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Hurricane Otis must not be forgotten

By Monica Ledezma, on 1 February 2024

photo of debris and damage to cars and buildings in Acapulco.
The aftermath of Hurricane Otis. Photo by Monica Ledezma.

The weekend started as any other in Acapulco, the sun shining was over the bay. I was with my family staying at a well-known hotel on the coast. A diving session was booked for the coming Wednesday. There was no hint or warning of any worrying weather.

The Disaster


The spots of rain during the day didn’t worry us, but that soon changed when a news broadcast alerted us to an approaching tropical storm. We did not receive any specific preparation instructions during the day.

The hurricane was expected to reach the shore by 5-6 am the next day. Airplanes continued to land in Acapulco throughout the day. Acapulco was crowding with more than 50% of the city occupied: it was hosting the 35th International Mining Convention that week with the opening ceremony scheduled at 6pm on that day, with no restrictions.

When my family and I came back from dinner, we noticed that the room windows were covered with packaging tape and our personal belongings kept near the balcony were safely stored inside the room. We received a letter from the hotel saying that we should stay in the room announcing that the next day the hotel services would remain open. We started preparing for the hurricane by going to the convenience store and buying water and food.

At 11pm we heard the heavy rains and ferocious winds at 270 km/hr ravaging everything on its way. Furniture was flying through the air and falling into swimming pools and the sea. We could hear the winds peeling off the glass of almost every hotel.

The building moved as if it was an earthquake, the ceiling and walls which were not made of concrete fell to the floor. We had been told to stay in the room, but it was falling apart around us, so we moved to the corridor instead. Suddenly we heard some voices of a couple of men directing us to the basement where the rest of the hotel guests were heading.

We went down 12 floors to the basement and stayed there for more than 7 hours with the rest of the guests under emergency lighting with no water or electricity. It was warm and all guests and hotel staff were focused on helping and surviving.

photo of destroyed hotel room. Debris and furniture spread across the floor.
Hurricane Otis destroyed hotel rooms. Photo by Monica Ledezma.

The Aftermath


The worst of it had passed by 6 am, but the picture outside was exactly like what I had seen in the movies. There was destruction everywhere. Luckily for us, our cars were safely parked far away from the shore, but the roads were blocked by all the debris. Through shattered glass, fallen palm trees, and even bits of steel structures, it took us 6 hours to find a way to go out from Acapulco and back to Mexico City. There was no sign of any authorities, nor any support from the army or navy, nobody to help in the streets. No power supply, no gas. We were making decisions ourselves to the best of our capacity. Stores soon started to be vandalized.

For the next 6 hours, we were stuck on the highway which was partially damaged. Only then we saw the Army trucks on their way to Acapulco—now sharing the only available highway with civilians trying to get out—15 hours after the disaster happened.  

A sequence of neglected communication


At 16:18 on Sunday, October 22nd, official information by Proteccion Civil warned that a “tropical storm” was located in the southeast of Acapulco, far away from our wildest imagination. Early on Tuesday, the state governor stated that the tropical storm had turned into hurricane category 1. She insisted that adequate attention was taking place to safeguard the population’s well-being for its arrival early on Wednesday. 631 refugee centers were habilitated to support 137,000 people.

At least 10 hours before the hurricane, the National Center for Hurricanes in the US warned about the risk and potential catastrophic events. Only at 8 pm, the president finally acknowledged what US authorities have been repeatedly highlighting as a Category 4 hurricane, but it was too late now to take any protective measures.

Otis is, to date, the highest category hurricane recorded at any station of the National Tidal Service. The possibility that climate change encouraged Otis to transform from a tropical storm into a hurricane highlights the importance of adapting our infrastructure to this change.

The disaster happened in hours, the wind and rain swept everything away, and we suddenly felt the vulnerability and lack of support and guidance. We were fortunate enough to get to the shelter but we will always remember the images of the windows shattering, the ceiling crumbling, and how close we were to falling from the 10th floor balcony. We were just not prepared for it. The government authorities decided to neglect the fact that it was happening, underestimating its strength.

