Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

"People... Shouldn't Always Plan for 100 Year Events."

After another killer hurricane buffeted the Caribbean and yet another killer earthquake rocked central Mexico yesterday, I posted this beautiful photo of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (below) and lamented the plight of residents in those regions and commented on social media that "too many are in harm's way the last few weeks. We must make safer buildings and resilient communities a priority!"


One reader responded, "Ain't no way I'd live in either of those places without appropriate structure. Then again, people don't want to, and maybe shouldn't, always plan for 100 year events."

He raises a good point. Traditional actuarial science does demonstrate the relative benefit-cost of overbuilding as perhaps more expensive than rebuilding following the occasional natural event.  And that's one way of looking at it.

On the other hand, there are perhaps three reasons why it's worth constructing for the worst case scenario.  I'd offer the following:

1.  The trend seems to be that these events are happening more frequently. What was once an infrequent disaster may become more frequent. No matter who (or what) you believe is causing climate change, it's hard to avoid believing something is happening.

2.  The cost is only marginally more expensive (if at all). When you're rebuilding anyway (as those in these areas will be doing), it's probably worth taking the time to build more safe habitation. In this blog, I've discussed various techniques for better housing that can be done using indigenous materials.  It makes sense to use the best knowledge you have at the time.

3.  The costs aren't always calculable.  Traditional benefit-cost analysis looks at the monetary loss of property and the effect a disaster has on the long-term economy of a region.  The real purpose of this blog is to emphasize the loss of life associated with these major events and to try to find ways to minimize that loss.  Human lives cannot be quantified--at least not in any reasonable way.

Obviously, we can't predict the future, but if we can better prepare, it makes sense to do so.  As an article in The Economist wisely points out, if it's not doing any harm, it's worth doing just in case.

"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 (most) scientists say that that is where we are currently heading, and if the measures needed to combat climate change (also provide benefits in many other ways)."  [“A Freudian approach to climate change” in The Economist, February 14, 2007[

As for me, I'd agree with the respondent's original statement to my post: "Ain't no way I'd live in either of those places without appropriate structure."

And I'd add that I don't want anyone else to have to live there without them either.


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Postscript

A more recent article in The Economist describes some of the roadblocks to rebuilding (physical, economical, and political) in the Caribbean:

"Three main barriers get in the way. The first is that weather patterns are changing faster than scientists and policymakers expected.... The second obstacle is short-term thinking, which encourages fast economic growth but neglects climate-change planning....The third barrier is lack of money. Most Caribbean islands are not poor... But most have high levels of public debt and many have suffered from a decline in prices of agricultural goods. Their small populations mean that the cost per person of building and upgrading infrastructure is high."

Sadly, this article was published post-Irma, but before Maria devastated the region for the second time in as many weeks.  The following post-Maria photo was published of the same area of Old San Juan:


The photo source and accompanying article is here.



Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Limits of Planning & Zoning

In a commentary published just over a week after the Houston deluge from Hurricane Harvey and the day after Florida was besieged by Hurricane Irma, Benjamin Powell and Phil Magness offered a timely and thought-provoking statement along the lines of the one by Steve Cohen in my earlier post.  Cohen described Houston perfectly, when he saidAs the planet has gotten more crowded, more of us have settled in places that are vulnerable to natural disasters. I don’t think this trend is going to be reversed.”

Powell and Magness wrote:

"No amount of government zoning and urban planning could have prevented the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. But the damage might have been less widespread, in both the Texas Gulf and Florida, if the government didn't subsidize flood insurance, which encourages building in low-lying areas.”

"Houston's most fundamental flood problem is its extraordinarily flat topography. Most of its waterways are slow-moving creeks and bayous that wind their way through the city and eventually trickle into the shallow, marshy coastline of Galveston and Trinity Bays. During a deluge, drainage is slow, so these systems fill rapidly with water that effectively has nowhere to go.

