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UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction


Archive for April, 2020

New paper published on tropical cyclones and warning systems: the extraordinary among the commonplace

Rebekah Yore30 April 2020

Many of you may know well what it means to live through recurring hazards, such as annual seasons of tropical cyclones. Some of you will know how to protect yourselves and your families against the frightening but smaller storms. Some will know the catastrophic danger and absolute fear created by the larger ones (all in relative terms of course). Some will know what it means to live in evacuation centres and to be displaced in emergency shelters for weeks or even months at a time.

Whatever your experiences, imagine for a moment that you’ve never experienced a Category 5 hurricane before, unaware of what it could do to your family, friends and home; a person living in a wooden home on stilts over the ocean and unsure of what “storm surge” means; a farmer whose life depends on the pigs he keeps on his land around his home; an elderly woman having experienced a deadly disaster years ago but who is now completely dependent on her family to ensure her safety. Does experience or naivety help you make safer decisions? What happens if you want to leave for a shelter but the rest of your family doesn’t? What do you do if you keep animals on your homeland and can’t leave them behind? Or what if you hear a message on the radio that conflicts with advice you hear on the TV?

Conversation partners in Tanauan, Leyte, Philippines 

In our latest paper published in Disasters journal, Joanna Faure Walker and I have drawn on our fieldwork studies in the Philippines and Dominica to investigate what warnings people heard, when and where from in relation to how they then reacted before major tropical cyclones. In the Philippines, we took Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013 (internationally known as Haiyan) as a case study, and in Dominica, we studied Major Hurricane Maria in 2017. The Philippines and the Caribbean experience annual tropical cyclone seasons, and so are accustomed to events that usually range between tropical depressions and Category 1-2 storms. However, we are particularly interested in examining what happens on rarer occasions, when these locations experience large Category 4 and giant Category 5 storms.

We found that among the people we surveyed in the two locations, a warning that both Yolanda and Maria were approaching was heard by all but one person before both storms arrived. These were often received with more than a day’s notice, however, over three quarters of our populations chose to either remain at home throughout the storms, leave for shelter during them, or leave for shelter once they had passed, not complying with direct instructions from the authorities to evacuate. Not the intention of those issuing the warnings, and not the safety seeking behaviours we would associate with a successful warning system.

Conversation partners in Soufriere, Dominica

Single sources of warning, such as a message through a radio only, failed to reach everyone in both locations, and so warnings issued across several media platforms were often the best way of ensuring as far as possible that the most people received a warning advisory. This is intuitively sensible, especially as some may fail at critical stages. However, in the Philippines, this had practical implications. Even though only around half of respondents heard a warning from two or more sources, slightly more people evacuated before Yolanda arrived when they heard two sources, rather than only one.

So if the warning system technology works, why did the desired human response not follow? We know from other studies that evacuation is tricky because of the complexities of people’s lives, and that people stay at home to protect their possessions, their livestock, to adhere to social pressures etc. But revealed in our surveys were a number of key elements that also deprived our respondents of a full appreciation of the heightened danger in these two cases. These tropical cyclones were more deadly than the average storm, but not realising the implications of “storm surge” because the term was widely unknown among respondents in the Philippines, signalled a failure in the messaging that almost certainly resulted in a higher death toll. Similarly, radio network breakdown during Maria’s very late and rapid intensification near Dominica meant that warning messages were confusing and Category 5 impacts were not expected. In such situations, people defaulted to their usual behaviour: stay at home and ride it out, it’s what normally works. And because both information pictures were incomplete, people were caught unaware.

Tacloban, Leyte, Philippines (2016)

In both locations, messages were reported to have been inconsistent and unclear, for example to evacuate if you live close to the water or in “vulnerable housing” (what does this even mean?) in the Philippines. Often these required people to exercise considerable levels of subjective judgement over several risk profiles, most notably their own and that of their locale. This necessitates, at the very least, a full hazard information picture. Additionally, evacuation and shelter infrastructure that should support warning messages and promote safety seeking behaviour was often so substandard that it was a deterrent. The inadequacy of many emergency shelters discouraged people from their use, being overcrowded, lacking in resources, offering little personal safety, and incurred physical damage themselves by the storms.

