Small Wars Journal

disaster response

Responding to Urban Disasters, Post One (Post 5 of 14)

Sun, 01/22/2023 - 11:13am

Responding to Urban Disasters, Post One (Post 5 of 14)

Russell W. Glenn

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

Hurricane Michael

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Special Operations Group (SOG); 

Mexico Beach; SOG, Urban Search and Rescue 046, Hurricane Michael, 17 October 2018,

 FWC Photo by Tim Donovan (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This is a second set of four posts regarding disasters in urban areas. The first—addressing efforts to ready for urban disasters—provided the key points listed below. The second, focusing on responding to such disasters, takes a similar approach, identifying additional key points with historical examples often in support.

The key points from the four “readying for disaster” 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.


Author Josef W. Konvitz, writing in his The Urban Millennium: The City-Building Process from the Early Middle Ages to the Present, provides an insight at once both disturbing and reassuring: “It would seem that society has made more progress in limiting the risks associated with natural disasters than with man-made catastrophes, of which war remains the supreme example.”[1] That mankind is so adept at destruction is surely disturbing. Yet we can once again return to key points 1 and 2 to give ourselves some reassurance that though mankind seems intent on showing up Mother Nature in its willingness to wreak havoc, there are men and women whose efforts to prepare cities for natural catastrophes have also done much to aid us when it is mankind itself that is to blame. Our first four posts set the foundation for this and others to follow. Now is the time to consider the challenges inherent in executing those executable plans hopefully developed prior to disaster’s visitation.

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

For example, a bridge is a bridge but can be so much more. Those with responsibilities for urban citizens’ security need to prepare for two futures when it comes to bridges even if they themselves have no intention of dropping a span—one with the bridge intact, a second with it lying submerged beneath the river’s flowing waters or scattered at the bottom of a gorge. Nature and the enemy always have a vote. A bridge’s survival is not dependent on one side’s interests alone. Are there other sources of water and power if a span falls, one that previously provided both to a community via pipes and cables on its underside? If not, how will residents (and one’s own fighting forces) be provisioned?

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

“Appearances can be deceiving” is a common saw. It is one that can take on special meaning as an urban area responds to disaster. Mosul faced the horrors of war in 2016–17 as Iraqi military forces sought to free the city’s residents of the plague that was ISIS. Were the misfortunes of combat not enough, thrill-seekers posing as nongovernmental organization (NGO) members insinuated themselves into relief efforts. Some had little if any medical training though they professed to be so qualified. Slapping a Red Cross armband on their arms, they inserted chest tubes into wounded residents. One reportedly tore off the bandage from a sucking chest wound for the benefit of a camera crew. Whether the ambition is thrills or money, urban disasters provide both as aid funds flow into organizations legitimate and otherwise. There remains a need to better vet providers and develop policies such that parties capable of conducting the vetting can be readily called on when the host nation cannot or will not.

Key Point #14: Expect the unexpected:

[Basra] was an awful place to drive in. Drivers leaving the palace had to negotiate what was affectionally known among the soldiers as “RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] alley.” … The common belief was that if you drove fast your vehicle was harder to hit…. Yet going at high speed presented its own dangers. The thick metal manhole covers that punctuated the streets had become prized spoils of war among local people and many had been stolen. And when not dodging holes in the ground—a particular hazard at night when there were no streetlights—the speeding motorist had to avoid slow-moving donkeys.[2]

Common sense would seem to dictate getting out of town when danger approaches. Thousands upon thousands left London during the Blitz. Populations in Hiroshima and Tokyo were among those in Japan moving from city to countryside during WWII, the latter declining an estimated four million in population due to displacement (from 6.8M to 2.8M).[3] The same type of movement was true of Germany’s Hamburg.[4] Yet what seems common sense to the distant observer may not be so to the man or woman on the ground. Thousands of those many thousands returned to London before the Blitz ended, the cost of family separations or other factors felt to be higher than the risk in the capital. Recall any warning of a major storm approaching a metropolitan area and television images of bumper-to-bumper traffic fleeing the urban area come to mind. Images of those fleeing storms are often accompanied by tales of residents who refuse to depart. American soldiers engaging enemy in Iraqi cities sometimes found, to their amazement, that civilians would walk unconcernedly into the line of fire, apparently sure that the sophisticated weapons employed would not endanger them or, perhaps, blissfully unaware given that the opposing sides might be separated by several hundred meters. Other behaviors are not so easily dismissed. Crouched down and silent among many hiding in a restaurant during the siege of The Taj Hotel in 2008 Mumbai, one individual suddenly raised a camera and took a flash picture as a terrorist walked by in an adjacent hallway. A high-ranking public figure elsewhere in the hotel spoke on his phone, apparently giving an interview to a television reporter. “We are in a special part of the hotel on the first floor called the Chambers,” he said. “There are more than 200 important people: business leaders and foreigners.”[5] All of which leads us to another key point, one going hand-in-hand with #14:

Key Point #15: Sometimes common sense isn’t common.

You might smile at the above, but I’m guessing few of you are surprised after reading—if not experiencing firsthand—the bizarre discounting of science and refusal to get COVID vaccines during the recent (or ongoing, your pick) pandemic. The dismissal of science—of common sense—was a ratcheting-up of the similar rejection seen in 1995 Chicago during its heat wave as described in a previous post. Politics or willful ignorance sometimes explains the seeming illogic. Cultural mores can at other times play a role. Despite pleas from health authorities, families in 2014 West Africa insisted on sharing a last meal with highly contagious corpses of recently departed Ebola victims. Seemingly inexplicable behavior? Yes, until one realizes such meals are normal practice for some groups in the region. What comprises common sense is not constant across all cultures.


[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, p. 168.

[2] Andrew Alderson, Bankrolling Basra: The incredible story of a part-time soldier, $1 Billion and the collapse of Iraq,” London: Robinson, 2007, p. 14.

[3] Dylan J. Plung, “The Impact of Urban Evacuation in Japan during World War II,” The Asia-Pacific Journal 19 (October 1, 2021), (accessed September 28, 2022).

[4] Keith Lowe, Inferno: The Fiery Destruction of Hamburg, 1943, New York: Scribner, 2007, p. 228.

[5] Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel, New York: Penguin, 2013.

The previous installation of this series “Readying for Urban Disaster, Post Four,” appeared on 20 January 2023.

Readying for Urban Disaster, Post Four

Fri, 01/20/2023 - 7:22pm

Readying for Urban Disaster, Post Four

Russell W. Glenn

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

Density IRAQ 3

Urban Density, Iraq. Photo by Dr. Russell W. Glenn

This is the fourth of four posts addressing preparations for urban disaster it has been preceded by seven key points. Next week will see the fifth of what will eventually be a total of fourteen offerings. As noted in our initial post, those remaining will consider responding to urban disasters (four) and recovering from same (six).

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.


We’ll wrap up with a quartet of additional key points. The first:

Key Point #8: The plagues of (1) bureaucracy, (2) poor delineation of responsibilities, and (3) criminality are remoras on any disaster…except the relationship isn’t symbiotic.

