Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Monday, December 2, 2013

Toward a Useful Set of Solutions

The Science Channel offers a series of documentary specials titled “How the Earth Works,” now in its first season.  The latest episode (#8) aired recently and the title caught my eye: “Japanese Death Match.”  (See link to entire episode HERE.)  Far from referring to an ultimate Sumo or martial arts competition, the story told was one of Japan’s history of natural disasters—specifically those related to typhoons, earthquakes and tsunami.  Like many other coastal regions of the World, Japan has been affected by earthquakes and tsunami with disastrous results.  But Japan’s relatively high industrial standard of living provides some lessons for those hoping to learn to cope with these natural disasters. 

Toward the end of the show, an expert interviewed by the producers noted that the warnings associated with the 2011 tsunami in the Sendai region gave citizens who heard (and believed it) roughly 20 minutes to find shelter.  By comparison, she says, a similar disaster for the more central and southern coasts of Japan (including the Tokyo area) could provide public warnings of only 5 minutes.  The narrator says:  “The sea walls that were supposed d to protect Sendai weren’t enough. Should the south defenses be breached, tens of millions of people will face a race against the clock to find safety.” 

But the narrator opens a window of hope for these large urban centers.  Not only have they been rebuilt over the years with structures that can withstand earthquakes, many of them would also likely survive (at least physically, if not in utility service) a subsequent tsunami deluge.  The narrator concludes, "Now a new generation of high rise buildings could provide some with the safe haven they need.”  In fact, some of the video from larger urban centers inundated by the 2011 tsunami (see link HERE) tends to illustrate this very feature.

At the risk of losing casual readers, let me relay some useful references by the experts.


A publication by the Geo-Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers (online link HERE for GEORISK 2011: Geotechnical Risk Assessment & Management, Geotechnical Special Publication No. 224, Edited by C. Hsein Juang, Kok Kwang Phoon, Anand J. Puppala, Russell A. Green, and Gordon A. Fenton) provides some excellent summary information related engineered solutions.  Excerpts beginning on page 71:

“Mitigation measures for risks associated with geohazards can broadly be classified in six categories:

1.      land use plans;
2.      enforcement of building codes and good construction practice;
3.      early warning systems;
4.      construction of physical protection barriers;
5.      network of escape routes and "safe" places; and
6.      community preparedness and awareness building.

“A mitigation strategy would involve:

1.      identification of possible disaster triggering scenarios, and the associated hazard level;
2.      analysis of possible consequences for the different scenarios;
3.      assessment of possible measures to reduce and/or eliminate the potential consequences of the danger;
4.      recommendation of specific remedial measure and if relevant reconstruction and rehabilitation plans; and
5.      transfer of knowledge and communication with authorities and society.

“Any mitigation strategy needs to be adapted for different natural hazards and different parts of the world. Especially for developing countries, it is vital to establish and promote proper land-use planning and construction practices to regulate human activities that increase risk to earthquakes, landslides or tsunamis and to prevent settlement of communities in high-risk areas…. Ensuring that people do not live in ‘high risk’ zones (should) be included in the decision process. As for physical protection measures, a ‘how to’ and ‘do's and don'ts’ guideline (could) be prepared, as well as recommendation for ‘best practice.’

“Buildings need to be designed (and placed in locations) to withstand the impact forces of geohazards and to provide safe dwellings for people. Land can also be elevated to ensure that buildings are above a critical height, for example, to protect against tsunami danger.

“Physical protection barriers may be used to stop or delay the impact of the geohazards, reduce the maximum reach of its impact, or dissipate the energy of the geohazards. On land, such barriers may include ‘soft structures in the form of dikes or embankments, or ‘hard’ structures like vertical concrete or stone block wall. Offshore, the structures could be jetties, moles or breakwaters, or even submerged embankments. Any measures need to be part of a community's master plan and subjected to analyses to assess and circumvent any negative environmental impact.

“If a well functioning and efficient warning system is in place, warning and escape are probably the best way to prevent loss of life due to geohazards. Developing functional networks of escape routes and safe places could include a number of different measures, strongly dependent on the local context.

“Area, village or city analyses should provide maximum tolerable distance from buildings and activities to a safe place, and assess how to achieve this maximum distance. Distances between buildings and safe areas could be shortened by reducing the escape routes, or by establishing new safe areas as artificial escape hills and safe buildings that are accessible to people at large.
“The above descriptions are only examples of possible measures. A multitude of considerations need to be taken into account when preparing templates that are to be implemented in real-life cases.”

An online publication by a steel construction company (Reid Steel, link HERE –please excuse the commercial identification repeated out of respect for citing their very useful information but not as an endorsement of their products or services) includes an excellent summary of the “how’s” behind a structure that could provide the kind of protection noted in the Science documentary.  The authors discuss the need for structures to resist both earthquakes and tsunami, and then conclude:

“How a building can resist flooding is best demonstrated by the 2004 Tsunami. All the fragile shacks built at ground level were simply washed away. Multi-story buildings that were weakly built with no side-sway resistance were badly damaged. Some multi-story buildings had their lower wall pushed in on one side, and out on the other as the wave went through, but otherwise, survived. Some buildings were pushed along where they were not fixed firmly to firm ground. But well-built buildings survived in the middle of areas that were otherwise completely devastated.

