Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Where's the Triage?

Earlier this summer, shortly after the town experienced the second of two devastating floods in less than two years, an article in USA Today highlighted the action (or, as some residents might say, inaction) of government officials related to flood prevention.  The article included the following:

Leaders in Howard County crafted a thorough plan in the aftermath of the 2016 flooding disaster and say large changes to mitigate a flood simply can't happen overnight, even though they're moving quickly.

But the downtown area, which is woven with three different rivers, isn't a stranger to flooding, and numerous reports over the years, including as far back as the 1970s, have warned that Ellicott City, in particular, was in danger and a flood could devastate the area.

Local leaders long have known that storms could leave the city, which sits at the bottom of a valley, in shambles. But critics say very little over the years has been done to meet the threat head-on, even though study after study has offered both warnings of disaster and possible solutions.

After the (2016) flood… Howard County commissioned a study that pointed to blocked water channels as one of the primary reasons for flooding. Another study found that the walls along streams that wind through the city needed repairs and wouldn’t hold up against heavy floods.

Other studies identified solutions to the threat: The clearest way to help mitigate flooding was through retention ponds. The county rejected the plans because of the high expense and low reward since the fixtures wouldn't be a cure-all for the floods, especially for intense storms such as what the area saw Sunday.

The county reversed its decision after the 2016 floods. Four stormwater retention facilities are in the progress of being planned and constructed…

"It’s study after study after study. That’s all they do is conduct studies," said Ron Peters, a property owner who works on a citizen flood group with Howard County. "It’s just another way for them to not actually do anything."…

But all of the posed solutions wouldn't completely fix the community's problems since much of it is centers on old structures that don't have to meet current standards for storm water management, such as retention ponds that could absorb rain.


So let’s take a look at Howard County’s effort.  Documents on their Master Plan web page for Ellicott City, linked here (including quoted presentations and map on thispage), are preceded by the following statement:
“Howard County launched its master plan process for Ellicott City and its watershed on May 31st, 2017. The master plan process will help define a comprehensive community-driven vision for rebuilding a stronger and more resilient Ellicott City. The master plan will take a fresh and creative look at potential long term flood solutions and strategies.”

The plan focuses on a much larger watershed area (see map above), some of which has been impacted by recent development.  According to the plan,

1.  Portions of the watershed are identified as areas of growth and revitalization in PlanHoward 2030, particularly the historic core and those areas adjacent to Route 40.

2.  The historic core is established over the confluence of multiple streams and is characterized by steep topography.

3.  The existing infrastructure is unable to contain the 100 year storm and even smaller storms.

4.  As we consider upstream development, it is important to understand that development in a watershed is not the sole or primary source of flooding. Additionally, the impact of development depends on the storm water management requirements at the time of construction.

The plan discusses the reasons for the repeated flooding—at least the reason the particular physical configuration of the city vis-à-vis the topography affects the impact of major storms.  These components then seem to direct the reader directly to the three major components of the solution:

1.  Addressing retention and drainage in upstream development;
2.  Widening conveyance channels and correcting constriction points (e.g., by diversion); and
3.  Flood-proofing businesses in harm’s way (e.g., by making the first level of most buildings space in which water can flow through).

The planning presentation continues:

“The greatest public improvements to reduce flood impacts in Ellicott City can be made by addressing conveyance, alongside other practices that include retention basins in the watershed and preventing additional runoff from redevelopment.”  Officials then add that “this needs to be done while balancing water quality, cost benefits, constructability, and policies for appropriate growth and revitalization.”

It’s interesting to note that this plan was begun in response to the 2016 flood, but a year before the “repeat” flood of 2018. And yet there doesn’t seem to be any change in urgency attributed to its implementation. 

In my opinion, the long-term answer to preventing this kind of problem in the future rests on bold actions that might require taking property, relocating businesses, and redirecting funding to the “flood prevention” pieces of the plan that reduce the physical impact of flooding, while paying less attention to concerns for allowing growth and improved water quality. 