Taking us back to our first key point (“Preparation for any urban disaster helps to prepare an urban area for catastrophes regardless of cause or type”), Tash Coxen, a British liaison officer during the Coalition Provision Authority’s early days in Iraq, observed, “One of the problems…is that there had been so little advance planning that much of the organization’s time and focus was taken up simply trying to make itself work.”[1] New York City was similarly hamstrung by organizational shortfalls during our previously presented 1896 heat wave. It was in part a matter of bureaucratic design that crippled both preparing for and responding to disaster in that case. Tenements, sites of so much suffering and death during the heat crisis, fell under the oversight of a Board of Health created in 1867. But building laws were the responsibility of the Department of Buildings. The inevitable tension soon made itself evident. Did airshaft construction and standards constitute a health issue or merely a structural issue?[2] We will recall the lethargy and lack of initiative (concern?) demonstrated by city officials during those disastrous days in NYC. The mayor waited far too long to bring his critical deputies together. The lack of coordination meant that wise decisions such as that by Commissioner Collis to alter work hours (to avoid the worst of days’ heat) were isolated events. The initiative of another, Theodore Roosevelt, to provide free ice to the poor was likewise too rare. The problem rose again a century later…and surely continues today. A committee summarizing issues plaguing Chicago’s response to its 1995 heat wave wrote, “there were significant individual efforts to protect the health and safety of Cook County residents. However, the system as a whole failed.”[3] Such bureaucratic intransigence is embedded in policies, regulations, and other official dictates in addition to its flourishing in government structures. Property rights are vital to urban growth given their assurance that investments will remain protected. Too stringently drawn, however, and they can suppress if not strangle evolutions essential to maintaining metro health.[4]

Bureaucratic shortfalls include limitations on the quality of those holding important positions. A case that will seem familiar to many readers today dates from that same 1995 Chicago heat wave. Chief Medical Examiner Edmund Donoghue had worked in the Medical Examiners Officer since 1977; he had studied other cities’ heat disasters and was thus well prepared to determine which deaths should be attributed to heat-related issues. Despite his expertise and careful use of case records, no less a political profile than Chicago’s Mayor Richard M. Daley "flatly denied the validity of Donoghue’s death reports” given the potential tarnishing his—and Chicago’s—reputations might suffer as a result.[5]

Amidst these recollections regarding quagmires of overlapping responsibilities, political self-service, incompetence, and protectionism, however, glows that reflection of personal initiative. You might not be able to fight city hall, but bright ideas backed by the drive to see them through can sometimes escape bureaucracy’s quicksand.

And I would be remiss were I to imply the bureaucrats in government are always wearing black hats. Sometimes the color of those hats depends on who’s affected and how. Plans and preparations for dealing with future disasters seem inevitably to spawn disagreements among those influenced even by essential change. (See the comment later in this essay regarding NIMBYism.) Initiatives to address flood dangers to New York City’s Manhattan borough are well behind schedule due to protesters fighting destruction of trees or impingements on parks. Officials know they can’t please everyone; some projects forge ahead despite resistance, as they must to mitigate the effects of disasters to come.[6]

Key Point #9: Look backward to look forward.

Will Tokyo’s next disaster be a catastrophic earthquake (odds on favorite)? Massive tsunami (recent analysis reflects that previous estimates of worst case were too conservative)? Eruption of Mount Fuji (now dormant for its longest period in recorded history)? Devastating flooding, perhaps accompanied by widespread mudslides? Key Point #2 advises that “urban disasters are more alike than different.” It follows that looking over our shoulder at those past offers much when readying for others to come. Recalling Tokyo’s earthquake tragedy of 1923, officials viewing the massive loss of life recognized,

the greener and less densely populated former residential districts of the samurai in the hilly western part – the so-called "high city" or Yamanote area – escaped the disaster mostly unscathed. From this, urban planners learned that large urban green spaces like Ueno Park served as an important firebreak and as temporary shelters for those who had lost their homes.[7]

It is a lesson now a century old, but one underlying many of the Japanese capital’s commonsense preparations for inevitable disasters on future horizons. Open spaces and other shelter facilities abound, many fitted with benches that can be converted to grills for cooking and facilities that can be transformed into toilets once surrounded by fences, part of preparations that arguably make Tokyo the best disaster-prepared major urban area in the world.

Another lesson from 1923 Tokyo…and Europe after WWII’s urban devastation, again in post-1945 Tokyo, previously from 1666 London, in microcosm at NYC’s Ground Zero, and in many more instances: recovering from urban disasters presents some of authorities’ toughest challenges and greatest failures. As sure as there will be future disasters in cities, they will be followed by dramatic plans to remake major portions of devastated areas. City officials will surge forward to seize an opportunity to rid their city of previous eyesores, improve transportation flow, expand public spaces, or otherwise introduce what they see as improvements. Architects and urban planners will be anxious to climb aboard the bandwagon. Yet such visions rarely see more than moderate realization, and for good reason. Pre-planning for post-disaster recovery can at best be “big hand over the map” in character: general in nature. After all, the nature of future post-disaster land- and socialscapes consists of many unknowns. That does not negate the value of planning, but it does make clear that flexibility will be essential to pre-disaster response and recovery planning (and to post-disaster disaster planning as well, though in those cases the extent of damage, challenges, and opportunities will obviously be more evident).

Let’s first return to 1666 London to get a sense of the challenges standing in the way of successful post-disaster renewal (and therefore a sense of how hard planning for recovery before an event can be). No less a talent than Christopher Wren (he of Pembroke College Chapel, Cambridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London) was among the many offering plans for the capital’s recovery. Few disagreed that some regulation of rebuilding was called for. If nothing else, building standards needed to be put in place to reduce the loss in lives and property next time around. These might be new standards or a tweaking of others existing. (London had provided some guidance in 1580, nearly a century before the Great Fire.) But who would pay for rebuilding? How much would they finance and for what? How long would it take to design and put detailed plans into effect? Who would have priority for allocation of building materials and the related skilled labor needed? (Ever try to get a roofer to repair your home after a storm’s damage?) How would new boundaries be drawn if post-disaster plans were to change street plans or otherwise impose on existing lots? And what to do with all those homeless, school-less, and perhaps medical facility-less residents? London’s authorities agreed that allowing haphazard recovery was not the right answer.[8] But necessity aces intentions. As Christopher Wren designed, authorities planned, and politicians struggled to fund, debates contemplated what should be replaced, what restored, which communities preserved, and which eliminated in the service of “progress.” In the meantime, residents returned to their properties and rebuilt along the same street and property lines as existed pre-conflagration, making mute many of authorities’ ambitions.

The 1923 post-Tokyo earthquake example reinforces many of the above points. In his book The Great Kantō Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan, historian Charles Schencking examines proposals by Tokyo’s mayor in the years just prior to the disaster, Gotō Shinpei, who became Japan’s home minister on September 2, 1923, the day following the earthquake. As mayor, Gotō had proposed a grandiose and expensive scheme soon known as the “800 Million Yen Plan”[9] to address many of what he considered the capital’s ills. In the quake’s aftermath, he and those in favor of far-reaching reforms saw the earthquake as a “golden opportunity” to rebuild a truly modern Tokyo despite pre-disaster rejection of the 800 Million Yen Plan. Proposals included widening streets, preventing reconstruction of slums destroyed by the post-earthquake fires, their replacement with public housing estates, an increased number of parks, and expanded community center and clinic availability.[10] The planning reflected urban approaches that would become increasingly sought after as the century progressed: systems approaches melding social and physical infrastructures and recognition that urban areas were integral components of their larger natural environments.[11] But as in 1666 London, these and others underestimated the complex political realities. Those planning also made the oft repeated mistake of not consulting the men and women most affected by these ambitious visions: city residents.[12]  Complementing these issues was another too common source of friction as reported in one of the capital’s newspapers not long after the tremors:

The proud city of Tokyo now lies in ruins…. One would have expected them to discuss all the measures…with much greater earnestness and sincerity, but what was the actual state of things? Party sentiment ran even higher than in ordinary sessions, all parties shaping their course with the promotion of party interests primarily in view.[13]

Not all of Tokyo was destroyed. Significant parts of a city will endure even the most disastrous of urban catastrophes (barring, perhaps, the strike of an asteroid, large meteor, or nuclear weapon). Historian Charles A. Beard, close observer and visitor to 1923 Tokyo after the earthquake, wrote:

