Monday, 19 December 2011

The Costs of Relief in International Disasters

Does rescue and medical intervention in foreign disasters cost too much? Is it effective and efficient? It is remarkable how little debate there is about these questions and how few data are available on which to base one's judgements.

In assessing costs, it is necessary to distinguish between search and rescue (SAR) and urban search and rescue (USAR). The former includes mountain and sea rescue, lost climbers, search for lost children and Alzheimer's patients and is usually focussed on one or two individuals, or a single boat. USAR involves searching damaged buildings after earthquakes, explosions and structural collapses.

SAR costs are highly variable. The cost of using helicopters depends on the type and availability of the aircraft, its range and crewing requirements (from a single pilot to a full medical team, copilot and winchman). In general it is around €2,500 per hour of search.

International USAR may involve travel over very long distances (for example from Taiwan to Haiti). It may also involve one or two teams of 58 members, up to 28 tonnes of equipment, and possibly also two or three rescue dogs (FEMA 1996). USAR teams inscribed in the UN register INSARAG are required to maintain 72 hours' total autonomy wherever they work, which necessitates bringing food and water supplies with them. However, it is very difficult to be autonomous with regard to local transportation in a foreign country

In the USA a USAR team costs about $1.8-$2.2 million per year to maintain. For accredited teams, the US Federal Government contributes about $1 million per task force per year, a total of $28 million. Although in 20 years the cost to US taxpayers went up seven times, they have fallen back recently (Bea 2010, p. 1).

The number of foreign rescuers that arrive in a disaster area after a major, internationally declared catastrophe usually varies from 1,200 to about 2,300, with a mean somewhere around 1,600. Almost no one arrives within the first 24-36 hours and almost all usually arrive within 72 hours. On occasion delays have been experienced by failure to get through immigration and quarantine, or by lack of transport on the ground. The teams usually stay for 4-7 days.

The "golden period" for rescuing trapped survivors is 6-12 hours after a sudden impact disaster that causes buildings to collapse (and definitely well within the first 24 hours). However, most foreign rescuers arrive later than this, and the number of people rescued is usually very small. The teams are thus restricted to recovering bodies from the rubble. In Bam the 57 members of Rapid-UK rescued no one at all. In Haiti, 134 people were rescued (bearing in mind that the death toll was probably in excess of 250,000 and no one ever counted the plethora of injured people). Of these 134 people only nine were rescued after the fourth day. Yet the EU alone mobilised 12 USAR teams, and at least 24 others arrived from different countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Whilst one is of course grateful that anyone was rescued, one is forced to conclude that overwhelming inputs thus produced very small results. Similarly, 40 USAR teams participated in the response to the Bam, Iran, earthquake of 2003, but only five of them arrived within the first 24 hours (Abolghasemi et al. 2006).

The maximum survival time for an uninjured person trapped under rubble is 14-15 days, but the proportion of people who last more than five days is absolutely insignificant. In the Tanghsan, China, earthquake of 1976, the worst such disaster in the 20th century, 5,500 people were rescued on the first day, but by the fifth day there were only 34 new survivors.

The cost of sending teams across the globe and putting them to work for a week is seldom, if ever, quoted. Rumour has it that the cost per life saved is about US$1 million, although accurate estimates have, to my knowledge, never been made. Clearly, if all search and rescue could be conducted by well-equipped, numerous, well trained local forces, then costs would be very much smaller. However, it is as well to remember that in the response to the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 135 rescuers died, 65 of them when searching confined spaces that flooded (Casper and Murphy 2003, p. 367). Safety training and personal protective equipment are thus absolutely necessary. In Mexico City, as elsewhere, four fifths of survivors were rescued within one day of the disaster (Olson and Olson 1987).

A second problem concerns foreign field hospitals (FFHs). In the aftermath of the Bam earthquake, the estimated cost of deploying 14 foreign field hospitals for an average of two months each was $12 million, or about 40 per cent of the cost of rebuilding Bam's two damaged and unserviceable hospitals. Deployment was more rapid than it had been in the Gujarat earthquake two years previously (24-48 hours as against 5-7 days), but nevertheless, by the time the first field hospitals were active, injured patients had either died or been airlifted by medivac to other cities. The field hospitals were used to provide routine medical care in substitution for the damaged permanent medical structures. Hence, it is hardly surprising that when Von Schreeb et al (2008) looked at four major mass-casualty disasters, they found evidence of substantial over-supply of medical aid and rates of utilisation of field hospitals that fell below 50 per cent. In the final analysis, the logistical costs of deploying field hospitals may be so high that they are sometimes left behind at the end of operations and donated to the host country--i.e. written off.

The upshot of these considerations about USAR and FFHs is that there is no substitute for resilient, local rescue and medical response to disasters. The costs of foreign intervention are very high, the benefits are small and from this point of view the international relief system is extremely inefficient.


Abolghasemi, H., M.H. Radfar, M. Khatami, M. S. Nia, A. Amid and S.M. Briggs 2006. International medical response to a natural disaster: lessons learned from the Bam earthquake experience. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 21(3): 141-148.

Bea, K. 2010. Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces: Facts and Issues. Congressional Research Service, Washington, DC, 41 pp.

Casper, J. and R.R. Murphy 2003. 2003. Human–robot interactions during the robot-assisted urban search and rescue response at the World Trade Center. IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics. Part B: Cybernetics 33(3): 367-385.

FEMA 1996. Technical Rescue Program Development Manual. FA-159. US Federal Emergency Management Agency, Washington, DC, 252 pp.

Olson, R.S. and R.A. Olson 1987. Urban heavy rescue. Earthquake Spectra 3(4): 645-658.