A triage approach is needed, but it doesn’t seem to be a priority for the County.  In an interesting article comparing the use of a triage approach in disaster recovery to that of an IT systems manager, author Mike Talon notes that:

Modern military, relief, and medical organizations have practiced a workflow management technique known as triage for nearly a century now. The idea is that the appropriate amount of effort should be put forth for each situation, but before that can happen, the situation must be defined and classified to ensure it receives the proper treatment. Triage is the process of placing situations into those classifications, and the practice of triage can be quite valuable in planning out Disaster Recovery operations as well.

He lays out various stages of his approach. I would expand the final stages of Talon’s triage designation beyond simply addressing the current problem to include the period of rebuilding and planning.  His comment that Tier 5 requires “careful consideration of future events that are likely to occur at any moment,” is particularly important here. 

At one point in my career, I was worked with a major university as a project manager. Faced with a massive deferred maintenance backlog, I was tasked with helping our Board make informed decisions in terms of using our finite resources to make the highest priority repairs first, thereby preserving as much function as possible from the buildings we had. Typically, this meant first repairing the building “envelope” (such things as roofs, windows, walls, etc.) to reduce the impact of weather and water infiltration.  Only then, once a building was watertight and structurally sound, we would make repairs to systems and interiors without fear of further damage.

One project involved a historic theater facility that had deteriorated badly over the years.  As our budget was limited, we set about establishing a scope of work for an initial phase to repair a seriously leaking roof, securing windows and doors, and repointing the masonry walls to preserve the structural integrity of the facility.  A second phase would include interior reconfiguration and improvements that included accommodating the requirements of the newly established Americans with Disabilities Act. Finally, the interior would be refurbished and refinished with new seating, etc.

Shortly before work was to begin, a visitor to the theater threatened a lawsuit related to the new ADA law, citing the difficulty in accessing the more desired seating in the facility by the disabled.  The university took the complaint very seriously and worked through the complaint successfully.  In the interim, however, we were directed to cease work on the facility until the complaint could be resolved.  Ultimately, the work did commence, but not until after significant additional funding had been secured so the accessibility improvements could be made as part of the same contract.   

Ironically, the logical progression of construction still required the exterior envelope improvements be made first.  Unfortunately for the theater, however, the delay made the whole project more costly, as the leaky roof continued to damage the interior for an additional year.

The point here isn’t that accessibility or life safety improvements aren’t important, but that sometimes a slight reshuffling of priorities makes sense.   

In the case of Ellicott City, pulling out all the stops to prevent further flood damage should be an absolute first priority.  After all, no investments in pedestrian improvements, parking, or rebuilding of amenities is safe until the water stops flowing through town.

The Purpose of this Page

News of communities devastated by natural climatic and geologic events seems to be increasing.  The increased density and vulnerability of our built environment exacerbates that devastation.   Thus, reducing that vulnerability will dramatically improve societal resiliency in the face of natural hazards.   

If we can create physical communities that are less susceptible (by location and design) to damage, we can focus our post-event attention on restoring functionality and community spirit, rather than mourning loss of life and paying to rebuild homes and businesses.  It seems simple enough.  The solutions are there.  But implementing them—particularly in some of the most populous and vulnerable places in the world—remains a challenge.   

This web page is intended as a resource to help inform and to inspire safer and less vulnerable human habitation through the geographic integration of science, engineering, economics and public policy. I highlight newsworthy events and case studies; and I seek to share exemplary policies and “best practices” with the goal of improving locational decisions that reduce damage and loss of life from natural events.   

I welcome your input and feedback!

For more about me and what prompted me to begin this blog, please see my first post, here:

It's Elemental


Friday, August 3, 2018

When Ignorance and Indifference are Criminal

A comment made by a writer I referenced in a post late last month about the deadly firestorm in Greece that claimed dozens of lives, led me to an article (and photo source) about a disaster of another sort in the same country.  Last November, a storm dumped substantial rain in an area called Mandra (near Athens) and caused flash flooding.  Another article described the floods as having "Biblical" proportions.  The raging, muddy waters were too much for many. First responders were busy and hospitals were filled.

