Small Wars Journal

Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post Four (Post 12 of 14)

Sun, 02/05/2023 - 3:05am

Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post Four (Post 12 of 14)

Russell W. Glenn

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

Baghdad Patrol

Iraqi and US Patrols Assess Community Concerns in Al Ghazaliyah, Baghdad, March 2006.

Source: US National Archives; Public Domain, NARA & DVIDS Public Domain Archive.

We’re on final approach here. This and two more posts will wrap up our discussions…at least for now. Hopefully some of you will find the greater detail, broader coverage, and additional insights and proposals found in my soon to be released Come Hell or High Fever: Readying the World’s Megacities for Disaster of value, or if not of value, than of interest. As I make clear in its opening pages, the book’s focus is on megacities. Those of you who partake of the book will find I define “megacity” somewhat differently than is the norm. Yet the material in Come Hell or High Fever applies to all urban areas…and to some extent rural environments as well, as have several of our key points thus far and others yet to come.

As is our habit, here is the rollup of key points noted through our first eleven posts:

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.

Key Point #25: Recovery is a system comprised of sub-systems interacting with other systems

Key Point #26: There is always a need for centralized and effective anti-corruption oversight.

Key Point #27: Some problems will be unavoidable even with excellent planning and a brilliant disaster response. Identifying them pre-event when possible opens the way to finding solutions or mitigating negative impacts.

Key Point #28: History has valuable lessons for those who read it. No, really.

This key point is close kin to our #9 (Look backward to look forward). It is worth reminding ourselves of the past’s value, however, as mankind has sometimes been a tad remiss in accepting history’s offerings when it comes to managing post-catastrophe recoveries. Three examples of the same mistake lend credence to that claim. The examples are ones with direct application when dealing with urban governments, police, and fire personnel among others. Though military in nature, the insights are also applicable to NGOs and other organizations operating in urban environments.

Three different military units at three different times fell back on the habitual way of their marking boundaries between ground units: denoting them by distinguishable terrain features. It makes sense under most circumstances. Knowing they must operate twenty-four hours daily and in whatever conditions nature throws at them, specifying unit boundaries along waterways, major roads, extended tree lines, wadis in deserts, and ridgelines in mountainous terrain means soldiers on the ground and those in the air can better identify the delineations in the dark or when conditions otherwise limit visibility as well as in good light. Why is that important? Military doctrine dictates that not only are soldiers from one unit not to cross over into another’s area without coordination (for they might be mistaken for enemy). They are also not to fire weapons across a boundary without that coordination given the chances of mistakenly killing or wounding their comrades in an adjacent organization. That is why well-designed plans never draw a boundary along a river or roadway without specifying exactly where responsibilities change. A good boundary does not go down the middle of a waterway or highway, for then those to its either side don’t know whether to expect a group approaching in the fog are friendlies or otherwise. Better that the delineation is along one side of said waterway or street so that only one unit “owns” it.

And now to those three instances of questionable decisions when marking military boundaries in urban areas. Commanders and their staffs arriving in Los Angeles during and in the aftermath of the 1992 riots to assist local authorities and law-abiding members of the population drew boundaries between military units in the traditional manner. A unit coordinates activities within its own boundaries with their own members (of course) and, depending on the tasks involved, with pilots, artillerymen, and others supporting them from outside those bounds. As explained above, actions outside those limits requires communicating and carefully coordinating activities with the owning unit. It wasn’t the first time an American unit made life more difficult for itself than was necessary. (Nor, surely, has it been only US units). In the aftermath of WWII in Germany, US Third Army failed to recognize the wisdom of the British and French, both of which drew boundaries for their military governments along those of German administrative lines.[1] It wasn’t the last time either. US units initially moving into Baghdad in 2003 after defeating Saddam Hussein’s forces likewise gave primacy to physical over administrative boundaries.

There are times when following the “normal” military boundary-setting procedure makes sense in an urban area. Relying on obvious terrain features does so when the primary task is defeating an enemy and coordinating with civil authorities is of secondary importance. When such is not the case, or when priorities change, an alternative approach is called for. The problem with reliance on obvious terrain features is that the results do not coincide with urban officials’ areas of responsibility (police and fire precincts, for example). That means those military units—and the civil authorities with whom they need to coordinate their activities—multiply their liaison burdens several times over, requiring more people, more equipment, an increased volume of communications, and more distractions from primary concerns. Better: drawing military boundaries that align with those of the primary organization(s) with which they need to coordinate. The military reduces the number of police precincts, county officials, or others with which it must interface. In turn, those fire stations and other entities have fewer organizations calling on their time, no small advantage when the focus should be assisting recovery rather than excess administration. A perfect solution? Hardly. Police, fire, and other local authorities will not always share boundaries even amongst themselves. The outsider unit might be too small or too big to align with only one or a few civil jurisdictions. Imperfect perhaps, but an improvement nevertheless.

As said, other external organizations such as NGOs can benefit from these examples as well. They too need to coordinate with local authorities as well as each other and other relevant parties. While administrative boundaries will generally prove the better choice, picking up on some military habits such as that of ensuring boundaries are drawn such that one organization “owns” a road or other feature will be valuable during post-disaster recovery. This would include, for example, even mundane activities such as picking up garbage until municipal authorities can reassume that responsibility and others that benefit from clear distinction of who is responsible for what where. 

National representatives lending international assistance can also profit common interests of several organizations, including themselves. British diplomat Hilary Synnott provided an example drawing on his early 21st-century experiences in southeastern Iraq. Writing in his insightful and sometimes humorous Bad Days in Basra, he described how other nations’ coalition augmentations could be more effectively employed if they were to concentrate their resources within areas overseen by a single coalition lead element instead of several. Synnott rightly concluded that had the Japanese representation been working exclusively with the British, the two parties could have better synchronized their resources to meet local needs.[2] Applying the same lesson to large urban areas potentially has considerable value. There is much to be said for cohesion rather than unnecessary fragmentation of available capabilities.

Previous practices can also advise those trying to keep corruption under control or seeking to fund only more productive recovery efforts. Confronted with both the threat of corruption and an absence of local authorities after combat operations in 2003 Iraqi urban areas, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) introduced an additional level of local governance into some government organizations, at least temporarily, to assist in allocating the large amounts of financial support being distributed. This level fit between provincial councils and villages. It was manned by unpaid volunteers who received funds to allocate for local projects. An organization that spent its money well received more. Those performing otherwise benefited from additional consultation.[3]


[1] Nadia Schadlow, War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory, Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2017, p. 69.

[2] Hilary Synnott, Bad Days in Basra: My Turbulent Tine as Britain’s Man in Southern Iraq, London: I.B. Tauris, 2008, p. 122.

[3] Synnott, Bad Days in Basra, p. 89.

The previous installation of this series “Responding to Urban Disasters, Post Three (Post 11 of 14),” appeared on 03 February 2023.



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