“To avoid wave surges, the building should be built out of the projected water path; and this may mean building it on legs with a suspended lower floor level. Even if the elevation of such a floor is modest, the forces from rushing water will be much less if the water can go under the building as well as round it. The buildings should be on a narrow front, with gaps between them, and preferably not at right angles to the Beach.

“Foundations may need to be deeper than usual and braced right down to the footings without counting on the soil around them for strength or stability. A frame which is of continuous construction in both directions is more likely to be able to survive loss of wall panels or even whole footings. The lower floor will be best in concrete to give some weight. The steel frames should be strong enough to resist substantial loads (the sort of loads needed to resist Hurricanes or Seismic loads for example).

“Reid Steel buildings, with columns, main beams, closely space steel joists, all bolted continuously together; and with the concrete poured on steel decking in such a way that it is trapped by the steel and cannot be dislodged: provide the best building method. Tsunami prone buildings are usually in Seismic areas anyway; and beach-side developments are often in Cyclone or Hurricane areas too. The same Reid Steel construction methods are the best solution to all three problems.”


Just about a year ago, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley issued an Executive Order (link HERE) titled “Climate Change and Coast Smart Construction.”

According to the Governor’s web site, the order is intended to enact “a number of policy directives, including directing all State agencies to consider the risk of coastal flooding and sea level rise when they design capital budget projects and charging the Department of General Services with updating its architecture and engineering guidelines to require new and rebuilt State structures to be elevated two or more feet above the 100-year base flood level.”

Obviously, I’m not comparing a moderate sea level rise with the localized damage caused by a catastrophic event.  But this is a good example of public policy leading to a long-term solution.  As the State of Maryland focuses its capital resources on the need to harden its own physical assets against the inevitable increases in the severity of coastal water hazards, it is hoped (or perhaps even required) that local building codes will be similarly enhanced.

The economic motivation for the private sector to do so may be even stronger than a governmental requirement.  Clearly, knowing that the government may not always be able to step in and help finance rebuilding should provide an incentive for corporations, landlords and property owners to do more.  Insurance companies, too, could require more of their clients. 

The State of California, obviously the epicenter (pun intended) for seismic safety policy in the U.S., has developed a number of incentives to encourage the development of safer facilities.  Pages 2-3 (Section 2.1) of a report by the California Seismic Safety commission (link HERE) provides a fascinating discussion of the role of economic incentives in public policy and a useful list of options related to geohazards, specifically:

"Incentives are interesting--and perhaps underutilized--public policy tools.  However such methods are increasingly important in the current climate of governance which emphasizes greater rols of state and local governments and resources-optimizing intergovernmental and public-private sector partnerships.

"Incentives are used to esbablish or modify contexts and relationships (especially financial) so that desired actions be taken that otherwise might not have been.  The result is that people will take the desired actions because the 'benefits' now outweigh the 'costs.' 

“For example, similar to many of the Commission's ideas expressed in the report, the Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) is working with FEMA to recommend incentives that will spur property owners to take action to reduce losses before disaster strikes.  IBHS is recommending to FEMA that the following incentives be granted to 'qualified' owners of homes and buildings to offset the costs of retrofitting:

"Insurance Incentives

·         Discount or credits on homeowners insurance premiums
·         Lower deductibles and coinsurnace percentages
·         Increased availability of insurance in disaster-prone areas

"Public Sector Incentives

·         Elimination of property taxes on the value of retrofit improvements
·         Federal and state income tax credits
·         Elimination of sales tax on materials used in retrofitting
·         Low interest loans for the cost of retrofit work (state and local governments)
·         Reduced or eliminated permit and plan check fees

"Other Private Sector Incentives

·         Low interest loans for the cost of retrofit work (banks and lending companies)
·         Low interest new construction loans for contractors who build disaster resistant structures
·         Reduced origination fees or loans
·         Employee bonuses given by employers for employees who take disaster safety precaution in their home [I might add the option of paid leave to do so?]
·         Discounts on building materials
·         Reduced utility (gas and electric) changes

"As one Seismic Safety Commissioner noted, 'These are real incentives and, if implemented, have the potential for great impact in the hazard mitigation area. These incentives can be readily implemented because, generally speaking, they don't take money from the government or the private sector that otherwise, absent these incentives, would accrue to them.’"

The assumption here is that these actions would not have been taken without the incentives.  Sometimes the protection of life and property is sufficient motivation.  Sometimes, even if motivated, the home or business owner does not have the means to pursue improvements. 

As I’ve said before in this blog and as you’ll undoubtedly see many times again, there are a wide range of possible solutions and, ultimately, the improvements needed Worldwide will vary considerably by location.  Where government cannot act and foreign aid is limited, philanthropy and corporate responsibility should step in just like they do for humanitarian and health-related causes.  The scope of the problem is vast—even overwhelming.  But that shouldn’t stop us from doing what we can.  The goal should be the same level of safety for all.


Finally, let me share a link to a wonderful piece on the juxtaposition of hazard mitigation and resilience. In his piece at Homeland Security Watch a couple of years ago, Philip Palin observes:

"On May 22 the residents of Joplin, Missouri were alerted to a Tornado Watch at 1:30 PM local time.   A Tornado Warning was br0adcast at 5:09.  Sirens were sounded at 5:11.  The killer tornado touched down southwest of Joplin at 5:34.  According to a study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA),  “The majority of surveyed Joplin residents did not immediately go to shelter upon hearing the initial warning.”  There were 159 deaths and several hundred injuries."

He goes on to make some important points. I'd highly recommend reading the piece.