Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Why We Should Regard 2017 as the Centenary of Disaster Risk Reduction

On 6th December 1917 two ships collided in Halifax, Nova Scotia. One, the SS Mont-Blanc, bore a cargo of munitions. A fire ignited them and the resulting blast totally destroyed all structures in a radius of 800-metres. It killed 1,963 people and injured 9,000, amounting to 22 per cent of the population of Halifax. It was the largest man-made explosion of pre-nuclear times (Wikipedia, 2017).

Samuel Henry Prince (1886-1960) was a local Anglican priest who escaped injury in the blast and was thus able to assist the survivors. He had a strong sense of ministry, an academic bent (and an MA in psychology) and a maritime background (Scanlon 1988). In May 1919 he began a doctorate at Columbia University, which he completed and published in record time (Prince 1920). It deals with the first 30 months of the aftermath.

Several assessments of Prince's work have been published (Dynes and Quarantelli 1994, Scanlon 1988, 1997). One of these noted that "Systematic study of disaster was still three decades away" (Scanlon 1988, p. 216). However, it can be argued that Prince started the ball rolling. By a mixture of design and coincidence, his was the seminal study.

Was it really the defining moment?

Major disasters had been systematically investigated before Prince came on the scene. The Royal Society report on the 1883 Krakatoa eruption (Symons 1888) is one contender; the 1783 Calabrian earthquakes are another, as the Royal Academy of Naples carried out a thorough study of this disaster (Vivenzio 1788). An even stronger contender might be the December 1857 Basilicata earthquake in the Kingdom of Naples. The Irish engineer Robert Mallet wrote a remarkable interdisciplinary report on it after a month of arduous fieldwork (Mallet 1862) and this has since been treated as a milestone in the history of science. However, none of these studies led to the development of disaster science. To an extent, Mallet is one of the fathers of seismology. His observations on disaster were part scientific treatise, part ethnography and part travelogue, but they had no immediate follow-up.

Prince was fortunate in that others were ready to take the field forward. Although the priest himself carried out no other studies of disaster and wrote no further treatises on it, other than a 1958 volume in which he repeated much of what he had written in 1920, momentum did not lapse. A bluff, broad-shouldered mid-westerner, Harlan Barrows, who was Professor of Geography at Chicago University, took over the reins. In his 1923 presidential address to the Association of American Geographers he presented the field of human ecology (Barrows 1923). It ushered in the age of studies of how people and communities adapt to harsh environments and extreme events. Anthropologists such as Karl W Butzer (Butzer 2012) and Anthony Oliver-Smith (Oliver-Smith 1986) would take it forward, and so would Barrows's protégé, Gilbert Fowler White (White 1945, 1974, Hinshaw 2006).

The first generation of 'disasterologists' also included a remarkable man who managed to be both renegade and pillar of the establishment. Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin fled the Soviet Union in 1923. Before he left he founded the Sociology Department of St Petersburg University, and he did the same at Harvard University after he became a naturalised American. Sorokin was fascinated by the social properties of warfare, a field of study which gradually led him to write a more general treatise on disaster (Sorokin 1942). He appears to have had no legatees, although the founding in 1963 of the Disaster Research Centre at the University of Ohio (it moved to the University of Delaware in 1985) strongly promoted social studies of disaster and made the names of the sociologists Enrico L. ('Henry') Quarantelli and Russell R. Dynes revered by scholars and students worldwide. Moreover, the 'ethnographic' anthropology of Kai Erikson also left its mark (Erikson 1976).

Sadly, we cannot trace continuity or affinity in the psychological studies of disaster. In 1906 William James, the brother of Henry James, became a participant observer when he was lecturing at Stanford University and it fell apart in the San Francisco earthquake. Having survived - narrowly - he did not hesitate to put pen to paper (James 1911), but after that he did not follow up his reflections and neither did anyone else for a long a period of time.

Samuel Henry Prince forestalled Harlan Barrows by a few years but the establishment of social dynamics and human ecology (although not the conflation of these fields) was fortuitous, for it lent momentum to the study of disasters. Albeit with several different origins, a first generation of scholars had emerged. It led, perhaps erratically, to a second generation (White, Quarantelli, Dynes, etc.) and they took care systematically to nurture a third (e.g. Burton et al. 1993).

