Small Wars Journal

Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post One (Post 9 of 14)

Mon, 01/30/2023 - 1:39pm

Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post One (Post 9 of 14)

Russell W. Glenn

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

Recovery 1

Marines and Sailors Receive a Briefing on Disaster Recovery During Navy Week, New Orleans, 2015. Defense Visual Information Service. Public Domain.

With our readying for and responding too urban disasters posts complete, we turn to a half dozen offerings on recovering from these catastrophes. Though a far cry short of the extent of material covered in Come Hell or High Fever: Readying the World’s Megacities for Disaster (January 2023), the fourteen posts (eight done, this being the first of the remaining six) should provide a concise reference for those who might benefit (or help others benefit) in the weeks between now and the book’s release…and, perhaps, thereafter as well.

As has become habit, we start with a listing of the key points presented thus far:

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.


Our previous discussions should provide readers with a solid introduction to the challenges present as authorities transition from disaster response to recovery. It is by no means a sharp transition but rather a gradual evolution that will take place across time, space, and functions as conditions demand. This evolution is maybe best thought of as an oozing, intermixed, and blurred movement toward sought-after ends. Nevertheless, it is important to always keep those desired goals in mind, goals that might require adapting over time as conditions themselves evolve. (Recall once again our Key Point #11: “Plan for the end, then the now.”)

So our previous offerings provide an initial idea of the types of challenges ahead, but no list of catastrophes or lifetime of reading can cover the complete scope, depth, character, dynamism, or nuance of tests yet to come. We will start our remaining set of posts with a sampling that provides a sense of this variety in preparation for then contemplating potential insights during urban disaster recovery. This post will provide no key points. Rather, its purpose is to provide readers and practitioners with a variety of examples that give them further understanding regarding the wide range of challenges that lie ahead when addressing urban recovery from disaster.     

One such subtlety is the nature of subterranean spaces in urban areas. The situation with bridges—their roles as transportation features and bearers of pipelines and power cables—is child’s play in comparison. London authorities recovering from WWII’s bombings leaned toward setting priorities in repairing damage to underground infrastructure from the bottom up. This meant frequently starting six meters beneath surface level and dealing with sewerage, telephone and power cables, gas and water mains, and eventually the road surface.[1] Working on this infrastructure layer cake and its demands for various types of expertise is complex even when the repairs are necessary only due to routine issues. Imagine instead having to deal with Tokyo’s sub-ground utilities and other spaces in the aftermath of a massive earthquake as described by Jun Hongo in “Tokyo underground: taking property development to new depths” where he notes,

the Tsukiji-Toranomon Tunnel is buried about 2 meters underground and is separated by just 30 cm—roughly the width of a Japan Times Sunday page—from an underground utility conduit jointly operated by gas, water and telecommunications companies, among others, that runs beneath it. The conduit, meanwhile, is also located 30 cm above the Toei Mita Subway Line.[2]

As for the extent of damage, Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945 serves as something of an extreme example of the extent and type of damage an urban area might have to deal with after a catastrophic disaster. Extreme it might be historically, mankind’s “progress” in terms of weaponry and the exacerbating effects of climate change suggest what was extreme in 1945 might be found less so in coming years. One bomb—small by current standards of weaponry, volcanic eruptions, or cyclones’ power— completely or partially damaged 90 percent of the city’s 76,000 buildings. In the words of one author, “of the 33 [million] square metres of land considered usable before the attack, 40% was reduced to ashes…. With the exception of a handful of concrete buildings, Hiroshima had ceased to exist.”[3]


Even given such devastation, however, residents’ resilience and others’ willingness to assist quickly moved them to restore services and treat survivors. City municipal employees numbered roughly one thousand before the attack; eighty would report for duty on August 7th. Bank of Japan’s Hiroshima branch reopened on August 8th though tellers worked roofless in their damaged concrete building, employing umbrellas when necessary and sharing their space with eleven other banks whose properties had been destroyed. Individuals from nearby towns and cities came to the stricken urban area to lend assistance. Their assistance was needed. Reminiscent of Mexico City’s core destruction due to its 1985 earthquake, fourteen of Hiroshima’s sixteen primary hospitals were gone. Two hundred and seventy of those facilities’ 298 doctors were dead as were 1,654 of 1,780 registered nurses. Shantytowns constructed of debris sprouted near the epicenter. What sanitary facilities existed were shared by multiple families. Yet all homes reportedly had power restored by the end of November 1945.