Our paper demonstrates that within the social processes of warning mechanisms, a failure at any stage can render them decidedly less effective in saving lives. It shows that warning systems require the support of accurate forecasting and message dissemination technology (improved hazard modelling, the acknowledgement of scientific risk uncertainty, robust and consistent communications networks, and context appropriate language), solid infrastructure (e.g. fit-for-purpose evacuation shelters) and an inherent consideration for the idiosyncrasies of populations at risk, taking into account “foreground” and “background” constraints and assumptions (these are explained in the paper, so go read it). It also suggests that experiencing more regular, lower intensity tropical cyclones may in itself not help reduce vulnerability to the more deadly effects of rare, higher-intensity storms.

Our full study and findings in more detail can be found here:

Yore, R., Walker, J.F. (2020). Early Warning Systems and Evacuation: Rare and Extreme vs Frequent and Small-Scale Tropical Cyclones in the Philippines and Dominica. Disasters, doi:10.1111/disa.12434




Coronavirus and Disaster Leadership

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi29 April 2020

Written by Ilan Kelman

During this pandemic, some world leaders have listened to the advice from their experts and scientists while others have ignored and contradicted it. The step from research and evidence to decisions and actions will always lead to a variety of outcomes where the researchers and the decision-makers are different. What examples do we have of academics, notably disaster academics, as political leaders?

The answer seems to be that disaster academics as politicians are rare. Partly because of scientists’ general inclination to shun the public spotlight. Partly because disaster research is an amorphous field, ill-defined and only relatively recently being large enough to potentially be considered a cohesive discipline.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Heads of state and heads of government who worked as academics are more common. Angela Merkel of Germany was a quantum chemist; Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga of Latvia spent decades researching, teaching, and publishing on psychology, semiotics, and cognition; Woodrow Wilson of the USA was, suitably, a scholar in American politics.

Margaret Thatcher of the UK is often mentioned, but she did not have a PhD, although she worked as a research chemist before qualifying as a barrister. Meanwhile, casting the net wider to ministers rather than heads of state and government, opens up possibilities such as Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice as US Secretaries of State. Their policies were not the most supportive of disaster risk reduction.

At least a dozen other current or recent world political leaders have doctoral degrees with a vast range of topics and experience levels in post-PhD research. None identified could be said to have worked in disaster research.

Then, there is the meme circulating about the countries doing well in keeping Covid-19 under control, all of whom have women as heads of government. It is a somewhat artificial list, as there are several counterexamples. In fact, in mid-April, Israel was listed as one of the highest-ranked countries for Covid-19 safety when it did not even have a government and the caretaker Prime Minister (a man) was under indictment.

So we pose plenty of questions regarding political leadership and disaster risk reduction and response, especially during the current pandemic. In particular, given that we as IRDR scientists seek public and policy influence from our work, could we achieve more as academics or as politicians–or is there some combination which could function best?

Integrating Earthquake Early Warnings into Organisational Resilience: The case-study of Mexico City

ucesvel28 April 2020

Mexico has been historically impacted by earthquakes due to its geographical location within the well-known ring of fire. In September 1985, a large earthquake heavily affected the country, leaving behind a substantial death-toll, injuries and hundreds of collapsed structures. As a result, many DRR changes emerged, such as establishing the National System of Civil Protection and updating the construction code for Mexico City, adding new necessary regulations regarding seismic design. The Mexican Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) system was also proposed in 1986, and in 1991 the system began operations.

The Mexican Earthquake Early Warning System (source: cires.org.mx).

The EEW system was tested in September 2017 when two earthquakes hit the south and central regions of the country, on the 7th and 19th of September, respectively.  A 90-seconds warning was effectively released to the residents of Mexico City on September 7, but no alert was given on September 19, as the area surrounding the epicentre was not covered by the EEW’s seismic network.  In addition, the capital was very close to the epicentre, therefore, if the EEW was able to provide a warning, it would have been very short, and the impact had still been the same. This was challenging to accept. The residents expressed their concerns as they expected to receive an alert.

Residential building that collapsed in Mexico City during the 19 Sep 2017 earthquake.