I still have these questions in my mind: what would it take if the authorities had told us what to do, where to go, and warned us how strong this would be? What would have happened if the Army and Navy forces had been there since the first alert came in? Why did the government ignore and underestimate the warnings? I hope to get an answer someday.


Monica Ledezma completed the MSc in Global Health and Development at UCL in 2020/21. Monica has worked at Roche since 2016  in the Diabetes Care Division.


The views expressed in this blog are those of the author.

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Beirut Blast: from trauma to purpose

By Racha Doumit, on 4 August 2023

Three years ago, day for day, my city blew up before my eyes. I have been thinking of a softer way to start this piece, but I figured why bother. Nothing about August 4 or the days that followed was soft. One moment I had a clear view of the Port of Beirut; the next all I could see was a thick coat of toxic ashes. I could not fathom what the city would look like once the ashes set. Hands shaking, I tried to get a hold of beloved ones who I suspected were in the blast-affected region. Thoughts racing, I visualised weeks of mourning. Little did I know that long after the ashes were swept, I would still be mourning.

At times, I feel like I am mourning a country I never knew, one where the government actively seeks to protect its citizens; one where reports of inappropriate storage of hazardous substances do not go unaddressed for seven years; one where residual risks do not result in one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in the history of humanity. I am mourning a time when August 4 was just another day, when the sound of sweeping broken glass did not trigger my trauma, when the only pictures I had of Beirut were those of a vibrant city. I am mourning not only the dead, but also the unlucky who survived, those who deal with the aftermath, those who wake up every day to face injustice, those who tirelessly lobby for change, those who were pushed to escape the place they call home.

August 4 became just another reminder of the struggles of being Lebanese, of embodying the myth of the Phoenix, of piloting life in survival mode. It was a decisive date that pushed me to pursue a master’s degree in Risk, Disaster, and Resilience. That’s when August 4 became just another event on a long list of tragedies. Class after class, it was considered as a case study. I had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that the blast was reduced to a dissected disaster, a prime example of mismanagement of risks, state neglect, and ill-preparedness. I struggled to dissociate from my emotional attachment to the event. It was tough to take an academic stance on a disaster I experienced: victims were now numbers, destruction was quantified, and years of struggle were just the recovery phase. At times, when caught off guard, I teared up when the picture of the silos was displayed on the board or when the professor referred to “the catastrophic blast that happened a couple years ago in Beirut”. As the year progressed, I delved deeper into identifying hazards, understanding vulnerability, and reducing exposure to risks. Progressively, the blast became less about mourning the country I never knew and more about creating an alternative reality through advocacy and policy. Ironically, it became less about August 4 and more about all other days in the year. It became less about me, my people, or my country and more about the intrinsic need to promote a safer world for all.

Understanding that the blast is bigger than my country was a hard pill to swallow. It does not signify that I came to terms with it. I am still mourning, I probably always will. Only now, I appreciate that advocating for disaster risk reduction extends beyond the borders of my tiny Mediterranean nation. Yearning for Disaster Risk Governance in Lebanon concurs with expecting all governments to uphold higher standards of safety. Seeking justice for Beirut, its victims, and its survivors equates to calling for accountability for all disasters. No matter how hard we try, we cannot alter the past: many died, many were injured, all were traumatised. No matter how disillusioned we feel, we cannot repeat the past: lives and livelihoods must be protected. Beirut was a victim of its own dysfunction—other cities should not endure that same fate.


Racha Doumit is pursuing her master’s degree in Risk, Disaster, and Resilience at IRDR. Prior to joining UCL, Racha worked as a WASH Engineer with the Red Cross in Lebanon.