All but destroyed but never ceasing to be a city, debates soon surfaced regarding what to do with its physical remnants: how authorities should address that component of the ongoing recovery. Familiar to any involved in the debates pertaining to New York City’s 9/11 site, portions of the population urged that there be some manner of preserving memory of the losses while others suggested that every modicum of the tragedy be forever removed. The result would be a compromise with construction of a now famous memorial during renewal of the city at large.

Fast-forwarding to January 17, 1995, Japan’s city of Kobe and much of the surrounding area experienced the devastating Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake.[4] Nearly 6,500 died. Some 44,000 were injured. Streets, expressways, rail lines, water/power/gas lines, and communications infrastructure lie twisted, damaged, or otherwise rendered inoperable, combining to hinder rescue, response, and recovery efforts. The after-event population flow in this case was primarily out of the worst-affected areas thanks to the availability of relatives willing to host victims, rental properties, or other forms of temporary housing. The longer-term effect was to hasten the already in-progress trend of shifting population toward Kobe’s eastern side, that closer to Osaka. Resultantly deprived wards suffered a proportional commercial slowing.

Kobe city authorities established a Headquarters for Reconstruction and organized a Committee for Recovery Planning within three weeks. A Kobe recovery plan issued less than three months after the quake focused on six recovery factors: “reconstruction of infrastructure, revitalization of economy, support for small busi­ness, housing recovery, urban planning, and recovery of livelihoods.”[5] Dictates directed severe restrictions on any development in affected areas for two months as officials worked on physical reconstruction plans. The two months was a self-imposed deadline, one that included incorporation of local residents’ concerns and attainment of a consensus. Unsurprisingly, reconstruction was to include new standards of earthquake resistance.

Reinforcing the point that preparing for urban disasters requires more than plans alone, those Kobe communities with active community development activities in place prior to the tremors were able to immediately initiate recovery actions. Neighborhoods were encouraged to form community development councils and work with officials to come up with a recovery plan that was in turn shared with the broader community with a solicitation for comments. Revisions were made and the process repeated until a polished draft plan was ready for submission to the mayor. Residents thereafter participated in aiding their community in recovery as planned.

The process often did not go as smoothly as one might have hoped. Initial plans formed before the general public’s input often met resistance. Over time, however, willingness to participate during further planning iterations rather than merely resisting the original proposal improved. Details mattered, details that might have been overlooked were it not for the public participation. New public housing for low-income residents entered plans. A less obvious need was that to avoid burdening homeowners with double loans. Those with outstanding amounts to pay on their home loans would be taking on an additional loan to rebuild. The amount needed could be inflated by new building standards to improve earthquake resistance. The government stepped up by offering low interest on new financing or providing funds equivalent to outstanding loan interest.

A select review reveals officials’ understanding that urban recovery is not the sum of its parts. Rather, recovery is consequent of an understanding that it is a symbiotic process orchestrating physical infrastructure needs, social concerns, economic considerations, and melding of immediate and long-term objectives. Public housing helped to settle homeless survivors. But that housing often displaced recipients farther from their places of work or previous living communities. Government representatives therefore assigned welfare coordinators to assist in community development. Businesses received local government money to reestablish their enterprises. Condominium financing assisted those who could not rebuild on their original land. A bureaucracy understanding the systems nature or ecosystem character of urban areas did much to aid recovery. One instead taking a compartmented approach—looking at physical infrastructure as separate from that social, for example—would likely have been considerably less effective.

