Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Zero is a Good Number

As part of a late winter storm system (named “Toby”) that moved through the Southeast earlier this week, at least 13 tornadoes touched down in Alabama.  Buildings like the one in the photo in one community, Jacksonville AL, were seriously damaged and the repair estimates are in the tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars. In fact, at Jacksonville State University, where the devastation was severe, administrators have opted to close the campus for a number of weeks to clean up and rebuild.

Damage left in the wake of an EF-3 tornado in Jacksonville, AL, March 2018
 But a tweet sent out by the National Weather Service in Birmingham, AL, happily reported that there were miraculously no fatalities. The tweet continued with, “Sweeter words have never been spoken after a significant severe/tornado event. Thank You, Central AL, for staying weather aware & heeding warnings on Monday!”

Therein lies the real lesson for all of us, at least for this particular type of natural hazard: Heeding the warnings and taking shelter saves lives.  Obviously, safety is never guaranteed, but if those in harm’s way listen and get out of the way, their chances for survival are far greater.

Friday, February 2, 2018

We should all hug (or at least plant) more trees

An article in cites the work of S├ębastien Guenneau (and others) of the Fresnel Institute in Marseille, France and says that “buildings in the future could be isolated from earthquakes by being placed behind rows of trees.”  Apparently, according to the article:
(Photo from linked article)

“…certain seismic waves, known as Love waves, could be diverted away from the Earth’s surface as they pass through a forest containing trees of a certain height. The forest acts like a metamaterial – an artificial structure usually used to steer electromagnetic radiation around objects.

“Best known for their use as invisibility cloaks, metamaterials are made from large arrays of tiny resonators that manipulate light and other electromagnetic waves in unnatural ways. In recent years, however, the mathematics underlying metamaterials have also been applied to other kinds of radiation, including seismic waves. The idea here is to use arrays of suitably-sized objects either below or above ground – holes or posts of some kind – to divert seismic waves around vulnerable buildings.”

Guenneau says that, in practical application, trees would have to be roughly 10-15 meters tall to resonate with horizontal Love waves.  Protecting a building from the vertical “Rayleigh” waves, however, would require trees some 5 times this tall (that would take decades to mature) making it less practical. That said, scientists say that by using trees to prevent horizontal shaking and conventional techniques to “guard against vertical motion, forests could halve the work of civil engineers.”

Much more research is needed to better understand the behavior of these waves and the potential real world applications.  The science, however, is fascinating.  And the potential benefits are worth continued investigation.  

The bottom line is that mature trees are good.  And worth protecting for a variety of reasons.

This occurred in September, but I just received notice of it via an e-mail blast from FEMA.  The National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) issued a new set of Recommended Simplified Provisions for Seismic Design Category (SDC) B Buildings.  For a look at Category B, see Map here

Not all portions of the country are affected, but the new document should be a helpful reference for all in A and B zones looking to improve resilience in the face of such events.  (I happen to live in a Category B area.)  And of course those in Categories C through E will have much more rigorous requirements.  Here’s the link to the new document. 

The introduction to the report includes this statement:

"For Seismic Design Category (SDC) B, which designates a low seismic hazard region, structural engineers still need to complete a full seismic design process to meet the building code requirements.  Seismic design is necessary because earthquakes are a hazard with long return periods and large uncertainties, and the sudden occurrence of earthquakes in SDC B regions, such as the 2011 Mineral, Virginia earthquake, can cause significant damage or collapse if buildings are not properly designed for seismic resistance.  The recommended simplified seismic design provisions described in this FEMA NEHRP document aim to assist structural designers in meeting building code requirements for ordinary SDC B buildings without wading through the full, complex seismic design process in ASCE/SEI 7.”

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Waves and Wars: Thoughts on Early Warning Systems

Earlier this month, the State of Hawaii issued a warning to its citizens that a missile attack was imminent, telling them to seek shelter immediately.  Twenty seconds after sirens sounded and cell phone tweeted the warning, it was determined to be a false alarm, but the corrective notice didn’t make it out to most until 38 minutes later.  Panic ensued and now the State (and the Federal Government) are working to determine how something like this could happen and prevent such a false alarm in the future.  (See New York Times article on the issue here, also the source of the photo.)

Public warnings are a critical part of protecting people from the potential impacts of any disaster, whether natural or man-made.  And Hawaii is no stranger to disasters. Or attacks.  And so it’s important that the warning system be effective, timely and most of all, accurate.  Unfortunately, the timely and effective warning last week fell short in the accuracy department.  That’s being changed, they say.

