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A (post-earthquake) Christmas story

David Alexander23 December 2021

In 1980, as Christmas approached in the Southern Apennines, the temperature fell and it began to snow. December 23rd dawned with a leaden grey sky and frost everywhere. I was getting used to being evacuated and nominally homeless. The magnitude 6.8 earthquake that had occurred exactly one month earlier had taken the roof off the house in which I had been living. I had moved in with a family on the sixth floor of an apartment block. It was not a happy place to be when aftershocks came along and the whole building swayed back and forth.

I decided to go and see for myself what the situation was in upper Basilicata region. I drove along deserted roads and then up into the highlands towards San Fele,  a town in splendid isolation at the end of 20km of typically winding mountain roads. Liquefaction and seismically-induced landslides had bent the highway into some very odd contortions, but it was just about passable.

Snow falls on earthquake damage in Potenza City on 23rd December 1980. Photo: D. Alexander

At a certain point, far from the nearest town, an extraordinary sight met my eyes. There in front of me was a farmhouse. It had been a traditional stone building, rather than a modern ferro-concrete one, but the earthquake had reduced it to large pile of rubble. As the courtyard outside the building was full of people and animals, it appeared that those who lived there had survived. In the corner there was an olive-green tent supplied by the army. In the middle there was an enormous bonfire that seemed to consist of the furniture that had been salvaged from the house. The fire was crackling away and flames were roaring up into the sky, while flakes of snow gently fell on the scene. In a circle around the fire there were the farmer, his wife, his children, an elderly couple, cats, dogs, geese, chickens, cows, sheep and goats. They were all staring moodily into the flames, desperate for some warmth.

Disaster specialists tend to photograph everything they see when they are out in the field, but this time I had not got the heart to point my camera at this extraordinary tableau.

San Fele and the other towns–Bella, Muro Lucano, Balvano, Ruvo del Monte–were silent and deserted. Their streets were full of a mixture of rubble, wooden buttressing and elaborate meshes of steel scaffolding. As the weather was worsening and night was beginning to fall, I beat a hasty retreat for fear of being trapped by snow and ice on the roads.

It was a hard winter and a sombre Christmas for the 280,000 people who had lost their homes in the earthquake. Snow and ice were followed as soon as the temperature rose by rain and mud. But there were some inspiring moments. Night-time journeys on the train that wound its way along the deep crevice of the Basento Valley revealed some extraordinary sights. One that I particularly remember was a field of olive trees. The field was white with a thick covering of snow and the trees glinted and sparkled as the moonlight reflected off the frost that covered them and icicles that hung from their branches. It was nevertheless a relief when Spring brought kinder weather to the survivors’ camps.


David Alexander is Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction at IRDR.


 

Black Turkey Event: A Scenario Building Exercise for Avoiding a Christmas Disaster

Joshua Anthony14 December 2021

Scenario building is a useful exercise for exploring the avenues down which an emergency may proceed and therefore can help form the responses to it (Alexander, 2015). Therefore, this study employs standard scenario building methodology to explore potential risks associated with a not-so-Merry Crisis. A range of potential scenarios and shocks are presented as an exercise to explore options for reducing the risk of a Christmas disaster.


Scenario brief


Auntie Karen has forgotten to defrost the turkey. This is the third year in a row this has happened, and family tensions are already at a breaking point. Under Grandma Esther’s orders, everyone has skipped breakfast in order to make room for the sizeable Christmas lunch that was promised. Uncle Albert, on an empty stomach, has cracked open the emergency alcohol cupboard and is swilling his whiskey dangerously close to the overloaded plug socket which is powering seven different trails of flashing Christmas lights. The digital speaker has malfunctioned and has been able to blast only Michael Bublé’s No.1 Christmas album on repeat for the past three hours. Despite growing protests from the next-door neighbours, Grandma Esther refuses to unplug the Bublé. The children are screaming and shouting, demanding that the game of Monopoly from Christmas Eve resumes immediately. Milo, the golden Labrador has become overexcited by the commotion and has mistaken the Christmas tree as his favourite outdoor territory.