The burnt area was only superficially cleared; it was not a clean slate, wax in the hands of the artist. It was still a complex of real and potential interests. The street car tracks extending in every direction and representing an investment of millions were intact; while the ruins were yet smoldering, the cars began to run. The water and gas pipes and other subsurface structures remained implanted in the old network of streets, representing millions more of invested capital…. More than a million homeless people and disestablished business men, facing poverty and the approaching winter naturally thought of the coming morrow–of houses and business restored, in any way, as quickly as possible. There were thousands of small landowners in Tokyo, each tenacious of his little right and bent upon holding fast to every inch of his sacred soil.[14]

Within six years, much of destroyed Tokyo had a new street system (now with sidewalks). State of the art bridges, fire-proof public facilities, public housing, and a modest expansion of parks were in place.[15] It was a city modernized in many ways though one far from the Tokyo of today. What its recovery left behind was too many of its pre-earthquake shortcomings. Historian J. Charles Schencking concluded,

Tokyo of 1930 was not a brand new city that emerged from the ruins of its former self. Rather, it was a reconstructed city that possessed many of the same vulnerabilities that existed on the eve of calamity in August 1923. American military planners hoping to coerce submission through urban area bombing during the Second World War were aware of Tokyo’s vulnerabilities and specifically targeted areas that they knew had burned during the 1923 catastrophe: the results were equally devastating in March 1945.[16]

It might be argued that the Japanese learned less from the devastation of 1923 than did external observers across the Pacific. Some Tokyo officials concluded that another opportunity foregone was the chance to address the city’s pre-quake social ills along with its physical ones. While streets, bridges, and other infrastructure saw dramatic improvements, far less was spent on social welfare facilities and related services.[17] And therein lies another point worthy of note:

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

The vital question implied above is, “What can an urban area do before a disaster to better ready it for recovery thereafter?” Partisan politics, social resistance (e.g., “Not in my back yard” or NIMBYism, to include Hong Kong residents’ not wanting defensive positions installed on their properties in preparation for a possible Japanese invasion, one that came in late 1941), and the failure of Gotō’s ¥800 million plan to gain traction suggests the answer can be “not much.”[18] Even in-place plans that have gained approval may struggle once the reality of implementation is at hand as the below excerpt from my forthcoming Come Hell or High Feversuggests. The topic: New York City authorities’ handling of tough decisions early in the 2020 COVID crisis:

Presciently, the city had put a task force together in 2007 to recommend policies…should a pandemic such as the Spanish flu recur. A report released in 2015 provided recommendations, for example, that patients with some conditions not be put on a ventilator when availability fell short of demand. These included unresponsive patients or those with severe burns, traumatic brain injury, or suffering cardiac arrest. Members of the group involved in the initial task force participated in a mid-March 2020 renewed discussion of the problem. Reconsidered issues included tough choices such as which hospitals should receive newly arrived funding or equipment. Recommendations included favouring previously under-resourced hospitals. A counterproposal noted that better-funded hospitals tended to receive and treat the most vulnerable patients. Fevers burned and patients died as politicians dithered rather than make the tough decisions. The number of deceased became so great that morgues could not keep pace. Refrigerated trailers parked outside medical facilities served as temporary morgues while the report’s recommendations disappeared into the mire of bureaucracy. Doctors, lacking policy guidance, spent resources attempting to save those with little chance of survival. Indecision is a decision in times of crisis.[19]

Thus, in part, the seemingly odd discussion of recovery plans in this, a post with a focus on preparing for urban disasters. As we’ve said, hyper-specific recovery plans are not feasible (specific in the sense of addressing challenges that will remain unknown until a calamity calls on a city). But the above quotation rightly suggests that critical plans regarding aspects generic to virtually any disaster can and should be created. The question then becomes one of authorities’ courage and subversion of self-interest in its aftermath.

Previous key points suggest another. All urban disaster plans—those focusing on response, others looking at components of recovery, generic plans that might have elements for both—should look as far into the future as is feasible. Envisioning what the urban area should look like once response and recovery (or major parts thereof) are complete means that short term goals can be complementary to those more distant. This method of looking at the desired end as the start point for planning, then moving backward in time (or in terms of events accomplished, as planning progress might be better measured in terms of intermediate ends attained than points on a timeline), is called “backward planning” in the military. It has repeatedly proven itself a wise process. Thus the related key point:

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

We will wrap up with

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

Urban areas are systems and subsystems of larger systems. Cripple the rural environs in proximity to a major city and some food, water, labor, and other resources will suffer interruption. It is unlikely to cripple the urban area for long if at all. Major urban areas tend to possess redundancy for providing essential goods and services. Cripple the urban area on which local rural areas, a region, or the world depends, however, and the consequences can be devastating. Identifying overarching or major vulnerabilities before a crisis is therefore essential. Urban complexity doesn’t make this easy. Determining the source of a power or other service outage can be hard, especially when an attack is deliberate, designed to shield detection, and planned to have broad effects residual to initial targets. Savvy adversaries might achieve their ultimately sought ends by capitalizing on second- or higher-order effects, meaning the initial attack is distant from the desired end effect in terms of time, space, or perhaps both. Smart City initiatives complicate the situation further. These capabilities can speed road repairs, reduce flooding, and otherwise greatly benefit communities. Ironically, while urban authorities tend to be cautious regarding resident concerns regarding protection of private information, they are sometimes less mindful of criminal, foreign power, or other cyber-capable threats that exploit their city’s smart components to ill effect. Hackers have already been successful in manipulating access control systems to facilitate denial-of-service attacks and open smart software doors.[20] These same vulnerabilities and consequences within an urban area can resonate throughout other system parts that rely on the city for their welfare.


This post first appeared as Russ Glenn, “Readying for Urban Disaster, Post 3,” LinkedIn, 31 October 2022,

[1] Andrew Alderson, Bankrolling Basra: the incredible story of a part-time soldier, $1 billion and the collapse of Iraq, London: Robinson, 2007, p. 126.

[2] Edward P. Kohn, Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1876 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt, NY: Basic Books, 2010, p. 80.

[3] Eric Klinenberg, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 138.

[4] Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella, “Conclusion: Axioms of Resilience,” in Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella, ed., The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 346 (uncorrected advance reading copy).

[5] Klinenberg, Heat Wave, pp. 26-27.

[6] Anne Barnard, “Five Ways to Prevent the Next Sandy,” New York Times, October 28, 2022,

[7] Christian Dimmer, “Tokyo’s incredible path to redevelopment,” BBC, March 16, 2020, (accessed August 2, 2022).

[8] Stephen Porter, The Great Fire of London, Port Stroud, UK: The History Press, 2009, p. 74.

[9] Christian Dimmer, “Tokyo’s incredible path to redevelopment;” and J. Charles Schencking, The Great KantōEarthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2013, 162-63. Dimmer mistakenly states that Schencking describes the “800 Million Yen Plan” as Gotō’s response to the disaster. As noted, the ambitious ¥800 million physical infrastructure plan was proposed by Gotō Shinpei while he was mayor of Tokyo from December 1920-April 1923 and therefore before the September 1, 1923 earthquake.

[10] Schencking, The Great Kantō Earthquake, pp. 168-73.

[11] Schencking, The Great Kantō Earthquake, pp. 171 and 173.

[12] Schencking, The Great Kantō Earthquake, p. 184.

[13] Schencking, The Great Kantō Earthquake, p. 187.

[14] Charles A. Beard, “Goto and the Rebuilding of Tokyo,” Our World, April 1924: p. 14, (accessed September 25, 2022).

[15] Dimmer, “Tokyo’s incredible path to redevelopment.”