In the last two years, several scholars investigated peoples’ reactions to the Mexican EEW system. The results show that there is a lack of public understanding on how the Mexican EEW system operates. In that same period of time, also my interest in the topic raised significatively. I started talking with relatives and friends who live in Mexico City. I understood that few people nowadays are properly informed about the operational basics and potential benefits of the EEW system.

In April 2019, my supervisor Dr Carmine Galasso (UCL CEGE) and I decided to extend the topic of my thesis in earthquake engineering to include the societal dimension of the EEW. We involved Dr Gianluca Pescaroli (UCL IRDR) as second supervisor, who suggested to focus on understanding how organisations integrate the alerts in their operational procedures. This was developed into a phased project titled ‘Integrating earthquake early warnings into organisational resilience’. The different components of the project were financed by the British Academy’s Leverhulme Small Research Grant, supported by the United Kingdom’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Grant Reference: SRG19\191797), and by the Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team’s (EEFIT) 2019 Research Award. The main goal of this project is to provide new and impact-oriented insights on the connection between the technical and social components of the Mexican EEW. In particular, we aim to investigate which measures could be needed to increase the organisational resilience of local community stakeholders and the private sector, such as business and infrastructure providers, deriving new guidelines for improving emergency preparedness.

Our first steps led to a journal paper, currently in review, that studied the technical and social aspects of EEW in 4 countries where EEWs operate with different levels of maturity: Italy (Campania region), the USA (West-Coast), Mexico and Japan. What emerged in the Mexican context shows that technically the EEW system performs well but the applicability in the social and organisational context is very poor. We investigated the critical interaction between the technical, organisational, social and political spheres, including elements such as stakeholders’ perceptions of the Mexican EEW system, the current status of planning for mitigating disruptions, and training needs related to EEW.

The second phase of the project involved data collection in Mexico City. As a research assistant, I developed the fieldwork during the months of December and January. At this step, Professor Irasema Alcantara-Ayala (UNAM Mexico) and Ms Sandra Camacho-Otero (ARISE-MX) also became part of the investigation team. They were very kind in providing comments and suggestions for the format of the interview so that it became more contextualised to the Mexican background. I carried out 15 semi-structured interviews targeted at experts in the areas of Local Government-Civil Protection, Private Sector, Academia, Disaster Risk Reduction, Civil, Seismic and Mechanical Engineering, Hazard Modelling, Architecture, NGOs and Civil Societies. I sincerely thank my friends Oscar Cardel and Tai Cardel as they incredibly helped me to approach those top experts in Mexico City who are closely related to the EEW system.

After the third interview, I noted that the respondents were very interested in the subject, more than I actually imagined. During the 4th interview, I decided to inquire more in the sections related to DRR education in Mexico, acceptability of false alerts and the perception of the EEW system outside Mexico City. This was done with the previous confirmation and consent of my supervisors as these topics were more secondary. In my opinion, this was a clever move as the respondents showed plenty of interest for every single question I was asking, and the collected data will result in very interesting conclusions and outcomes. In fact, the first interviews had a duration of 30 to 40 minutes approximately, while interviews 4 to 15 had a duration no shorter than 1.5 hours.

One of the biggest challenges I faced during the interviews was dealing with some concern as I knew I was interviewing very important people in Mexico. Also, some questions exposed subjects about the lack of organisation and capacity of the EEW system and of those bodies in charge of DRR in Mexico City. At some point, I thought their hierarchy and expertise might come over me and make me hesitate or feel without confidence during the interviews. However, I managed to have a composed attitude during every single interview and whenever the atmosphere became slightly challenging, I knew how to deal with the situation. Nevertheless, I did not have any kind of tough discussion nor important issues with any of the interviewees. I strongly believe the fact that all questions had a strong background based on previous studies and experiences, and that I prepared myself, mentally and academically, helped me a lot not to panic.

A second visit to Mexico City was planned in the months of March and April to distribute a questionnaire and obtain more data. However, the Covid-19 pandemic did not allow it. Therefore, we had to switch to an online format and produce an online questionnaire that was delivered through the UCL’s Web-Based Survey Tool ‘Opinio’. I would also like to express my gratitude to my friend Mara Torres-Pinedo for her recommendations and ideas to improve the quality of the questionnaire.