Objective of Scenario: Save Christmas

Event trigger: Auntie Karen has forgotten to defrost the turkey.

Location: Grandma Esther’s galley kitchen.

Timing: 12pm, 25th December 2021.

Stakeholders: family members, next-door neighbours, an overexcited Labrador, the Christmas spirit.

Hazards: Food poisoning, unspoken family tensions, flammable Christmas tree, an overexcited Labrador.

Impacts: hungry family members; irritated neighbours, a whiskey-glazed Uncle; increased tensions at obligatory Christmas boardgame.

Cascading Events: The Queen’s speech is on at 3pm, which Grandma Esther refuses to miss, stepping out from her watch of the Christmas turkey, which has finally made it into the oven.


Exercise Commences


Emergency Plan

Having experienced a merry crisis like this before, you immediately pull out your emergency plan. An emergency plan is “the instrument by which urgent needs are matched with the resources available to satisfy them” (Alexander, 2013). In this document lies the instructions for saving Christmas. The first step of an emergency plan is research.

A study of last year’s Christmas shows that the early provisions of Buck’s fizz had allowed Uncle Albert to slip more champagne to himself under the guise of a sobering fruit juice, thus exacerbating the risk of a Christmas tree-related fire hazard. The plan states that early mitigation of ethanol consumption can significantly reduce this risk. Three options are available:

  1. Discreetly replace the champagne with an identical-looking low-alcohol alternative
  2. Supply early, preventative provisions of an alcohol-absorbent panettone (a gift from the neighbours)
  3. Lock Uncle Albert in the utility cupboard until he acknowledges his problem

In an attempt to utilise resources as efficiently as possible, you choose option b., recognising that the soft, sweet Italian bread can act doubly as a mitigation measure for reducing the angry hunger pangs of family members who are becoming increasingly impatient with the delayed Christmas lunch. While Grandma Esther fumbles with the buttons on the CD player, trying to increase the volume of Michael Bublé Christmas Classics and cranking open the neighbour-facing kitchen window, you slip out a large plate of panettone and place it on the low coffee table in the centre of the living room.

Cascading effect: a secondary event occurs

Not able to distinguish the difference between dog and human food, Milo, the golden Labrador, has scoffed the entire plate of panettone and is now running rampant around the room. In a textbook display of the zoomies, Milo knocks into the Christmas tree and sends it toppling over into the bowl of Uncle Albert’s “Special Christmas” punch. The subsequent short circuiting of Christmas lights plunges the house into darkness as the electricity board trips. A candle-sized flame and a curl of smoke emerge from where the tree once shone. “FIRE!” screams Auntie Karen. “Is that the panettone?” asks Grandma Esther.

“A labrador retriever with the reindeer antlers headband” by wuestenigel is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

It seems worse is coming to worst; a failing in planning and preparedness has led to a vulnerability in Grandma Esther’s electrical infrastructure. In other words, Uncle Albert has not renewed the wiring in the fuse box as was detailed in the emergency plan, and now a separate, independent disaster is unfolding. You have read about this phenomenon: a cascading disaster. Pescaroli and Alexander (2015) state that “cascading effects are the dynamics present in disasters, in which the impact of a physical event or the development of an initial technological or human failure generates a sequence of events in human subsystems that result in physical, social or economic disruption”. You consult the emergency plan; however, under fire-inducing dangerous substances, Special Christmas punch is not listed. As with all crises, unexpected turns of events are likely to occur; not every eventuality can be planned for and thus a degree of improvisation is necessary. You assess the available options:

  1. Find a wet towel to cover the fire
  2. Attempt to extinguish the fire with the flagon of beer in Uncle Albert’s hand
  3. Let the tree burn out, along with your Christmas spirit

As option c. is the easiest and most desirable, you begin your exit. However, before you can locate the door in the darkness, an impassioned Grandma Esther busts back into the room with a piping bag full of baking soda and, with the ferocity of a pump-action shotgun, fires it at the flames. A lifelong cultural heritage of baking has given Grandma Esther the learned disaster risk reduction knowledge that, when heated, baking soda releases carbon dioxide, thus suffocating the fire. Improvisational baking methods are employed: a secondary crisis is averted.

