Managing Natural Disasters in Big Cities - Best Practices

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Introduction

Natural disasters are caused by natural earth processes like floods, droughts, cyclones, tsunami, earthquakes and hurricanes which are unpreventable. These events cause huge losses of lives, infrastructure damages and as a result, a loss of country’s GDP. Instead of using resources wisely to manage the risk of these disaster, more money is being spent on disaster recovery such as reconstruction and emergency response (Kellett and Caravani, 2013). While natural disasters cannot be entirely prevented, an effective way to counter the effects and minimise damages is with effective disaster management. Disaster management is a systematic framework which comprises of good planning, preparation and management. It plays a vital role in addressing the risks and consequences of these adverse events. Risk disaster reduction aims to form an ethic of prevention to minimise the damages caused by widespread of events followed on with natural disaster.

In this paper, we will seek to explore various good practices on how big cities can manage these disasters risks and build resilience based on the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. The Sendai Framework (UNISDR, 2015) was adopted at the United Nations World Conference in 2015 to reduce disaster impact across mortality rates, economic loss and enhance cooperation between nations to provide readily relief.

This paper will identify and discuss good practices in prevention and mitigation where we will discuss about land use planning and management and non-structural measures. Next, we will look at good practices in preparedness where early warning and emergency response come into play. Following that, good practices in response will be examined. Lastly, good practices in rehabilitation, reconstruction and recovery after a natural disaster will be reviewed.

Regardless of which practice is adopted, it is crucial to identify and seek the collaboration of different stakeholders and work closely with them to ensure a collaborative effort in order to have a smooth coordination. Ensuring this will allow for a more timely response time and combat more effectively against the inevitable destruction.

Good practices in Prevention and Mitigation

Although natural disasters cannot be prevented entirely, we can put in place measures to mitigate and limit losses of lives and the country’s financials. Possible prevention methods include smart urban planning and the construction of strong infrastructure, proper usage of land and setting good defence measures.

Land use planning, management and non-structural measures

Urban planning – land management and land use planning will help to play a huge role in helping to mitigate the damages caused by natural disasters. Critical infrastructure should be built with strong materials on stable ground to withstand disasters as it forms the backbone of a resilient and safe city. As such, these buildings should steer away from reclaimed land, steep terrains and loose soil as the loss of such infrastructures will cause severe impediment of both social and economic functioning of a society.

Retrofitting existing infrastructures will help fortify against the effects of damages caused by natural disasters. Some possible examples include reinforcing pillars and using steel-infused concrete for shock absorption and using shatter-proof windows and shutters to combat against heavy wind conditions (Carter, 2018). Through such measures, this will allow occupants more time to get out of the building safely.

An additional effort is evidenced where the government of Iran collaborated with the United Nations for a disaster management programme where officials seek help and learn from experts in the industry. They successfully launched a programme to raise community awareness and build capacity for safer housing. This increases the confidence of the community in constructing and retrofitting a stronger, safer and more resilient housing.

Governments can employ defence measures such as building flood walls, barriers, drain systems and dams to mitigate the aftermaths of floods, hurricanes, tsunamis and cyclones. However, it is not feasible to continuously build flood walls and barriers to prevent water from breaching (extensive defence measures) continuously to withstand the rising sea level and storm tides. A better management strategy is where we can learn from Singapore (PUB, n.d.) who diverts the water back to the source. Singapore has a comprehensive network of drains and canals to collect rainwater. These street drains and canals are spread across the island and transports the water from underground to the water reclamation plant and the sea. Cities can follow this water-retaining strategy in to ensure excessive water caused by floods or other natural disasters discharge back into the sea to reduce the risk of flooding caused by water storage. Similarly, we can see that cities like Tokyo and Chicago are building massive underground tunnels that can divert water away from vulnerable lands. Government bodies should also identify and regulate the type of land use and its development with zoning, relocate population vulnerable to disasters and engineer the construction of hazard-resistant infrastructure (FIG, 2006).