[16] Schencking, The Great Kantō Earthquake, pp. 305-06.

[17] Schencking, The Great Kantō Earthquake, pp. 289 and 307.

[18] “Not in my backyard” or NIMBYism: resistance to unpopular projects in proximity to one’s community.

[19] Quotation from Russell W. Glenn, Come Hell or High Fever: Readying the World’s Megacities for Disaster, to be published by the Australian National University Press in January 2023. Material in the passage includes that from Tyler Foggatt, “Protocols: Who Gets a Ventilator?” The New Yorker, April 20, 2020: p. 14; online April 11, 2020 at

[20]  Alexander Braszko, “Military Implications of Smart Cities,” Mad Scientist, June 4, 2020, (accessed August 15, 2020).

The previous installation of this series “Readying for Urban Disaster, Post Three,” appeared on 18 January 2023.

Readying for Urban Disaster, Post Three

Wed, 01/18/2023 - 6:30pm

Readying for Urban Disaster, Post Three

Russell W. Glenn

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

Urban Density 2

Urban Density, Iraq. Photo by Dr. Russell W. Glenn


This is the third of four posts addressing preparations for urban disaster. Key points noted in the duo of previous offerings are as follows:

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.

As was the case in Hamburg, Germany, pre-World War II London confronted a threat little anticipated even a generation before: Massive bombing attacks from the air. World War I London had not been without them. German zeppelins struck as early as 1915 with seemingly monstrous Gotha bombers dropping ordnance beginning in June 1917. Improved observation and reporting using wireless communications, however, soon aided in establishing effective interception of these threats. Combined with employment of barrage balloons and anti-aircraft fires that forced German aircraft to fly higher (and thus bomb less effectively), these adaptations had largely ended the threat to England and its capital by May 1918.[1] The British were not ignorant of the enemy likely adapting during the years following the Great War, however. Writings of Giulio Douhet and others, to include calls for use of poisonous gas, demanded government officials ready for far worse as tensions with Germany again rose. Officials in the capital responded. As London’s Daily Expressreported in February 1938,

Great doings in Paddington last night…. Mythical enemy bombers wrecked houses, ripped (in theory) fifteen foot craters in the road and sprayed the Borough with mustard gas…. Girls who have been ‘burned’ by mustard gas were rushed to the first-aid station in Paddington Central Baths. The first thing to do is to remove contaminated clothing. The organisers had previously warned “casualties” to wear bathing costumes underneath.[2]

Not everyone agreed with the need to prepare, however. “Lot of tommy rot! Won’t be no air-raids here. All this [is] silly play-acting,” one of the make-believe casualties heard another protest. “They had voiced the thoughts of many who believed what they wanted to believe,” academic Philip Ziegler would later write. “There would be no air-raids on England! It was unthinkable.”[3] Not until the initial efforts to evacuate four million children and their mothers did the reality of the danger begin to take hold with the doubters. Resistance continued nevertheless, in part because the plans were created “by minds that were military, male, and middle-class” and thus considered less sensitive to the concerns of evacuees and family members left behind.[4]

Ziegler went on to observe other shortcomings:

The system could only be as good as the people who operated it. It had been a mistake to put air-raid relief into the hands of Public Assistance, manned as it was by officials who were used to people on the dole and behaved with some hauteur when dealing with the public. F. R. Barry, who had been bombed out of his canon’s lodging in Dean’s Yard, Westminster, applied for help “to a spotty young man enjoying a brief authority. I found that interview most enlightening. “Address?” “I have no address at the moment.” That was enough; we were homeless persons and could therefore be bullied and put in our proper places.[5]

(Choosing those who interface with the urban public is not a trivial matter. It is one that can bolster support for public safety efforts and the administration behind them or otherwise. Knowing that some residents, particularly those who might have reason to distrust unfamiliar official representatives either because of experiences in home countries or otherwise, San Francisco wisely tasked familiar faces—those of neighborhood health and safety inspectors—to gage the needs of damaged communities after a severe deluge of rain in January 2004.)[6]

“Spotty” (of dubious quality) the above young man might have been, but the job wasn’t easy for even those less taken with their sudden authority. Families and officials alike could find it hard to locate others who, like Barry, no longer had an address to return to. Wardens also sought to determine who lived where before they might be rendered homeless so that they would know who was perhaps within a collapsed structure. Some occupants resisted, believing the requests for information were a violation of their privacy. Some were instead difficult to track for other reasons. One woman stated that she was cohabitating with a man but admitted that she couldn’t provide a name (and, therefore, an address) “because it was never the same one.”[7]

What later became the subject of signature Blitz images—Londoners sleeping in the subway—was at first resisted by officials. Eventually good sense prevailed, permitting people to shelter in what in retrospect seems a near-ideal location. In one of those tough to foresee higher-order challenges, however, the same authorities couldn’t solve the resultant mosquito problem. Warmed by the all-but-constant presence of humans, the insects never found it necessary to hibernate as they otherwise would have in colder temperatures.[8]

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

As early as the 1920s, senior leadership in Japan expressed concerns regarding the possible bombing of the home islands from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, Siberia, or coastal China. The response of Tokyo’s residents to the devastating earthquake of September 1, 1923 stirred concerns further. Breakdown of law and order (to include, as mentioned in the previous post, the spurious blaming of Koreans for the fires that broke out subsequent to the tremors); widespread violence (no little of it directed at and resulting in the murder of those Koreans); the inability of police or military to regain control for several days; and delays in providing food, water, medical care, and other forms of aid inspired apprehensions that future aerial bombardment would lead to a collapse of social order. General Hanzo Yamanashi, appointed head of the martial law headquarters overseeing the government’s response to the quake, made an observation consistent with our Readying for Urban Disaster Key Points 1 and 2 (as restated at the top of this post). Writing in 1924, Yamanashi submitted a report to the Army Ministry suggesting that no other event had better “introduced the citizens of Tokyo to the harsh realities of war” than the calamity of the year before. He suggested that the quake, fires, and challenges in responding provided an opportunity to both residents and authorities to prepare for future wartime threats. “The Army Ministry should not let this opportunity pass by,” he wrote, encouraging spreading of “concepts of national security amongst the population.”[9]

That urban authorities do not seize on such opportunities as often as they might does not diminish the value of their lessons. Wiser yet: taking advantage not only of lessons drawn from their own disasters, but also others from elsewhere. Los Angeles regularly conducts readiness exercises during political gatherings, sports celebrations, and otherwise. Houston, knowing the city is vulnerable to hurricanes’ visits, had studied New Orleans’ response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and was better prepared for Hurricane Harvey when it struck twelve years later. The benefits of learning lessons and using them when planning; rehearsing; and circulating lessons are obvious when one realizes Louisiana’s post-Katrina federal recovery funding of some $120 billion came to over three times the state annual budget.[10] Many readers are aware that New York City (NYC) exchanges information and maintains close relations with London and other major cities worldwide, that in the interest of mutual security. Less known: those relationships have a long history. Readying for possible attacks during WWII, NYC sent fire department representatives to the British capital to learn how to deal with incendiary bombs. New York also took lessons from London regarding the evacuation of children and put plans in place should departure be necessary.[11] Today’s Michigan Army National Guard Task Force 46 provides a valuable example of another sort. Responsible for chemical, radiological, nuclear, and biological attack preparation and response, its soldiers routinely partner with other military units; fire, police, medical, and additional responders; and other key personnel from both American and partner nations to create scenarios and conduct exercises in urban areas around the country in the service of compiling insights to improve urban disaster readiness.

Key Point #4: Plans must be executable.