Recovery

Disasters have a tendency to expose existing vulnerabilities within a society or community—vulnerabilities which should be resolved ideally prior to an emergency, or at worst during the recovery phase, when damage is assessed, repairs are made, and conditions are ideally returned to a state better than before the disaster.

Finally, electricity is restored. Auntie Karen is beside herself because the turkey, which was warming in the oven all the while through the commotion, has burnt to a stygian black. This is what is known as a black turkey event: an unexpected and unpredictable event that can have severe consequences. The turkey is unusable, the vegetables are raw, it is now 3pm; on the television, Queen Elizabeth II has begun Her Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech. The initial damage has been done; we are now firmly within the recovery phase.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) define disasters as “serious disruption to the functioning of a community that exceed its capacity to cope using its own resources”. Noting that your family has rarely ever been able to manage situations using their own resources, you decide to request emergency outside-support from your neighbours. Despite a history of political tensions between the two households, the neighbours in a gesture of mutual aid agree to provide an emergency supply of vegetables and cook-from-frozen meats.

However, as the kindly Mr Robinson follows you across the lawn with one of the supply trays, Uncle Albert leans out of the window and begins launching a barrage of spoon-catapulted goose fat at Mr Robinson. Under fire, he slips on the snow and an entire tray of frozen sausages (bacon-wrapped) cascades down upon him. The efforts of mutual aid are brought to a halt as Mr Robinson backs out of the trade agreement. Dejectedly, you trudge back inside.

Key findings

This exercise explored a range of scenarios that could be used to plan and reduce the risk of a Not-So-Merry Crisis. Poor preparedness and a failure to learn from last year’s mistakes were shown to increase this risk. A potential picture of the outcomes associated with these risks can thus be drawn:

The children are feeding pieces of Monopoly to the dog, Auntie Karen is applying bronze concealer to the turkey and taking misleading photographs; while Uncle Albert cackles and slings goose fat at the Queen’s face, Grandma has found his secret whisky and is screaming Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

However, when considering the outfall of the risk outcomes elucidated by this study, the researchers feel a responsibility to raise the question of whether this constitutes a real disaster. Isn’t this just Christmas? Nevertheless, some results are consistent with the literature i.e., don’t mess with Uncle Albert when he’s been drinking.

External Validity of this Scenario

The researchers acknowledge that the findings from this exploratory exercise may apply to working-to-middle-class misfit English families and conclusions in other settings must be met with caution.

References

Alexander, D. (2016). How to Write an Emergency Plan – 2.2 Civil Contingencies and Resilience. Dunedin Academic Press. 

Gibeault, S. (2019). Zoomies: Why Your Dog Gets Hyper & Runs in Circles. From URL: https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/lifestyle/what-are-zoomies/ [accessed 13/12/21].

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). What is a Disaster? URL: https://www.ifrc.org/what-disaster [accessed 13/12/21].

Pescaroli, Gianluca, and David Alexander. A definition of cascading disasters and cascading effects: Going beyond the “toppling dominos” metaphorPlanet@ risk 3.1 (2015): 58-67.


Joshua Anthony is a PhD student and Blog Editor at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR).

Email: Joshua.anthony.19@ucl.ac.uk

Mami Mizutori’s Speech: UCL-IRDR 11th Annual Conference, Part Two

Joshua Anthony1 December 2021

Why do warnings matter?

Earlier this year, the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR) and the Warning Research Centre hosted a one-day online event exploring this question. As part of the IRDR’s 11th Annual Conference we welcomed researchers, students, practitioners, policymakers, the media and the general public to celebrate the launch of the UCL Warning Research Centre. As part of this the attendees enjoyed a diverse program of activities aimed at getting to the root of warnings, why they matter, and how their role, design, use and evaluation can be optimised to prepare for the expected and unexpected.

