Researcher on the Road: Sneaky Resilience

Read the first in this series here for some context.

While we went to the coast to talk to citizens about what they knew about Tsunami preparedness, we ended up talking a great deal to our fellow Emergency Managers (EMs) and hazard scientists (i.e. geographers, seismologists, meteorologists, etc who specifically study disasters). Much like veterans, we shared stories and groused about our common difficulties.

A common difficulty for EMs is funding. There’s never enough money for mitigation projects (like building a vertical evacuation tower where it’s needed or creating a cache of emergency supplies for the community), especially in smaller communities which a) don’t have much money and b) want to invest the money they do have in other problem areas like industry or housing.

Creative Commons via PSD
Creative Commons via PSD

Another (related) common difficulty for EMs is generating support for preparedness. It’s really, really hard–we’ve found–to get people to do anything about disasters. Humans are expert procrastinators and it’s hard to get worked up about something which might happen especially when current problems exist (like no industry or housing). And let’s face it, disasters are pretty much the vegetable of our world: important, but not that much fun to think about. When (blessedly) a few people in the community do take an interest and do some advocacy or preparedness work, EMs are over the moon. But inevitably, these little groups fall away. Though they are powerful forces for good, they are fragile and easy to dissipate after a while. So how can we get them to stick around?

It turns out that the solution is the same to these two problems. More than one EM and hazard scientists said the same thing. You have to embed preparedness into the fabric of the community. There’s two ways to do that. First, you design everything you build to be dual use. For instance, at the Long Beach and Ocean Shores areas, there are no paths up the hills for foot evacuation. Instead of building an evacuation path (a low priority for most people), build a walking path for visitors and residence who like to hike. Add nature signs and little benches next to stunning viewpoints. Tourists would love that. Residents would love that. And–as long as the path ran up hill–EMs would love that. Tourism is the honey on our resiliency-carrots. It makes it go down easy.

Secondly, you embed preparedness into the fabric of the community by using standing institutions to spread your message. Single-purpose fledgling groups are hard to maintain because they have few resources, few connections, high turnover, and too many other external pressures. Libraries, however, will always be around. Every community needs a hospital. Schools and churches crop up naturally wherever there’s people. These kinds of institutions are long lasting and serve a broader purpose. By doing so, they have access to lots and lots of people and more resources. So they make a powerful voice for preparedness advocacy. In one group, we had two librarians from two different, sister libraries. They had hosted some preparedness events and wanted to know how to help more. They felt strongly that their constituents needed tsunami evacuation information and had the power to make that happen for us.

These concepts–I’ve noticed–aren’t that much different from environmentalism ones. We use an old cottage cheese container to plant seeds in. Why can’t we make a hiking path serve as an evacuation route? We’ve also seen this in fitness and weight loss programs. The weight stays off when your exercise becomes embedded into the rest of your habits. A community is like that too. It needs resilience to be a part of every choice, not an alternative choice. We need to sneak it into community development like Mom snuck vegetables in to our lasagna.

When resilience is veggies, we have to be sneaky.
When resilience is veggies, we have to be sneaky.

Researcher on the Road: Survivability

Yesterday, we stopped in on our friends at the Washington State Emergency Management Division at Camp Murray.


They graciously gave us a tour of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and it was So. Cool. Downstairs, it’s dark and empty and very quiet. The whole bottom floor is dedicated to disaster management. There’s cubicles where the search and rescue teams sit, there’s a tiny kitchen, lots of binders, files, and posters filed neatly. If you turn left you’ll see an assuming door entering into the main, super-cool part.

EOC proper looks like a modern version of the Mission Control room in Apollo 13. Giant screens line one wall (tuned to CNN or a slide show presentation as needed, I’m told). 5 tvs sit side by side in each corner of the room. Giant whiteboards have today’s wi-fi password on it and big, clean spaces ready for writing. Maps of all sorts serve as functional decoration on free surfaces. Way, way up there’s windows looking down on us. That’s the Planning Room where the state authorities and FEMA have a birds-eye view.

Desks are broken up into pods, but don’t have any cubicle walls to impede communication. I could imagine people milling about and shouting across the room to one another. But maybe there’s more decorum during a disaster than that.

None of these people were here when I visited. This is "activated" status.
None of these people were here when I visited. This is “activated” status.

Opposite the giant screens on the one side are several rooms. One is a super secret communications room that we’re not allowed to see. A few look like nondescript offices. And the largest one sprawling importantly in the middle is the Alert and Warning Center (AWC). It’s the only room on the whole floor with anyone in it today, it seems like.

WA state AWC
WA state AWC. Sorry for the substandard pic. It’s pretty dim in there!

