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. 

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