"These factors created a flood-prone city long before Houston's growth spurt. In fact, downtown Houston has suffered a major flood on average about once a decade as far back as records extend....

"In effect, NFIP [National Flood Insurance Program] subsidizes the risk people assume by living on a flood plain or in an area prone to storm surge damage. According to a recent study some 15 percent to 20 percent of NFIP policy holders receive subsidies that reduce their premium costs by approximately 60 percent to 65 percent.

"Although rates of purchasing flood insurance outside of Special Flood Hazard Zones have been dropping nationally and in Houston, the subsidy within these zones leads developers to build more houses in the flood plain, just as it encourages building in hurricane-prone areas of the East Coast.

"Ironically, what this means is that it's not the lack of regulation that exposed many of Harvey's victims to catastrophic loss, it was government policy."

Natural Defenses

It's time to re-think both the locational and design decisions we make as Americans.  One author, for example, suggests restoring natural defenses against hurricane flooding, saying:

"Natural defense systems, such as properly functioning wetlands and river deltas, should be part of this conversation in addition to built structures like seawalls and levees.  Not only can such natural defense systems reduce vulnerability to and impacts from events like [Hurricane] Sandy, but they can often be done less expensively than built solutions while providing other important benefits at the same time."

There are no shortage of worthwhile ideas. What's missing is apparently the will to evaluate, fund and implement them.

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UPDATE

A November 7, 2017 article outlines a "wide-ranging $61 billion proposal by Governor Greg Abbot and other Texas leaders for rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.... Calling for enhanced infrastructure measures to prevent future coastal flooding, coupled with buyouts for homes in vulnerable areas, the governor’s request goes far beyond just rebuilding what had been destroyed. Future-proofing the Gulf Coast will mean building detention lakes, dredging canals, and maybe most ambitiously, the construction of the 'Ike Dike,' a $12 billion series of 'coastal spines.'"



Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Hear Them Singing



I recall the first time I saw Charlotte Amalie, the pristine, paradisaical seaport capital of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. From the deck aboard a cruise ship, the town’s pastel-colored houses were visible along and atop verdant green mountains that stretched in an arc around the port. It was stunning.  Tourists like me wandered into town, taking advantage of the local hospitality, while helping feed the economy with our purchases and port taxes.

Visitors early last week likely saw the same St. Thomas.  The island, like her neighbors, was attractive, vibrant and a buzz of activity.  Like the events described in the Jimmy Webb song “The Yard Went On Forever,” I could imagine the people of the town standing in doorways, innocently singing to themselves, watching the peaceful events of the day unfold around them.  Until that day ended.  And another day came. 

It didn’t take much. A single hurricane named Irma and civilization as many of them knew it was gone.  Most visitors had fled, leaving the island’s residents—like residents of many of the Caribbean’s most beautiful island gems—to fend for themselves as their homes, their livelihoods and their society came apart in a matter of hours.  This photo from Charlotte Amalie by Jonathan Falwell (AP) is telling. 



A New York Times article describes the decay of society on the island the desperation of those who remain.  Neighboring islands suffer as well, with hungry, desperate citizens resorting in some cases to lawlessness to survive.  Within the space of a few days, many of the Caribbean’s finest locales went from popular tourist destinations to veritable wastelands of death, crime and destruction.

St. Martin poses an interesting comparative case study in disaster response.  Divided into French and Dutch sides, France has been widely criticized for its slow response in preparing for the disaster.  This New York Times article says:

“A more measured critique came from a former minister of France’s overseas territories, Victorin Lurel, who said that the situation needed more “resources, more logistical planning, more transport and a hospital boat. People could have been evacuated ahead of time,” he said in an interview Sunday on the news channel Europe1. The government response on the Dutch side, he insisted, was better than on the French side….

"In a statement on Sunday, the French interior ministry said that after emergency needs are dealt with, reconstruction will begin. Among its priorities, the statement said, it intends to distribute one million liters of drinking water, secure private property; and get the telecommunications systems running again.... In Britain, lawmakers from both the governing Conservative party, as well as the Labour opposition, have accused the government of failing to take adequate precautions to protect the residents of three British territories lying in the path of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Jose.”

