Small Wars Journal

Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post Two (Post 10 of 14)

Wed, 02/01/2023 - 3:18am

Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post Two (Post 10 of 14)

Russell W. Glenn

The tenth of a series of blog posts on Urban Disasters: Readiness, Response, and Recovery by Russ Glenn.


New Zealand and Japanese Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Teams 2011 Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Efforts, 2 March 2011. Source: New Zealand Defence Force (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ)

No change to our list of key points here as the first recovery post focused on background for the five to follow. Our key points to date:

Key Point #1: Preparation for any urban disaster helps to prepare an urban area for catastrophes regardless of cause or type.

Key Point #2:  Urban disasters are more alike than different.

Key Point #3: Rehearsing/exercising plans—even in so simple a form as talking through challenges—is essential.

Key Point #4: Plans must be executable.

Key Point #5: No plan will survive contact with the disaster.

Key Point #6: Information is the currency of success

Key Point #7: Urban residents are key to successful disaster response. It follows that they are key to successful disaster preparation.

Key Point #8: The plagues of bureaucracy, poor delineation of responsibilities, and criminality are remoras on any disaster…except the relationship isn’t symbiotic.

Key Point #9: Look backward to look forward.

Key Point #10: Maintaining or improving post-disaster social infrastructure will often be harder than doing so for an urban area’s physical infrastructure.

Key Point #11: Plan for the end, then the now.

Key Point #12: What happens in urban areas doesn’t stay in urban areas…Las Vegas included.

Key Point #13: Not all is what it seems in a city.

Supporting Key Point #13A: Don’t trust appearances.

Key Point #14: Expect the unexpected.

Key Point #15: Common sense sometimes isn’t common.

Key Point #16: Command, leadership, and management are fundamental to disaster response success.

Key Point #17: Getting the response structure right is vital.

Key Point #18: Leadership is important, but who should lead when?

Key Point #19: Effective communications are essential to effective leadership.

Key Point #20: Data counts

Key Point #21: The hurt is different in an urban disaster

Key Point #22: Urban underground locations can be a boon or deathtrap.

Key Point #23: Transition to recovery began yesterday.

Key Point #24: As with targeting during urban combat and judgments when responding, it is important to consider both the short and longer-term implications of decisions and actions throughout urban disaster recovery.

It might seem like we are beating a dead horse with this repeated emphasis on keeping a mindset that is looking well forward in time at every step of preparing for, responding to, and recovering from urban disaster. Like some of my teachers in years past, let the repetition serve the same purpose as their foot stomps when discussing an upcoming test: This is important stuff.

Warsaw in the immediate aftermath of WWII reflects many of the observations made in the previous post. The Polish capital suffered greatly during the conflict. The tragedy of the Jewish ghetto has been well documented by other authors. Less known is the August 1944 uprising during which Polish patriots sought to liberate their city from Nazi occupiers. A reported twenty thousand Nazi troops were killed or wounded, but as seems inevitable when war visits a city, it was the noncombatants who suffered most. Ground combat and aerial bombardment would leave 150,000 of them dead. Retributive punishment meted out by the occupiers sought to level the capital. Over 85 percent of the historic center lay in ruins before the Germans departed.[1] (The parallels with Russian “sour grapes” attacks on urban areas retaken by the Ukrainian army are obvious.)

As mentioned in our first recovery blog and again seen in post-war Warsaw, debates ebbed and flowed regarding how to recover, some favoring leaving vast expanses of the city untouched as a memorial and relocating the capital. Varsovians (Warsaw residents) chose instead to reconstruct. They turned to the cityscapes of Venetian painter Bernardo Bellotto (1722-1780, also referred to as Canaletto after a more renowned uncle) as a reference. Portions of the rubble became materials for the rebuilding; surviving fragments of historical buildings found renewed life in their ancestors’ reconstruction. It was common men, women, and children who aided in resurrecting their city as they worked alongside construction workers and other specialists (though to call them “common” seems to under-appreciate their grit). Material from nearby punished cities joined that native to Warsaw when existing rubble did not suffice. Author Daryl Mersom wrote, “‘The entire nation builds its capital’ became the city’s rallying cry.”