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Unveiling the LERU Doctoral Summer School Experience in Heidelberg

By Aisha Aldosery, on 20 July 2023

Embarking on a journey of intellectual growth and cross-cultural exchange, I had the privilege of being selected as one of the fortunate outstanding PhD students from University College London (UCL) to attend the prestigious LERU Doctoral summer school. Hosted this year by the esteemed Heidelberg University in Germany, focusing on the concepts of intervention science applied to global challenges. In this blog, I will share my reflections on the summer school, highlighting its well-organized structure, enriching academic content, delightful hospitality, and the diverse community of scholars I had the pleasure of meeting.

Capturing moments from an enriching experience at the LERU Summer School. Photos by Aisha Aldosery.

The LERU Doctoral summer school impressed me with its meticulously planned program, covering a range of essential topics. We delved into the concepts of intervention science applied to global challenges, gaining a deeper understanding of how we can address pressing issues in our research fields. The sessions explored the complexities of climate impact research, shedding light on the challenges we face in mitigating and adapting to the changing environment. This comprehensive approach ensured that participants gained a holistic understanding of their research fields, preparing us for the challenges that lie ahead. The lectures were delivered by distinguished experts in their respective domains, providing us with valuable insights and sparking stimulating discussions.

One of the standout sessions was on the development of research ideas and the art of pitching research. We learned how to cultivate innovative and impactful research ideas, and more importantly, how to effectively present and communicate them to different audiences. The skill of pitching our research ideas is invaluable, as it enables us to capture attention, garner support, and generate interest in our work. We were guided through the process of crafting compelling narratives, refining our messages, and delivering persuasive presentations.

In addition, the LERU Doctoral summer school was an opportunity to interact with fellow PhD students from diverse backgrounds. The program attracted scholars from across Europe, representing various disciplines and research interests. This multidisciplinary engagement enriched the discussions and allowed for a broad exchange of ideas. Collaborating with individuals from different academic perspectives not only expanded our horizons but also nurtured a spirit of innovation and creativity.

Academic pursuits don’t have to be monotonous, and the LERU Doctoral summer school exemplified this belief. The program infused an element of excitement into the learning process, making it both informative and enjoyable. Beyond the lectures, the school arranged visits to the remarkable landmarks of Heidelberg and organised hikes activities, allowing us to appreciate the cultural and natural beauty of the region. These experiences fostered a sense of camaraderie among the participants, creating lasting memories and bonds.

The hospitality extended to us by the organizers and hosts in Heidelberg was truly remarkable. They went above and beyond to ensure our comfort and made us feel welcome in their city. Their efforts extended beyond academic matters, offering guidance on local attractions, cultural practices, and culinary delights. This warm and inclusive environment facilitated meaningful connections and encouraged cross-cultural exchanges among participants, fostering a truly global academic community.

The LERU summer school in Heidelberg provided an incredible platform for academic growth, cultural exchange, and personal connections. Its well-organized structure, engaging academic content, delightful hospitality, and diverse community of scholars made it an unforgettable experience. As I conclude my reflections, I am filled with gratitude and a renewed sense of purpose in my doctoral journey. I am eager to apply the knowledge and skills gained from the LERU summer school, and I look forward to returning to Heidelberg, a city that has left an indelible mark on my academic and personal life.

I am immensely grateful to the UCL Doctoral School for providing me with the opportunity to attend the LERU Doctoral summer school. Their support and funding made this experience possible, and I am truly indebted to them. Additionally, I would like to express my heartfelt appreciation to Christine Neumann who looked after all the participants, creating an amazing and welcoming environment for everyone. Special thanks are also due to the Institute of Global Health (HIGH) and the Center for Scientific Computing (IWR) for their invaluable contributions.


