Small Wars Journal

Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post Three (Post 11 of 14)

Fri, 02/03/2023 - 3:26am

Recovering from Urban Disasters, Post three of six (Post 11 of 14)

Russell W. Glenn

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

EQ Tsunami

2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami Reconstruction,

ILO Asia-Pacific (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Our key points provided 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.

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

The wisdom of taking a systems approach to urban undertakings would seem a given. Yet addressing challenges in terms of separate components is too frequently the norm. The reasons are many. At times they have some modicum of legitimacy. That is more often not the case. Politics, competition for resources, organizational jealousy, and self-interest are only a few among the many less justifiable reasons.

Previous divisiveness between the NYPD and FDNY in New York City and lack of cooperation between police, military, and other elements responsible for portions of Tokyo’s security tell us even the most notable and influential of world cities have areas in need of improvement. The same less-than-desirable recognition and exercise of interdependency characterize other urban functional, social, economic, and additional sectors as well. A city is a symbiotic entity. It is far greater than the sum of its parts. The same is true of an urban area’s relationships beyond its borders.

The tangled web of interconnections within and between urban areas—and their immediate and more distant surrounds—means the tremors of decisions made during recovery and rebuilding will reach far in terms of time and numbers affected. Those decisions and resulting actions are rocks cast into a pond. Appropriate ones cause mere ripples that little disrupt the surface, pleasurably rocking canoes and gently shifting sands to more favorable locations. A more appropriate metaphor when the urban area is a megacity is many separate ponds, each representing not only nearby rural areas, close-by towns, or small regional cities but much of its country and world beyond given these cities extraordinary influence.

Let’s consider economics for a moment. Dangers of post-disaster inflation are real and often realized. In keeping with our understanding of cities as systems and components of larger systems, these dangers can be urban-area wide, limited to only some communities or sectors of its economy, or reverberate well beyond the city itself. Too much money injected too fast or into some segments of the population and not others drives prices and emotions up. The first makes money worth less and thus can waste and diminish the value of aid. The second can deepen existing social divides or undermine backing from previously supportive communities. Such disaster-spawned impacts are larger stones cast into the above ponds, disrupting smooth sailing and scarring shorelines. That the consequences of disasters are so great and influences so many means specific second- and higher-order effects can be particularly hard to forecast.

Social mores in urban areas can also be notably hard to determine. First, the city might be in country with which an outside aid provider has limited experience. Secondly, larger cities tend to have more heterogeneous populations, the result being social expectations and practices that differ between communities and even individual households. Melding outsiders’ knowledge with those who can improve their awareness of local customs helps an international partner to determine how best to handle corpses, for example. While some diseases such as cholera and hemorrhagic fever favor rapid cremation or burial, risk of infection from the dead is overall generally low. Rapid burial makes later identification difficult and can deny families cultural obligations in treating their deceased.[1] Aid providers will other times have to find ways of working around potentially deadly practices such as sharing a last meal with the deceased as was the case with highly contagious Ebola in 2014 West Africa.

Deciding who to rely on for accurate information can be more challenging than one might think. Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) leaders arriving on Guadalcanal in mid-2003 were aware that the island country’s population did not trust local officials. Locals were happy to deal with Australian and other military representatives as well as coalition police but not with their own law enforcement due to corruption and factional infighting. Only over time—and after purging many of the police on the force at the time of RAMSI’s arrival—did the situation improve.[2]

Knowing what local expectations are and who amongst the local population will significantly influence those perceptions is important when deciding on what projects and other initiatives should have priority. Smaller projects with impact in a matter of days or weeks are the smart move when expectations of recovery include immediate results. Yet the case of purchasing diesel generators in 2003 Basra, Iraq (that in a country that was a net importer of diesel) demonstrates that those initiatives must consider the sought-after end goals just as should any other actions. Blindly addressing today’s needs without considering how they might support longer-term efforts or be integrated into larger projects with completion dates of months or even years down the line risks financial, political, and coalition support. A desirable state of affairs worth pursuing: integrating smaller, shorter-term projects into larger ones as fingers fit into a glove.