The launch of a missile begins a period of preparation wherein the public can seek shelter. While it may only be a few minutes long, time does provide some options for those in danger.  A more common event in Hawaii (and indeed many coastal regions of the world) is a tsunami warning. Again, an earthquake triggers a warning period and allows the public to prepare. Fortunately, not all warnings result in a tsunami inundating the coast; but people will respond.  When it comes to something like a tsunami (or a missile launch, apparently) no amount of “crying wolf” will dampen public response. And that’s good.

But what about natural events that don’t have a warning period associated with it.  Take, for example, the frequent earthquakes that plague many parts of the world.  Will we ever be able to accurately predict them and warn the populations that might be affected by them?  Does an earthquake (or series of quakes in a short period of time) mean “the big one” is coming?

“It’s true, too, that earthquakes in one place can trigger more far away, over thousands of miles. It may even be true that the worldwide coincidence of major quakes is more than coincidence, that there are global patterns that bring disaster into sync.  But the bigger truth is that scientists still don’t know enough about the fundamental physics of earthquakes to predict with precision and certainty when a seismic event will happen. Earthquakes aren’t entirely random, but for the purpose of day-to-day threat assessment, they may as well be.”  (Source here.)

Plans for public safety and for mitigating the impact of diasters of all types must include the realization that early warning may not be possible for some events, and that simply warning and sheltering vulnerable populations isn’t enough. Governments, schools, businesses and homeowners must do all possible to locate and build cities and settlements in such a way that they are safe places to be, even when a disaster is immediately impacting them.   

When there is no warning, moving to a safer place is not an option.  But making all places safer (or choosing not to build them in the first place) is an option we can choose.

Monday, December 4, 2017

"Once a flood plain, always a flood plain"

An excellent article this weekend in the New York Times offers dramatic photo evidence of Hurricane Harvey’s impact on an upscale Houston neighborhood, along with the story of a resident family that were the victims of a common (and apparently legal) practice by developers who truck in soil to raise building lots just above the designated flood area and, thereby, eliminate their obligation to notify buyers of the potential for flood damage. 

These “wet” and “dry” photos (from the article) of the block are telling.  The occupant, a Mrs. Martinez, recalls in the article that “the home builder had assured her that ‘flooding was not even a possibility…’ They would never have bought here otherwise. Flood insurance, of course, was neither required nor needed.”

Mrs. Martinez recounts that, with Harvey’s “rains outside lashing and the water inside rising, the family and their terrified pet, a one-eyed goldendoodle named Coco, took refuge on the second floor. Later that day, rescue boats came and ferried them to safety.”

The lessons in the article are quite worth a read.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Imaging Tool to Map Hazards

A recent article by the Washington (State) Geological Survey demonstrates the uses of Lidar (light detection and ranging) technology to map geological hazards. The article explains the process and illustrates its use with fascinating case studies involving hazards common to the Pacific Northwest:  Landslides and Volcanoes.  The article goes on to describe applications of the technology in locating fault lines, predicting tsunami inundation zones, and tracking the courses of rivers over time to predict flooding impact.  The process can also yield incredible images of sub-surface geology.

Clearly the benefits for applying the technology to hazard identification and mitigation are immeasurable.  Hopefully, it will also become a useful tool in educating and convincing policy makers and the general public to address the hazards in a real way.  Being able to target action and resources to more specific geographical locations will be a significant benefit to endangered communities.

Lidar image of the glaciers on Mt. Rainier. (From the Article)

The online, interactive article is well worth your time to read.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

What Difference Does A Week Make?

Last Sunday, there was a 7.3 earthquake reported in Iran, near the Iraqi border.  Just 8 hours later, Costa Rica experienced a 6.5 quake.  These were on the heels of 5 major earthquakes (>6.0) reported over the last week, plus dozens of moderate quakes (>4.0) that hit hotspots like the Pacific Rim.  News reports called the Iranian quake the deadliest of the year, adding that “at least 452 people were killed and thousands injured… and was felt as far away as Turkey and Pakistan.” 

Scientists are divided about an increase in the frequency of earthquakes and statistics show ebbs and spikes are cyclical over time.  Other natural events—particularly weather events—do seem to be increasing, if not in frequency, at least in strength.   

Interestingly, there those scientists who think the two may be related, at least on some level.  They’ve identified statistical (indirect) relationships between the two.  Others have demonstrated that a phenomenon known as “slow earthquakes” can be triggered by major atmospheric disturbances like hurricanes and typhoons.  (Wikipedia defines a slow earthquake as “a discontinuous, earthquake-like event that releases energy over a period of hours to months, rather than the seconds to minutes characteristic of a typical earthquake.") That sounds like an interesting topic for another time.