As I've noted a number of times in this blog, allowing development in a locale known to be prone to flooding is simply asking for tragedy. The 2017 floods in Greece are no exception.  The government apparently did nothing as homes were built in areas that were known as dry rivers and stream beds.  So when the rains came, a resulting wall of water trapped 20 people in cars or basements.  All drowned.

Not only was the potential danger known, it had been studied and reported by the University of Athens.  But lax zoning laws (and/or enforcement) allowed substantial development directly in the path of the flood waters.  In an article written shortly after the floods, a university geology professor's remarks about the tragedy are sobering:

"It has been known for years that the area is a danger zone for possible flooding. Yet, local authorities and central government took no notice of numerous research papers by postgraduate students who studied the geology of the area.  (The University) chose Mandra as a case study, because it was an area where human intervention and ignorance or indifference …was criminal. A stream coming from the mountain about half a mile long was landfilled.  The tragic part is that at the landfilled area, which was at the narrowest point of the stream, the municipality built a depot. Then a supermarket was built. The water’s passage was completely blocked.  Two people had died there from flooding in 1996. Three years later, shops and businesses were also flooded.  Authorities at the time announced urgent investigations but no meaningful action was ever taken."

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Overcoming a History of Tragedy

An unusual story with a tragically typical outcome unfolded in Greece this week.

The area around the village of Mati, east of Athens, was devastated by wildfires that quickly overran homes and claimed the lives of 83 people (so far—dozens are still missing and 60 victims, many critical, are still in hospitals). Many that survived had rushed to the nearby seashore to escape.  According to a news report, one group of victims--many members of the same families--had been trapped in their escape and died huddled together in a "final embrace," parents trying to shield children from the flames.  It was nothing short of horrendous.

The area is home to many retirees whose grandchildren come to visit during the summer.  Many of the fire’s victims were the elderly who couldn’t flee as quickly as their younger neighbors. Cars escaping the neighborhood were caught by quick moving flames and destroyed, their occupants killed.  (News and photo source, here.) 

The BBC reported that Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos visited the site of the disaster and was confronted by angry residents who claimed the Government (and first responders) didn’t act quickly enough to save them. 

A combatant Kammenos replied angrily that the severity of the devastation was due to “the actions of some residents (who) had closed the roads to the beach.”  He said building by residents between wooded areas was a "crime" that had resulted in blocking escape routes.  “This is a crime from the past," he said. "This coast of Athens, all these properties, the majority are without a licence, and they have occupied the coast without rules."

In my opinion, the first major government official on the scene should try to show sympathy and encourage victims, rather than point fingers.  We’ve seen that behavior before following other disasters and it doesn’t come out well for the government’s credibility.  Even so, the defensive Defense minister has a point: There’s a reason development laws are in place. 

What I’d like to know is, if these violations were known, why weren’t the laws enforced? Without enforcement, the government itself is as culpable as those who built all the nonconforming structures. Either way, the tragedy affects all and now’s the time to pull everyone together—first for the victims and then to rebuild in a way that provides for safety in the future.  Other communities in the country (and even around the world) should learn the same valuable lessons from this disaster.

A former government official himself, Yanis Varoufakis, wrote a particularly pointed commentary, steering blame for the tragedy on bad decisions a series of unfortunate events. He said:

Why did it happen? A dry winter had produced large quantities of parched forest and bush, which, on a day when temperatures reached 39ºCelsius (102º Fahrenheit) and winds gusted at 130 kilometers (80 miles) per hour, fueled the conflagration. But on this, our Black Monday, the weather conspired with the chronic failures of Greece’s state and society to turn a wildfire into a lethal inferno.

Greece’s post-war economic model relied on anarchic, unplanned real-estate development anywhere and everywhere (including ravines and pine forests). That has left us, like any developing country, vulnerable to deadly forest fires in the summer and flash floods in winter (just last winter,  20 people died in houses built on the bed of an ancient creek).

