The Big Picture After H. Sandy

This astute overview of the issues pending in the aftermath of H. Sandy.  Vetoing Business as Usual After the Storm. NYT, Nov. 20. It gives you a good idea of why achieving an effective and visionary  recovery is so hard after a major natural disaster.  Quotes from the opening paragraphs:

Not a month after Hurricane Sandy there’s a rough consensus about how to respond. America is already looking to places like London, Rotterdam, Hamburg and Tokyo, where sea walls, levees and wetlands, flood plains and floating city blocks have been conceived.

New York clearly ought to have taken certain steps a while back, no-brainers after the fact. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority ought to have installed floodgates and louvers at vulnerable subway entrances and vents. Consolidated Edison should have gotten its transformers, and Verizon its switching stations, out of harm’s way, and Congress should have ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to study the impact of giant barriers to block parts of the city from the sea.

Scientists, architects, planners and others have, of course, been mulling over these issues for years. They’ve pressed for more parkland and bike lanes, green roofs and  energy-efficient buildings, and warned about the need for backup generators, wetland edges along Lower Manhattan and barrier islands for the harbor to cushion the blow of rushing tides.

Hurricane Sandy was a toll paid for procrastination. The good news? We don’t need to send a bunch of Nobel laureates into the desert now, hoping they come up with some new gizmo to save the planet. Solutions are at hand. Money shouldn’t be a problem either, considering the hundreds of billions of dollars, and more lives, another Sandy or two will cost.

So the problem is not technological or, from a long-term cost-benefit perspective, financial. Rather it is the existential challenge to the messy democracy we’ve devised. The hardest part of what lies ahead won’t be deciding whether to construct Eiffel Tower-size sea walls across the Verrazano Narrows and Hell Gate, or overhauling the city’s sewage and storm water system, which spews toxic waste into rivers whenever a couple of inches of  rain fall because the sea levels have already risen so much. These are monumental tasks


Long Term Recovery — NAS Roundtable Workshop

The Keck Center of the National Academies loca...

The Keck Center

Yesterday, the diva attended the Disasters Roundtable Workshop on Integrating Disaster Recovery: What Should Long-Term Disaster Recovery Look Like? It was sponsored by the National Academy of Science in Washington, D.C., March 21.

The purpose of the workshop was to “examine the integration of disaster recovery across disciplines, sectors, and jurisdictions.” The objectives were to address:

1) What is integrated long-term recovery?
2) How is progress of recovery measured?
3) What gaps currently exist that need to be overcome in disaster recovery?
4) How to design and implement an integrative recovery strategy?

My view of the gaps or barriers to effective long-term recovery effort are the lack of:

  • Mandate – need a National Recovery Act, changes in the Stafford Act
  • Money – large amounts of multi-year funding
  • Models – need a knowledge base of good examples and a useful lessons learned system

Without these the various strategies, operational plans, and workshops will not accomplish much.

Why Can’t We Figure Out How To Do Disaster Recovery in the U.S.?

Flag of San Francisco

Image via Wikipedia

We have had lots of time, we have many well-educated people, we are a wealthy country, and we have frequent major disasters. So why don’t we have the knowledge and guidance — at the federal, state, or local levels — to do recovery planning effectively and efficiently, either before or after a disaster? 

California Looks to Update Quake Plans, Wall St. Journal, April 1.

But San Francisco officials admit they have undertaken far less planning for what to do after an earthquake to ensure that residents are resettled and buildings are reconstructed quickly. Rob Dudgeon, deputy director of the city’s Department of Emergency Management, said the issue was driven home by the slow pace of rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, adding “there’s not a city in the United States” prepared for such recovery.

In 2008, then-city administrator Edwin Lee, who now is interim San Francisco mayor, began heading an effort to increase the city’s focus on recovery planning. Since then, San Francisco has tapped experts at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the San Francisco Planning & Urban Research Association. “We don’t want to lose our people” to other cities by not rebuilding quickly enough, said Sarah Karlinsky, deputy director of the nonprofit think tank.

One aim is to find ways to ease bureaucracy after a catastrophe, such as the city’s cumbersome building-permitting process, Mr. Dudgeon said. He said officials also intend to develop proposals that the city’s Board of Supervisors could approve immediately after a disaster, to streamline decision making about issues such as whether to demolish the remains of historic buildings and rebuild on unstable land—processes that often take years.

San Francisco, he said, is in the “toddler stages” of that effort.

So, here is why I posed the question in the heading of this post:

  • San Francisco had a major earthquake in 1906, which is 105 years ago.
  • FEMA was formed in 1979, which is 32 years ago.

Just how long does it take to get beyond the toddler stage of recovery? And who and what are needed to do that? Your comments are invited!
So far, we have 3 perspectives on the issue; please write in with your opinion.

Aftermath of a Disaster: Stay and Rebuild or Relocate?

Location Map of Otsuchi in Iwate Prefecture, Japan

Image via Wikipedia

Here is a snapshot of what residents face in one badly-damaged Japanese community. Quake-hit Japanese city in danger of dying. CNN, March 25

As of October 2009, 15,590 called Otsuchi home, according to the city. The Iwate prefectural police say, so far, the death toll stands at 504 people, with 1,048 missing. The police caution that the numbers are likely not accurate, because the tsunami wiped out entire families in Otsuchi, so there’s no one to report missing or dead people. Almost 6,000 people are homeless.  The choice to stay or go is complicated by the loss of the city’s leaders.

On the day of the disaster, Otsuchi’s city hall turned into a rapid command post. The mayor, 69-year-old Kohki Kato, led the charge to set up the command center outside the city hall, minutes after the magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck.
The mayor and his government had warning the tsunami was coming and evacuated to the second floor of the city hall, believing they were safe. The tsunami swallowed nearly the entire building except for the rooftop, where some of the city workers stood. More than half of the city’s leaders are dead or missing. Among those killed was Mayor Kato.

After the tsunami, a gas explosion erupted and a fire swept through the town, reducing the rubble to charred metal

Mismatch of Reality and Glib Opinions of Pundits:

The harsh reality of this situation suggests that recovery for some communities may take many years, if not one or more decades.  Yet many of the “experts” interviewed on TV shows, such as CNN, talk about the recovery– for all of Japan — from one to 5 years. Even a World Bank report states 5 years.  Many of those interviewed are from the world of finance and business, and of course their orientation is to focus on those aspects.  Since all too few people are experts in long-term recovery, for large cities and for nations, we are not getting the full picture, in my view.

Sadly, we lack a cohesive body of recovery theory and also lack a knowledge base of case studies of recovery, so there is no objective basis for discussing the duration of the recovery process for complex disaster events.

Recovery Theory Workshop Report

Market Street in Chapel Hill, N.C. There were ...

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A small, invitational workshop on the need for a coherent, systematic knowledge base about disaster recovery theory took place in mid November in Chapel Hill, N.C.  Close to 30 specialists in the field of disaster recovery were  invited.  The workshop was organized by the Public Entity Risk Institute ( PERI) and was funded by the National Science Foundation.  A report is available at