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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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4 Ways to Improve Early Warning Systems

By Pauliina Vesaluoma, on 28 September 2023

This month, the UCL Warning Research Centre held its first-ever 3-day conference ‘Creating Effective Warnings for All’. In the face of extreme geophysical and meteorological hazards, and the complex interactions of multiple forms of risk, early warning systems (EWS) are crucial for boosting preparedness and emergency response to mitigate disasters rooted in everyday social conditions. Here are four key takeaways from the conference.

Panel discussion at the WRC conference. Photo by Ilan Kelman.

Integration

EWS extend beyond the technical mechanisms for alerting people about emergencies, such as sirens and instant notifications. Early warnings need to form part of an integrated process that strengthens multi-hazard education, risk perception, risk communication, and preparedness measures. This can help shift disaster management from being reactive to increasingly proactive.

Inclusivity

For EWS to be effective, they must be inclusive, incorporating local stakeholder knowledge. This type of approach recognises specific vulnerabilities and capacities for disaster risk reduction among communities. Solutions must be context-sensitive, resources need to align with needs, and projects need to be structured around participatory processes to determine what works, where, and for whom.

Timing

Timeframes are key, whether we are in a moment of disaster or in ‘peace time’. Norms can become entrenched in times of intensified uncertainty; however, disasters can also provide a transformative moment to reassess existing structures and emergency protocols. Equally, we should harness the time in between crises to strengthen preparedness frameworks and collaborative networks for future resilience.

Creativity

Creativity is a powerful tool for rethinking existing solutions or imagining new ones. Cartoons, graphic recording, cardboard theatre, acrobatics, and interactive workshops were among the creative approaches used in the conference sessions, encouraging exploration of interconnected themes, such as climate change and mental health.


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Pauliina Vesaluoma recently completed the MSc in Risk, Disaster and Resilience at IRDR (2022/23). Natural hazard preparedness, volcanic risk reduction, and future resilience are among some of her main interests. Pauliina is currently undertaking a Business Resilience internship at Holcim.

Connect with her on Linkedin.


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The Kedarnath Tragedy: Breakdown or Breakthrough?

By Joshua Anthony, on 1 April 2022

Author: Savin Bansal


The cataclysmic ‘Kedarnath tragedy’ of June 2013, triggered by overwhelming flash-floods and landslides in Uttarakhand, the Greater Himalayan State of India, instigated losses worth US$ 1billion, mortality at a gory high of 5000 and led to an equal number still being reported as missing. The destruction of critical infrastructure left several lakhs of pilgrims and tourists stranded for several weeks together.

The region has been long fraught with frequent, severe and uncertain onslaught of geophysical and hydrometeorological hazards, is seismically dynamic, afflicted with climatic extremes and is witness to the growing human-environment interactions. Though the moderate magnitude events probably have become a reality in the region, the 2013 hydrometeorological extreme remains unique in terms of the historic trends and exceedance probability.

The monsoon in June 2013 arrived almost two weeks earlier than expected. The torrential cloudbursts and massive Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) resulted in a sudden swelling of the Mandakini, Alakananda, Bhagirathi and Kali river basins. Being a renowned pilgrimage and eco-tourism circuit in India, the region saw the disaster coinciding with the peak congregation, affecting more than 900,000 lives and precipitating grave infrastructure failure in just over three days. The towns of Kedarnath, Rambara and Gaurikund dotted along the Mandakini valley bore the maximum brunt.

The aftermath rendered the key public assets and critical infrastructure dysfunctional, and the exigent business processes compromised. The ravaged quintessential schools-hospitals, buckled highways and bridges, wrecked civic service delivery systems, snapped telecommunication networks, and incapacitated fire and emergency operation services only amplified the atrocious impacts. This not only compromised the relief-rescue operations but severely subdued the coping capacity of the community.

Chinks in the Armour

Many victims had misled themselves to cascading floods and landslips, several children and elderly to trauma and injuries, with others succumbing to lost will and hope. The disquieting spectacle of vanished settlements, frenzied victims and bewildered response put up a horrendous spectacle to behold. In retrospect, the delayed response and resource sub-optimization are attributed to the iniquitously deficient Risk Management framework detailed as:

Imperception of the significance the resilience holds for critical infrastructural systems:

The colossal impact was strikingly disproportionate to the infrastructure resilience levels, adaptation and coping capacities of the communities. Ironically, it took a catastrophe of such a stupendous magnitude to realise the growing reliance of society upon interconnected functional nodes and closely coupled systems. The setbacks on such systems empowered vulnerabilities to generate escalation points that spawned devastating cascades further to propagate through socio-economic systems.

