venture to say it helps make people more sympathetic to the so called “War on Terror” lead by George W. Bush. But it also probably prevents healing, and moving on.

There may be a time — and that time might not be now — when New Yorkers and Americans will need to rebuild and look forward. There will always be a scar by which to remember the day even when the wound has healed and New York life has moved on.

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