Right now, the project is at the analysis stage where we are implementing qualitative and quantitative analyses of the collected data. In the following weeks, we are expecting to culminate the analysis process and begin the discussion phase. Considering the data acquired, we feel confident that the results of the study will have a positive significance, so we are targeting to publish our results in a high-impact journal for the dissemination of the results and conclusions.

Aftermath of the 19 Sep 17 earthquake in southern Mexico (source: globalmedia.mx).

For more information and updates, please visit the ResearchGate website of the project.

Coronavirus and the Arctic: Svalbard, Norway

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi22 April 2020

Written by Patrizia Isabelle Duda and Ilan Kelman

Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago about half-way between mainland Norway or the port of Murmansk and the North Pole. It is governed by the Svalbard Treaty from 1920 which gives living and resource extraction rights to the citizens of signatory countries. The territory’s population of 2500-3000 is located primarily on the island of Spitzbergen across several settlements, with the Norwegian settlement of Longyearbyen being the largest with over 80% of the population, followed by the Russian-populated Barentsburg.

Welcome sign. (Copyright Ilan Kelman 2019.)

The only states to have maintained continuous, historic presence on Svalbard are Norway and Russia. Svalbard has become a fascinating case study for disaster-related influences on Norway-Russia relations, such as through a project funded by the Research Council of Norway on Arctic disaster diplomacy. Svalbard’s developed areas are effectively in coastal lowlands and are susceptible to risks ranging from polar bear attacks to snowmobile and aircraft crashes to avalanches and floods. Disease is also a major risk.

Epidemics have been considered for Svalbard long before the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak. They include zoological and human epidemics due to rabies, tapeworms and the re-emergence of a (potentially mutated) H1N1 virus that previously killed miners on Svalbard during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and remained in the tissues of their bodies which failed to decompose in Svalbard’s permafrost. The successful international fictional TV-series “Fortitude” from 2015-2018 dealing with a mysterious virus outbreak on Svalbard is testament to these concerns over the archipelago’s public health.

The fjord near Longyearbyen. (Copyright Ilan Kelman 2019.)

Healthcare services on Svalbard are limited and are provided mainly by Longyearbyen’s small hospital and to a lesser extent, simple facilities in Barentsburg. Given their limited capacity to deal with either a large influx of sick people and/or complicated health cases, Svalbard’s healthcare services are not built to handle many infected or isolated people, such as has been necessary for the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

Longbyearbyen in winter. (Copyright Ilan Kelman 2019.)

Disaster discussions on Svalbard frequently raise the spectre of a cruise ship outbreak, with norovirus being prominent, where such a ship can easily have more people than Svalbard. Often docking in numerous locations before an outbreak is even detected, cruise ships can have potentially catastrophic consequences on the health and healthcare systems of the communities they visit, a risk highlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic, due to cruise ships with coronavirus, such as the “Diamond Princess” in Japan.

Thus, Svalbard has enacted precautions, especially in the form of communication protocols and pre-established logistical pathways between Svalbard and Tromsø (on Norway’s mainland) to re-locate patients, typically through air evacuation. In the current situation, Svalbard’s Governor quickly announced measures such as banning tourism and visitors from non-Nordic countries arriving in Svalbard; quarantining tourists already on Svalbard and sending them to Oslo; and enacting a quarantine of seven days for anyone arriving in Svalbard’s other communities.

(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2009.)

Nonetheless, even with travel restrictions, the possibility of an outbreak on Svalbard remains, as the virus can survive on inanimate objects such as packaging and boxes, although its resistance to cold is not yet known. In any case, beyond Covid-19, Svalbard must consider other possibilities for epidemics and pandemics. IRDR is contributing to this work by analysing how this remote Arctic location could better deal with disease among other risks.

Conflict, Disaster, and Disease: A Colossal Catastrophe Looms in the Rohingya Camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Bayes Ahmed20 April 2020

A panoramic view of the Kutupalong Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh. Source: Bayes Ahmed, fieldwork, 2019.

