Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Disaster Planning: Planning; Preparation; Response; Recovery

Right: sandbags being distributed at the Takoma Community Center.

I'm leading the session on bike planning for a class at the New School School of Public Engagement in New York City.  The class is titled the Insecure Metropolis: Modern City and when I was first introduced to the title of the course, I took the opportunity to consider the concept of insecurity pretty broadly from corruption to funding.

But weather-related insecurity is a "hard" concept as opposed to a more "soft" concern like corruption.  You have to deal with it, plan for it, consider it, etc.

-- How to Help Your Community Recover from Disaster: A Manual for Planning and Action, Society for Community Research and Action

For example, earlier in the year I attended a regional planning conference and one of the presentations was by the Dutch Embassy and concerned their reaction to and lessons from Hurricane Katrina, that you can't always keep the water out, that you have to be able to accommodate water and minimize the negative effects.

Obviously, this is relevant to the Hurricane/Storm Sandy that's happening now.  Like Hurricane Irene last year, the Washington, DC metropolitan area has avoided being significantly damaged, although yes there is a lot of rain, tree-related damage, power outages, etc.  (Note that Hurricane Irene's impact in the Northeast was significant, with catastrophic damage to the transportation system and communities in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire.  See the AP story, "Hurricane Irene Did $65M Of Damage To NYC's Transportation Network" and "Irene railroads Metro-North, Port Jervis line suspended indefinitely" from the YNN blog)

Left:  Getty Images. Rising water rushed into a subterranean parking garage Monday in the Financial District of New York.  ("Floods Reach Subway System, With Damage Likely to Linger," Wall Street Journal)

In the part of the country where the eye of the storm made landfall--New Jersey--and then proceeded on land (New Jersey, Pennsylvania), with impact from the storm's center pummeling New York City, resulting in evacuation, flooding, closing of public transportation, etc., the impact is much greater.

So in hindsight, we could argue that in the DC metropolitan area, because this storm was merely some bad rains and winds, which has true, resulted in a lot of power outages and a few deaths and a lot of flooding in some areas, maybe certain services like trash pickup could have been suspended, but otherwise things were pretty normal, except for people in flood zones.

Saturday's line up for sandbags was pretty orderly, with the lane blocked off and monitored by DPW personnel.  When I first saw the line it was probably 4.5 blocks long and it remained steady throughout the day.

On the other hand, catching hundreds of thousands of people not at home, in places where they can't be accommodated that well if there is a major storm or other type of disaster, makes dealing with disaster very difficult.

So we can argue that one form of accommodation is shutting some functions down in advance of the storm, so that we can preserve our capacity to recover, while providing necessary emergency services during the storm.

This acknowledges constraints and community capacity.

Probably the decision to close various local government agencies and school systems, the federal government, and the local transit system was a good decision, because the ability to recover, in an era where there are no longer much in the way of "slack resources" in the system (another way to think about this is in terms of logistics and the supply chain), is very difficult, especially in the short run.

From the abstract of Adkins, P.S. (2005). Organisational slack resources, the definitions and consequences for business flexibility and performance : an empirical investigation. PhD thesis, Aston University:

Slack resources are recognised to be those spare capabilities and assets of the organisation that are variable reclaimable for re-deployment. They represent under utilised and hidden spare energies within a company that may be recaptured and employed for a variety of tasks. However their positive contribution to organisational success has been a contentious claim that has provoked the intuitive argument that slack resources are inefficiency and are to be eradicated. The counter argument has been that very efficient organisations are inflexible and therefore incapable of being responsive to an increasingly dynamic environment. Therefore this work compares and contrasts three distinctive industries in a holistic manner and maps the impact of environmental flux on the firm, its subsequent disruptive ripples through the organisation and its absorption by slack resources. Through this process it is demonstrated that slack resources do positively contribute to organisational performance and subsequently the ability of slack to promote sustained competitive advantage is also identified.

While the thesis is on business organization, the points are fully relevant to organizational activity of all types.  (Also consider the work of sociologist Charles Perrow on redundancy and organizational failure.  His later work makes the point that complex systems are particularly vulnerable and therefore he recommends more decentralized forms of organization.)

When you don't have slack resources, hunkering down and preserving your capacities through measured shut down, so that you can have resources to deploy afterwards, is a logical course of action.

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At 4:32 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Again, in DC we have a pretty unique situation where one employer makes a lot of these calls. There are probably a lot of small towns like that but no other metro area where one office (OPM) pulls the switch.

Likewise, is removing mobility options (shut down transit) really such a great idea as well? It seems, for example in NYC, that a few floodgates would be a pretty cheap solution. I posted in another entry the desire for cars in this situation, although, for example in snow storms, perhaps we spend too much time clearing up the streets.

Looking at mass civilian bombing responses from WW2 can be instructive. The germans were very proactive in terms of emergency response, evacuations, and code. The British, far less so.

At 9:39 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt your point about floodgates, see

there are two good AP articles out now on the subway issue and ConEd.

At 5:32 AM, Blogger teresa bowen said...

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At 1:22 PM, Blogger Artha Nugraha Jonar said...

nice article. thanks for your sharing.
now i look out information about how to create disaster recovery plan at Logistics business


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