Monday, June 23, 2008

Troubling Earthquake/Disaster policies

So we have spent the better part of our intelligence advising 'during earthquakes, if indoors seek shelters under sturdy tables or structure." This is advice that is outdated and should not be given for two reasons. Most people who die from earthquakes, die as a result of falling or collapsing structures or flying debris and evacuation is still the primary approach to reduce loss of lives and move people to safety in event of an emergency. So how and when did we collaboratively agreed that it was best to stay in buildings shaking violently during a quake and how did we get so may people to agree. Interestingly, that may have been the advice during 9/11 as the Twin Tower burn to an eventual pancake collapse and it appears that that may also have been the case in China where hundred of school children lost their lives probably suck under "sturdy" chairs and desks.

In the event of an emergency in any building or areas the best option is still evacuation and that should be done within one minute. This raises several issues related to building like schools and hospitals noted for mass occupancy: The need to design and build structures with safety as a key priority is essential. The height of some of these building as in the case of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and schools in China pose additional threats and increases the risk of collapse. They however, highlight the urgency with which evaluation should be pursued during an emergency or the unfolding of a disaster event. So here goes, this "sturdy table or chair does not work under twenty tons of concrete and I suspect when it was proposed, building were mostly wooden, single floor with low centers of gravity. Building structures have changed and it is time to rewrite the policy:

During an earthquake all school buildings must be cleared as quickly as possible. At best this should be accomplished within the first minute of the initial jolt. Residents should move to an open space, previously identified and clear of building, trees and other features likely to create or increase risk. Experience has shown that vibrations that precedes earthquake can be heard and the associated shaking tend to increase in intensity for the first few seconds before it peaks, providing a few crucial seconds for evacuation. During an earthquake time is measured in seconds or less and so people must react in seconds or less.

In the case of schools, each classroom shall be affixed with two doors and school floors with staircases or exists on either end of these floors particularly where they extend above two floors.

Monthly drills must be conducted in schools to ensure that with near instinctiveness students can assist in securing their safety given the few adults who may be present with them during an emergency or disaster.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Floods in the Midwest

Once again the Midwest is inundated with water. The mighty Mississippi and its tributaries are reclaiming territory that they once carved for themselves as compensatory space for such river adjustments when necessary. This time it's necessary. Unfortunately those who occupy these pristine flood plains are once again cut off guard. Then again there may have been little that could have been done at this stage to protect property. The disruptions are enormous - life, work, food supply, school, trade and trannactions. In the next 10 - 12 years it will happen again and again. People will move back in, the levees will be repaired but not upgraded, they will clean, replace what was lost and then they will forget for the next ten years until it happens again. So much for preparedness plans and for putting these blueprints in place. Preparedness is not about documents and blueprints. It about action and knowing how to help yourself and your neighbors when no one else from the outside can reach you. Our lives have been so structured and designed to be response-dependent on elected official, federal and state apparatuses that we have forgotten how to help us; how to take action in the midst of uncertainty to mitigate the risk to which we are exposed to on a daily basis.

Medical researchers may have a lesson or two to teach us. They conduct the research and the counter research and they make the findings available to the public so the public can make informed decison. The United States Geological Soceity (USGS) and the Army Core of Engineers being public organizations have a public responsibility to conduct the research on disaster risk and vulnerability and to provide the public with the information. In a region with a storied history of flooding, little should be taken for granted. By studying snow falls, rainfall figures and matching them against the age, percolation and infiltration levels in the levees one should be able to determine and doing so on a regular basis, the potential for damage. We may not be able to protect property but we can insure against damage. Using a credit union approach, communities can pool their resources for disaster response particlaury for those who are unable to aford the market costs of insurance.Communities must insure themselves against disaster. This requires a different thinking and approach: A shift from individual to community reponse not to the disaster but to the risk. It requires reduced dependence on federal bureaucratic response to increased local community response. It also requires a shift from regional disaster management aproaches to local community responsibility because in the end its the local communities that are affected and it they who have to pick up the pieces; they who have to reconstruct their lives despite the blame and finger pointing. When the cameras are turned off and the press goes home, it is the homeowners and city managers who are left to deal with the impact.

The approach is to protect one's self and one's community aganst the risk and the bottom line is this- once one lives on a flood place with levees and subsequebtly below the high flood mark, there is risk there. It may not be the same every where and no matter how small, it exists and even against that small risk, protection is essential. All that is required for a levee to break is small percolation, and overtime, water finds a way to percolate and infiltrate. Rates at which these occur have to be measured and the results made public. Where risk is present, those at risk have a right to know and to make decisions based on that knowledge.

Sadly, many will be left to put the pieces back together on their own. It is the nature of the social relations that we have nurtured and on which we have prided ourselves - "pulling yourself up by your own bootstrap." It continues to govern our relationships and modus operandi and in the end it seems even we may have to acquire our own knowledge to make our own decisions for what is a boot without straps.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Education Facilities and Disasters

The significance of educational facilities during disaster is yet to be given the kind of attention, I believe it deserves. Education, itself is beginning to receive token mention in the debate on disaster preparedness and response (Kapucu, 2008). The impact of the recent earthquake in China on education facilities is beginning to bring this significane into focus.

Schools are buildings of mass occupancy. Large numbers of students and teachers occupy these buildings for at least five hours each day and at least nine months of the year. Often teachers can have as many as 60 students in one classrooms, particularly in developing countries - areas often hardly hit by hurricanes, typhoons, floods and earthquakes. This situation dramatically increases the risk and vunerabiities. Managing these students in these difficult situation with limited adults has not been affored the attention it deserves. An added risk is the construction and building codes which in the case of China appeared to be suspect and arguably tempered by not knowing the ages of these school buildings.

School buildings have also been known to be the most common means of shelter during disasters. In Dominica for example 75% of hurricane shelters are school plants. A large number of such shelters in Florida are also schools. It is essential then that more attention be paid to construction and building codes for schools. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Organisation of American States (OAS) have committed substantial resources throughout the Caribbean to retrofit and strengthen school buildings to ensure their safety as disaster shelters and centainly as institution of learning. By doing so, they ensure post-disaster education as well particular for those students at critical and transitional phases of their education.

Such attention to school plants require a place in the debates, discourse and literature on disasters and disaster management. Understanding how students are impacted beyond the pyschological and traumatic,an area in which the American Psychological Association (APA) has done substantial work is essential.

The National Clearinghouse for educational Facilities website provides an excellent checklist with queries for assessing educational facilties as a precusor to making improvement to exisitng facilities or designing new ones. Central to the issues related to education facilities and disaster is the broad issue of child safety. Greater attention has to be paid to ensure children's safety during and after disasters and that generally, education takes palce in a safe environment.

Polices ans plans with regard to the use of schools as shelters and to esure smooth transitions from one function to the next does not exist and if it does, may be scant at best. School officials need to have clear blueprints on the approach to management of their school plants as eductional facilities and disaster shelters. This should formalize the relationship and increase the stake to ensure that school facilties meet the construction and building standards. This arragnement will represent a major step towards the often recommended colloboration among engineers, architects, local govenment, emergency and shelter managers and school officials as necessary for effective disaster management. In this way the children and their communties become winners.