On 17 April 2020, another boat floating in the Bay of Bengal for two months was found carrying 30 dead bodies and 400 other Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, fleeing armed conflict from Myanmar. Also, since 23 March 2020, the Myanmar military has been carrying out daily airstrikes and shelling in Rakhine State resulting in at least 32 civilian deaths, mostly women and children, and destroying homes and schools [1]. The killing of innocent people and civilians by the Myanmar Army/Tatmadaw in Rakhine is still taking place fearlessly despite the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN), officially endorsed the ‘Rohingya identity’ in January 2020 and ordered the Myanmar government not to commit acts of genocide and take effective measures to prevent the destruction of any evidence related to genocide [2]. The final verdict on the prevention and punishment of the Crime of (Rohingya) Genocide against Myanmar is pending.

The crisis is not new. The Rakhine State of Myanmar and Cox’s Bazar District of Bangladesh share international borders, and both countries were commonly ruled by the British Empire. Being the same colony for over 120 years, eventually, the Muslim Bengalis and Buddhist Rakhine people travelled between the two states (formerly known as the Arakan State) for business, agricultural and other purposes. However, since the independence of Burma in 1948, the Muslim population in Rakhine have been labelled as ‘illegal Bengali migrants’ and later on referred to as the Rohingyas. Failing to permanently expel the Rohingyas from Rakhine, the Burmese (Military) government, introduced a citizenship law in October 1982 stating that “full citizens are descendants of residents who lived in Burma prior to 1823 or were born to parents who were citizens at the time of birth” [3]. The amended law has a clear link with the Muslim migration during the British rule in Burma between 1824-1948. Eventually, the Rohingyas lost their citizenship and became stateless.

Since then persistent torture, human rights violation and persecution followed by a number of major military crackdowns, a genocidal policy adopted by the Myanmar Army, communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine, and killing and murder of innocent civilians and burning down their homestead resulted in the forced displacement of Rohingyas to Bangladesh notably in 1978, 1992, 2012, 2016, 2017, and in 2019. Recently, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimated that at least 9,400 people lost their lives due to direct violence in Myanmar between 25 August and 24 September 2017. The UN estimates that over one million stateless Rohingya are still remaining in Rakhine State (600,000 displaced and 470,00 non-displaced) [4]. The actual number is unknown due to fabrication in Myanmar’s national population census and strategically replacing the names of local villages/townships. The Rohingyas are facing extreme discrimination and are being denied basic humanitarian access, livelihoods and services in Myanmar [4]. In contrast, Bangladesh is currently hosting over 859,000 Rohingyas (78% of them are women and children) in the UN registered camps in Cox’s Bazar [5] and over 300,00 of them are hiding as undocumented refugees [3]. The crisis has adversely impacted more than 444,000 Bengali host community members in Cox’s Bazar [5].

An enormous protected area of hill forests in Cox’s Bazar district (6,000 hectares) has already been wiped out to build makeshift shelters by cutting hills and to arrange fuel for cooking for the Rohingyas. They are living in camps that are absolutely vulnerable to landslides, flash flooding, cyclones, and fire hazards. Between April to November 2019, at least 1400, 500, 70, and 35 major incidents were reported across all camps related to landslide/soil erosion, wind/storm, flood, and fire hazard respectively. As a result, over 85,000 individuals were affected and 4,000 households were displaced to another location [5]. No effective early warning system is available for them, although the partners are consistently working to make the camps weather-proof and resilient to natural hazards.

Multi-hazard prone Rohingya makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh. Source: Bayes Ahmed, fieldwork, 2018-2020 and ISCG [5].

The Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar are not allowed to move outside the camps and build permanent shelters. No formal education is also allowed. They depend on nominal humanitarian assistance from the UN such as basic food (rice, palm oil, and lentils). These embargos are imposed mostly to comply with the standard UN refugee mandates. The novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is posing another major threat to the Rohingyas, as they are living in exceedingly overcrowded camps and the existing health centres are not equipped with necessary testing and treatment facilities. The same situation applies to the host communities. As instructed by the UN, the partners are advancing with the construction of an isolation and treatment centres, reducing activities to essential services and assistances only, promoting hygiene activities, training healthcare workers, and ensuring social distancing inside the camps. As of 20 April 2020, the entire Cox’s Bazar district including the camps are now locked down, and no Rohingya is even allowed to move between two camps until further notice.

Activities are undertaken to prevent COVID-19 outbreak in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar district, Bangladesh. Source: ISCG [5].

