Monday, March 25, 2019

Labels Matter

Historic flooding in the American Midwest has been the featured story on the news for the last few weeks.  Reports say that melting snow-pack and strong rain storms have contributed a level of severity to the problem of Spring floods that regularly ravage the area, blaming the "natural disaster" for deaths and billions of dollars in damage to buildings, infrastructure and crop land.

Echoing the sentiments heard here on this page for a number of years, however, an article in the Atlantic (and source of the photo above) asks the question:  

Was this in fact a natural disaster? 

The article responds:

"Labels matter, even—perhaps especially—in times of emergency. Calling the Midwestern carnage a natural disaster neatly absolves us of responsibility, and casts us as hapless victims of an unpredictable and vengeful Mother Nature. Far better to draw a distinction between natural hazards and human-induced disasters. According to Craig Fugate, a former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency,

"'Floods and hurricanes happen. The hazard itself is not the disaster—it’s our habits, our building codes. It’s how we build and live in those areas—that’s the disaster.' 

"This is not a call for blame, but a call to arms to learn from the past to keep ourselves out of harm’s way."

The article refers to the hundred years of flood control activities in the United States as a "failed experiment."   It quotes the Association of State Floodplain Managers saying, “Even the best flood-control systems or structures cannot completely eliminate the risk of flooding from all flood events.”  Lining our rivers with levees funnels the problem downstream where, when the levees break or end, the damage is often much worse. The article documents a number of other attempts to engineer a solution to the problem over the years. All have failed to truly resolve the problem. Many, in fact, have simply exacerbated the problem.

At some point, all the levees and dams and reservoirs were placed to protect development that has grown unchecked into otherwise vulnerable areas.  This, then, is the essence of the statement above that "it's not the hazard itself that's the disaster... it's how we build and live in those areas that's the disaster."  The article makes note of a number of things Federal, state and local governments are doing to improve building codes, development plans, and hazard mitigation.

Unfortunately, until we stop blaming "Mother Nature" and start pointing to our own actions as the cause of the problem, the damage and, most sobering, the lost lives will continue.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Fish Story

Forbes Magazine was one of many publications over the weekend to share the story (here, also the source of the image below) of multiple sightings of a rare fish in Japan.  As the article states, “the giant oarfish, a deep-water creature living at depths (of) 3,300 feet, is the longest bony fish in the world…. It's presumed to be responsible for some sea serpent sightings by European sailors.”  The National Geographic says they can grow to 56 feet (17 meters) in length and can weigh up to 600 pounds (270 kilograms).  A fascinating video of the rarely-seen fish is here.

So what does this story have to do with the subject of this blog on planning for natural hazard mitigation?  Well, as the article continues, “in Japan, (oarfish) are believed to be sent by the dragon-king of the sea to warn people along the coast of an impending earthquake or tsunami. Earlier this week, a 10.5-feet specimen washed up on the shore of Toyama Bay on the Sea of Japan, while a 13-feet specimen was caught in a fishing net off the nearby port of Imizu, bringing the total oarfish found this season to seven.”

The oarfish, the article explains, is just one of many folk tales involving mythical animals as harbingers of (and sometimes as the cause of) natural disasters—particularly earthquakes and tsunami.  A Japan Times article explains a possible (though not proven) causal link as:

An old saying has it that the fish comes to the beach as an omen of a big earthquake. Kiyoshi Wadatsumi, a specialist in ecological seismology and director of the nonprofit organization e-PISCO that studies signs of earthquakes, said, “Deep-sea fish living near the sea bottom are more sensitive to the movements of active faults than those near the surface of the sea.”  But he said the deep-sea fish found in nets or on beaches did not seem to be directly connected with earthquakes.

I wrote a piece earlier (here) about the predictive nature of folklore and how those that went before us have tried to help warn us of potential danger.  It’s easy to dismiss these tales as the simplistic ways our predecessors have tried to explain the natural world around them.  And I’m not suggesting the downright panic the oarfish sightings have generated in some is justified.  But, as I pointed out in the earlier piece, it’s worth letting even something as odd as a strange fish appearing in a fisherman’s net be the impetus to encourage better planning and preparation for a disaster we know is inevitable in the region at some point in the future.  

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Making the Case

Much of the material I’ve included on this page deals with the “what’s” and “how’s” of hazard mitigation.  It seems I’ve often ignored the “why’s,” assuming they were obvious. 

