Monday, November 11, 2013

Once Again

Once again, the news is heart wrenching and the numbers are downright unfathomable.  So far, damage from last weekend's pounding of the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan includes the loss of an estimated 56,000 homes and 10,000 lives.  Reports say entire villages were wiped off the map by winds gusting well over 200 mph and a deluge of rain.  Estimates are that Haiyan will be logged as the fourth most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded and possibly the strongest to have ever hit land. And even worse, it is the third Category 5 "super typhoon" to hit the Philippines since 2010.

I was in Japan when Super Typhoon "Tip" ran most of the length of the island country in October, 1979.  (It was) regarded as the "largest and most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded... Rainfall from Tip indirectly led to a fire that killed 13 Marines and injured 68 at a United States Marine Corps training camp in the Kanagawa Prefecture of Japan. Elsewhere in the country, the typhoon caused widespread flooding and 42 deaths; offshore shipwrecks left 44 people killed or missing." (Quoted from Wikipedia) 

Fortunately, Tip had weakened when it hit Japan and other than some power outages and flooded roads that affected transportation for a few days, the only impact on me, personally (a young man at the time), was a lasting respect for the power of Nature.

As I watched news reports over the weekend, there were two things that caught my attention.  First were the stories of survivors who said, when the warnings came, they really had nowhere to go.  There was no real safe “haven,” no inland evacuation routes and few hardened concrete structures in which to take shelter.  TV reports showed entire families huddled in their homes or other public buildings.  The fear on their faces was palpable even through the camera lens.

Second, I began thinking about what it would take to create those havens—if not individual homes, at least redeveloped housing in less impacted areas, hardened structures, public shelters, etc.  I was reminded of the towns in northeastern Japan that are constructing highly reinforced and elevated municipal buildings that can survive both moderate earthquakes and the resulting deluge of a tsunami.  Technology exists to do so, like this home in Hawaii (photo by Jon Starbuck).

These are the kinds of questions that need global solutions:
  • Creative solutions exist, but the how does a family or a community or even an entire country find the means to undertake a rebuilding of resistant housing stock and public infrastructure?   
  • Are there locational problems that could be resolved during that rebuilding?  
  • Can “safe” building technologies be simplified and reduced in cost? 
  • Can governments and corporations work together to implement these technologies where there are most needed in spite of the ability of the populace to pay for them? 
  • Can the political and financial resistance to relocation of development to safer areas (where that’s possible) be overcome? 

After Katrina, the United States helped rebuild the protective infrastructure surrounding New Orleans rather than relocating the historic city to a less vulnerable location.  No one will argue the need to restore the charm of the city and its historic neighborhoods where they stood.  But New Orleans (and the United States) could afford the luxury of doing so.  Levees and barriers were strengthened, and disaster preparations and warning systems were enhanced to mitigate the loss of life and property during future events. 

But is that enough—particularly where there are relocation options?  Should we consider more bold steps to safeguard populations in places?  New Orleans has put their trust in agencies like FEMA and the Army Corps, and the ability of the government to rebuild should there be any future disaster.  Towns and villages in the Southeast Asia (or the Caribbean or Central America, for instance) aren’t as fortunate.  Knowing there are physical and geographical solutions to protect lives, it is getting increasingly difficult to watch these disasters unfold without finding a way to help.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Location is Everything

First choice: Build in an area unaffected by a particular hazard.

As the table shows, that’s likely the best option for many hazards and will be a major part of the discussion here—particularly how those location preferences are encouraged (financially) or, if need be, enforced (legally, politically).

When that just isn’t possible (e.g., earthquakes, where you can’t necessarily determine a “safe” location), research continues into a variety of design solutions intended to help reduce the potential for damage and/or injury during a natural event.  Here are links to a few examples (from non-commercial sources) just to get the conversation going:

And another

The question of "What to build to be safe?" is definitely being answered. But these solutions don't come free.  And the best solution may be a question of "Where to build?"  So the conversation continues.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

It's Elemental

The classical elements of earth, air, water and fire have formed the basis of our societal bonds from the first days of human habitation.  From the earth came plants and trees, food and shelter.  We breathed air and the wind brought rain to nourish our crops.  Water was both a requirement of sustenance, a means for mobility and a source of power.  And fire, when harnessed for our use, brought life-saving warmth and opened an entire new world of technological innovation.