What of situations where dramatic changes in the political system completely alter an urban area’s status? It is a worthy question considering the flood and ebb tides seen during this year’s fighting in Ukraine. Looking back at the tsunami-effect of Europe’s post-WWII political tensions might help us gain a sense of challenges lying ahead. Hamburg suffered significant damage to its ports and other economic infrastructure in addition that social. Physical damage can be repaired, even with a shortage of building materials and labor.[6] But Hamburg’s economic status as a centrally located port on the continent of Europe disappeared with the erection of the Iron Curtain. It was well to the west in what was its former economic sphere;[7] the curtain severed ties to previous markets and suppliers farther east. The Rhine-Ruhr region rose to greater prominence after the 1957 creation of the European Economic Community. Unlike the damage to its physical infrastructure, that to the city’s economic status was not so readily fixable. London too, like Hamburg, had to adjust to a changed geopolitical environment as centers of world power shifted and colonies gained independence.[8]

That is not to say that recovery of physical infrastructure was not without significant challenges even as materials and labor became available. The decisions faced post-WWII might differ from those confronted by urban authorities after an earthquake or other devastation today, but (again as noted with our Key Point #2: “Urban disasters are more alike than different”), there is much to be learned from challenges now nearly eighty years old. What communities (social, economic, or physical) get priority for recovery? In the immediate days after a disaster, survival and treatment of residents will take precedence. Debates will flare very soon thereafter. Do funding and other resources continue to favor resident recovery in the form of a focus on social challenges, or do they instead get reoriented to spur economic recovery locally (e.g., funding the renewal of small businesses) or more broadly (to reestablish the city’s regional or worldwide status and thus renew the influx of money such status provides to an urban area)? Remaining with our example of Hamburg in 1945, one author summed up debates as follows: “The city had to shoulder enormous expenditures to improve the desolate housing situation or to rebuild schools. The port had to compete for resources. Advocates from the port economy argued that ‘Hamburg’s finances so far have not been ruined by spending “too much” on the port,’ but spending too little could seriously hurt its position.”[9]

Most post-disaster recovery undertakings follow some progression along the lines of (1) immediate relief (during which time the focus is on saving the lives of those trapped beneath rubble, urgently in need of medical attention, or otherwise at dire risk); (2) initial recovery (includes getting food and other needs to residents and the initial cleanup of debris among other activities; and (3) rebuilding/reconstruction. The three are sequential to an extent but overlap considerably. As the comments regarding Hamburg suggest, it is when dealing with the consequences after the event that the toughest challenges often present themselves. Interested parties will be numerous, their interests eclectic. The position of what we might call the “Phoenix element” is already clear; their “tear down what remains and begin anew” attitude couldn’t be clearer in the comments of one German bureaucrat viewing the “opportunities” presented by Allied bombing:

Operation Gomorrah, the week-long Allied bombing campaign that leveled Hamburg in July 1943, served [architect Konstanty] Gutschow's purposes. "This act of destruction will be a blessing," the architect said of the horrific fate which had befallen Hamburg and its residents. "The Führer's prophesy that the ruined cities will rise again more resplendent than ever applies doubly to Hamburg," he said, adding: "We won't shed any tears for the vast majority of the destroyed buildings.”[10]

Representing another extreme perspective, an alternative view saw opportunity not in re-creation but rather forwarding a social and political agenda with no little component of self-service:

Squatters, often belonging to far-left clandestine housing communities, developed a pragmatic approach to reconstruction. Having chosen West Berlin as a way to avoid the military service of the Federal Republic of Germany and live an alternative urban ideal, the squatters occupied damaged and abandoned buildings. They developed strategies to make them livable and political narratives to contest the urban strategies of the administration. Their idea of reconstruction throughout the 1960s and 1970s stood in stark contrast to the destructive reconstruction promoted by the administration.[11]

We will conclude this post by looking at a very pragmatic aspect of recovery. Where does all the debris go once war, earthquake, volcanic eruption, hurricane or typhoon, or another catastrophe departs? (Or during a disaster. In 1944 and 1945 Tokyo, women, students, and even boys and girls were recruited to clear firebreaks before and remove debris after bombings. Some 7,000 students so mobilized to tear down structures while clearing firebreaks were killed in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945.)[12] Who moves the millions of tons of destruction? Much didn’t go far in post-WWII Germany. Model airplane buffs enjoy Stuttgart’s Grüner Heiner, a hill made of wartime rubble. Berliners called their many mounds of former factories, houses, shops, and other buildings “rag mountains” ("Monte Klamotte"). One, Teufelsberg ("Devil's Mountain") is the city’s second highest point and was used by the US military as a site for listening devices to monitor transmissions from the other side of The Wall during the Cold War.[13] Those images of Berliners, Londoners, Tokyoites, and others hauling debris away in their carts reflect what was reality. It is locals under varying degrees of guidance who moved much of what was previously their homes or other familiar structures.