Among the many benefits of rehearsals is the opportunity to identify what can make plans better executable, a function in part of “red teaming” (troubleshooting or playing devil’s advocate as noted in our first post) and encouraging mission command thinking even during the planning process. A plan might be completed in excruciating detail, but it provides little value if it is so overwhelming that those responsible for its execution never read it or find it incomprehensible. In short, making plans is not the same as being prepared. The totality of disaster guidance for Memorial Hospital in New Orleans ran to nearly three hundred pages pre-Hurricane Katrina. Yet it failed to cover basic elements of preparation and had not been sufficiently tested.

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

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Attributed to Prussian General Helmut von Moltke (“the Elder”), it means that while plans might be essential to preparation, the best must be flexible and designed to be molded to the unpredictable and unexpected. It is a truth as applicable to disaster planning as that for combat.

Key Point #6: Information is the currency of success.

Twenty-five-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department Brian Humphrey recalled, “people want to help in a crisis and the currency is not dollars. It’s information…. Every citizen is a communicator or contributor.”[12] Cities are seas of knowledge and information; megacities, it follows, are oceans. We have noted that the greatest knowledge lies within the urban area’s citizenry, authorities, and local aid organizations. Who better knows an apartment building than its manager or long-time doorman? A neighborhood than a local store owner or long-time beat cop? Their knowledge can be invaluable to successful planning. Their participation is critical to successful disaster response, which leads us to key point #7.

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

It goes without saying: designated emergency responders and those they work with are fundamental to readying for urban disasters. Systems that complement their efforts such as tracking of pharmaceutical orders showing disturbing spikes in maladies, medical algorithms tracking symptoms, or flood zone designations: These can assist effective response when sudden calamity visits. But it is the residents themselves who know where relatives or neighbors with mobility challenges, health issues, and other concerns reside. It is they who can share such information as disasters approach or during initial post-event allocation of response resources. More than one of every fourteen citizens in Japan’s 2019 population was disabled.[13] Other countries—and their cities—are evolving in the same direction as populations age. (Only those in Africa resist the trend.) Privacy concerns, inadequate information collection systems, and inability to keep up with changes in dynamic urban environments mean that it will be those relatives, neighbors, or others with intimate knowledge of communities who may be the difference between survival or otherwise for individuals who might otherwise be overlooked. 


This post first appeared as Russ Glenn, “Readying for Urban Disaster, Post 3,” LinkedIn, 24 October 2022,

[1] Imperial War Museum, “The Air Raids that Shook Britain in the First World War,” 2022, (accessed September 18, 2022).

[2] Philip Ziegler, London at War, 1939-1945, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, p. 13.

[3] Ziegler, London at War, p. 32.

[4] Ziegler, London at War, p. 34.

[5] Ziegler, London at War, p. 127.

[6] Judith Rodin, The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in A World Where Things Go Wrong, New York: Public Affairs, 2014, p. 17.

[7] Ziegler, London at War, p. 135.

[8] Ziegler, London at War, pp. 135-36.

[9] J. Charles Schencking, The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Chimera of National      Reconstruction in Japan, New York: Colombia University Press, 2013, pp.75-77.

[10] Andre M. Perry, “New Orleans is still learning from the lessons of Katrina—Houston should too,” Brookings, August 29, 2017, (accessed July 4, 2018).

[11] Edward Robb Ellis, The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History, NY: Kodansha, 1997, p. 558.

[12] American Red Cross, “White Paper: The Case For Integrating Crisis Response With Social Media,” SCRIBD, (accessed January 18, 2023).

[13] “Chairbound but seated: Japanese with disabilities,” The Economist 432 (August 3, 2019): p. 29.

The previous installation of this series “Readying for Urban Disaster, Post Two,” appeared on 16 January 2023.


Readying for Urban Disaster, Post Two

Mon, 01/16/2023 - 3:47pm

Readying for Urban Disaster, Post Two

Russell W. Glenn

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

Urban Density

Urban Density, Iraq. Photo by Dr. Russell W. Glenn


This is the second of four posts addressing the topic of readying urban areas for disaster. The first introduced this series, concluding with the initial key point of what will be many more addressing the categories of readying for, responding to, and recovering from urban catastrophes over what will be a total of fourteen posts.

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

We address a second key point herein, one that is a direct extension of the first:

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

Recognizing this similarity can ease planning, save money, reduce training requirements, and broaden opportunities for innovation and identifying insights that might inform contingencies seemingly little-related to those from which they are taken. We will employ two examples to demonstrate this cross-disaster commonality. The first is the 1896 heat wave that struck New York City. Seemingly irrelevant after a century and a quarter? Writing twenty years ago, Eric Klinenberg observed, “in the United States, more people die in heat waves than in all other extreme meteorological events combined.”[1] The same was true in 2021.[2] It is a situation worthy of special note given the increasingly evident consequences of climate change.

Example 1: Summer 1896 NYC heat wave.

The eventual death toll numbered nearly 1,300…more victims than the 1863 New York City draft riots or the 1871 Great Chicago Fire.[3]

The consequences were not measured in loss of life alone. Businesses suffered from lack of customers as large numbers stayed home. Stores laid off or forced employees to take vacation. Those working in vocations involving physical labor were particularly at risk whether outside or cooped up in buildings. Those buildings, often tenements, became ovens the temperatures in which frequently did not decrease appreciably even during night hours.

Brick, stone, concrete, asphalt: all absorbed and held the heat, reradiating it in those evening hours as workers returned home to hovels with few if any windows. Temperatures in some would reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit and differ too little from such values for over a week.[4] Air conditioning was little more than a concept; its invention was half a decade away. The best the suffering could hope for was ice. Officials did little to provide it or address the high prices charged by Charles Morse, a Mainer who controlled most of the city’s ice provision in 1896 and charged prices that effectively kept it from the poor. Charities tried to fill the need.[5] In another initiative, the Department of Public Works’ commissioner, Charles Collins, adapted his workers’ hours. They were to report an hour earlier than normal at 7 AM, break from the day’s worst heat between 11 and 3, then return to complete the day at 7 PM. Collins’ decision was unfortunately an exception; it is very likely many lives would have been saved had others followed suit.[6] Others did seek to lessen the suffering. President of the city’s Board of Police Commissioners, soon to be Rough Rider and US president Theodore Roosevelt, directed that police wagons be used when hospital ambulances could no longer keep up with calls for help. It was in hospitals that ice baths were available, baths that could save many of the stricken. Yet even this police augmentation fell short; one-third of ambulance calls still went unanswered. Other vehicles joined the makeshift fleet, struggling not only to assist ill humans but remove the extraordinary number of dead horses lying in the streets.[7] Men, women, and children slept on rooftops, fire escapes, and piers in hope of relief; deaths due to rolling off these places of rest while slumbering became commonplace.[8] Black streamers affixed to slum dwellings denoted an adult death, white a child. Mothers would walk dawn-lit streets in hopes of creating enough breeze to cool a child in arms.[9]

Lives continued to be lost. Economic sectors suffered. The poor suffered disproportionately. The heat disrupted social, transportation, government, and other vital services. Physical systems failed. Even today’s hyper-sophisticated technologies cannot keep pace when nature or misjudgment put them at risk. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) recently tested in New York City during a particularly hot week collapsed exhausted no less than did horses in 1896. (Reinforcing our key point here. Klinenberg wrote that “thousands of cars broke down in [Chicago] streets” during Chicago’s 1995 heat wave and “train rails detached from their moorings.”)[10] Power sources routinely buckle under excessive loads during heat waves while backup generators cough their last as flood waters overwhelm those foolishly placed in basements or other flood-prone locations. Poorly placed generators, circuit breaker panels, and other critical power system components fall victim to flood waters with a regularity little short of amazing. New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, New York City in the aftermath of Sandy, and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster north of Tokyo all provide cases. Nor is power generation the only system with its parts routinely ill-advisedly positioned. At least one company in New Orleans lost access to its business files when waters claimed its computers. Sheri Fink’s excellent retelling of a medical tragedy in the same city, Five Days at Memorial (now also a limited series on Apple TV+) relates how vital supplies stored in lower building levels of that hospital were subject to rising waters. The same happened to irreplaceable medical study resources in 2012 New York City during Hurricane Sandy’s visit, as it had to thousands of lab animals during tropical storm Allison in Houston the year before.[11] Such examples reflect that readying for urban disasters extends to far more than planning, training, and conducting rehearsals.