It’s staffed, I’m told, 24/7 and is responsible for monitoring the entire state for trouble. I’m shown the computers with steady green dots on a map–tsunami detectors off the coast. Nearby are lahar monitors, muted CNN on tv’s, maps, equipment I don’t understand, and–in the center–a little tabletop shelf where all of the state’s procedures are laid open. The AWC serves as the primary warning point for everything including: civil disturbances, earthquakes, forest fires, dam failure, floods, severe weather, lahars, landslides, HazMat incidents, terrorist attacks, tsunamis, and radiological accidents. So there’s a lot on that little tabletop shelf.

The building itself, I discovered–as we were ushered reluctantly out–is build on “base isolators” or giant bearings that sit in a concrete bowl shaped like a tiny half-pipe. Base Isolators let the building stay straight up instead of swaying and toppling during an earthquake. (Left pic courtesy of 21Century Builders. Right, courtesy KPFF Consulting Engineers who built the WA state EOC isolators and discuss it here.)

The official FAQ sheet I picked up on my way out says that the “building [was] designed…with the primary goal of survivability, particularly in the event of an earthquake. Building designed to continue to operate with minimal damage following a 1000 year earthquake” (italics/bold in original). A “1000 year earthquake” refers to the size  of the earthquake and the probability of it’s occurring, not the duration. It’s so big that we have to talk about it’s chances of happening in thousands of years. Cities, for example, often plan for a “100 year flood” which is a flood with 1% chance of happening in any given year. (Here’s more if you want to understand the math of that.) So a 1000 year earthquake is a really devastating one. This building will stand when everything around it is completely gone. And the people in it will still be working at saving lives from the rubble.

That’s somehow comforting, no?

“Growing Pains”: History’s Theory of Everything

There’s a huge push in my Emergency Management classes to ingrain us with community-building values. Over and over I’m told (and I believe) that 1. the best way to respond to an emergency is to let local leaders direct the resources, 2. that the best way to keep people safe is to make sure they’re connected to each other* and to processes/institutions (neighborhood watches, hospitals), and 3. that the best way to prepare for or rebuild after a disaster is to be responsive to the ones who have to live in the houses you’re building**.

It turns out to be a very democratizing process if you do it right. And it also happens to synergize very well with the internet and social media. (Think about how Twitter aided the democratizing process in Arab Spring).

The following blog post from Raptitude summarizes a “Grand Historical Theory” that explains why community building is so important and so powerful. [And secondarily, why I, for one, am hugely in favor of net neutrality. Allowing corporations to control the speed of the internet for profit would create a hierarchy which would degrade the powerful crowd-sourcing democracy that’s happening on the internet.] I’m going to give a bullet pointed version of Raptitude’s summary (whoa, so meta), but I highly urge you to read the article. It’s short, interesting, and well written.

1. Early man roamed about in small groups where everyone grew up with everyone else and understood all the viewpoints in their society (represented by knowing each person very well). Decisions were made by consensus–a long, boring, but equal process.

2. As we grew into cities and towns, societies were too large for everyone to know or even understand everyone else so hierarchies formed in order to organize society. This silenced all except for the those at the top. When they wanted to make a new society (America, for instance), it was those at the top who made the laws and processes of getting work done.

3. But the printing press and now the internet allowed anyone (almost–although it’s getting more and more accessible) to write and disseminate their viewpoint and opinions. We began to reincorporate society… or to put it another way, we began to dismantle hierarchy. Which has been painful (French revolution, American revolution, civil rights, LGBT marriage equality, etc.) But it’s happening and it’s awesome and we should encourage that.

Because it makes our world safer, healthier, and better.

* So there was this study done of two neighborhoods who experienced a tremendous heat wave. In the wealthier neighborhood the death rate was much higher than in the other poor neighborhood (very unusual). Authorities couldn’t explain it until they realized that the poor neighborhood was made up of minority groups who had stronger ties with one another. They would look in on one another to make sure people were ok. Elders in the wealthier neighborhood didn’t have anyone to call 9-1-1 if they collapsed from heat stroke. So connecting people to people keeps everyone safe by leveraging social ties to get information disseminated.

** In an earthquake zone in India, NGOs used to come in and build villages with cinder block houses. Sturdy, square. But the square huts fell over in the next earthquake while the more traditional mud huts stood firm. It took a while for NGOs to figure out that the simple mud huts stood during earthquakes while Western styled houses–though cement– fell because the huts were round and could resist the movement of the earth in every direction. Squares get warped. Since then EMs have learned that you can’t just import solutions out of context. You have to listen to the community because they know these things.