In 100 years the field has gone through several changes of name, or perhaps it has required time to acquire a coherent identity. Disaster risk reduction is a neologism, but it is intended to show that we embrace mitigation as well as response and recovery. 'Disaster science' is a good descriptor, but only provided we consider science to be a broad church that includes the social, economic, psychological and cultural aspects as well as the physical ones. We need Teilhard de Chardin's and Vernadsky's noösphere as well as the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere (Levit 2000).

What should we do?

There may be new challenges in disaster science, but there is still much unfinished business. For example, we have failed to define what a scholar needs to have read in order to become a 'disasterologist'. Perhaps we should start by doing this. The list is not difficult to compile. Many of the earlier works are available in digital format and can be downloaded freely. The next few months of 2017 would be a good time to reread Prince and the other early luminaries.

Friday 6th December 2017 might be a good date for a commemoration, looking back at disaster studies and forward to the future, as well as assessing the current state of the art.


Realistically, the beginnings of disaster science are diffuse enough that justifying the idea of a centenary is actually quite hard. However, there is something rather attractive about the idea that, like the Universe, it "all began with a big bang" (namely, the ship explosion). The second 'big bang' was undoubtedly 'nine-eleven', the terrorist attacks on the USA on 11th September 2001, in which civil defence underwent an abrupt return to favour as resources were poured into 'homeland security' (and thus out of natural hazards studies).

Disaster studies have grown at a fast and constantly accelerating pace. There are now more than 80 academic journals dedicated to aspects of risk, hazard and disaster, and more than 500 others that occasionally (or often) publish papers on these topics. Growth does not equal maturity. A centenary could be a good opportunity to force the pace regarding the latter, and to treat the occasion as a rather belated 'coming of age'.


Barrows, H.H. 1923. Geography as human ecology. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 13: 1-14.

Burton, I., Kates, R.W. and White, G.F. 1978. The Environment as Hazard. Oxford University Press, New York, 240 pp. (2nd edn 1993, Guilford Press, New York, 304 pp.)

Butzer, K.W. 2012. Collapse, environment, and society. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(10): 3632-3639.

Dynes, R.R. and E.L. Quarantelli 1994. The place of the explosion in the history of disaster research: the work of Samuel H. Prince. In A. Ruffman and C. Howell (eds) Ground Zero: A Reassessment of the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbour. Nimbus Publishing Limited, Halifax, Nova Scotia: 55-68, 431-432.

Erikson, K.T. 1976. Everything in its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood. Simon and Schuster, New York, 284 pp.

Hinshaw, R.E. 2006. Living with Nature's Extremes: the Life of Gilbert Fowler White. Johnson Books, Boulder, Colorado, 339 pp.

James, W. 1911. On some mental effects of the earthquake. In Memories and Studies. Longman, Green, and Co., New York (reprinted in 2015 by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform).

Levit, G.S. 2000. The biosphere and the noösphere: theories of V. I. Vernadsky and P. Teilhard de Chardin. A Methodological Essay. International Archives on the History of Science/Archives Internationales D'Histoire des Sciences 50(144): 160-176.

Mallet, R. 1862. Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857: The First Principles of Observational Seismology. Chapman and Hall for the Royal Society, London, 2 vols.

Oliver-Smith, A. 1986. The Martyred City: Death and Rebirth in the Andes. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 280 pp.

Prince, S. 1920. Catastrophe and Social Change: Based Upon a Sociological Study of the Halifax Disaster. Studies in History, Economics and Public Law no. 94. Colombia University Press, New York, 151 pp.

Scanlon, T.J. 1988. Disaster’s little known pioneer: Canada’s Samuel Henry Prince. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 6: 213-232.

Scanlon, T.J. 1997. Rewriting a living legend: researching the 1917 Halifax explosion. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 15(1): 147-178.

Sorokin, P.A. 1942. Man and Society in Calamity: the Effects of War, Revolution, Famine, Pestilence Upon Human Mind, Behavior, Social Organization and Cultural Life. Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 353 pp.

Symons, G.J. (ed.) 1888. The Eruption of Krakatoa and Subsequent Phenomena. Report of the Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society, Harrison and Sons, London, 494 pp.

Vivenzio, G. 1788. Istoria de' tremuoti avvenuti nella Provincia della Calabria Ulteriore e nella città di Messina nell'anno 1783 (2nd edn). Reale Accademia delle Scienze e Belle Lettere, Stamperia Reale, Napoli 2 vols.