Yet another reinforcement for our key point #2 here: As in 1896 New York City, 1995 Chicago experienced ambulance requests “several thousand…above the norm. In thirty-nine hundred cases, no vehicles were available, so the city sent fire trucks to handle the calls.”[12] Theodore Roosevelt, were he alive in 1995, would have nodded in approval.

Example 2: Great Fire of London, 1666.

Fire broke out in Thomas Farriner’s shop on Pudding Lane late the evening of September 1, 1666. A contractor providing biscuits to the navy, Farriner would later claim he completely extinguished the blaze, but his house was consumed by flames just past midnight the following day.[13] Church bells rang during the catastrophe’s early hours, notifying those within earshot that something was badly amiss.[14] Those downwind soon discovered the nature of the threat; many would find themselves victims. The flames spread quickly, at one point reportedly consuming an estimated one hundred houses an hour.[15] Temperatures rose to the point of melting church bells; hinges, bars, and gates of prisons; and chains along the capital’s streets.[16] It was yet another horror for a city that had been devastated by the Black Death in 1665 and 1666, but never had there been a disaster quite like this.

King Charles II put the Duke of York in control of the response, also directing that fire posts be established around the city to restore order.[17] Order was surely lacking. Accusations of arson spread like, well, wildfire. Embedded prejudices made themselves known in unfounded claims that the fire had been deliberately set by heinous foreigners, Dutch and Frenchmen in particular being targeted by the rumors. Those manning fire posts soon found much of their time taken by having to protect these and others so accused.[18] Fortunately, an information champion of sorts emerged. The secretary for a senior member of government also managed the city’s Gazette, which published an account on September 10th. Its description of the conflagration, reporting of developments, and telling of the king’s representatives’ efforts to address the consequent troubles came to be widely accepted as the official summary, a welcome respite given a “diversity of reports” left the public unsure of the truth. The paper also included a synopsis of King Charles II’s measures to feed the unhoused.[19]

Some authorities met residents’ needs. Not all officials met their responsibilities. Disasters spawn shortages. On the upside, relief funds became available with near amazing speed given collections held in the month following the fire. Shortages also birth criminality and opportunities for the corrupt. Housing was immediately in short supply after the 1666 fire [as would be the case with WWII bombing of Hamburg; the trifecta of earthquake, tsunami, and fires that devastated Lisbon in 1755; 1923 Tokyo earthquake; and so on and so on]. London rents grew faster than bamboo as the embers cooled.[20] The city’s lord mayor, Sir William Bolton, was accused of redirecting some 1,800 British pounds for personal use. Forced to resign as alderman, he would nine years later be convicted of misappropriation.”[21]

Urban disasters have impact well beyond their immediate surrounds. In 1666, concerns spurred justified fears far from London’s streets; opportunity knocked in other locations; yet elsewhere initiative addressed needs:

The inhabitants of Norwich [a bit over 100 miles from London] were “at their wits’ end” because of the uncertainty about the future of the city’s trade with the metropolis, by far the principal outlet for its textiles. Anxiety of this kind was tempered by the realization that the goods received from London would be in short supply, allowing prices to be increased…. The rapid dispersal of suppliers and customers in the weeks following the fire made it difficult for them to find each other after contact had been lost…. A system was introduced whereby several people were designated to receive and disseminate new addresses. A house in Bloomsbury Square served as the clearing house for such information.[22]

Three hundred and thirty years later, the distant reverberations from New York’s 1896 heat catastrophe were of a different, delayed, and broader reaching sort. Theodore Roosevelt’s initiatives went beyond commitment of police wagons to assist movement of the suffering. While the city’s mayor didn’t call an emergency session of his department heads until the final day of the disaster, the then lesser-known Roosevelt advocated free distribution of ice to the poor. His response to the crisis informed and influenced his own understanding of living conditions in the country’s urban areas. It also raised the man’s early political profile, one that would later see him governor of New York state before his rise to President of the United States.[23] Together these very different, broader influences serve as a reminder of a component that should never be too important for disaster planners to overlook: identification of and accounting for urban disasters’ implications not only regionally but nationally and—perhaps—beyond.

In addition to similarities between 1896 New York and 1666 London, there are also unfortunate parallels between later disasters in Tokyo and activities associated with London in 1666. Just as those of Dutch or French origins were baselessly blamed for the fire that ravaged England’s central city, Japanese attacked Koreans as the culprits when fires erupted following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. The “diversity of reports” plaguing 17th-century Londoners also had company some four and a half centuries later when in 2011 reports from the national government, utility company TEPCO, and newspaper sources regarding the disastrous combination of earthquake, tsunami, and failure of nuclear reactors at the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant north of Tokyo provided conflicting reports or failed to release critical information (to include, in at least one case, not informing those fleeing regarding the course of the resultant radiation cloud. The result: victims drove into rather than away from the radiation).

Value in preparing for urban disaster; inconsistency in the quality of officials’ responses; the helpfulness of consistently accurate and trusted information sources; corruption: These are only a sampling of elements common across urban disasters. They go far in demonstrating that there is reason to believe similarities can assist in creating base plans from which to adapt once details of a specific disaster make themselves known. Timely creation is vital. Researchers at the University of Washington and Harvard forecast that by 2100 heat exposure will increase by three to ten times in America and other mid-latitude regions. Cities with their heat island effects are sure to suffer disproportionately. Climate change is exacerbating the destructive effects of major storms. “The fear is that policymakers will wait until an extreme event occurs,” Economist writers surmise. “The closer it gets, the harder the task will become.”[24]

Effective urban disaster preparation also means having the correct (and heat-endurable) technologies on hand. Compatible inter-organization communications equipment arguably tops the list. UAVs, unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and means of detecting survivors beneath rubble (and, in unfortunate circumstances, others) are among them. Some assets will span response requirements regardless of the type of catastrophe. Firefighting resources include ladders and cranes, water transport, axes, decontamination/washing stations, patient-handling resources, and many more directly of value when responding to fires but likewise helpful if responding to chemical releases, floods, earthquakes, and more. The value of effective disaster-response equipment has long been known. As Stephen Porter reports in his book The Great Fire of London,

A ready supply of equipment was essential and was achieved by requiring the parishes and livery companies to keep a specified number of buckets, ladders, and fire-hooks. In the early 1640s each of the larger companies was asked to hold three dozen buckets, two ladders, two ‘great hooks with chains’, pickaxes, spades and shovels, and one fire-engine.[25]

The best plans are like these multi-purpose items: valuable across a broad spectrum of disasters, but also of utility when specific needs arise.


This post first appeared as Russ Glenn, “Readying for Urban Disaster, Post Two.” LinkedIn, 17 October 2022,

[1] Eric Klinenberg, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 17. (Emphasis in original.)

[2]“Hot and not too bothered: Fast-warming cities,” The Economist, 444 (September 3, 2022): p. 20.

[3] Edward P. Kohn, Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1876 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt, NY: Basic Books, 2010, pp. x and 257. Like Klinenberg, Kohn recognizes the dangers posed by heat: “Today, heat remains the most deadly natural killer in the United States, on average killing more Americans than floods, earthquakes, tornados, and hurricanes combined.”

