Notes from a presentation by Commissioner Nola Kate Seymoar on March 16, 2016.
Earthquakes and Tsunamis
My experience with my NGO, the International Centre for Sustainable Cities, in Marmara, Turkey after the 1999 earthquake and in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami form part of the background to the paper on strengthening community resilience [ 236KB]
In the Sri Lanka community that was hit by the tsunami, people were accustomed to going to the Buddhist temple when there was a problem. It was on higher ground, and as a result few lives were lost. But the shantytown — located between the railway line and the shoreline — was destroyed and they lost everything. The trauma was as significant for the poor, who had little to lose, as it was for wealthy people with houses and possessions. The recovery process was difficult for both the poor and the affluent.
In Marmara, a problem that was not anticipated was that the chain of command was broken. The military headquarters were at the epicentre and people were killed and communications were damaged. In the absence of a local Turkish military man of high enough rank, the Canadian DART team established its base with local help, while the American team waited at the airport. Co-ordination between all the organizations, governments, UN, and local officials was very difficult, convoluted and culturally dependent. Some of the people who died — perhaps unnecessarily — were women in a traditional Muslim community who delayed indoors to put on their burka. Over the course of the first weeks (and later) political maneuvering, with people blaming one another, hindered response efforts.
Many thought that the disastrous results of the quake were caused by a lack of regulations. But the regulations in Turkey are almost the same as the ones here. The issue was more complex and related to compliance, and the nature of the soil and juxtaposition of buildings. Buildings were built without enough rebar, with sand replacing some of the cement, too close to one another, or on alluvial soil.
In our assessment for the government of Canada we felt Canada could have the biggest impact by working at the grassroots level with women (whose biggest concerns were about safety – their own and their children’s) and at the professional level with planners, architects and engineers. These were two areas not being addressed by others.
The Coordination Challenge
In the analytical literature, the biggest challenge in disaster response is coordination of efforts. In CitiesPLUS, the award-winning 100-year regional sustainability plan for Vancouver, one of the key catalyst strategies was to create shock-resistance cells. The idea was to create decentralized epicentres of response around the region so that there could be multiple command centres operating at a more local level.
As a side note – in Vancouver many of the first-response people live in North Vancouver, and might not be able to cross the Burrard inlet. Such potential problems need to be anticipated and addressed.
From Sustainability to Resiliency
We used to say that Vancouver has gone from “liveable”, to “sustainable” to “resilient” as a kind of continuum of thinking about planning and design.
At the time of the World Economic Forum in 2006, there was rising interest locally in the idea of resilience. Resiliency was also coming to the fore in terms of the international community. ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability), a large international organization for environmental improvement, had started a program on resilient cities, starting at the community level and moving on to big cities.
In the UK, there was interest in resurgent cities, like Chicago or Seattle. The definition was that they had gone downhill for two decades and uphill for one decade. The question was:
What accounted for the way they rebounded into economic growth or cultural vibrancy.?
In Canada, at the U of Waterloo, we had created the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction. This fabulous organization did a lot of research into affordable solutions for buildings that are almost earthquake-proof; such as, by using 2×12’s in places instead of 2×4’s.
In BC, two young men in the Ministry of Natural Resources were studying single-industry towns for the Council of Canadian Ministers of Natural Resources to find out what distinguished communities that rebounded after the closure of a mine with those that did not. They decided to look at the key factors that allowed communities like Tumbler Ridge to rebound.
They came up with a matrix for looking at disasters that goes from crisis to catastrophe. This matrix included a continuum of control, from natural to human-caused.
This matrix was useful in a broader context than mine closures. It encouraged others to think about planning for emergency relief from the point of view of what you could do as soon as you started seeing a crisis, to prevent the catastrophe.
If you know that a catastrophe at some point is likely, you will build it into your long term planning. In a 10-year time frame, people can deny the urgency. The Vancouver School Board (VSB) seismic school upgrade strategy is an example, where they confidently extend the time-frame from 10 years to 20, and then 30, not based on science but on budgets. If you go beyond the immediate, out say 100 years as we did with CitiesPLUS you accept the certainty of an earthquake. This leads you to ask different questions and back cast to prevent the catastrophe or mitigate its impacts.
At the International Centre for Sustainable Cities, we established a network of 40 plus cities all dealing with these long-term plans. We encouraged them to do a 100-year vision, a 40-50-year strategic plan, and a 5-year actual plan. By way of definitions: a plan has a budget and resources and a timeline. Anything else is either strategic or a vision.
We began our workshops with the Amu Declaration quote:
“A vision without a plan is but a dream. A plan without a vision is sheer drudgery. A vision with a plan can change the world”.