White, G.F. 1945. Human Adjustment to Floods: A Geographical Approach to the Flood Problem in the United States. Research Paper no. 29. Department of Geography, University of Chicago, 225 pp.

White, G.F. (ed.) 1974. Natural Hazards: Local, National, Global. Oxford University Press, New York, 288 pp.

Wikipedia 2017. Halifax explosion., accessed 10 January 2017.

In memory of Professor T. Joseph Scanlon, 1933-2015.

Joe was Samuel Prince's biographer and a disasterologist of extraordinary talent, sagacity and charm.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

'Optimising' Failure in Disaster Response

At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, mechanisation of the weaving industry in Manchester, England, began to destroy the cottage industry of loom work. The Luddites were people who sought to destroy the machines that were destroying their livelihoods. Things are different now: to be a latter-day Luddite is akin to being a modern King Cnut, the ruler who sat on his throne amid the waves to show his subjects that he had no power to stop the tide coming in (and was later misinterpreted as the king who thought he could control the tides but failed). Technology is the tide, indeed the unstoppable tsunami. It brings good and bad things with it.

Regarding the modern advance of technology, I have no desire to be a Luddite of any kind. However, I am concerned about how know-how and equipment are being misused in disaster risk reduction.

Thirty-six years ago, when I began to study disasters, we were only a select few people in this new area of scholarship. DRR is now a crowded field. That, of course, is good because it means that the importance to humanity of DRR is recognised and research institutions are taking the field seriously. However, there are several branches of 'disasterology' in which many of the proponents appear not to have an adequate background in the field, nor an appreciation of the reality behind the problems they tackle. The consequence of this is that the ceaseless application of technology becomes a problem, not a solution. It can create vulnerability by inducing reliance on routines or equipment that in a disaster may function badly or not at all.

Humanitarian logistics is a field in which there is a vivacious tendency to produce algorithms. One can imagine cohorts of mathematicians and computer scientists casting around for problems to solve. Suddenly, they see the delivery of humanitarian aid as the answer to their prayers: a field in need of algorithms. A proper critical analysis would examine the key problem of whether the algorithms have any value in the field. I strongly suspect that more often than not the answer is 'no'. The models are based on assumptions. In some cases these are inadequate, and in many they are untested. Few attempts have been made to find out whether the models function during real disasters, whether they would improve the situation and whether they are attractive to emergency managers. In my experience, they are not.

Regarding the very fashionable problem of how to optimise the location of critical facilities, in a recent earthquake that I studied in the field, facilities such as emergency operations centres and warehouses were located in the only places that were available, accessible and functional. There was no element of choice or optimisation. It was a typical event of its kind, and optimisation algorithms would not have helped in any way. Nor would they have been accepted by the emergency managers on site, who overwhelmingly wanted to simplify their decision making, not complicate it with over-sophisticated routines.

Algorithms designed to optimise facilities presuppose that the data will be available to carry out the optimisation during the critical phase of a disaster aftermath. That is unlikely. Alternatively, they tend to presuppose that decisions can be made before disaster strikes. That ignores the range of geographical variation in possible impacts.

I have a strong feeling that humanitarian logistics and common sense have parted company. For instance, consider a recently published model that optimally located shelters and efficiently assigned evacuees to the nearest shelter site. There is no idea in this work of how to preserve social cohesion. My field research, and that of many others, shows that this is a critical factor in the success or failure of shelter strategies.

If it occurs at all, model testing is usually hypothetical, or it is carried out under highly artificial conditions. There is very little research on the effectiveness of algorithms in real crises, and whether they are able to improve situations. This is hardly surprising. Most emergency decision makers are not interested in optimisation routines and are not equipped to understand or use them. They would be very suspicious of any attempt to replace informed judgement with automated routines. The key question is not "how can we optimise the location of a warehouse?", but "are there any suitable warehouses in the area that we can commandeer and use?"

Increasing dependency upon electronic routines may indeed increase vulnerability to disaster. Any failure of sophisticated electronics and software (or batteries, or connections) risks causing serious problems (will there be electricity after the disaster has struck?). This explains the widespread reluctance of emergency managers and responders to use the algorithms. Indeed, there is significant and well-founded opposition to the 'technofix' approach to emergency management. At the very least, users will have to assume the burden of memorising yet another plethora of mnemonics and initials. Complex training will need to be allied with ability to fix software and hardware glitches with extreme rapidity. Rarely if ever do the papers that present algorithms discuss how dependency upon them may be dangerous, or what would happen if the algorithm fails. When the algorithm is described, seldom is any redundancy offered.