Our previous article summarised the ideas generated from a panel of experts discussing the aspects of exceptional and expected events. This time, we present the keynote speech from Mami Mizutori, the Assistant Secretary-General and Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

This blog is part two of a series presenting the key findings from the conference proceedings. The rapporteurs whose notes form this material are Calum MacKay and Simone Phillips, who are both from the University of Glasgow on the MSc Earth Futures Programme. Any mistakes or misrepresentation of the participants’ words are the author’s own.


Part Two: Keynote Speech

Warnings and the Launch of the Warning Research Centre


Presenter: Mami Mizutori, UNDRR | Moderator: Prof Ilan Kelman, UCL

Mama Mizutori is the Assistant Secretary-General and Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). The following summary is based on the notes of event rapporteurs. The full presentation can be viewed on YouTube.

If warnings are placed right, they can serve as a gateway to risk reduction, opening the door to conversation between individuals, communities, and governments. We encounter risk constantly in our everyday lives and are surrounded by risk. Risks are systemic and complex, and it is human nature to procrastinate over things that are complex, but we need to be aware that no decision is risk-neutral. The decisions we make can increase risk and climate change is exacerbating this, already disrupting billions of lives.

EWS are therefore critical to saving lives and reducing risk. Setting up EWS is becoming more economic thanks to technological advances and with use of tech combined with more traditional ways of response.

There are also issues of proactive risk reduction vs reactive response. There is no such thing as a natural disaster, we know that, but those words are put together in the media. When natural hazards are combined with vulnerability and exposure, they create disaster. Good EWS are therefore based on extensive understanding of these three elements and can reach the last mile to reach most vulnerable populations and communities.

Warnings can tell us when something reaches dangerous levels, warning thresholds are useful for preparation in a world of cascading impacts. This means supporting early action to protect us from failure of many systems is vital. For EWS to be successful we need to connect warning to action. It’s essential that EWS are complemented by risk communication, but often we face the challenge where information existed but was not acted upon. We need to focus on preventing disaster rather than on reactive approaches when lives have already been lost.

Hazards we are exposed to are multiple so warnings must reflect this. Currently warnings focus on getting ahead of disaster and reactive measures, but we have further potential to consolidate data of risk information for early warning and action.

The UNDRR coordinate activities to create safer, more resilient communities as custodian agency for Sendai Framework and support all UN member states and stakeholders to implement this framework. Its overall goal is to prevent new and reduce existing disaster risk through implementation of inclusivity. The Sendai Framework is a departure from previous ways of thinking about disaster and represents a paradigm shift from exposure to a people centered approach to DRR, while primary responsibility to implement it resides among the member states. It is a shared responsibility for all stakeholders to do this: an all-of-society approach. UNDRR also has work in early warning—Africa (AUC) as a whole and individual warnings like Malawi and Ethiopia.

Partnerships with academia and science is important for evidence-based risk reduction, and we need evidence to convince people to work on it. Need to understand risk around us, but many countries still face challenges in making this accessible and usable to decision makers. Many lack a risk assessment approach to understand systemic risk. The global risk assessment framework (GRAF) can be used as understanding the systemic nature of risk.

Take Away Message

Early warning systems are vital in order to effectively reduce risk to environmental hazards but they must reflect the unique context of each individual location and community. They must also account for the multiplicity of hazards to ensure a proactive rather than reactive approach to hazard and risk mitigation.

The presentation was then followed by an address to questions from the audience, which are summarised thus:

What Advice would you give to students entering the field?

It’s important to go into the field. It is important to go into the ones that are most at risk and vulnerable to combine your knowledge, your expertise with what you experience on the ground and then come back again to devise systems that bring all this together. We need to make sure that there is a clear pathway for students to get into the field as we are still not preventing enough. We are still not ready enough for disasters. We need to make it a reality for students to have clear career pathways, to be able to make a difference.

