Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A brief, but important departure

Taking a tangential departure on the topic of building resilience within society, my wife shared a timely article in Psychology Today that discusses the physical changes that occur within the brain following a psychological trauma.

While this blog focuses primarily on engineering, plans and policies that enhance resilience and protect the lives of victims of disasters, this article discusses new findings about ways mental health professionals may be able to help communities prepare for, and intercede following, a natural disaster.  The goal, of course, is to enhance the ability of the individual (and, thereby, society) to deal with short-term stress and avoid long-term complications that could remain if left untreated.

Nearly 90,000 people were killed and nearly 400,000 injured in the 2008 Sichuan Quake. Photo source HERE
The researchers described in the article sought answers by studying survivors of the massive and devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China.  As the article states, "their findings, while preliminary, are fascinating."  They found that post-traumatic responses caused distinct chemical changes [primarily related to N-acetylaspartate, or NAA] and physical deterioration within certain portions of the brain--both of which can be identified and treated.  The article continues:

"This research is noteworthy for a few reasons. First of all, a picture of [the post-traumatic stress disorder] PTSD brain changes over time starts to come into focus.... pointing to an avenue for further research to understand how chronic mental illness unfolds over time. For example, while NAA level alone may not be a specific way to diagnose PTSD because it is common in other conditions, NAA level over time may be a way to gauge progress of care, as could measuring changes in brain volume for conditions where treatment returns the brain to a more normal state.

"The other markers are important because they may end up being helpful stepping-stones along the path to figuring out what short- and long-term trauma and stress do to the brain.... Being able to analyze metabolic activity and understand what it means is a key part of the puzzle, along with looking at changes in brain volume and activity based on blood flow. 

"All of these approaches can help inform our understanding of altered brain networks, a crucial conceptual tool for seeing the brain as a dynamic, measurable system; as a framework for molding brain activity back to a non-PTSD state (e.g. using targeted neuromodulation like transcranial magnetic stimulation TMS, and other therapeutics); and to help understand how to support and establish resilience."

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Impact of Poor Planning and Enforcement

A 2014 document prepared by the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection is intended as a guide for incorporating fire planning in the General Plans prepared by counties and municipalities in the state.

The guide discusses the legal requirements for General Plans, noting that State law requires they be "internally consistent."  This means that there can't be conflicts or contradictions within the plan's guidelines, and it also means that "the actions which follow general planning, such as zoning and development ordinances, must meet the intent of the Plan's policies and mitigation measures."

(From the referenced California guide)
The guide cites legal precedent for action to invalidate plans where weaknesses exist.  The guide then describes a variety of ways wildfire protection mitigation can and should be incorporated into General Plans.

"By incorporating strategic fire planning into the General Plan process, fire protection professionals and urban planners can support growth and development in a region while also protecting residents, economic centers, and wildland from fire risk.... As we plan for a changing climate, it is increasingly important that the risks of natural disasters such as fire (and its potential after-effects, such as landslides and floods) be considered when communities contemplate new development."

Sadly, as an opinion piece I mentioned in a previous post points out:

"What’s changed in recent decades is the amount of fuel available to burn during hot, dry and windy conditions and the number of people with homes in the so-called wildland-urban interface, whether on the edge of the forest or in the coastal chaparral.....

"While dangerous forest management practices can be blamed on both federal and state environmental policies, the coastal chaparral areas in Southern California are a different matter. Here, proscribed burns are needed to reduce the fuel load along with the rigorous maintenance of a 100-foot 'defensible space' clearance around homes situated in very high fire severity areas such as Malibu. It’s this defensible space that appeared to be missing in the celebrity homes that burned in November—though one can’t blame celebrities for wanting the privacy and beauty that dense vegetation around their homes might bring."

The article points out that almost half of the housing stock built in California in the last few years is in this wildland-urban interface.  Without consistently incorporating and enforcing proper restrictions in local zoning and building ordinances, disaster is sure to follow.

Monday, November 26, 2018

If it affects some, it affects us all

In my previous post, I touched on the topic of “climate gentrification” in Miami, where the more affluent are leaving the vulnerable low-lying beach areas and moving to somewhat higher elevations inland, displacing less affluent neighborhoods in the process.  The same phenomenon is repeating itself in other parts of the country (and the world) and for a variety of climate-related reasons.  In Arizona, for example, as a September 2018 article points out, those that can afford it are leaving (permanently or during the summer months) the southern population centers of Tucson and Phoenix for the higher (and cooler) spots in the north.  