Aisha Aldosery is currently a doctoral candidate at the UCL IRDR Centre for Digital Public Health in Emergencies at University College London. She is also a researcher at King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She earned her master’s degree in Software System Engineering from UCL. Her broad research areas are software engineering and the Applied Internet of Things. She is particularly interested in designing and developing digital health intervention tools such as surveillance and early warning systems. She is also interested in designing environmental IoT-based sensor devices and analysing sensor data using machine learning methodologies. The focus of Aisha’s PhD research project is investigating mobile apps, the Internet of Things (IoT) and sensing technologies for predicting mosquito populations to combat vector-borne diseases – a pertinent global issue with global research significance.

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Lessons Learned from The 6th Global Summit of Research Institutes for Disaster Risk Reduction

By Khonsa Zulfa, on 24 April 2023

Achieving a Sustainable Disaster-Resilient World: at the 6th Global Summit of Research Institutes for Disaster Risk Reduction (GADRI) this March, 189 Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) academics and professionals from all over the world gathered at Kyoto University to establish global research networks, develop research roadmaps and plans, build the capacities of research institutes, share information, and engage in collaborative research.

DRR academics and professionals at the summit

The Role of Youth and Young Professionals in Disaster Risk Reduction

One of the most interesting sessions in the conference is to discuss the role of Youth and Young Professional (YYPs) in DRR. The prolonged worldwide pandemic, intensifying climate change impacts, and cascading risks have taught us that disaster risks should not be treated in silo. Thus, inter-generational collaboration involvement is needed to make substantial change for a more sustainable and resilient society. According to Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, Youth are the agent of change and should be given the space and modalities to contribute to Disaster Risk Reduction for Legislation, National Practice, and Educational Curricula.

Participants in the Role of YYPs in DRR discussion

The panellists and participants discussed that YYPs have roles as data and knowledge producer, broker and synthesizer. First, data and knowledge producers devote themselves solely to capturing natural and social phenomena essential for understanding the landscape of disaster risk. Second, brokers provide challenging services to ensure stakeholders can access the most relevant disaster-related data and knowledge based on their needs. Third, synthesizers access and craft the available disaster-related data and knowledge by consolidating, combining, and providing meaning-making that could inspire or trigger societal changes, such as policy-making or implementation, program ideation, and capacity-building. The session showcases examples from Indonesia, Japan, India, and Colombia that exhibit each of the roles and explore challenges from diverse background including, but not limited to, earth scientists, social scientists, engineers, policy-makers, and emergency management professionals.

Lessons Learned from the Conference

In this conference, I was selected to present my master’s research in the poster session. My research was awarded a GADRI scholarship, which entitled for 15 best abstracts from young scientists and researchers. My research aims to build an Evacuation Decision Model of Flood-Affected People in South Kalimantan Indonesia, which investigates the significant variables behind why people evacuated in the 2021 South Kalimantan floods event. Some suggestions for improvement from the peers are (1) to conduct the same study in different characteristic areas in order to compare the outcomes and (2) to continue studying each significant variable and finding from the results.

Explaining my research to another participant

Upon the keynote speech on the conference, Mami Mizutori, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction UNDRR, said that DRR policies at the local level are still not doing a good job. Many efforts are needed to strengthen disaster knowledge and awareness at the local level; thus, it can be a driving force for improving DRR policy and community resilience. As a young scientist, I plan to contribute to improving local DRR policies by handing in my master’s dissertation result to South Kalimantan government as it could be a beneficial input for them to enhance flood evacuation strategy.


I would like to acknowledge UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction for funding my expenses to attend the 6th Global Summit of GADRI, 15-17 March 2023 in Japan. I would like also to appreciate my supervisors Prof Joanna Faure Walker and my personal tutor Prof Patty Kostkova for their guidance on my master’s study.

_________________________________________________________________________________

Khonsa was a Master’s student in UCL IRDR Year 2021/2022. She is now working as Research Assistant at UCL IRDR. Her research is mainly focus on Indonesia disaster, flood, tsunami, evacuation, early warning, and community development.

Get in touch: khonsa.zulfa.21@ucl.ac.uk or Linkedin

Learning from Fire and Rescue services in London and Bergen

By Joshua Anthony, on 17 February 2023

Author: Jarle Eid


Researchers from University College London, Haukeland University Hospital, National Defense University in Sweden and the University of Bergen met in January for a working meeting on a joint research project focusing on how operational psychology can inform municipality responses and resilience to disruptive events.


Research meeting at the Bergen fire station. Anne Bjørke (Bergen Fire and Rescue Services), Roar Espevik (National Defense University in Sweden), Guttorm Brattebø (Haukeland University Hospital), Jarle Eid (University of Bergen) and Gianluca Pescaroli (University College London). (Photo by Ilan Kelman).

What kind of operational situations are seen as most challenging and difficult to handle for fire and rescue workers? How did the COVID-19 pandemic influence operational capacity and resilience in the Fire and Rescue Services? What future training and educational needs are seen as most important to develop resilient fire and rescue services? What can we learn from cross national comparisons of fire and rescue services in London and in Bergen?

These and other questions are being explored based on in depth interviews with first responders in a cross-country comparison of Fire and Rescue services in Bergen and in London. The study is supported by a grant from the Regional Research Fund in Western Norway, the Fire and Rescue services in Bergen, and the Greater London Authorities.

Gianluca Pescaroli (University College London) and Anne Bjørke (Bergen Fire Services) discussing operational issues by the incident command vehicle. (Photo by Ilan Kelman).

We are very pleased to have this opportunity to collaborate with Professor Ilan Kelman and Associate Professor Gianluca Pescaroli on this new project. Here we are exploring three main issues. One is how the fire end rescue services were affected by the protracted covid situation, secondly we explore and collect examples of difficult operational situation, and thirdly, we explore training and development areas.

A particularly exciting issue is that in this project we have been collecting data both from Norway and from the U.K. and a cross national comparisons will be a true advantage to this project. In January we had the first joint working group meeting in Bergen, Norway and in April we will have the second working group meeting in London with our UCL colleagues.

 


Jarle Eid is Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology in the Department of Psychosocial Science, University of Bergen. 

Away in a Danger

By Joshua Anthony, on 22 December 2022

The snow that fell across the UK three days ago is still obnoxiously hanging on, glinting in the sun that I desperately hope will finally end its last dying moments as deadly ice. What started out as an honest effort to replace all of Sainsbury’s copies of The Fall of Boris Johnson with out-of-date Taste-the-difference gammon has now become a treacherous Bambi-dance across the frozen customer car park. Rarely has a trip to the shops been dangerous, but now I’m risking a winter carpet-burn and you’ve-been-framed fame for the sake of a small Christmas gesture.

Reflective hazard tape was the last thing I imagined draping around the Christmas tree this year, but I have to admit the ambulance lights passing by the window have really lit up the place. From my dazzling blue igloo, it’s hard to see why everyone is complaining about extortionate energy prices when there’s finally a chance to put last year’s pair of thick-knit Christmas socks to good use. It’s all mistletoe and doom nowadays. Even here, at the Institute for Risk and Party-pooping (IRPP), we held a debate to discuss whether the risks of the festive season outweigh the benefits.

Courtesy of Drs Lisa Guppy and Gianluca Pescaroli, our delusions of a risk-free Christmas were thoroughly shattered. This year, it would be better to tell the old white patriarchal saint, Jeff Bezos—I mean Father Christmas—that he can throw away all those unsustainable gifts and snacks, because they are destroying the environment. Actually, don’t throw them away; instead, convert them into eco-friendly desk accessories that you can throw away in five years! Alternatively, an optimist could turn to resilience experts from Needhams 1834 Ltd (the kind event sponsors), Dr Chris Needham-Bennett and Robin Bucknall, who argued that the vital thread of good spirit that Christmas inspires has pulled people through the worst of times.