Good Practices in Preparedness

Despite having good infrastructure planning, the most effective platform to reduce risk is through good preparation. UNISDR (2017) defines preparedness as “the knowledge and capacities developed by governments, response and recovery organisations, communities and individuals to effectively anticipate, respond to and recover from the impacts of likely, imminent or current disasters”. This comprises of activities such as emergency planning where arrangements for coordination, evacuation and communication are discussed, stockpiling supplies and equipments, training, drills and stimulations. Clear guidelines and responsibilities of government bodies and institution must be clearly defined to avoid confusing of roles and duplication of efforts during a crisis (Oxfam International, 2007). For instance, distribution of relief supplies must be well-coordinated to ensure preparedness.

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Training programmes can be conducted and validated with regular tests to ensure community preparedness of an event. This was evidenced in Japan (Foster, 2011) where it faces many natural disasters but has prepared for it by having schools conduct drills once a month so that they will know what actions to take in the event of a earthquake or a tsunami.

Evacuation and Emergency Planning

Preparedness lies crucially on different stakeholders working collaboratively to empower the community to be more resilient to threats. Government bodies can provide awareness programmes, trainings, simulations exercises and put procedures in place such as emergency first-aid deployment and evacuation plans for the public to react and assist effectively in time of crisis.

One example would be the Tax Day Flood in Houston (Zaveri, 2017) where it caused millions in damage, thousands of homes lost and the lives of eight people despite having a network of bayous and waterways. Fortunately, Houston Health Department has planned and prepared for the aftermath where the city immediately, deployed its emergency response and recovery team where they provided basic needs such as food, shelter, medical care, social services to victims. It is also vital to assess the needs and the availability of resources and allocate them to the right areas and have an actionable plan when crisis strikes. This was evidenced in Cyclone Owen where authorities have prepared sand bags at various locations for citizens to collect and fortify their house from infrastructure damages. Governments should also be far-sighted and put in place protocols for the many scenarios when crisis strikes. For instance, if a power failure were to occur due to the compromise of infrastructures, a good backup strategy will be the usage of microgrids. Microgrid disconnects from the traditional grid and operate autonomously and powered by generators, batteries or renewable energy sources (Ortiz, 2015). This will ensure that there will be sufficient power and energy to respond to the emergency and to assist the public with recovery activities. They can also draft policies such as a Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DERF) in order to prepare sufficient funds well-ahead before a disaster were to occur. This will ensure that the government have adequate resources to support its operations and provide emergency aid and rapid relief to those in need.

Early warning

Early warning is the ability to to obtain critical information about the disaster before it happens and be prepared by forecasting the inevitable. In MIT (Samost, n.d.), scientists use PI (Potential Intensity) to analyse and forecast the strength of a tropical cyclone, including CLIPER (Climate and Persistence) to forecast its disaster path. The data not only provides us with valuable insights but also data to optimise preparation and mobilise response teams. With data gathered such as the wind speed, trajectory and intensity of the cyclone, we can generate graphic models using Decision Support Systems (Kumar and Pathan, n.d.) and run simulations with regards to possible impact and devise an appropriate response strategy to analyse the results and cater to different scenarios. For instance, a Decision Support Systems can identify possible routes for relocating the affected population to a safer location. This will allow the government to capture knowledge, ensure preparedness for any situation and make effective decisions for the most suitable response measure. This solution can be further enhanced by using GIS and geospatial imaging technology tracking along with seismic monitoring activity to increase situational awareness through visualizing and examining critical information (Teutsch, 2010).

This is demonstrated in Cyclone Owen (Townsville Bulletin, 2018) where scientists predicted the day and path of the category four cyclone will hit and disseminated the information to the public. This warns the public to avoid the area and being caught in the middle of the crisis. In addition, the citizens in the area can be timely prepared and be resilient for when it happens, they will be ready for it. A viable initiative that can be taken up by the community would be to share real-time data generated by wearables and personal devices – smart watches and mobile phone applications. The technology captures pertinent information and provide a valuable insight to the response team in order to prioritise the cases to victims with urgent needs (Elichai, 2018).