The social and economic impacts of natural disasters can be significant and far-reaching, with effects felt well beyond the borders of affected countries.  One somewhat disturbing example is the link between such events and human trafficking, one of the most heinous of offenses people inflict on each other.  In what I would consider a landmark piece on the topic, Alice Hillof the Hoover Institution, discusses what she calls a “disastrous relationship” between “human trafficking and climate change.”  She writes:

A warming world will almost certainly bring more disasters that result in greater displacement of people from their homes and livelihoods. This, in turn, puts them at greater risk of human trafficking... International organizations “estimate that about 25 million people are victims” of human trafficking in the world. In all likelihood, those numbers will grow due in part to the increasing effects of climate change. 

Climate change leads to more disasters like increased flooding from sea-level rise and extreme precipitation — as well as more intense storms, wildfires, and droughts. It also forces people to move. According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, climate change impacts “almost certainly will increase the number of displaced people” and in the next 20 years could cause unprecedented patterns of global migration.

Research has repeatedly shown that “disasters exacerbate the root causes of human trafficking, including poverty and lack of viable livelihoods.” Disasters can “instantly plunge those without safety nets into poverty,” making them economically and emotionally vulnerable and thus potential prey for traffickers. In other words, climate change-exacerbated disasters threaten to impoverish and displace many millions of people across the globe, therefore heightening their vulnerability to trafficking.

The article illustrates the problem with examples following climate-related events, and also notes the horrendous human tragedy that follows non-climate events like the Haitian earthquake.  It outlines a number of recommendations related to the problem and I’d highly recommend it.  

Earlier this year, Ms. Hill also joined colleagues in composing a piece for the Pacific Council on International Policy.  The article, titled Building Coastal Resiliencefor Greater U.S. Security, expands this notion of social and economic impacts by explaining that:

Environmental risks have multiple dimensions and are rarely single-source problems. The economic status of individual community members and their social roles in society, for instance, can influence the way climate change affects their livelihoods, health, and well-being. Overarching trends in population growth, development, and migration interact with environmental change more severely within concentrated coastal areas, which are inherently fragile and disproportionately vulnerable to natural disasters.

Climate initiatives should seek to mitigate these multifaceted environmental risks to protect lives and livelihoods and to avoid maladaptation. Conflict prevention and gender equality concerns, for example, should be integrated into climate adaptation strategies to more effectively reduce underlying sources of vulnerability, diversify livelihoods, reduce insecurity, and empower coastal communities to prepare, respond, and recover.

In my opinion, the most critical “take away” from all this is that there are multiple reasons for building resilience against natural disasters in our communities and nations.  Loss of life is always the preeminent concern, but the quality of life and the preservation of human dignity is equally worthy of our investment of time and funds.   

Even more important, these impacts and the concern we have for those impacted by climatic, geologic and other events, cross political borders and lines of economic strata.  When one group of us are victims, we are all victims in a way; and whether we are directly able to administer aid or not, we should all feel the loss to our human family and act accordingly.


Photo source here (businesses lost following Hurricane Michael in 2018)

"We can't build our way out of the problem"

The latest installment of the PBS series "Sinking Cities" featured flooding in Miami and the lengths that local officials and developers are taking to address the rising water, both from the sea and from below.  Climate-change gentrification was discussed, as some higher-income residents are moving further inland from the "high rent" districts along the beach areas, to neighborhoods once ignored as home to lower-income, working class residents. The latter neighborhoods just happen to be at a higher elevation and less prone to sea level rise than the former.  The social and economic impacts of the displacement is a topic for another entry.

The episode also featured significant investments by the government and local builders to flood-proof public infrastructure and create building codes for raised development.  These are discussed in a Miami Herald article on one such project in the City.  The article includes a fascinating animation of the potential risk for the downtown and beach areas.  Essentially, the city is planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create new pump stations, raise roads, and revamp sewer and storm drainage systems.  The linked article addressed but one piece of the whole project, but the conflicts raised are significant, as residents and developers and government officials all argue over impacts and costs. 

There are no easy answers for Miami.  For example, in the PBS episode, the effects of Miami's unique "King Tides" (see photo from Miami Herald article, above) is noted.  This particular type of flooding is caused by seawater pushing up through the porous limestone upon which the city rests, which in turn pushes ground water up through every possible orifice (including sanitary sewers) into streets and neighborhoods.  The "King Tide" flooding is not only damaging and annoying, but it is also dangerous, as it brings with it potential hazards to local health.