After the experience of the earthquake and tsunami, we realized that the principles of planning for emergency preparedness and long-term sustainability were almost the same. We got people talking across the boundaries, and that led to the paper that was sent to you. The BC mining guys started talking to the emergency preparedness guys, and to the sustainable cities community. This led to identifying what I think are the common lessons. They commissioned me to do a research piece to start their process.
Possible Directions for the VCPC
So what might we take from the large body of knowledge about crises, disasters, and sustainability to bring a different lens to Vancouver’s work Here is what we might be able to do with some of this stuff.
We should agree on a working definition, to fit with our mandate. In the paper, as a place to start:
In popular terms, resiliency is the capacity of a community to survive, adapt and bounce back from a crisis or disaster. (p2)
Then, there are three concepts that could be helpful to our understanding of resiliency.
The conceptual framework of a continuum from crises to catastrophe and of the influence of control (or perceived control).
For example, an earthquake is a natural catastrophe whereas war is a man-made one. Crises are much longer term, like climate change, and there is some control.
We could work across sectors with the organizations that are mapping those kinds of crises and catastrophes. We could also get people in communities to help identify and map out some relationships between crises and disasters and the needed responses.
For example, social bonds are highly related to community prevention and rescue efforts. If we reduce the amount of personal contact in communities through the types of buildings or other design decisions we decrease their resiliency in a crisis or disaster. Without interventions to help people know one another, people in a high-rise won’t know who is in a wheel chair and needs help getting out.
Risk perception – dread risks and known risks
We may need to highlight for others that what matters is not so much the statistics about the level of risk, but the perception of the importance of the risk.
The biggest problems in risk communications are over-reacting and under-reacting. There is over-reaction when an event like Three Mile Island occurs and it becomes a “signal” event. It got an enormous reaction but in retrospect the event proved to have had little of the feared consequences. A larger and more widespread problem is under-reaction in a case like climate change, which is long-term and complex.
There are two other elements to our risk communications. One relates to an unknown dread risk, and the other is a known risk. For example, we know the risk of crossing the street and we think it’s controllable. An unknown risk is nuclear war, or something that sneaks up on us like cancer from a source thought to be safe, like peanut butter.
With an unknown risk and high dread, people expect the government to take care of it, to intervene and protect us. Such risks may include nuclear attack, radiation, or threats to food safety. With known risks, we (people, communities, organizations and corporations) are more willing to accept responsibility.
A perspective on this from psychology is that in times of uncertainty or change people have free-floating anxiety. Part of the role of civic leadership is to determine how to prevent the free-floating anxiety from escalating. This will avoid creating a disproportionate reaction or being attached to the wrong issue.
Another part of the psychology of risks and dealing with them is the ability to trust one another. If you can build community bonds (Putnam), then you have a better chance of rebounding, no matter what the crisis. That is why the loss of community is significant.
Communities of place/location (geographic) are not the same thing as communities of interest. The community of interest will not help you find water and safety. It’s the face-to-face bonds that become increasingly relevant in crises. Social media bonds are not place-based; Facebook friends won’t help you.
After the Winnipeg flood, the city was a friendlier place to live. We’d gone through this crisis together.
Appropriate types of leadership
Ken Blanchard’s theory about situational leadership recognizes different types of leadership are required for different situations. These are based on the skill and knowledge of the people being led.
Where there is low-skill level and knowledge, the leadership needs to be directive (TELL). When the skill-level and knowledge increase, the leadership is more interactive (SELL). When the situation and the skills of the group are more mature, the leadership is relationship-based and supportive (SUPPORT). Finally, with a skilled and motivated group, you delegate and let them carry the load (DELEGATE or, in my words , Partner).
In our consultation processes with the city, the frustration seems to come from a difference in perception of the level of skill of the group. The city sees the audience or participants as unskilled and lacking in information and so TELLS or SELLS. The participants view themselves as skilled and having particular and relevant local knowledge and want SUPPORT and Partnership.
The mayors of Calgary and Winnipeg in the floods were exemplary. They informed people about what was going on, and referred to the experts to whom the technical work had been delegated. The outcome was public confidence in a competent government structure. In contrast, in New Orleans or Syria, there has been an absence of a leader to explain and give the big picture, and of referral to the experts in each part of the problem.
Possible roles for VCPC:
- With appropriate partners, create a broad list of risks, from crises to anticipated catastrophes, facing the city (over the next 50 to 100 years) And map out who is (can) addressing which risks
- Help identify — with partners — the overlaps and the design principles needed for a resilient city.
- Decentralization for responding to disasters is a fundamental principle.
- Creating self-reliant cells.