Information asymmetry and risk communication deficit:

The small-scale pre-disaster (preparedness phase) knowledge sharing and generalized oblivion about risk perception and assessment among the emergency response agencies, media, volunteers, and local inhabitants denied the potential victims an opportunity to take informed decisions to protect themselves.

Inconsiderate of known-knowns:

Lack of preparedness, scenario planning, functional disaster management and resilience plans, decentralized resource inventories and inept Emergency Operation Centres accentuated the vulnerability and limited the Hazard risk-vulnerability-analysis (HRVA) capability. The underdeveloped forecasting and early warning systems subdued the evacuation mechanisms and alert protocols further.

Benighted and at odds with the idea of inter-agency coordination and collaboration:

The existence of multiple information flowlines and command structures only rendered the response entities confounded and aid agencies disoriented. It proliferated the unverifiable inputs and compromised priority sequencing. The squandering of initial golden hours of search-rescue owed itself substantially to this fallacy.

Joint Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment

The multi-sectoral damage and needs assessment carried out by the Government in collaboration with the multilateral development institutions (the World Bank and Asian Development Bank) laid the framework for stimulating major policy shift to proactive risk management besides sustainable recovery and reconstruction.

Massive investment mix in the form of IDA (International Development Assistance) and federal assistance were deployed for Risk Reduction Investments in (i) multi-hazard resilient assets such as strategic roads and bridges, public schools, and hospitals, (ii) augmenting emergency response capacities through provisioning of modern search-rescue equipment and training, (iii) bolstering hydro-meteorological network and Early Warning Systems (EWS), (iv) establishment of a risk assessment-modelling framework and a geospatial decision support system, (v) and institutionalising the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (USDMA) to operate and function in conformance with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-30). 

Lessons Learned

Eventually, taking the event in its stride, the State has literally risen from the ashes by drawing on the lessons learned in its wake. The pace of recovery and policy instruments deployed have been exemplary. The Risk Management framework developed is espoused as a best-practice model and now serves as a blueprint for other state entities and the neighbouring Himalayan nations.

Being at the core of economy, critical infrastructure was duly recognised as the central factor in enabling labour productivity, redistributive justice and serving our most basic needs to assuring a decent quality of life. Any disruptions therein are a drag on economies that disconcert communities through denting households’ consumption, well-being, and the productivity.

Hence, the formal mechanisms to appraise the cost-benefit ratio of ex-ante policy measures do exist now insomuch as critical asset resilience is concerned. This assumes substance in the context of minimizing the recurrent disruptive shocks on infrastructure and livelihoods, and averting the prohibitively high ex-post reconstruction cost. A pre-emptive investment in more resilient infrastructure is clearly a cost-effective and robust choice, the net result of which is a $4 in benefit for each dollar invested in resilience.

Furthermore, the policy commitments for increased resource allocation towards disaster-climate risk mitigation, reinforced multi-hazard Early Warning Systems, fully equipped District Emergency Operation centres and risk informed development planning are a reality of the day.

In addition, Incident Response System (IRS), a structured framework that enhances interoperability and behaviour coordination under multi-layered team settings is integrated well into the Emergency Response model of the State. It has proved to be critical in stimulating calibrated response to critical events all this while by bringing the disparate units together to share resources, authority and knowledge.

Conclusion

Overall, every time such low probability tail events fleet past us, they never fail to encourage adopting a paradigm shift in the ways we perceive, respond and live through the hazards. Parting ways with the reactive emergency response regime shall require mainstreaming the Disaster-Risk Reduction into development plans, policy and investments. The bottom line is that the victims endangered by life threatening exigencies don’t deserve such gratuitous procrastination and inefficiencies.


Savin Bansal is an Indian civil servant (Indian Administrative Service) and presently pursuing a Master’s degree in Risk, Disaster and Resilience at IRDR, University College London. Serving the Government of Uttarakhand, India, as an administrator and public policy practitioner, he has an extensive experience in Disaster-Climate risk management domain as a decision-maker and leading multilateral development projects.

Contribute to the discussion: savin.bansal.21@ucl.ac.uk

Disclaimer: The views and perceptions expressed are in personal capacity and can’t in anyway be construed as that of the Government of Uttarakhand, Government of India or the University College London.