The message here is that, whether they are increasing or we’re simply experiencing an anecdotal spike in natural disasters, they will continue to come. Nobody is predicting a reduction in the future.  Thus building resilience into our cities and adapting our communities to survive these events should remain a top priority.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Good Plans

I happened upon a great collection of quotes related to planning the other day and have since added many to my own listing of quotes.  One of the first to catch my eye was by author and systems theory proponent Lester Robert Bittel, who is quoted as saying,

“Good plans shape good decisions. That's why good planning helps to make elusive dreams come true.” 

The value of planning is usually not disputed. What makes good plans so elusive and, at times, can be the source of much contention, is the nature of the plan and its implementation.  Couple the inherently complex process of developing a “good” plan with the acute necessity to address urgent problems like the impact of natural hazards on our human civilization, and the critical need for a “good” result grows exponentially.  And yet planning remains the first step toward doing something about any situation we need to change.

Another great quote in my newly-found collection is attributed to Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who supposedly said:

Observe always that everything is the result of change, and get used to thinking that there is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and make new ones of them.

When it comes to resilience planning, the late emperor hit the proverbial nail on the head.  Nature loves to change our plans. And so plans to address Nature’s impact must include sufficient flexibility and contingencies to make them relevant in spite of the changes that may come our way.

The nature of planning—particularly land-use planning—hasn’t changed much in the decades since I started studying the subject. And, as old as I feel sometimes, I was not a pioneer in the field.  An article in the journal Natural Hazards Review from May of 2000 (pp. 99-106) does an excellent job of applying the traditional land-use planning process, based on the “Rational Planning Model” familiar to all students of urban and regional planning, to this notion of hazard mitigation.  Nearly 17 years have passed since the article was written, and yet the lessons therein are timeless. 

The premise made by the authors argues the high value of the land-use planning process in addressing hazard mitigation.  The article states:

“According to the National Research Council’s Board on Natural Disasters, ‘Communities can often achieve significant reductions in losses from natural disasters by adopting land-use plans.’ In fact, the Second National Assessment on Natural and Related Technological Hazards concluded, ‘No single approach to bringing sustainable hazard mitigation into existence shows more promise at this time than increased use of sound and equitable land-use management.”

The article goes on to review features of the land-use planning process that, as they say, enables “communities to actually realize this promise.”  For instance:

Land-use planning combines technical analysis and community participation to make wise choices among alternative strategies for managing changes in land use. Integrating natural hazards mitigation into land-use planning can help a community become more resilient through:

·       Intelligence about long-term threats posed by natural hazards to the safety and viability of human development and environmental resources

·       Problem solving to cope with imminent threats prior to, during, and after a disaster

·       Advance planning to avoid or mitigate harm from a future disaster and to recover afterwards
·       Management strategies to implement plans through policies, regulations, capital improvements, acquisition, and taxation
Land-use plans state community goals, principles, and actions.... Formulated through a participatory process, plans commit communities to action to achieve community goals, e.g., to reduce losses to private property or to reduce vulnerability of ‘lifeline’ facilities.

The article then outlines the primary purposes served by the plan (and the process by which it is developed), listing them as:

First, the plan-making process is a practical way to facilitate consensus building. For example, hazard assessment informs the community about the type and location of hazards it faces, and then the review of alternative mitigation strategies helps resolve conflicts and build commitment to adopted policies.  

Second, the plan coordinates community agendas. For example, hazard mitigation can be integrated with economic development, environmental quality, community development, housing, and infrastructure programming. This avoids uncoordinated and possibly conflicting policies and actions, strengthens the likelihood of effective mitigation, and overcomes the persistent problem of lack of political saliency for natural hazards.

Third, the plan establishes the rational nexus between public interest and implementation activities, necessary for both political and legal defensibility. For example, the plan can document the likelihood of property damage if development is permitted in high-hazard zones, thus defending against constitutional challenges based on claims of a ‘taking.’

Finally, the plan articulates land-use policy, guiding public officials in deciding on development ordinances, capital improvement allocations, and permit review. It encourages private developers to follow the adopted hazard mitigation policy to expedite their permit applications. It is a guide toward coordinating the community’s actions along consistent lines.

"There is no single model for a hazard-mitigation plan. Instead, the planner and the community must choose the stakeholder participation approach, plan type, and mitigation strategy that best serve their needs.”

And yet therein lies the value of a truly “good plan.”

Along those lines, here’s another very inspirational statement from the web page I found, this one by Williams Jennings Bryan, a three-time nominee for US president:

“Destiny is not a matter of chance; but a matter of choice.
  It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”

I have only these words to add: 

We have the tools. We can—and should—change our destiny.


Two more great references include: