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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