'Optimal' and 'optimisation' are misnomers when applied to a problem that has only been thought through partially. Rather than supporting decisions, the algorithms may thwart them by encouraging decision makers not to think problems through.

Many have argued that the 'technofix' approach to disaster is wasteful and damaging. In an age in which technology has become the world's obsession, it cannot easily be dismissed, nor should it be. Indeed, it holds the answer to many complex and intractable problems, but only if it is used with intelligence and insight. What technology has to offer to disaster management depends on its robustness, its ease of use in a crisis, redundancy if it becomes blocked, its cultural and technical acceptability to users, and its ability quickly to provide useful answers to intractable problems. When papers are published that offer technological solutions to disaster problems, they should necessarily address these issues. They should prove that the technology is attractive to users, that it will indeed be adopted and that it will make a positive difference to disaster management.

Disaster Risk Reduction in the Post-Truth World

There is a footnote in my book Confronting Catastrophe (Alexander, 2000), which runs as follows:-
 "Thus the alarm bells rung by Vance Packard in his 1950s book The Hidden Persuaders (Packard 1981 - a classic critique of advertising) have largely been ignored. His death in 1997 was greeted with a resounding silence on the part of the chattering classes and the mass media he criticized so aptly. Perhaps that was their revenge."
This small intellectual aside has become more, not less, important since I wrote it.

Advertising is the creation of illusion in order to further the consumption of goods and services. My lifetime, 63 years, is a period in which the population of the world, the army of consumers, has more or less tripled and at the same time we have become inured to advertising. During these six decades it has gradually become more and more insidious until it has a finger in, and sometimes a stranglehold over, virtually all of our activities.

Advertising has developed a remarkably strong synergy with the entertainment industry, another great producer of illusion. Many people have grown up in a world in which these giants of human fantasy are two of the principal points of reference to which our model of the human condition is anchored. This is fertile terrain for the growth of post-truth politics. Politics these days is heavily dependent on advertising. Once it loses its moral compass, and once the electorate no longer expects truthfulness, then any old lie will suffice.

Now the last thing we need in disaster risk reduction is illusion. And the first thing we need to do is face up to reality, however brutal it may be. Is DRR perhaps the antidote to advertising? Perhaps it is, or should be, but how is it served by "post-truth politics"?

In 1918 Hiram W. Johnson, a Republican senator from California, is reputed to have coined the phrase "The first casualty when war comes is truth." His observation is not surprising when one considers that politics and economics are behind war. But is the same true of disaster? Observers of the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima would argue that truth was very much the first casualty (Kushida 2012). Moreover, the effect of this was to damage or destroy the bond of trust between government, science and the people.

Is this part of a trend or an isolated incident? I suggest that it is neither. In 1986 the Soviet Government struggled to conceal the Chernobyl disaster until the plume of radiation across Europe meant that the pretence could no longer be sustained (Moynagh 1994, p. 724). In this it followed a long tradition of secrecy after disaster that had been prevalent in the USSR and China (which until 1986 did not allowed foreign scrutiny of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake). Yet in both Russia and China the situation has changed: it could hardly be otherwise in a world dominated by instantaneous electronic communication and 'citizen journalism'. Moreover, secrecy and outright lies are slightly different traits.

If indeed politics have entered a new era in which truth no longer sways electorates, will this situation extend to disaster risk reduction and the management of disaster impacts? I think there are grounds for limited optimism. Pluralism is the antidote to Great Historical Lies, and pluralism cannot be suppressed by disaster, nor, in the modern age, can it so easily be suppressed by dictatorship.


Alexander, D.E. 2000. Confronting Catastrophe: New Perspectives on Natural Disasters. Dunedin Academic Press, Edinburgh, and Oxford University Press, New York, 282 pp.

Kushida, K.E. 2012. Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Narrative, Analysis, and Recommendations. Shorenstein APARC Working Paper. The Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University, Stanford, California, 73 pp.

Moynagh, E.B. 1994. The legacy of Chernobyl: its significance for the Ukraine and the world. Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review 21(4): 709-751.