Alas, to list all the risks and benefits would take us into the new year and undermine the haughty exclusivity that all attendees of the debate get to feel. Besides, the panel failed to address what seems to me to be one of the fundamental components of risk this year: the Backstreet Boys’ new Christmas album, “a very Backstreet Christmas”.

If risk is a product of hazard and vulnerability, then it is the responsibility of government and emergency planners to ensure the public have the sufficient hot water this winter to submerge their radios in the baths. No one could have guessed that the drought earlier this year could have such profound knock-on effects on aural hazards.

There are, however, potential benefits: “Do they know it’s Christmas” the 1984 charity rock song by Band Aid has raised over £200 million since its first release to fight famine in Ethiopia. To quote NME music magazine: “Millions of Dead Stars write and perform rotten record for the right reasons”. It can only be imagined how much money for humanitarian causes will be raised by the Backstreet Boys’ 427th cover of Last Christmas.

There is a theory that the archetype of Father Christmas comes from a shamanic tradition of once-a-year imparting community members with healing, psilocybin-laced reindeer urine. The characteristic red and white stripes of Christmas decorations have a striking resemblance to a special type of mushroom that would be hung up and dried upon the leaves of a pine tree. Whether or not that’s true, it’s clear that Christmas has routes deeper than its neoliberal capitalist incarnation. At its best, it represents a part of human nature that encourages community resilience; at its worst, it is a realisation that the psychedelic experience may be the only way to help you drown out the soppy screeches of an overcooked festive boyband (for other examples of its worst, see any major news headline in the coming weeks).

Undoubtedly many of us will have memories of last year’s cancelled Christmases, this time round playing a thrilling game of “Have I caught covid, or have I just not drunk enough water?” But it wouldn’t be a year in Disaster Risk Reduction without first considering the risks we are getting ourselves into. At least we have the new John Lewis advert to look forward to: a heart-warming glimpse of Jeff Bezos guzzling down reindeer urine and waltzing around the lunar north pole to some new Backstreet Boys.


I would like to extend my gratitude to all those that contributed their great work to the IRDR blog this year. A truly inspiring range of topics were covered by our students, staff, and colleagues. A special thanks must be given to Dr Gianluca Pescaroli, who coerced more people into writing blogs for us than any of my emails could have hoped for.

 Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

 Josh Anthony | Blog Editor.

Finding Mosquitoes!

By a.aldosery, on 12 December 2022

Aisha Aldosery


Mosquitos are a fundamental part of testing the novel idea of my PhD, which focuses on developing intervention tools to support developing an early warning system to control the mosquito, thus, combatting mosquito-borne diseases. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was quite hard to fly to Brazil, considered one of the Latin American countries that was hit hard by mosquito-borne disease and has a strong program for mosquito surveillance. Therefore, conducting my fieldwork in a different location was more feasible, such as the Portuguese island of Madeira, located in the northeastern Atlantic Ocean, 900 km from mainland Portugal. A volcanic and subtropical island which seems like a perfect location for mosquitoes, it introduced an efficient program in 2005 focusing on mosquito surveillance. Four field trips have been conducted since November 2021 with Patty Kostkova, my primary supervisor, to achieve my project’s overarching goal. We worked together in designing and presenting several workshops on Madeira mobile app surveillance with the local environmental agents, as well as deploying several devices in the fields for environmental monitoring.

Trip One – Mosquito Ovitrap IOT-based System pilot system.

This trip was the first to Madeira after the COVID-19 pandemic; the trip was in late October 2021 and lasted for about three weeks. The main objectives of my first fieldwork trip (three weeks) were to establish a new collaboration with people from ITI / LARSyS, introduce and discuss my PhD idea with the team, and lastly, build a prototype version of the proposed system. Although the trip was considered short, we achieved a significant project milestone. During this trip, we started by calibrating the water sensors, building the IoT-based unit and deploying the prototype version of the MOISS system to understand how various weather and water parameters influence mosquito breeding and habitat favouring. The first version of the system has been deployed and running since November 2021 at the Natural History Museum of Funchal on Madeira Island. All timely data collected in the field by the sensors, such as the air temperature, humidity, pressure, water temperature, pH, DO, and conductivity, will be used along with the entomological data collected by the environmental agents to design and build a model to provide us with a better understanding of the mosquito’s development and presence.