The question of whether to rebuild or repair is one faced at the level of individual structures as well as entire cities. Landlords will often favor starting tearing down and starting from scratch; it can be cheaper and quicker to simply remove what is left of a previous structure. The result often displaces former residents; new structure rents may be too expensive for previous occupants. Repair offers the alternative of letting the displaced live in those portions of buildings damaged but still habitable, maintaining community cohesion, and suppressing construction costs. No differently than in preparing for or dealing with an in-progress disaster, keeping an eye on the big picture and overarching systems effects in its aftermath increases the chances of ultimate success. Just as taking a breath before forging ahead during recovery helps balance short- and longer-term city needs, avoiding undue haste in awarding building contracts aids in sidestepping poorly advised construction.[2]

Returning to our example of Tokyo and the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake aids in further understanding the challenges inherent in urban disaster recovery. We know the destruction was vast; nearly 13 square miles (33 million square meters) of homes, shops, government buildings, and more lay in ruins. Recall Gotō Shinpei, former mayor of Tokyo who became Home Minister the day after the quake. Gotō believed Tokyo should seize the day and build a brand new city. Showing a bit more restraint in his passions than did Konstanty Gutschow (quoted in the previous post), Gotō nonetheless sent a message but hours after assuming office, sharing with his predecessor that “now is our best chance to completely remodel and reconstruct Tokyo.”[3] Warned that both economics and politics would throw obstacles in his path, Gotō demonstrated an optimism that our earlier discussions demonstrate was unrealistic. “I will get as much money as I need,” he declared. Within three months he came to realize such was not to be.

As in Warsaw, others also desired to forge ahead and impose a new Tokyo on residents, one that

would allow the state to better manage its subjects on social, ideological, economic, and political levels. These individuals believed that new Tokyo’s urban space and state facilities would reflect and reinforce values that the government and its reform-minded allies sought to instill among it subjects. They included health, hygiene and physical fitness, frugality, sacrifice, diligence, temperance, orderliness, and community.[4]

Such bold plans by others failed because of an insensitivity to local opinion and the tug of history and tradition in addition to economic factors.[5] (Recall our Key Point #7: “Urban residents are key to successful disaster response. It follows that they are key to successful disaster preparation.” It applies no less to recovering from a calamity.) Unlike in post-WWII Germany, initiatives to deliberately extend the extent of destruction by removing surviving structures failed to gain traction in Tokyo. Public opinion favored quick rebuilding to meet housing and other needs. In-place property rights and the always present financial considerations also impeded such overly bold proposals. More successful propositions saw the need to incorporate residents’ perspectives and what were recognized as needs (or desirables) before the disaster. Those pre-war shortfalls included requirements for more open space (to include parks), wider streets, and sidewalks, all of which would both enhance quality of urban life and serve as firebreaks in a city where devastating fires were only a matter of when. Contemplating Tokyo’s post-disaster evolutions, academic Carola Hein observed, “though buildings disappear easily, lifestyles have changed only gradually, and they keep traditional Japanese building elements alive.”[6]


[1] Daryl Mersom, “Story of cities #28: how postwar Warsaw was rebuilt using 18th century paintings,” The Guardian, April 22, 2016, (accessed August 10, 2011). This and following discussion of Warsaw draws heavily on Mersom.

[2] Gilbert M. Gaul, “The Homes in Dorian’s Path Are in a High-Risk Area. Why Do They Cost So Much?” New York Times, September 3, 2019, (accessed October 21, 2019).

[3] “The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923,” (accessed August 10, 2022). Other material regarding Tokyo herein also draws on this resource unless otherwise noted.

[4] “The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.”

[5] Carola Hein, “Resilient Tokyo: Disaster and Transformation in the Japanese City,” in Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella, eds., The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 226 (uncorrected advance reading copy). This paragraph draws on insights from Hein’s offering.

[6] Hein, “Resilient Tokyo, p. 230.”

The previous installation of this series “Responding to Urban Disasters, Post One (Post 9 of 14),” appeared on 30 January 2023.


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