[4] Kohn, p. 55.

[5] Kohn, pp. 91-92.

[6] Kohn, pp. 101-102.

[7] Kohn, pp. 138-37 and 140.

[8] Kohn, p. 112.

[9] Kohn, p. 76.

[10] Klinenburg, p. 1.

[11] Derek Lowe, “Lab Animals Wiped Out in Hurricane Sandy,” Science (November 1, 2012),, and Mark Sincell, “Flood Ravages Houston Labs,” Science (June 11, 2001), (both sites accessed September 16, 2022).

[12] Klinenberg, p. 5.

[13] Stephen Porter, The Great Fire of London, Port Stroud, UK: The History Press, 2009, p. 26.

[14] Porter, p. 41.

[14] Porter, p. 28.

[16] Porter, p. 47.

[17] Porter, pp. 32-33.

[18] Porter, p. 33.

[19] Porter, 48-49.

[20] Porter, p. 62.

[21] Porter, p. 66.

[22] Porter, pp. 61 and 67.

[23] Edward P. Kohn interview with National Public Radio, “The Heat Wave of 1896 And The Rise of Roosevelt,” August 11, 2010, (accessed September 23, 2022).

[24] “Hot and not too bothered;” p. 21.

[25] Porter, p. 16.

The previous installation of this series “Readying for Urban Disaster, Post One,” appeared on 14 January 2023.


Readying for Urban Disaster, Post One

Sat, 01/14/2023 - 9:54pm

Readying for Urban Disaster, Post One

Russell W. Glenn

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


Photograph by Dr. Russell W. Glenn, Baghdad, Iraq


This is the first of what will be fourteen posts coming over the next equal number of weeks. I will shoot for putting them online around 6 PM Mondays or a bit before. The material covers select observations from Come Hell or High Fever along with several historical examples and additional insights uncovered since the manuscript went to the publisher. The book’s focus (and that of the fourteen posts) is readying for urban disasters (four posts, of which this is the first), responding to those calamities (another four), and recovering from catastrophes (six). The last group receives greater attention in terms of posting numbers because of the understandable need to denote recovery’s challenges given events ongoing in Ukraine. Focusing on recovery alone would be short-sighted, however, for decisions made and actions taken during recovery should always keep in mind possible futures in which Mother Nature, mankind, or (often) the two in cahoots bring urban areas their darker hours. I offer that plans and responses to these yet-to-be events should incorporate lessons from both the past and ongoing challenges.

The fourteen posts seek to lend a bit of insight for practitioners: government authorities, civilian and inter-governmental organizations, and private citizens who will or might play a part in lessening others’ suffering during or in the aftermath of urban crises. The material will also be of interest to readers for whom the topic of urban disasters sparks a desire to know more about what are sure to become increasingly common as nature adds climate change’s ills to already familiar occurrences seen in years past. Coverage provided by both these online offerings and forthcoming book are sudden disasters: cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, war, major acts of terrorism, flooding, heat waves, pollution catastrophes, and the like. We will consider gradual or creeping misfortunes due to climate change, longtime degradation of an urban area’s water or air, criminality, misgovernment, or social inequality only in terms of how they might hasten or exacerbate the consequences of more abrupt events.

Though the words are my own, any wisdom these pages offer is the consequence of good fortune in what I have learned from the over 1,000 individuals who have in recent years granted time and insights during interviews in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Korea, Japan, East Africa, Europe, Canada, at home in the USA, and elsewhere or by phone. So too, many are the books, articles, studies, and additional materials that have advised these observations. Endnotes to this and following posts should provide a starting point for readers who want to pursue any historical event or topic more fully. The book will offer a far more extensive list of references in its bibliography.

There’s also a bit of “been there, done that” in these pages given travels over the past now nearly three decades. Yet one person’s experiences provide only a soda straw view of any problem or event. It’s surely apocryphal, but the tale of Frederick the Great’s mule serves as a reminder for any of us who might like to believe that our personal experiences provide general knowledge. As it goes, the tale has a Prussian general approaching Frederick and demanding a promotion because of the many battles in which he participated. Frederick’s response: “Well, in that case, my horse should be a field marshal.”


So, let’s get on with it. I will tend to provide one or more historical examples with each posting. We’ll start here with World War II Hamburg. The extensive bombing and related firestorm damage suffered by the city meant that its leaders were all but overwhelmed in deciding what to take on first after the destruction. Potable drinking water was a concern from immediate survival and disease prevention perspectives. Rubble clogged streets, making delivery of aid or relief difficult. Some of the debris concealed corpses. Other dead lie in the open, offering fulfillment to insects, rats, and any other animal that might seek a meal. Survivors slept in bunkers, the luckier of those lucky instead housing with friends or relatives. Yet others moved into structures still habitable. Rightful owners sometimes later returned to find their properties occupied by strangers. The squatters were often permitted to stay until other suitable shelter could be found, something that could take months. During all this struggling to survive, bureaucrats in Berlin demanded rapid restoration of the city’s war industries.[1]

Could any plan have readied Hamburg for such an eventuality? Is it fair to expect leaders in WWII London, Manila, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Korean War Seoul, or early 2022 Kiev to have readied for the tragedies that struck their populations? Probably not in terms of the specifics of those woes, but could they have prepared a well-considered “generic” disaster plan to act as the sturdy bones on which to hang details of more specialized plans when crises presented themselves? Might Los Angeles or Tokyo’s existing earthquake planning provide an 80% solution should massive flooding, tsunami, or (the gods forbid) a weapon of mass destruction event visit?  There is a saying in the military that it is easier to frag off an existing plan than start from scratch. (“Frag” is an adaptation of “fragmentary order.” The military routinely creates master plans for a contingency knowing it will later adapt the base plan by issuing complementary fragmentary orders to provide adaptations as situations dictate.) The same is certainly true regardless of the challenge at hand. Such preparations need not be limited to plans alone. Forward-looking policies, flexible initiatives, well-conceived training, and broad-vision decisions can be—should be—routine. It is a point to which we will return in future posts.

“Unfair!” you shout. How could Hamburg’s leaders have known of devastation to come? Surely it is wrong to expect them to have been ready for events never seen in history! Methinks you are too kind. Leaders in Berlin, Hamburg, and other German cities would surely have been naïve to believe that Germany’s bombing of London and other British cities would go unavenged. Didn’t those events offer some idea of events to come for any willing to consider the possibility? Or what of insights leaders could have drawn from disasters of other sorts, Lisbon’s trifecta of earthquake, tsunami, and fires in 1755, for example? Or Tokyo’s preparations for and recovery from its devastating 1923 earthquake and resultant fires responsible for over 100,000 lost lives? Officials’ provided Hamburg anti-aircraft guns and fighters to engage Allied bombers, but those initiatives addressed military issues alone. Preparations for disasters that do not encompass the full spectrum of likely requirements, at least generally, do not merit the label “prepared.”

Let’s leap some sixty years forward and 4,000 miles distant from WWII Hamburg to India’s megacity of Mumbai. Many readers will be familiar with Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark’s intriguing book The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel or the movie Hotel Mumbai, both of which address the 2008 terrorist attacks on that city. Ten individuals assaulted the country’s second most populous urban area on a Wednesday. Their attacks continued into the following Saturday before they were killed (nine of the ten) or captured (one). Ten individuals, only ten, held much of the world’s fifth most populous urban area hostage for going on three days![2] The failures in preparation (and response) are epic.