Deployment of the first version of the MOISS system at the Natural History Museum.

The hardware component of the MOISS system.                                                          

Trip Two – Introducing Madeira Mosquito Surveillance App 

This trip was mainly about the project’s second component, which is about designing a mosquito surveillance app based on the local settings to be adopted by the environmental agents during their routine visits to the mosquito traps. To achieve that, establishing another collaboration with the local health sector is essential. The trip includes a couple of meetings and a workshop:

  • Meetings with Dr Bruna Ornelas de Gouveia, Regional Directorate of Health in Madeira Island, to discuss and design the collaboration protocol with the UCL IRDR Centre for Digital Public Health in Emergencies (dPHE). The collaboration entitles us to pilot our app on the island and gives us access to historical mosquito density data.
  • Meeting with the technical and GIS team, who showed us the mosquito data, hotspot maps and the effective strategies adopted by the local government to control mosquitoes across the island (https://www.iasaude.pt/Mosquito/ ).
  • We ran the first workshop with the environmental agents to introduce the idea of the surveillance app and how it could positively affect their work. During this workshop, we presented some showcases from our Brazilian project (Belmont) and a prototype of the Madeira app. The agents demonstrated different scenarios that could happen on the ground and what actions needed to be considered in each scenario. Finally, we had an interactive session, a very productive session that helped us understand the local settings in different conditions.

Environmental agents, after completing the surveillance app workshop.

Trip Three – Mosquito Ovitrap IOT-based System (MOISS) Large Deployment.

The third fieldwork was the most significant and challenging trip as many milestones needed to be completed, including the IoT-based system units implementation and deployment, along with a lot of logical preparation. Yet, it was one of the most exciting trips to see the theories and paper design coming true. This trip was from July to the beginning of August 2022 (four weeks). The focus of this trip was the MOISS system. During this trip, we calibrated and tested 60 water sensors in a week period, which required specific weather conditions. Then, two engineers from ITI / LARSyS and I assembled 17 system units in a week, including the testing and debugging of each unit. The conducted lab testing was quite challenging, resulting in several issues, including problems with the manufactured IoT shield, slow network connections, power, etc. We ended up with 13 devices deployed across the capital of the Island, Funchal. The decision about how many devices and where to deploy them was collaborative work with environmental agents and the technical team to select suitable study sites based on several criteria, including technical, logistic and mosquito data. The locations include schools, hospitals, one university, the port, and a private building.

Assembly and testing phase of MOISS units at the lab.

MOISS system deployment.

Trip Four – Madeira Mosquito Surveillance App Piloting Workshop

The last trip of this year (September 2022) was a four-day trip for Madeira. The main objective of this trip was to run a three-hour workshop with the environmental agents to show them the first completed developed version of the app, which is designed and implemented based on the requirements collected in the first workshop (second trip). Patty and I gave the agents technical support to install, operate and test the app for about two hours. After that, we had a one-hour interactive session to collect their inputs, which will help us improve the app and develop another sufficient version. The agents were delighted with the mosquito surveillance app and were excited about the next phase, piloting the app for several months.

During this trip, the project gained the attention and interest of local Madeira TV, which was there during the workshop and interviewed Prof Patty Kostkova.

Patty Kostkova interviewed on Telejornal Madeira. Click image to open video (interview at 18:15-20:40).

We are currently looking for funding to develop and deploy the mosquito surveillance mobile app and collect data on a large scale. Finally, although each trip had its challenge, some went differently than we had planned and expected. I have learned much beyond my research scope and gained knowledge on project management and building collaboration. Many thanks to Patty for accompanying me in each project phase and trip to support me in moving the project forward. We had a great time enjoying the weather, and more significantly, we managed to deploy our IoT system and pilot the surveillance app.

Acknowledgements

Trip one was fully funded by the UCL Institution of Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR); trip two was fully funded by UCL Mathematical and Physical Science Faculty, PhD Students Travel Grant; trip three was mainly funded by the  UCL IRDR Centre for Digital Public Health in Emergencies (dPHE) and partially by the UCL Institution of Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR); trip four was fully funded by my PhD sponsor, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia.

A big thanks and appreciation to our IRDR Finance team for their significant support which played a crucial role in helping me while preparing my PhD project. Special thanks to Matthew Lee for his outstanding support in managing equipment quotes and dealing with orders.


Aisha Aldosery is currently a doctoral candidate at the UCL IRDR Centre for Digital Public Health in Emergencies at University College London. She is also a researcher at King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She earned her master’s degree in Software System Engineering from UCL. Her broad research areas are software engineering and the Applied Internet of Things. She is particularly interested in designing and developing digital health intervention tools such as surveillance and early warning systems. She is also interested in designing environmental IoT-based sensor devices and analysing sensor data using machine learning methodologies. The focus of Aisha’s PhD research project is investigating mobile apps, the Internet of Things (IoT) and sensing technologies for predicting mosquito populations to combat vector-borne diseases – a pertinent global issue with global research significance.

Multi-Coloured Sky Thinking: The 2022 IRDR Spring Academy

By Joshua Anthony, on 1 June 2022

It’s easy to associate a blue sky with positivity—a firmament free from the cover of cloud and a place where imagination has no limit. A clear sky, a clear mind; warm rays of sunshine illuminating the world around us in all. But a blue sky is not always a welcome one, not in lands begging for rainfall. Each horizon serves a purpose. Perhaps a grey sky, foreboding and opaque, may give pause for a consideration of darker futures and an opportunity to prepare.

In late April, the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at UCL ran a two-day event to expand upon the metaphor of blue- and grey-sky thinking and explore its meaning in disaster risk reduction. For the first time in two years, this event was held in-person, allowing many members of the department to meet face-to-face for the first time. Despite the successes made under a digital regime, a common sentiment shared by many in the reflections was the value of working together in the same room. Ideas can flow faster than some broadband connections.

Results of a group exercise exploring the lessons learned from the day’s activities. Photo by Shinta Michika Puteri.

Lonely Clouds in a Blue Sky

Researchers are not islands. Activities designed to connect each other through understanding our individual and collective purposes, how they interact, can help to inform better research and broaden its impact. We have more in common than we think, but also enough different to bring unique contributions to the table.

Overcast, in the Shadows of Cloud

Considering the negative can enhance the positive outcomes. Working in the field especially brings a whole host of challenges and unexpected situations that could be somewhat mitigated by applying a grey-sky-thinking mindset. Think back on past experiences that did not go to plan and reimagine an alternative way of dealing with it; adapt the situation to fit future events.

Colours of the Rainbow

Can we separate the researcher from the research? Behind the sacrament of publication are human beings with lives and feelings. Completing a PhD can be a daunting task and the emotions felt throughout can span a whole spectrum. The mentee-mentor transfer of information can easily miss out the emotional, so finding ways to hear our shared experiences from this journey can make the prospect of achievement seem more likely.

Forecasting Ahead

Coming together after two years of mainly online interaction was welcomed by many, with activities harnessing the yearned-for face-to-face connection. This may have suited well for the current size and situation of IRDR, but as it continues to grow, as crises call for a widening of research—as we fight to hold No.1—how can we optimise the resources used for such an event? Most importantly, how can we adapt to a changing landscape?

The faces of the Spring Academy. Photo by Ilan Kelman.

A (post-earthquake) Christmas story

By David Alexander, on 23 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

By Joshua Anthony, on 14 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