Good Practices in Response

When disaster strikes, timing is crucial. In order to respond rapidly, it is important for the government to have a disaster communication strategy like an Emergency Alert System. This will serve as a public warning and help in disseminating information in time to the population, enabling them to take appropriate actions and evacuate if necessary.

The government can look beyond traditional communication methods such as news and radio to reach out to the citizens and instead, employ the usage of text messages, blogs, e-mails or through social media platforms. This will help to spread the message widely and quickly, allowing the population to receive information and instructions timely and enable them to have sufficient time to prepare in advance for what is coming and move out of harm’s way. One such real-world case was in Bangladesh (PHYS, 2009) where the public received text messages as warnings for a cyclone with the number of plus signs indicating the severity of the cyclone. The message will then advise them to take the appropriate action which in this case, is to seek shelter. As a result, there was lower death tolls in the recent years after the system has been implemented.

Other than transmitting messages to prepare citizens, there is also a need to establish an emergency response operation centre that can be contacted both day and night for people to reach out to get help or any other services that they might require especially for certain groups of people who are more vulnerable to disasters. Distressing situations tend to cause panic and chaos therefore communication strategies must be well-thought out properly and organised to ensure and retain people’s confidence in the government and to successfully manage a situation of crisis.

Good Practices in Recovery

Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Rescue services

This would require a degree of planning and long-term vision and strategy of the government to rebuilt to what was there before. Long-term goals and community-based training programs should be implemented to bring people together to aid in the reconstruction process for the city as well as the economy. Governments can participate in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) where it offers a response package to provide interventions and aid on ground with the expertise. UNISDR (n.d.) expressed that the joining of a knowledge sharing community is a good approach to exchange experiences of disaster mitigation from other countries who have faced similar challenges and adopt the best practices to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

A disaster happening will affect the physical, mental and emotional state of people. Support can be provided for victims who are critical in recovery efforts. Having a clear plan will allow the population rapidly recover from the loss and rebuild their lives. Following these services, there is also a need have a clear plan on rebuilding these foundations by having people in helping this recovery process. This includes the clearing of debris and restoration of houses, lifelines, infrastructures and transportation in order to bounce back quickly. In addition, temporary housing and shelters will be needed to house victims and make them feel comfortable to recover smoothly. Ghesquiere (2014) stated that we can learn from previous experiences of events to reduce identified vulnerabilities. An example would be in 2011 where a road in Bangladesh was destroyed due to water logging. After examining the cause of the disaster, the community learnt that it was caused due to a flat road. Thus, when they rebuilt, they rebuilt it uphill to avoid similar situations from happening again in the future. Quickly, the city and the population was able to bounce back from the destruction, not only to build back infrastructures to what it was initially but also, to further enhance it and increase its resistance. With the usage of technology, we are able to reduce the training time needed to respond and built a more resilient community against future disasters. Recovery of business should be also a high priority when resolving crisis as it forms crucial baseline for a successful economy and social recovery from a disaster.

Conclusion

Ultimately, with these plan and strategies in place, the government can aim to remain resilient in the event when a disaster occurs. It is crucial to provide training for response, recovery and reconstruction that encourages understanding from the public to react in the event of a disaster. In all, coordination of efforts by the government and the citizens to work together in order to go through a natural crisis is critical to the success.

We must not be complacent even though we have an existing disaster management plan but instead, focus on reviewing, adapting it and improving it as time passes. It is an on-going reiterative process. Natural disasters are imminent but we can be well-prepared for it. With strong infrastructure, sustainable policies, good management plan and timely relief, we can react quickly to minimise the damage and heighten preparedness to face future disasters.

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