Expectations should not be taken as a given. US Army Corps of Engineers representative Lieutenant General Carl A. Strock found Iraqis unrealistically believed the coalition could quickly bring them 24-hour power despite the years of neglect Baghdad had practiced in that sector. Strock soon came to realize that the Iraqis weren’t asking for immediate all-day power. Eventually perhaps, but in the short run they wanted predictability so that they knew when they would have power and could adjust their schedules accordingly.[3] (This same “Can you just tell me when I’ll have power” was a source of frustration in post-WWII Berlin, one that has plagued many other post-disaster populations since.) Early tensions in Iraq might have been mitigated with an information campaign explaining coalition plans to restore—even improve—various services and what role members of the population might take to assist. Difficult it will surely be, but incorporating the goal of predicable power availability into disaster planning and recovery is a worthy enterprise.

Expectations and assumptions on the part of outsiders also require scrutiny. Other projects in Iraq saw $18.4 billion dollars committed to building 147 Iraqi medical facilities. The structures were completed and filled with state-of-the-art equipment. Unfortunately, there were not enough people in nearby communities who knew how to maintain the equipment. Elsewhere there were no staff to train the personnel who would have to run the facilities.[4] Costly in terms of money? Surely. Also in terms of the coalition’s reputation for good judgment? Very likely.

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

There is money—lots of money—to be made in disaster’s wake. There will never be an absence of the unsavory wanting to take advantage of that truth. Potential abusers include—but are by no means limited to—members of government, local and international NGOs (or those posing as NGOs), and contractors. Money is sticky; a bit (or more) stays in the hands of the unscrupulous at every level it passes through. Savvy donors may refuse to accept a local government manager for setting procedures and distributing money if they believe the cost of getting aid to those in need comes at too high a price. Making the problem even worse: some of the waylaid funds can be routed to those causing an urban disaster (terrorists or warring factions, for example) or result in key power brokers actively seeking to perpetuate crises given the profits to be made.

Decisions made to contain the worst of corruption can be very difficult ones. Refusing, limiting, or terminating aid can harm innocents, to include deaths. Yet blindly providing funds can worsen the injury, to include numbers of innocent dead. Outsiders seeking to assist Ukraine’s recovery will confront this unfortunate reality if they are not doing so already. The example of the Azovstal factory in Ukraine’s port city of Mariupol provides insight into the challenges. It was one of the biggest steel plants in Europe at the time of Russia’s invasion on February 24, 2022. Its 11,000 workers previously poured more than 4 million tons of steel a year. Azovstal lay in ruins three months later. It was but one reason the country’s physical damage came to $104 billion by the end of May according to the Kyiv School of Economics. Estimates of the total cost to the Ukrainian economy range from $200 billion to $500 billion or more. Restoration of Ukraine’s steel manufacturing is certainly desirable. But can Ukraine handle the funds necessary to address that and other recovery needs? Ukraine has historically lagged only Russia on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index for European nations. It may have improved since a new government replaced that of 2014, but donors would be foolish to think there are not many ready to direct recovery funding for personal gain. Relying on (and monitoring) foreign contractors with proven records in managing large infrastructure projects might help, but anti-corruption authorities will need to be vigilant regardless.[5]

Only an international problem? Certainly not. Post-9/11 and Hurricane Katrina spending saw private interests seize on cash flows to provide new high-end residences, office space, and other commercial buildings. Anxiousness (arguably over-anxiousness) to hasten recovery saw federal monitoring and fund allocations waived such that requirements for “public oversight,” “means testing,” and “public benefit” fell by the wayside.[6] A scandal involving a high-profile former National Football League star seeking to direct recovery funds to pet athletic projects is gaining attention at the time of my writing these lines.

Part of the challenge in seeking to contain the worst of corruption’s abuses is harder when the environment is an urban one. Urban complexity means there are innumerable ways of making a buck or otherwise twisting the system to one’s own use. Some post-9/11 landlords in NYC obtained recovery grants, raised rents on their properties as allowed by the grants, and then refused to renew leases for low-income renters who could not pay the increased amount, thereby opening the properties to those who could.[7]

Our bugaboo of ineffective bureaucracy can hamstring urban recovery as well. Once the Department of Homeland Security assumed responsibility for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a disproportionate percentage of funding for local preparedness went to terrorism-related challenges to the extent of $2 billion allocated to anti-terrorism grants and only $180 million for natural disaster readiness.[8] The consequences for recovery effectiveness are obvious.