The phenomenon also negates the effects of many traditional attempts to keep flooding at bay (like pumps, dikes, etc.) because the water simply comes right back through the limestone and comes up behind the barriers.  As one expert interviewed in the program says, "We can't build our way out of the (flooding) problem."

Read more here:

Is the climate changing?

I pulled this from a collection of quotes I keep.  Regardless of one's particular feelings or political leanings on the topic, it's a logical, non-judgemental reason to maintain course and do all we can to prepare for the changing future of our world:

"Since we can work here, if we insist, on geological time, we can always say that more and better data is needed. But there again, if we risk losing a large chunk of humanity while we conclude a few centuries of fieldwork, that is a high price to pay for reliable data. It may be more prudent to proceed on guesswork, and to guess that we should probably do something to guard against a worst-case outcome, if... scientists say that that is where we are currently heading, and if the measures needed to combat climate change (also provide benefits in other ways)."

-- from “A Freudian approach to climate change” in The Economist, February 14, 2007

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

"It's time for the nonsense to stop"

I'd add that, while this article is focused on the role of the National Flood Insurance Program in enabling poor planning, the same could be said for development in fire zones, landslide and slump areas, and other known hazard areas.  "It's time for the nonsense to stop."

Friday, November 16, 2018

Anything less won't make enough of a difference

On multiple occasions over the last week, President Trump has tweeted about forest management as a means of preventing the wildfires that plague California, among other places.  In one case, he said "There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests."

California Governor Jerry Brown is quoted as responding that "forest management is only one element of preventing forest fires. Managing all the forests in every way we can does not stop climate change and those who deny that are definitely contributing to the tragedies that we are now witnessing and will continue to witness."

Both make good points.  Scientists and observers all agree that the climate has been warmer and drier in California, rendering the state susceptible to fires that seem more easy to ignite, are more widespread, and more difficult to put out.  They also agree that forest management is an issue.  The same article (and photo source) concludes with:

It's relentless, says Malcolm North, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service."In much of California we're getting to a pretty much year-round fire season as in the past it used to be limited to five or six months out of the year," says North.

Dry weather and strong winds also mean that what would have been small fires in the past are now monster fires that both damage trees and climb up into the canopy and kill whole forests, says North. This is due in part to the fact that forest managers have spent the last century putting out every fire they could, even small, natural fires, he says, and the forests have became choked with too much overgrowth, making them ready to burn.

Additionally, North says hurdles such as steep slopes, protected wildlife and complaints from homeowners about smoke limit how much federal and state mangers can thin or do controlled burns in forests.  "Literally probably 80 to 90 percent of these dry, mid-elevation forests are chock-full of fuels that really drives high intensity fire," he says.

Reports today note that more than 600 persons are still missing in due to the fires in California.  This is a staggering figure, though it's hoped that the list includes many evacuees who don't even know they're reported as missing.

Whether climate change, carelessness, or poor forest management, or the likely combination of these and other contributors to the problem, now is not the time to point fingers. The only things we can truly control are development and forest management.  For a variety of reasons, including political and public outcry, forests aren't managed in a way that preserves the balance inherent in nature. For many of the same reasons, counties and municipalities are equally unable to restrict (or physically guide) development in and around forested areas.  The demand for space and the voices of land owners too often drown out the calm voices of common sense.

In a Forbes article earlier this year, former California Assembly member Chuck DeVore outlines the political and literal ties between climate change, the decline of the timber industry, and forest management policy.  He concludes that, "whether global climate change is a problem that can be solved by California is a dubious proposition—one year’s worth of emission growth in China is greater than California’s total emissions. But the action needed to reduce the state’s growing forest fire threat would be the same regardless of one’s belief in any problems posed by climate change: start managing our forests again."

The Voice of Reason?

But one of the most obvious and, frankly, common-sense statements I've heard from anyone regarding the actions that can reasonably be taken to reduce the loss of life and destruction of property from wildfires in California is from this Bloomberg piece of two days ago. Simply:

"Stop building homes in places that are likely to burn -- and make homes that already exist in those areas a whole lot tougher... Anything less won't make enough of a difference."