The Rohingyas are also afraid to go back to Myanmar as they suspect fresh attacks on them by the Myanmar Army. The repatriation process is halted. The Rohingyas have strong community bonding and trying their best to adapt in this dreadful situation, however, all these efforts are not enough to ensure resilient futures for them. Given the international and national resolutions, the only sustainable solution for the Rohingya refugees would be to repatriate them in Myanmar with safety and dignity. 

Overall, the genocide-fled Rohingyas and already over-stressed Bangladeshi host communities in Cox’s Bazar are not ready to face the impending threats of natural hazard-induced disasters and Coronavirus pandemic. If, for example, a landslide/cyclone disaster and COVID-19 outbreak collide in the coming months, then it would be another catastrophic humanitarian crisis. The threat is inevitable, but nobody knows any decisive remedy to tackle it. Now, we can only pray for a strong cyclone or consecutive torrential rainfall events not to occur during the cyclone and monsoon season (May-October) or the Coronavirus not to spread in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. Yet, there is no hope for their sustainable repatriation, integration, third-country settlement, or justice. The situation is somewhat true or even worse for the remaining 70 million displaced people worldwide – their sufferings have no limits!

Even a pod of whales can travel from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean, a flock of birds can fly from one continent to the other, but unfortunately, we have created such a sickening (in)human civilisation where a group of distressed people fleeing war, conflict, climate change and natural disasters are not allowed to move freely or even claim basic human rights for their minimal level of survival. This is the bitter truth! The only long-lasting solution to this grave crisis would be to fully support global truce (including the insurgents and militias), end hatred and discrimination towards minority and refugee population, and promote peace, sustainable economic growth, and global and regional cooperation gradually.

Rohingya camps in the no man’s land in Tumbru, Naikhongchari Upazila, Bandarban district, Bangladesh. Source: Bayes Ahmed, fieldwork, 2018.


[1] The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights). (2020). Press briefing note on Myanmar/Bangladesh – Rohingya. United Nations (UN). http://ow.ly/LsfE50zgP9R (accessed on 18 April 2020).

[2] International Court of Justice (ICJ). (2020). Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (The Gambia v. Myanmar). https://www.icj-cij.org/en/case/178 (accessed on 17 April 2020).

[3] Ahmed, I. (Ed.). (2010). The Plight of the Stateless Rohingyas: Responses of the State, Society & the International Community. The University Press Limited, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

[4] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). (2019). Myanmar Humanitarian Response Plan 2020 (December 2019). https://reliefweb.int/report/myanmar/myanmar-humanitarian-response-plan-2020-december-2019 (accessed on 17 April 2020).

[5] Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG). (2020). United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/ru/operations/bangladesh/document/2020-joint-response-plan-rohingya-humanitarian-crisis-january (accessed on 17 April 2020).

Author: Dr Bayes Ahmed, UCL IRDR

Covid-19: plans, procedures and improvisation

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi15 April 2020

Written by Professor David Alexander

I have been speaking widely on the COVID-19 crisis on television, radio and podcasts, and in newspaper and magazine articles. As my main speciality is emergency planning and management, most of my comments have dealt with this field. I first came into contact with the scenario for a major 21st-century global pandemic in 2008. This was the collective result of an initiative launched in the mid-2000s by the World Health Organisation to provide a global response plan and encourage individual countries to prepare. Influenza was most feared, thanks to an on-going re-evaluation of the pandemic of 1918-1920 (which killed between 50 and 100 million people). However, the response to SARS in 2003 showed that concerted international action might be necessary to counter a lethal, infectious disease that was not a strain of influenza, and so it has proven.

In essence, emergency management is composed of three elements: plans, procedures and improvisation. The plans orchestrate the procedures, and both should reduce improvisation to a necessary minimum by foreseeing needs and designating means of fulfilling them. Failure to constrain improvisation in this way could be regarded as negligence.

In COVID-19 we see many examples of frantic improvisation as countries, including the United Kingdom, scramble to procure personal protective equipment, ventilators, respirators and so on, and as they hastily create and arrange the policing of social distancing measures. Adaptive management is practised, but not in the spirit in which it was invented (as a means of improving the efficiency of direction), but as a breathless attempt to keep up with a scenario that has not been read, interpreted and turned into preparations.