Packard, V.O. 1981. The Hidden Persuaders. Pocket Books, New York, 288 pp.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

How to Write an Emergency Plan

Alexander, D.E. 2016. How to Write an Emergency Plan.
Dunedin Academic Press, Edinburgh and London, 268 pp.
ISBN 978-1-78046-013-0 (pbk)

In 2002 I wrote and published a book entitled Principles of Emergency Planning and Management. At the time, several volumes were available that dealt with how to prepare for and respond to emergencies, but they tended to be tied to particular systems. In fact, most of the available books were based on the American system of emergency response. That was all very well, but most countries do not have a Federal Emergency Management Agency. In those nations which lack a federal structure, the balance of powers between national, regional and local authorities can be very different from the way it is in the United States, and thus so can the national emergency management system. My book of principles was designed to show that there are fundamental challenges, issues and practices that transcend the prevailing administrative system. Emergency management is not the same in any and every country, but the different systems have much in common and respond to universal needs for safety, rescue, care and recovery.

Principles was well received but some of the feedback I received from readers suggested that they would welcome a more hands-on practical book. Rather than write a second, updated edition of the Principles volume, I decided to develop a book entitled How to Write an Emergency Plan. The principles that govern the process would still be there, but emphasis would be given to the practical steps in formulating, maintaining and using emergency plans of various kinds.

Every so often during my 36-year career as a "disasterologist" I have encountered people who have been thrust into the role of emergency planner with little or no preparation. Some of them have had experience of responding to emergencies; others have been entirely new to the field. A common question was "where do I start?" I have met people from all levels of public administration (local, regional and national) and from private companies who have been in this predicament. In writing the book my aim was to provide them with some guidance, and for those people who are already experienced emergency planners. I also wanted to show how emergency planning is special, and why it is worth doing.

The paradox of writing a book of this kind is that I am not sure I believe in emergency plans. In many instances, they are bound to fail. However, as the book states right at its starting point, the precious--indeed invaluable--element is the planning process. It is a means of learning about emergencies, the urgent needs that they create and the ways in which those needs can be satisfied. Emergency plans may need to be adapted to the unique circumstances of a particular crisis, but the process of creating a plan should force the planner to confront many of the issues that stem from the need to prepare for future emergencies. Failure to confront them could be construed as negligence, when equipment is not available, personnel are untrained, command structures lack functionality, and so on. So many things about the next emergency can be predicted from previous crises, and if we heed the lessons we will be more resilient and better prepared next time around.

The 'bedrock' level of emergency planning is that of municipal government. In one sense, even the very largest disaster is a local affair, because its effects will be felt at the scale of neighbourhoods, villages, towns and cities. Although I did not concentrate exclusively on municipal emergency planning, I treated it as the basic model because most other scales or types of planning must refer to the municipality as the basic unit of response and command.

The basis of the book is the generic, multi-hazard plan that every local authority ought to have, an instrument that is adaptable to both the known, anticipated hazards and the unanticipated ones that strike out of the blue. The core chapters of the book explain, step-by-step, how to construct such a plan. However, the longest chapter in the work is dedicated to the various kinds of thematic plan. Airports, hazardous industries, hospitals, museums, they all need emergency plans, and the various plans need to fit together so that the response to the next emergency is seamlessly 'joined up', rather than disconnected. There is also a need for emergency plans for particular functions, such as medicine supply (pharmaceuticals) and veterinary response, and particular sorts of person, such as those with disabilities. These are, of course, dealt with in the book.

Emergency planning is a lively field which is continuously evolving. The threats, hazards and challenges that the emergency response community--and the public--face are changing at an ever faster rate. Constructing, maintaining and using an emergency plan offers an opportunity to improve the services that provide safety, security and rescue to those in need. There is also a chance to decide what the priorities should be when scarce emergency resources need to be deployed. Thinking over these issues, and many others, How to Write an Emergency Plan was an interesting book to put together and for me it was a continuous learning process.

The Principles book is now 14 years old and it has weathered quite well, despite the momentous changes in society and hazards in the meantime, and the constant evolution of emergency response worldwide. In How to Write an Emergency Plan it now has a partial successor, but there is unfinished business: it is time to think about a book called How to Manage an Emergency.

Alexander, D.E. 2002. Principles of Emergency Planning and Management. Terra Publishing, Harpenden, UK, and Oxford University Press, New York, 340 pp. Available from Dunedin Academic Press.