We lived among these elements, but we could never truly contain or control them.  They comprised the whole of our physical environment and they often controlled our destiny.  Since the beginning, our ancestors suffered the devastation of floods and storms, the austerity of drought, the ravages of fire and the catastrophe of earthquake and volcanic eruption.  Entire civilizations flourished and then vanished because of them.  Even today, with our seemingly advanced understanding of natural phenomenon and our improved technologies, families, communities and nations still suffer the impact of natural phenomena—from isolated storms to massive regional disasters.

What is my motivation?

I’ve lived in a number of places that have seen significant damage to shelter and infrastructure, as well as loss of life during natural disasters in recent years: 

  • 1983:  After what was deemed by Federal agencies as the costliest landslide in the Nation’s history, the side of a mountain in rural Utah covers roads and railroad tracks with up to 50 feet of soil and forms a natural dam that left the small town of Thistle completely submerged.
  • 1986: A dream mountain home constructed in a historic avalanche runout zone near the Sundance Ski Resort (Utah) was rendered uninhabitable by an avalanche.  Then again, in 1993, a second avalanche destroyed the remnants of the house and scattered debris down the hillside.
  • 1995:  The city where I lived in Japan suffers a major earthquake.  Property damage and the firestorm that followed kill nearly 6,500 of my former neighbors.
  • 2008: A massive tornado cuts a swath of damage through the town where I grew up in Colorado with a price tag of nearly $200 million. The twister attacks a day care center where the children are spared due to the heroic quick thinking of the staff.
  • 2011: An earthquake off the coast of northern Japan creates an unstoppable tsunami wave that inundates the land in the region and wipes entire cities from the map.  Nearly 18,000 people are killed or are still missing.
  • 2012-2013: Some of the largest wildfires ever recorded in Colorado history destroy hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, incinerate hundreds of homes and causes a number of deaths.
  • 2013: Rain storms in Colorado cause floods that destroy over $1 billion in homes and infrastructure.  Fourteen people are either dead or missing.

I was lucky.  None of these events impacted me or my family directly.  In fact most occurred after I had moved on to other locations.  Even so, when hearing about them or watching them unfold, I have often felt a strong, visceral and emotional sense of personal loss.  My response is always the same.  I ask myself: “Couldn’t someone have done more to prevent such widespread damage to life and property? Is there something I can do to keep this from happening?”

Why this site?

There are significant efforts underway by governments, NGOs and others worldwide to plan for effective responses to disasters.  The United Nations, for example, sponsors a Making Cities Resilient program to “advocate widespread commitment by local governments to build resilience to disasters and increased support by national governments to cities for the purpose of strengthening local capacities.”  (From their Website)  

Besides disaster response, these organizations also help keep provide information on the best means to create resilient cities and town in terms of sustainability, adapting to the effects of climate change, reducing energy consumption, mitigating the impact of economic decline, etc.  All are worth consideration and all require our attention. 

My professional experience has brought me to a somewhat more specific area of interest, an area where I might be able to help make a difference.  My career has been centered on implementing physical and geographical solutions to development issues—deciding what facilities and improvements are needed by a population, where the new structures should go, and how they should be configured and constructed to make them the most successful and, in the context of this discussion, the least vulnerable.  

This vulnerability question is the primary focus of this site, and I see the effort evolving in two phases:

Phase I

Initially, I would like this site to become a repository of the best thoughts, ideas and practices on the subject in three different areas:  Science (or what we know about the events and the natural phenomena that cause them); Technology (or the way we as human beings attempt to position and protect our communities and our homes from the effects of these natural phenomena); and Policy (ways we can implement these technologies in all areas of the world, both in terms of better codes and enforcement, as well as creative thinking about helping fund improvements).  

Phase II

Obviously, a repository only provides information for someone who seeks it.  It doesn’t actively solve problems—and that is the real purpose of this effort.  So ultimately, I’d like to build on the “Policy” side of this triangle and really push myself and others who think like I do to help suggest solutions to plan, fund and build better (safer) communities, improve and reinforce existing housing stock, and create the best physical and geographical solutions to the problem.  The answers may be financial, legal or political.  And the best responses won’t always come without controversy.  But if the result is a single life saved in the process, it will all be worth it.

A Request

I am only one individual with my own set of skills and experience.  So I’ll collect the best resources I can find from a variety of sources and look to readers of the blog with expertise in other fields to offer their ideas as well.  I welcome your editorials, technical thoughts, literature references, and feedback.