Though it was only one of several targets struck in Mumbai, let us focus on events in the Taj Hotel. Two, later four, terrorists in the facility counted AK-47 automatic rifles among the weapons carried as they killed those in common areas and later went room-to-room, executing innocents unwittingly answering their doors, found hiding, or seeking to escape. (Amazingly, people were still trying to get into the Taj twenty-five minutes after the attacks began as they fled from gunfire and explosions elsewhere in the vicinity. There had yet to be any organized police response or effort to communicate with or control the frantic citizenry.) Among the other locations attacked were the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station, another hotel, a café, and a Jewish centre. Police, poorly trained in how to use what were often inadequate weapons, ran from the danger.[3] Law enforcement failure would be the order of the day as the terror dragged on, the perpetrators shocked at how little resistance alleged public defenders offered. Police only four blocks from a besieged maternity hospital chose to remain in their headquarters. Across the city, some 174 innocents and security force personnel would eventually be killed and another 300 wounded due to the lack of preparation and ineffective response.[4]           

There was little excuse for the failure to better prepare. Officials had received over twenty-five warnings before the attacks from sources that included the US Central Intelligence Agency.[5] Nor was Mumbai virgin terrain when it came to such criminality. The city had previously experienced twelve prominent acts of terrorism. Together these tallied over five hundred dead and nearly four times that number injured. It took less than eleven minutes for 181 to die in the bombing of seven of the megacity’s trains a little over two years before. As with WWII Hamburg, preparations for the scattered attacks in November could have benefited from these previous events’ lessons had officials been willing to learn and act. They might also have incorporated experiences from earlier strikes such as those in London on July 7th of the year before.        

There were preparations. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that those preparations were “red teamed,” tested in sessions during which individuals assume devil’s advocate roles to challenge assumptions and other aspects of plans, rehearsals, or exercises. (The good guys are generally depicted on maps with blue symbols in the US, the bad guys with red. Red teamer responsibilities include viewing plans or exercises from enemy perspectives.) The Taj Hotel, for example, installed blast-resistant glass. However, combined with a decision to seal entries and exits to keep additional terrorists from entering the building (an action that failed as a second pair of terrorists nevertheless gained entry), some individuals trying to escape found the glass further trapped them as furniture and other objects thrown against windows bounced off. Other failures in preparation included not incorporating Indian navy MARCOS personnel, akin to US Navy SEALs, into plans as state-level decisionmakers felt the naval personnel’s expertise was not in keeping with the challenges at hand, and not addressing glaring disaster coordination disconnects between city officials and those of Maharashtra state (of which Mumbai is the capital).          

Before identifying our first key point (a series of which will appear throughout future postings), it is worth noting that activities taken in readying for urban disaster should address more than actions to be taken once calamity visits. Well-advised plans and other preparations can also address actions taken before crises to lessen their impact. Authors David Adams and Peter Larkham, in their book The Everyday Experiences of Reconstruction and Regeneration, provide an observation in keeping with our own that it is easier to adapt an existing plan than start from scratch. Recalling two British cities in the aftermath of WWII bombing destruction, they found“Birmingham was in far stronger position than Coventry to proceed with reconstruction because of the range of plans for zoning (from 1913) and road plans (of 1919) that had already been well developed before the onset of the Second World War.”[6]      

Readying for urban disasters is not cheap. Effective preparations inevitably consume money and other resources such as training time and equipment. Rare, however, is the case when good groundwork does not ultimately save more—likely much more—than the cost of disaster response and recovery in the absence of readiness. Smart planning, training, and other steps need not be as expensive as they might otherwise be either, which brings us to our first key point:

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


This post first appeared as Russ Glenn, “First of fourteen weekly urban disaster posts; Readying for Urban Disaster, Post One.” LinkedIn, 10 October 2022,

Author’s original preface: I realize it has been a long hiatus since my last urban posting. Been busy reviewing editor’s comments for Come Hell or High Fever: Readying the World’s Megacities for Disaster [my forthcoming book from Australian National University Press in January 2023, which ANU Press will both offer for sale in hardcopy form (as will Amazon, I am told) and provide online with free access for readers. Either way, the author’s (my) royalties are the same: ($0)(number of copies sold/downloaded) = $0. That’s true whether the dollars are US or Australian.] 

[1] Material from this description of Hamburg’s woes comes from Keith Lowe, Inferno: The Fiery Destruction of Hamburg1943, New York: Scribner. 2007, pp. 266 & 278.

[2] Demographia World Urban Areas, which I prefer for insights on the world’s urban environments given its rigor and annual updating, identifies Mumbai’s just less than 25 million as number five in world urban area populations. Delhi is India’s most populous with just over 32 million, making it third. (Tokyo and Jakarta rank first and second, respectively.) See Demographia World Urban Areas, 18th edition, July 2022, p.21, (accessed 9 September 2022). 

[3] Sources differ regarding the number of casualties suffered during the 2008 attacks both in terms of individual locations and total. Those used here draw on what are thought to be particularly well researched sources.

[4] Shanthi Mariet D’Souza, “Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008,” Encyclopedia Britannica, (accessed 8 July 2020).

[5] Material in the remainder of this discussion capitalizes on the following unless otherwise cited: Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel. New York: Penguin, 2013. 

[6] David Adams and Peter Larkham, The Everyday Experiences of Reconstruction and Regeneration, Cambridge: MIT Press. 2006, p. 59. (Emphasis in original.)

Defense Coordinating Elements: A Vital Link Between DOD and Civil Authorities

Fri, 10/05/2012 - 8:08am

The Chemical, Biological Radiological Nuclear Response Enterprise exercises foster interagency cooperation and support for response and recovery of man-made and natural disasters.  Embedded within each of the ten Federal Emergency Management Agency Regions are Defense Coordinating Elements lead by an O-6 Defense Coordinating Officer.  The nine-person DCE is the single point of entry for all local, tribal, state, and federal requests for DoD assistance.   The DCE is augmented by senior reserve officers serving as Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officers from the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps assigned to each state.  The EPLOs work closely with state emergency managers and the state National Guard Joint Force Headquarters to maintain awareness of capabilities, gaps, and emergency response plans within their state.  During a disaster they serve a vital role by faciliting information sharing between the DCE and State Emergency Operations Centers or Joint Force Headquarters.  This is especially critical in developing situational awareness and building trust between local or state and federal entities.

The general saying in the Defense Support of Civil Authorities world is “a disaster is not the place to be handing out business cards,” meaning a disaster is not the place you should meet your intra-agency counter-part for the first time.  During VIBRANT RESPONSE 13 the DCE had the unique opportunity to rehearse interagency operations while working with FEMA National and Regional Incident Management Assistance Teams who were also participating in the National Exercise scenario for the first time.  FEMA IMATs rapidly deploy to effected venues and assist local and state leadership to identify federal assistance requirements, and to coordinate and integrate inter-jurisdictional response in support of an affected state or territory.  As the name implies, they help manage Federal resources to fill needs that the local and state emergency managers cannot meet.  During VR 13 the DCE actively participated in the FEMA 24-hour planning cycle known as the Incident Action Process, identified and validated DoD mission assignments, and provided the requirements and guidance to U. S. Army North’s Joint Task Force-Civil Support headquarters for action. 

The VR 13 exercise was followed by the real-world deployment of multiple FEMA IMATs and six DCEs to five states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to support the response and recovery needs resulting from the landfall of Hurricane Isaac.  Many of the DCEs had not previously operated in hurricane states.  Using their understanding of FEMA operations and well trained state EPLOs they were able to establish a Federal Staging Area for Urban Search and Rescue Teams, coordinate Incident Support Bases, facilitate aerial imagery, and control DoD helicopters deployed in support of the Federal response.

The CRE exercise VR 13 served as an excellent opportunity for DoD to interact with Federal, State, and local agencies to prepare for the “next big disaster.”  The way ahead is clearly to continue fostering the DoD relationship with our partner Federal Agencies to plan and prepare for civil support for all-hazards events.