As you know from my profile, I work for the University System of Maryland.  In a recent conversation with someone from one of our constituent universities, he posed a question; the answer to which seems, on its surface, rather obvious.  The question was simple.  But as I tried to answer it, I found myself struggling to “make the case” in a way that sounded truly convincing.  So I thought I’d take some time to address it here in the hope I’d have a much stronger response ready the next time.  Here was his question: 

             “Why is hazard mitigation planning important?”

Our Board of Regents policy requires each campus to prepare and regularly update a facilities master plan (FMP).  During the last few FMP cycles, the Board has recommended institutions address within their plans two critical issues:  (1) environmental sustainability; and (2) community/stakeholder participation in the process.  All FMP’s now incorporate these elements.

All institutions signed the (former) President’s Climate Commitment and are pursuing goals related to climate (e.g., carbon) mitigation and sustainability.  Most institutions are also addressing adaptation and resiliency, along with their mitigation efforts.   We continue to stress the importance of adaptation and the fact that much of what is done for the sake of mitigating climate change will improve resilience as well. The State has also enhanced its focus on adaptation, and we’re working to comply with policies like those associated with Maryland’s Coast Smart legislation.

A decade or so ago, our Board also asked every institution to complete an emergency preparedness plan.  Again, this was completed quickly and effectively, and all institutions now have robust emergency preparedness and continuous operations programs in place. 

On the continuum of efforts that help inform our facilities master plans, the “missing link,” if you will, is Hazard Mitigation planning, intended to prevent or reduce the impact from a wide range of climatic, geologic or man-made disasters/events.  As you know, these would include campus policies (or guidelines) for land use, building placement, construction standards, barriers and drainage, communications systems, etc.

So far, only two institutions have completed a formal Hazard Mitigation Plan.  Given the current interest at the Board level with risk assessment and mitigation, I’d like to encourage all institutions to complete a hazard mitigation exercise; with the goal of ensuring that the next round of facilities master plans, as well as the resulting capital program, are informed by, and integrated with, detailed hazard data and mitigation policies.


The FEMA document titled Building a Disaster-Resistant University cites deaths, injuries and serious damage to institutions across the country during and following natural disasters in recent decades.  At universities here in Maryland, we’ve had severe flooding that damaged and disabled buildings, tornadoes that took lives, and winter storms that shut down campus operations for as much as a week at a time.  In its guide for universities (referenced above), FEMA says “these losses could have been substantially reduced or eliminated through comprehensive pre-disaster planning and mitigation actions.”  The report continues:

Natural and man-made disasters represent a wide array of threats to the instructional, research, and public service missions of higher education institutions...  Disaster-related losses in the United States continue to rise. At all levels, organizations and governments are adjusting their behavior and policies to reflect the importance of reducing damage caused by extreme events. Hazard mitigation is accepted as good practice and many government jurisdictions now require it. Higher education institutions have an interest on many levels to become more disaster-resistant.

Administrators, faculty, and staff are realizing that improving their campus’ resistance to disaster will not only protect their own lives and those of their students, it will also safeguard the campus’ instruction, research, and public service. Higher education institutions are themselves communities in many ways, and they can draw on important lessons from the efforts of counties and municipalities to reduce disaster risks...

Higher education institutions are engaged in and skilled at planning exercises for a wide range of issues; consequently, the addition or improvement of campus-based hazard mitigation planning will yield substantial benefits. Moreover, steps taken to become more disaster-resistant can complement the long-term sustainability of the campus and improve the overall quality of life.

According to FEMA, hazard mitigation will “reduce loss of life and property by lessening the impact of disasters. It is most effective when implemented under a comprehensive, long-term mitigation plan… to identify risks and vulnerabilities associated with natural disasters, and develop long-term strategies for protecting people and property from future hazard events.  Mitigation plans are key to breaking the cycle of disaster damage, reconstruction, and repeated damage.”

Developing hazard mitigation plans enables [institutions] to: 

·       Increase education and awareness around threats, hazards, and vulnerabilities; 
·       Build partnerships for risk reduction involving [stakeholders on and off campus]; 
·       Identify long-term, broadly-supported strategies for risk reduction; 
·       Align risk reduction with other [institutional] objectives; 
·       Identify implementation approaches that focus resources on the greatest risks and vulnerabilities; and 
·       Communicate priorities to potential sources of funding.

From a truly pragmatic perspective, having a FEMA-approved hazard mitigation plan is a prerequisite for receiving certain types of non-emergency disaster assistance, including funding for mitigation projects.  That alone would be reason enough. 