How much did they move? In West Germany the rubble was enough to build a wall seven meters high and two meters thick along the western border of the country. That doesn’t include the 30 percent of historic buildings leveled as part of renewal efforts. Reconstruction continued into the 1980s. Only later did regrets for the loss of many vestiges of the past build. Authors Von Romain Leick, Matthias Schreiber, and Hans-Ulrich Stoldt summarized the growing recognition of that loss as follows:

Urban planners are rethinking their ideas, and the radicalism of the early postwar era is being replaced by cautious renovation and, in some cases, rebuilding. A third phase of Germany's renaissance is gathering steam and, paradoxically, it is characterized by a growing nostalgia and yearning for history, tradition, focal points and urban centers that provide orientation and a sense of identity within the metropolitan morass. Historical old cities are more popular than ever…. That initial, chaotic recovery phase after 1945—when the most important goal was just to clear all the rubble away and give people a roof over their heads—was not completely successful from an architectural and city planning point of view. Things had to be done quickly, which rendered them more improvised than thought-out. The desperate demand made mistakes easy to disregard.[14]

Recovery from urban disaster will always be complicated. The extent to which it is a “morass” will depend in part on the extent to which pre-disaster preparations, response decisions, and residents and authorities can agree to cooperate in finding an agreeable balance between preserving the old and introducing new.


[1] Josef W. Konvitz, The Urban Millennium: The City-Building Process from the Early Middle Ages to the Present, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.

[2] Jun Hongo, “Tokyo underground: taking property development to new depths,” The Japan Times, April 12, 2014, (accessed January 12, 2019).

[3] Justin McCurry, “Story of cities #24: how Hiroshima rose from the ashes of nuclear destruction,” The Guardian(April 18, 2016), (accessed August 10, 2022). Material addressing Hiroshima and its recovery here comes largely from this source.

[4]Michiko Banba and Rajib Shaw, “Postdisaster Urban Recovery: 20 Years of Recovery of Kobe,” in Rajib Shaw, et al., Urban Disasters and Resilience in Asia, Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2016, p. 227, (accessed August 2, 2022). This is the source relied on for material discussing the recovery from this devastating event.

[5] Banba, “Postdisaster Urban Recovery,” p. 230.

[6] David Adams and Peter Larkham, The Everyday Experiences of Reconstruction and Regeneration: From Vision to Reality in Birmingham and Coventry, Milton Park, UK: Routledge, 2019, p. 27.

[7] Christoph Strupp, “The Port of Hamburg in the 1940s and 1950s: Physical Reconstruction and Political Restructuring in the Aftermath of World War II,” Journal of Urban History 47, 2019: pp. 354-372. Our discussion of Hamburg’s challenges relies significantly on this resource.

[8] Strupp, “The Port of Hamburg in the 1940s and 1950s,” p. 359.

[9] Strupp, “The Port of Hamburg in the 1940s and 1950s,” p. 360.

[10] Von Romain Leick, Matthias Schreiber, and Hans-Ulrich Stoldt, “Out of the Ashes: A New Look at Germany’s Postwar Reconstruction,” Der Spiegel, August 10, 2010, (accessed July 21, 2022).

[11] Denis Bocquet, “Reconstruction as a complex process: reflections on post-1945 Berlin,” undated, (accessed August 2, 2022), p. 9.

[12] Sheldon Garon, “Defending Civilians against Aerial Bombardment: A Comparative/Transnational History of Japanese, German, and British Home Fronts, 1918-1945,” The Asia-Pacific Journal 14, December 1, 2016, (accessed October 3, 2022).

[13] Material in this chapter draws on Leick,, “Out of the Ashes.”

[14] Leick,, “Out of the Ashes.”

The previous installation of this series “Responding to Urban Disasters, Post Four (Post 8 of 14),” appeared on 26 January 2023.



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