Resilience Fieldtrip 2013

Resilience Fieldtrip 2013

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Did you notice the lack of blog posts over the last few weeks? Well, here’s a long read to make up for it (and official work post over here)!

I’ve just got back from my holiday to Iceland, New York and San Francisco (which, right from the outset, is quite the Disaster Tour!) and I managed to meet up with some resilience colleagues along the way. Each of these places has a strong history of disasters so it was a great opportunity to investigate similarities and differences.

Regardless of where we are in the world, or what our risks include, resilience specialists face common challenges. Whilst volcanic eruptions, super storms and earthquakes feature low down on UK risk registers, I could relate to the complexities of working with large organisations and the grey-space between politics, strategy and operations.

I was interested to learn about emergent community responses to volcanic activity, and how that is being encouraged in Iceland. The impact of the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption in the UK (see below) was mainly confined to economic losses (estimated at US $5bn), however, future eruptions could have more direct impacts, both for Iceland and internationally. In fact, I was surprised by just how much ash is in the atmosphere, even in non-eruption conditions (it had recently snowed so it was easy to spot the ash accumulations).


In New York, signs of Hurricane Sandy were still evident. I was told about the phenomenal coordination effort by City officials both during and in the recovery phase, which far exceeded my expectations. However, after nearly 6 months, there are still signs of the impact the storm had on Manhattan; escalators awaiting repair, felled trees and signs explaining that public art had been removed for restoration. This demonstrates the length of time required to recover from incidents, and I shared experience from the 2011 Public Disorder which took considerable time to get back to normal, and indeed some of the premises affected are still unoccupied as we approach the second anniversary.

The facilities of the New York Office for Emergency Management were impressive, and outstripped any that I have seen in the UK. The department was directly affected by 9/11 and subsequently relocated to new facilities in Brooklyn and I was lucky enough to get a tour of their award winning emergency operations centre; which although similar in principle had some marked differences to UK operations rooms.



As I was wandering around Manhattan, there were traces of emergency planning from days gone by. NYC fallout shelters have long been decommissioned, although it’s estimated that there were up to 200,000 such designated facilities by the mid 1960s. Whilst the specifics of the response to such an incident may have evolved, it’s a reminder that there has been a sustained threat to many places around the world.


The final leg of my travels took me to San Francisco. It’s been some time since they’ve experienced a significant earthquake, however they take their preparations extremely seriously, and signs of the 1906 quake are evident in their approach to resilience and land use planning in the city. Much of the city was destroyed by the earthquake and subsequent fire – the area highlighted in red on the map below shows the areas affected.


Indeed, even their offices are designed to withstand high magnitude earth movements using a what was described to me as a simple roller system (although I’m sure the reality is far more complicated!).


As well as being affected directly by earthquakes, San Francisco is also at high risk of the after effects of submarine earthquakes – tsunamis. There has been considerable investment to protect vulnerable locations, prepare emergency services and raise public awareness. In fact, this week 24-30 March is Tsunami Awareness Week 2013 and there are some good resources and links to local activities listed.


Another commonality which struck me, was that all of the places I visited were beginning to think seriously about the implications of climate change. Whether it affects the rate of glacial melting (Iceland) or sea level rise (New York, San Francisco), it’s an area which is increasingly being picked up on the resilience radar. Rather than enter into my thoughts on this issue here, I’ll save that for a future post.

I’d be very interested in the thoughts of any international colleagues reading this blog on their view of the similarities and differences in approach. I decided that I quite like field trips, so if you’d like to invite me to your country please get in touch!


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