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

Who owns a plot of land in Los Angeles is seldom in question. Such is the case in most of the United States. This clarity meant knowing who was responsible for making recovery-related decisions for a given property was generally straightforward after the 1994 Northridge tremors. The physical nature of lots in the Los Angeles area and throughout most of the United States also simplifies recovery. Individual home properties tend to be somewhat large with significant space between adjacent structures in many urban areas. Even where they are not, access from a reasonably wide street or condominium agreements help in allowing admittance or specifying permissions needed. Authorization to access a property in such cases relies only on owners or cooperative owner agreements. Unlike the case of the 1994 Northridge quake, property issues were less clear when Osaka-Kobe was badly shaken a year later. Greater building densities, laws allowing overlapping responsibilities for a given plot of land or structure, and competing levels of influence meant healing was more complicated.[9] Similar trials can arise when multiple authorities share rights to a piece of land or the strata below and above ground.

Mega-disasters in major urban areas could leave tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions homeless (think Tokyo and surrounding areas had the Fukushima radiation cloud not drifted eastward out over the Pacific). For lesser contingencies, authorities might address this challenge by:

  1. Putting policies in place that allow use of long-term unoccupied residential properties to house those rendered homeless post-disaster, perhaps encouraging pre-disaster agreements with property owners via tax or other breaks and assurances of post-recovery reimbursement for needed restoration/repairs once “tenants” have left (with exercise of eminent domain being a fallback when insufficient volunteer properties are available).
  2. Maintaining a frequently updated list of such vacant (often investment) residential spaces, under-utilized hotel spaces, and the like with additional relevant information such as the number of individuals or families that might be accommodated. (As of 2018, almost a third of Midtown Manhattan apartments between Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue and 49th and 70th streets were vacant for ten or more months a year. Hong Kong and London are likewise popular with wealthy real estate investors. COVID may have opened additional space, to include commercial spaces now vacant or underutilized.)[10]

Such potential residences would complement those owned by friends, relatives, and volunteers willing to house those in need (to include Airbnb property owners, as has fortunately happened during recent disasters). The millions of dollars that would otherwise be needed for tents, trailers, toilet facilities, feeding stations, and other support could be put toward reimbursing those allowing use of their properties. It won’t be easy. Real estate companies and politicians will join property owners in screaming foul when proposals for regulations requiring sharing come under consideration. The form of urban government will influence the ease of employing such initiatives. New York City mayors have powers not usually found in other major urban areas while the government of Los Angeles disperses power across county officials, a city council, and a major.[11]


[1] D. Sanderson, Clarke P. Knox, and L. Campbell, “Responding to urban disasters: Learning from previous relief and recovery operations,” ALNAP lessons paper, 2012, (accessed September 23, 2018).

[2] Russell W. Glenn, Counterinsurgency in a Test Tube: Analyzing the Success of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), Santa Monica, CA, 2007, p. 127.

[3] Carl A. Strock (LTG, US Army, ret.) interview with Dr. Russell W. Glenn and Dave Dilegge, Frederick, MD, July 29, 2011.

[4] Peter Chiarelli (General, US Army), interview with Dr. Russell W. Glenn, Pentagon, Washington, DC, November 9, 2011 as appears in Russell W. Glenn, Core Counterinsurgency Asset: Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan for United States Army Corps of Engineers Leaders, study sponsored by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, May 31, 2012 (revised December 8, 2016), pp. 273-281.

[5] “The $500bn question: Rebuilding Ukraine,” The Economist 443 (June 18, 2022): pp. 45–46.

[6] Kevin Fox Gotham and Miriam Greenberg, Crisis Cities: Disaster and Redevelopment in New York and New Orleans,” Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. ix.

[7] Gotham and Greenberg, Crisis Cities, p. 116.

[8] Gotham and Greenberg, Crisis Cities, p. 67.

[9] Robert B. Olshansky, et al., “Opportunity in Chaos: Rebuilding After the 1994 Northridge and 1995 Kobe Earthquakes,” Department of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Illinois paper, March 2011.

[10] Kevin Baker, “The Death of a Once Great City: The fall of New York and the urban crisis of affluence,” Harper’s Magazine, July 8, 2018, (accessed July 19, 2018).

[11]  “Hey, big spender: California primaries,” The Economist 443, June 4, 2022.p.  21.

The previous installation of this series “Responding to Urban Disasters, Post Two (Post 10 of 14),” appeared on 01 February 2023.



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