But in the end, the ultimate “why” behind hazard mitigation is that it guides and “enables action to reduce loss of life and property.” If we have to accept disasters as inevitable, we should never accept their impacts in the same way.  We can and should do all possible to lessen their impact and protect the lives and physical assets with which we've been entrusted.  

That's why.

Case made.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Mixed Messages

The following graph appeared in my Facebook feed recently. On the surface, it's good news.  Whether a trend or simply an anomalous "blip" over a much longer term, recent years have seen less violent tornadoes.  Last year (2018) there were none.

Tell that to all those that lost houses or loved ones in tornadoes last year.  A Fujita rating less than 4 or 5 doesn't necessarily make a tornado less deadly.

While the poster didn't expound on what he saw, others (online) have immediately jumped on these data as a debunking of sorts to climate change.  Ironically, the truth is that the number of tornadoes--like so many other climatic events--is increasing.

Add this to the seemingly endless list of other disasters that grows every year, and it puts the "severe tornado" graph in perspective. One downward trend is worth mentioning.  The number of tornado deaths in the US has been (fairly) steadily decreasing thanks to better warning systems and mitigation measures.

Mixed messages indeed.

Lessons Learned

Whenever I see an article posted about a recent event that suggests it will share "lessons learned" from the event, I'm immediately interested in sharing those lessons here.  The recent volcanic eruption of Anak Krakatau in Indonesia that caused a landslide into the ocean, resulting in a tsunami that killed hundreds of people, was tragic and somewhat surprising.

The mythical megatsunami prediction.

I've read about landslide tsunamis, including the devastating wall of water that a major landslide in the Canary Islands would supposedly fly across the Atlantic and inundate most of the eastern US coast, as far west as Richmond, VA.  (See image above.)  That said, such events are rare and even this "End of Days" event on the east coast has been debunked--sort of.  Even so, I wondered what lessons could be learned. So I read the article (here).

The lesson for the future was rather simple.  As we've seen in many other examples discussed in this blog, however, it these solutions are not made a priority, they will remain unheeded.  The article continues:

Tsunami warning systems are in place around Indonesia, but they are tailored to earthquake tsunamis, triggering only if an earthquake and large wave are detected

“Recognizing a landslide tsunami is much harder. The time between detection and the tsunami coming ashore is likely to be very short, so it is hard to make the system effective,” says Dave Petley, a landslide expert at the University of Sheffield....

All active volcanoes near the sea – of which there are many – present a potential landslide tsunami risk. Sadly it is too late for Anak Krakatau, but installing movement sensors on other vulnerable volcanoes, and monitoring with satellite, could help give warning and save lives in future. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Getting Out of Nature's Way

Two news pieces that hit my Twitter feed on the same day share overlapping themes related to the inherent risks faced by the world’s large urban areas and the most effective ways to reduce those risks. 

The first, here, includes an introductory statement about the key role cities play in the battle against climate change.  The tweet says:  “Cities occupy 2% of the total land on Earth but they generate 70% of GDP, consume 60% of global energy, produce 70% of greenhouse emissions & 70% of global waste. How cities build & grow matter for #ClimateAction.” 

The linked article, here, asks the question: "What should the inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable urban development look like?"  The answers provided include:

1.  An "ability to anticipate, reduce, mitigate, respond to and recover from a wide range of risks"

2.  Governance that involves "a more integrated and mutually reinforcing planning and implementation approach among socio-economic development actors"

3.  “'Redundancy' or sufficient 'bandwidth' in urban systems and services

4.  Urban planning that "keeps pace with increasing urban development needs (and) the increasing exposure to vulnerabilities"

The second, a New York Times article (also the source of the photo above), suggests that “we rarely do much to protect our cities until disaster strikes. We fool ourselves into thinking we are safe, until a catastrophic event shows us how wrong we are.”  The article discusses a number of actions being taken by US cities in response to recent events, all toward mitigating future damage and loss of life.  It includes the following observation worth mentioning here:

Planning for more resilient cities means planning for the needs of everyone. But those living in poverty, they note, often get left out of the process. The National Climate Assessment states, “People who are already vulnerable, including lower-income and other marginalized communities, have lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events and are expected to experience greater impacts.”

Atyia Martin, a former chief resilience officer for Boston, said that these issues of equity, usually brought together under the rubric of climate justice, were often treated as an afterthought instead of an essential element of resilience planning. In a disaster, pain is widespread, Dr. Martin said, but “the people who are suffering the most in day-to-day life are also the people who are suffering most when there’s a disaster.”

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."