The article continues:

That approach, wildfire and climate policy experts are quick to add, would be expensive and unpopular, especially in a state with both a housing shortage and stunning wooded landscapes that people want to live in. But as climate change causes more frequent and shocking blazes, they say anything less won’t make enough of a difference.

“It’s a land-use issue,” said Alice Hill, a senior adviser for climate resilience to President Barack Obama. Without so many homes being constructed in vulnerable areas at the edge of the forest, “we would still have the fires. But we wouldn’t have this kind of devastation.”

A paradox of California’s wildfire epidemic is that it already has one of the most aggressive building codes in the nation. The state uses the most up-to-date version of model national codes, and doesn’t allow local governments to opt out of those codes. It also requires that homes in areas with the highest risk of wildfire get built with fire-resistant materials and construction techniques....

In interviews, wildfire policy experts pointed to a range of specific reforms that could help reduce the danger facing people and homes in California. Each of those reforms shared one trait: They cost money.

One problem, according to Molly Mowery, founder and chief executive officer of Wildfire Planning International, is that state and local officials tend to define high-risk areas too narrowly. As a result, California’s aggressive wildfire codes don’t apply in neighborhoods that may appear safer on paper, but are increasingly affected as fires grow in size.

“More and more places around the country are getting affected in areas that were never labeled extreme,” Mowery said. “We need to stop thinking in terms of limited areas.”

Fire-resistant materials and building techniques can increase the cost of construction. But those costs don’t have to be exorbitant, according to Stuart Tom, president of the municipal engineering and consulting firm JAS Pacific Inc. and a member of the International Code Council’s board of directors. He said some jurisdictions are considering mandating that older homes use materials that meet the latest requirements when they’re renovated.

“How do you get what are really really good standards to be integrated into communities of older, at-risk construction, in a fair and cost-effective manner?” Tom said. “If you are going to re-roof your building, well then perhaps the entire roof should be compliant” with the wildfire code.

Another option, and one that could produce even more pushback from residents, is to apply the latest building codes retroactively to all homes in vulnerable areas, whether they’re renovating or not.

The article says that there’s a precedent for retroactive enforcement in the application of the seismic code for Los Angeles in 2015, when those more stringent codes required the most vulnerable properties to be rehabilitated to meet the new code.

It's location, location and location--or is it money?

The article state the obvious on the minds of anyone outside watching this drama unfold.  "A more draconian measure would be to make it harder for developers to build subdivisions in risky areas in the first place."  Michele Steinberg, wildfire division director for the National Fire Protection Association, said the growing severity of the wildfire problem and its aftermath are "making a lot of (residents) question,

'Why the heck did you all build there? This is just a bad land-use decision. Now you’re reaping the trouble.'"  

Then she added that "stopping people from building where they want to build can run counter to American values.  Our country’s big value is owning your own land, owning your property.  Anything that appears to threaten that is really not met with happiness and open arms.”

 It’s not just cultural values that prevent tighter land-use restrictions, but economic value as well... In Malibu, a hillside home will have a beautiful view of the ocean.  Those property lots are highly valuable. There’s lots of pressure on local officials to permit development. That increases your tax base, that contributes to the city’s coffers.

If California won’t stop building at the edge of the wilderness, it should at least apply the same strict standards of firefighting that cities adopted decades ago, according to Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a consulting group in Montana that advises governments on wildfire risks. That means significant new spending on water infrastructure and municipal employees, as well as a willingness to enforce tougher rules.

“You would have fire hydrants. You would have full-time firefighters in your neighborhood. You would require sprinklers," Rasker said. “And you’d have a fire department inspect your building and your property once a year, with strict penalties if you don’t comply.”

The reason that many towns at the edge of the forest don’t apply those standards is cost, he said. But as climate change gets worse, that calculus becomes more shortsighted.

“Human lives are invaluable,” Rasker said. “Yeah, cost matters. But the cost of not doing the right thing is tragedy.


Follow-up:  A November 27, 2018 Forbes opinion piece by Chuck DeVore (mentioned above) makes note of two pieces of legislation California Governor Brown signed after the end of the 2018 legislative session in September: SB 1260 and SB 901.  Respectively, they prescribe controlled burns of forests and appropriate funding to do so.  DeVore says this represents "a stark break from past fire management practice."  He opines further that, "Had these policy reforms been in place for the past 20 years, along with parallel federal policies, there is no doubt California would have prevented recent years’ steep loss of life and destruction of property."