In his article about the US Virgin Islands, author Luis Ferre-Sadurni wonders, as I do, about the future prospects for the people who live there—how long it will take for them to recover.  The author goes on to say:

"How well the islands, which have about 100,000 full-time residents, would be able to manage a long-term relief effort was unclear.  Purchased by the United States 100 years ago from Denmark for $25 million in gold, the islands have long been buoyed by tourism. But the closing of a large oil refinery several years ago wiped out a large piece of the Virgin Islands’ tax base, contributing to a debt crisis similar to that of Puerto Rico, its larger Caribbean neighbor. For years the islands borrowed from its catastrophe insurance fund to meet other demands.  And now the islands’ status as an easy vacation getaway seems, for now, to be in doubt."

Scott Neuman, in a piece for National Public Radio, quotes French President Emmanuel Macron noting “his country was ‘grief-stricken’ by the destruction on St. Martin. Macron tied the destruction to climate change, saying the world must act now ‘so we can avoid such natural disasters in the future.’”

All agree with the French president that it would be nice to avoid such natural disasters in the future.  How that’s done, or even if it’s possible to mitigate all potential damage and destruction from these storms, is a worthy topic of discussion in the weeks and months ahead.  What’s clear, however, is that something must be done.  We cannot continue to expect the Caribbean people and their host islands to be raked by storm after storm and then simply rebound and rebuild so we can travel there to sunbathe.

We must do this together.  More serious preparation and planning are necessary.  And yes, that will take money; but nothing will change without the united resolve of the all of the larger countries with interests in the area--the US, the UK, France, the Netherlands--to help create more resilient structures and economies in the islands.  My hope is that with time and with care, the quaint Charlotte Amalie I remember can be restored.

To learn how to give in support of the people of the Caribbean, please refer to this site:

Friday, September 8, 2017

A Trend That Won't Be Reversed

The Western Hemisphere is suffering this week.  Like many, I watch from a distance as a “once-in-a-century” 8.1 magnitude killer earthquake rattles Mexico, while a literal train of powerful hurricanes batters the US and our neighbors.  Disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are not uncommon, but they’re never welcome.  Even worse, disasters like these are always disruptive and, when lives are lost, downright tragic.   

Some ask the one-word question, “Why?” Others, like me, ask a second one-word question, “What?”  What can be done to minimize the damage? What can be done to avoid the damage?  Unlike the answer to the “Why?” question, the answer to “What?” can be answered, but it’s complicated by the reality that the best solutions aren’t always realistic.  And that is very frustrating to me.


Years ago, shortly after Hurricane Ike wreaked havoc on Houston, I recall reading an article in The Observer by Steve Cohen, who wrote: “I advocate developing a more realistic and routine process for dealing with these events and their aftermath… In addition to reconstruction, it may be time to take another look at our 20th century industrial age infrastructure.”   

This made sense to me as well, though my first thought was that we keep building where we shouldn’t and we keep rebuilding every time our cities and towns are destroyed.  In my mind, it’s an expensive and unnecessarily waste of time and resources. The solution seemed straightforward by asking a third one-word question: “Where?”  Where can we go to avoid the problems in the first place? The answer: Don’t rebuild in place. Rebuild safely and in a less vulnerable location.

But here’s where reality takes hold and the need to develop more pragmatic solutions that work within the fabric of our American society becomes more important.  In his article, Cohen expanded on his suggestion, saying:

"As the planet has gotten more crowded, more of us have settled in places that are vulnerable to natural disasters. I don’t think this trend is going to be reversed. Moreover, our lifestyles depend on electricity, transport, food, waste disposal and water that is sold to us by large centralized public and private organizations. The proportion of people who grow their own food, use well water, septic systems and compost their own garbage is lower every year. This means that we are increasingly vulnerable to disasters like Katrina or Ike.