Although the broad scenario has been with us for between ten and 15 years, many of the details were either neglected or simply did not rise to prominence until the pandemic actually struck. These include the plight of people on large ships or in prisons, both places of confinement. Then there are, very significantly, the arrangements for supporting care homes for the elderly. In some places, more than half of the mortality from COVID-19 apparently occurs in such places, but they have not received the same level of support as have the hospitals and clinics, nor have they always been monitored or properly regulated. Thirdly, the role of social media and mass media in spreading misleading information, conspiracy theories and fantasies needs to be considered. Many people follow celebrities and a number of these have aided the spread of false information, which has led, for example, to multiple attacks on cellular masts under the fallacious assumption that 5G telephony causes the spread of the virus.

I have begun a COVID-19 observatory. This is simply a means of collecting information and classifying it. Because we live in a networked, highly interdependent world, modern disasters are cascading events in which chains and webs of causality occur. Pandemics are recurrent, and we need to refine the basic planning scenario for dealing with them at scales that extend from local to global. We also need to consider how to manage the later stages of the present crisis, and any resurgence of COVID-19 that may occur after the current wave. Information needs to be collected because much of it is ‘perishable’, which means that it is liable to disappear with time if not identified and recorded. It then needs to be classified so that the nature and connections of the cascade can be understood.

Emergency planning needs to be holistic and responsive. A plan should be a ‘living document’ which is constantly refined, updated and made known to its potential users. This gives the opportunity to broaden its scope and tackle previously neglected issues, such as the three outlined above. In emergency planning, experience is a great teacher, and it needs to be married with a systematic, logical approach to the rational use of available resources. These are all good justifications for studying cascades. Hence, at UCL-IRDR, we have a Cascading Disasters Research Group, which produces theory, applications and analyses of practical examples.

I will be pleased to hear from anyone who would like to contribute to the COVID-19 observatory. The results of the exercise will eventually be shared in order to help everyone gain a deeper understanding of what is going on.

Prof. David Alexander


New paper on potential errors in seismic hazard calculations revealed from structural geology field data

Claudia Sgambato15 April 2020

A new paper by Claudia Sgambato (PhD student at IRDR), Dr Joanna Faure Walker (IRDR) and Prof Gerald Roberts (Birkbeck) has been published providing insight into uncertainties in earthquake probability calculations. Specifically, this work shows that calculations in earthquake recurrence that do not consider changes in slip-rate measurements along a fault could have significant uncertainties. This problem is displayed using geological data collected during fieldword for an example fault section from Southern Italy.

Detailed data of the geometry, kinematics and rates of slip have been collected across a normal fault in the Southern Apennines, Italy, and the results show variations in slip vector (direction of fault movement) and throw (vertical displacement) along such a fault. The throw gradually decreases towards the tip of the fault, but variations are observed along the fault. In particular, we see changes in the throw across areas of structural complexity such as in an along-strike bend in the fault plane where the fault dip is greater, i.e. where the fault has a local change in direction and becomes steeper.

View of the fault in the Southern Apennines. The fault scarp is well-exposed for about 3 km.

It has been previously demonstrated that such variability affects seismic hazard calculations (Faure Walker et al., 2018). This was shown using a fault with high resolution geological field data. In the newly published study we ask: How would the uncertainty in seismic hazard calculations be affected for faults where detailed slip-rate data are not used?

To investigate how incomplete data produce greater uncertainty in seismic hazard calculations, we calculated strain-rate values across the fault (as strain-rate can be used as a proxy for seismic moment released during earthquakes). First this was done using all our measurements, and then degrading the dataset, removing one measurement at a time. We found that excluding measurements in such a way produces a high variability in strain-rate and if such variations are unnoticed, different values of strain-rate would be produced, and hence different values would result in seismic hazard calculations.

Therefore, this study suggests that: (1) field structural data are fundamental to understand variations in slip-rate; (2) using only one measurement of slip-rate along a fault for calculating hazard is not advisable; (3) the potential error associated to the slip-rate variability should be implemented in seismic hazard calculations.

To read more, see Sgambato et al. (2020): Uncertainty in strain-rate from field measurements of the geometry, rates and kinematics of active normal faults: Implications for seismic hazard assessment