I understand that the Sendai Framework is not a legally binding treaty, is there any talk to make it so?

Not at this moment, it’s not a legal document either but does it make it any less because of it? I don’t think so. Sendai Framework is addressing the most pressing challenge that we are facing right now and it has to go hand in hand with the Paris agreement. If it doesn’t go hand in hand we cannot achieve the SDGS. But 2023 will be the midterm point of the Sendai framework and we will have a midterm review. We may make it legal if stakeholders and importantly member states feel that that is necessary.

Is part 2 of the UN report going ahead?

It is going ahead, we are creating a profile of each hazard in first report, that’s the main focus. If we don’t understand the nature of hazard then it is hard to have comprehensive responses. It will evolve.

The spread of misinformation is becoming widespread, why? What do we do about misinformation?

Look at 2019 and even before that around the climate emergency, we have been exposed to a lot of misinformation. So the UN started a campaign called “Verify” This means that when you receive information that you know that this is not true you can verify it and if it’s not true don’t pass it on. The evolved involvement of social media is great but then at the same time if you’re not careful when using social media you can just be a proliferator of misinformation yourself. My message is:  let’s stop doing it ourselves first, and the second thing is we need to really look into science and evidence and let’s make the findings, the evidence: accessible. Because of the difficulty in interpreting and assessing science we tend to go for easy solutions or easy answers even if they are false. Science and academia has a very important role here to make your findings accessible so that people understand clearly what is misinformation in this and what is not.

There is a Lack of entry level jobs that don’t require 10 year’s experience, where should we get this experience? There are also financial difficulties. What is the UN doing to help?

It’s all about honing skills and then your expertise on one aspect of this disaster reduction. I would say that you find your niche within the studies but never forget to connect it to all other aspects. Don’t make it a siloed research and in that way I’m sure that it will become a career. The private sector is looking at disaster reduction more than ever. I do believe that the private sector will be looking more and more for risk experts. There are also lots of internship opportunities with us at the UN in not only Geneva, but also Nairobi and Bangkok. There is Sponsorship for those who may need financial help. Also internships at FAO and WFP. We are trying to create more opportunities for students from the global south. We need to do more, we will try to do better.

How could international cooperation support regional early warning practice (global south)?

We are creating African continent-wide early warning system to establish an early warnings operation unit, so the system becomes a regional one. Disasters don’t respect borders if systems stop at borders they won’t be effective. Areas will have even more focused, donors are interested in supporting systems that are transboundary. Providing anticipatory aid, don’t wait until an extreme event happens, instead it’s based one early warning data and provides aid in advance to better prepare people and mitigate the impacts. Not enough money for all disasters anymore. The gap between what is needed and what is provided is growing. Anticipatory aid can help this.

What is the one key thing governments can take away?

To focus on the systemic nature of risk, because still many governments when looking at systemic nature, it actually worsens risk and the multi hazard aspect of hazard. This is something that we saw looking at the national strategies of governments after Covid outbreak. We found out that a lot of them are still quite single hazard orientated and most of them do not look at the systemic nature risk. As a result ,the agencies for disaster risk management agencies for public health are all siloed and they do not talk to each other. Therefore, the response to systemic risk is not systemic nor comprehensive. This is where we need to change; and early warning systems can also be a very important part of it by being a multi hazard early warning system. I think this is the most important lesson. Let’s take what we’ve learned from COVID-19, and I hope that they listen and their experience doesn’t go away.

Next up in this blog series will be In Conversation with Dr Oliver Morgan, of the WHO Health Emergencies Program and Dr Gail Carson of the Global Outbreak and Response Network.


Watch the full conference on youtube here!

Conference URL:

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/risk-disaster-reduction/events/2021/jun/ucl-irdr-11th-annual-conference-why-warnings-matter-and-ucl-warning-research-centre

Conference Rapporteurs: Simone Phillips and Calum Mackay

Conference Convener: Dr. Carina Fearnley


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