"It’s time to start working on ways to reduce our vulnerability. Some of the answer is better emergency response and more reliable reconstruction. But an important part of the answer is to develop and implement technologies that allow our urban population to use less centralized infrastructure.  There are, of course, powerful economic interests that will oppose this idea. That’s because they own and operate the centralized and vulnerable infrastructure that we rely on. 

"My hope is that the companies that develop these less centralized technologies will succeed in selling them to the public. Just as laptops replaced mainframe computers, and Apple iPods replaced the SONY Walkman, someday, small household renewable electricity generators might replace the power grid."   

If it’s just not realistic to expect entire cities in the paths of hurricanes (e.g., Miami, Houston, New Orleans) or earthquake prone countries (Mexico, Italy) to up and move to avoid damage, it’s time to take very hard look at fourth one-word question: “How?”  How do we create less vulnerable and resilient human settlements? How can we convince governments, municipalities, homeowners and insurance companies to build (and rebuild) in a way that truly reduces potential loss of life and property from natural events?   

Decentralization, less reliance on regional utility and distribution systems, and the construction of less vulnerable structures of all types is the mainstay of hazard mitigation for many types of events where those in harm’s way cannot easily be relocated.  The techniques and solutions are there and should be implemented at all levels.


Which brings me to a final one-word question: “When?”  When should we do this? Now!


Friday, September 1, 2017

Lessons Learned?

A number of articles have been written in recent days looking back with 20-20 hindsight about what Governmental leaders in Houston could have done to prepare for such an event as has been unfolding there over the last week.  The common theme among them all is that this will happen again and that now is the time to do something to mitigate damage in the future. 


A particularly interesting article in the Texas Tribune’s online feed offered four things leaders must do to prevent future flooding disasters.  They include:

1.  Preserve and restore as much prairie land as possible.  Tall grasses could absorb huge amounts of floodwater.

2.  Restrict development in floodplains and buy flood-prone homes. Buildings continue to go up in vulnerable floodplains all over Harris County… Although some have chosen to elevate their lots to protect homes and businesses from rising floodwaters, that strategy may only increase the flood risk for those around them. 

3.  Plan for climate change.  In planning for flooding from future storms, local officials largely look to past rainfall totals and weather patterns. But climate change will heighten the risks that the region already faces. 

4.  Educate the public.  Hundreds of thousands of people have moved to the Houston area in recent decades; it’s consistently ranked as one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities. But people who move to flood-prone areas are often unaware of the risks.

An article in the Atlantic called Houston’s flood a “DesignProblem,” adding, “It’s not because the water comes in. It’s because it is forced to leave again.” 

In the cases of Katrina, Sandy or even Japan’s tsunami, where an area is inundated from the outside, “the flooding problem appears to be caused by water breaching shores, seawalls, or levees. Those examples reinforce the idea that flooding is a problem of keeping water out—either through fortunate avoidance or engineering foresight.

“But the impact of flooding, particularly in densely developed areas like cities, is far more constant than a massive, natural disaster like Harvey exposes. The reason cities flood isn’t because the water comes in, not exactly. It’s because the pavement of civilization forces the water to get back out again.”

The article quotes Thomas Debo, an emeritus professor of city planning at Georgia Tech and a stormwater expert as saying, 

“Just as limiting impervious surface is not the solution to urban stormwater management, so government-run, singular infrastructure might not be either. ‘It’s much more difficult, and a much bigger picture. There is no silver bullet for stormwater management.”

The article goes on to say that “the hardest part of managing urban flooding is reconciling it with Americans’ insistence that they can and should be able to live, work, and play anywhere. Waterborne transit was a key driver of urban development, and it’s inevitable that cities have grown where flooding is prevalent. But there are some regions that just shouldn’t become cities.

 Debo concludes, “Parts of Houston in the floodway, parts of New Orleans submerged during Katrina, parts of Florida—these places never should have been developed in the first place.”