That collective failure is, naturally, aided and abetted by the Greek state’s perpetual lack of preparedness: its failure to clear fields and forests of accumulated kindling during the winter and spring, for example, or to establish and maintain emergency escape routes for residents. Then there are the usual crimes of oligarchy, such as the illegal enclosure of the coast around seaside villas for the purpose of privatizing the beach. Eyewitnesses I spoke to said that many died or were badly injured struggling against the barbed wire that the rich had put between them and the sea.

And, last but not least, there is also humanity’s collective guilt. This catastrophe demonstrates nothing if not the manner in which rapid climate change is turbocharging the natural phenomena that punish our human foibles.

Mr. Varoufakis closes by saying he expects nothing more than “crocodile tears” from the EU over their victims and predicts nothing will change in his country. I hope he’s wrong. I truly do.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

A Tale of Two Opinions (And Three Graphs)

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…"

OK, while the quote applies to natural disasters, I'm no Charles Dickens. I'll move on.  That said, the response to the following question has placed people clearly on two different sides of the issue of rebuilding after a natural disaster:

Here's the question by an author of a Washington Post article writing about the recent (May 2018) "repeat" flood in Ellicott City:

"Would you believe the same scene unfolded two years ago and two people died in that flood? And shopkeepers were still celebrating their one-year reopenings this month when the 1,000-year flood came again Sunday, 998 years early.  Same thing happened in 1868, but 43 people died. And it happened in 1901, 1917, 1938, 1942, 1972, 1975 and 2011.  And what happens every time? They rebuild.  Why?"

There's the question--my question!  Here are the two sides.

On one hand hand there are those who say:

"In the era of climate change, the “business-as-usual” approach for addressing flooding is no longer an option. Current federal policies create an unsustainable “flood, rebuild, repeat” situation for managing the nation’s flood risks. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, while extreme events, laid bare the holes in our nation’s ability to prepare for and adapt to a growing number of large-scale natural disasters. We are now seeing more severe storm events, rising sea levels, and more people moving to vulnerable coastal areas. The impacts and associated damage costs from floods will only continue to increase without reform. The Trump administration and Congress must pursue policies that make America safer and more resilient to flooding."

But that rarely happens.  We don't relocate. We rarely rebuild in a "different" (better) way.  Instead, on the other hand, some (as in this article) jump in to celebrate the resiliency of the community and its rebuilding efforts, saying:

"Some areas looked much like war zones during the flooding, with military convoys rumbling through the streets and helicopters whirring overhead. With around 19,000 soldiers present, this was the German army's largest ever humanitarian deployment within its own borders. The floods (of 2013 in Germany) left more than 12 billion ($15.6 billion) in damages in their wake... But the floods have left behind less tangible things as well -- the impressive work of those who came to help, the solidarity of those affected and their strength in not giving in to despair."

Regardless of the approach to post-disaster recovery that turns out to be correct, addressing these issues is becoming increasingly more important as the events that trigger the response likewise increase in frequency.

NOAA's web page includes a number of fascinating figures that depict this very fact.  NOAA plots the relative frequency and CPI-adjusted cost of natural disasters in the US since 1980, and the data are stunning.  Here are the three graphs I promised:

First, the combined frequency and cost of events over the years. 

NOAA then provides an interactive look at the largest disasters, highlighting in color the ones with the most significant impact.  Their recent occurrence tells the same story.

Finally, a graph depicting the CPI-adjusted cost of events over time, again with the same recent (and largest) events highlighted.

I've talked in these pages about the reasons for changing frequency of such events (e.g., climate change), but I also wonder if the dramatic increases in cost might be attributable, in part, to the increased density (and vulnerability?) of our built environment.

No matter the reasons, reducing physical vulnerability is, in my opinion, the single most important aspect of building our community resiliency in the face of overwhelming damage and destruction.  In other words, if we can find ways of creating physical communities that are less prone (either by location and/or design) to damage from these events, the increased frequency of the events becomes less important. And we can, as societies, turn our resilience efforts to restoring functionality and community spirit, rather than working and paying to rebuild homes and businesses.