Von Schreeb, J., L. Riddez, H. Samneg¤ârd, H. Rosling and C. de Ville de Goyet 2008. Foreign field hospitals in the recent sudden-impact disasters in Iran, Haiti, Indonesia, and Pakistan. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 23(2): 144-153.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Learning Lessons from Crises and Disasters

Lessons Learned?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines learning as the acquisition of "knowledge of skill ... through study or experience or by being taught". In defining 'lesson' it distinguishes between "a thing learned" and "a thing that serves as a warning or encouragement". The concept of 'lessons learned' is widely used in disaster risk reduction, a field that offers many opportunities to learn from practical experience and theoretical study. The term has been used in a variety of different contexts, which can be given the following summary classification:-

  • General lessons from major events, particularly large disasters of international importance. Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf of Mexico states in August 2005, led to a significant number of studies that collected observations on how to improve resilience in the affected area (e.g. White 2007).
  • Specific lessons from major events, usually derived by concentrating on particular sectors or disciplines, such as the engineering response to building failure, or the response to disaster of psychologists (e.g. Schumacher et al. 2006).
  • Lessons obtained as a result of monitoring the practice and outcomes of drills and exercises, particularly those designed to test multi-agency response to incidents and disasters (e.g. Beedasy and Ramloll 2010; Fitzgerald et al. 2003).
  • Lessons derived over time from cumulative experience of particular phenomena, practices or problems, such hospital response to repeated mass-casualty events, or organising services to deal with the recurrent threat of pandemic influenza (e.g. Clancy et al. 2009).
  • Lessons that arise from particular situations, especially those in which actions taken could have been improved, and those in which innovations were tried for the first time, such as interventions in the Bam (Iran) earthquake of 2003 or the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, or the development of new scenarios for earthquake disaster response (e.g. Plafker and Galloway 1989).
  • In the operation of technological systems, especially those denoted 'high reliability systems' (such as avionics), the occurrence of technical faults and human error has been the focus of attempts to learn lessons and see that the faults or errors do not occur again. Such are the mutations in technology and its operation that there are frequent opportunities to repeat this exercise as the context of faults and errors continually mutates (Krausmann et al 2011).

Despite the widespread use of the term "lessons learned", considerable doubt remains about the extent to which the lessons truly are learned. As Figure 1 illustrates, it is perfectly possible to recognise that particular phenomena, events or situations contain information that could contribute to better practice in the future, but it is entirely a different matter to do something about it. In the worst cases, the lessons go unrecognised. Hardly better is the situation in which they are recorded, archived and forgotten, without any attempt to incorporate them into practice and thus benefit from them.

Figure 1. Disaster risk reduction and "lessons learned".

As a result of these considerations, the test of a 'lesson learned' in is that it should contribute in some way to the solution of problems--in this field, to disaster risk reduction and the improvement of resilience (Figure 2). There must therefore be a direct connection between the existence of a lesson, its recognition by practitioners, decision makers or policy makers, and tangible improvements in practice, decisions or policies.

Figure 2. The "lessons learned chain".

As Figure 2 shows, the process of learning lessons ought to be fairly linear and straightforward. Events and circumstances reveal opportunities to learn and bone fide observers profit by these as part of the common endeavour to improve both decision making and working practices. That is the case in many situations, but it is far from a universal modus operandi. There are, as noted above, many opportunities to learn lessons, and learning should be a constant process which contributes to the development of individual people and the organisations to which they belong. However, there are serious impediments. For example, the United Kingdom has had an Inspectorate of Railways (HMRI) since 1840. It has had a reputation for penetrating, impartial investigation and the public conduct of enquiries and publication of their results. However, most of the findings of HMRI have been given in the form of non-binding recommendations for greater safety, and many of these have taken years, or decades, to be absorbed by legislation. Moreover, the UK railway industry has had an equally long history of resisting costly innovation, even when it would undoubtedly save lives.

Accidental or wilful ignorance are only two of many reasons why lessons are not learned. Many lessons are identified without a context of risk analysis and benefit-cost assessment. While the costs of innovation are the easier part to assess, risks and benefits are often elusive quantities, especially as they tend to depend on perception as much as reality. Hence, the lesson may be that "lives can be saved by adopting a particular practice", but this statement does not in itself indicate whether it is expedient to do so in terms of money spent per life saved, given competition for funds from other sources. In other situations the innovation may be prohibitively expensive, as is often the case for retrofitting buildings in areas of high seismicity.

Another reason for lack of adoption is political expediency. An innovation may make technical sense, but be politically unappetising or unacceptable, perhaps because it is unlikely to garner votes. The negative profile of civil protection, which is fundamentally about emergencies and disasters, is one reason why it rarely enjoys priority in policy making. This could, of course, be turned into a positive bid for more security rather than the negative image of yet more disasters, but politicians have commonly been reluctant to follow that road. The result is the "no votes in sewage syndrome": wastewater treatment is essential to public health, but not an attractive part of a policy platform.

An extension of this problem is cultural rejection of disaster risk reduction. Where human cultures are fatalistic, politicians are unresponsive to the need for greater public safety and there is little public debate of the issues, the terrain is not fertile for learning the lessons of adverse events. If the collective memory of disaster is short, there is even less scope for making the enduring changes needed in order to create resilience, and the result is the perpetuation of vulnerability. This was very evident in, for example, the flash floods and debris flows that killed 19 people in Liguria, northwest Italy, in October and November 2011. In effect, nothing happened that was not well forecast and that had not happened before. Poor official and public response to the events when they occurred compounded the problem, which stemmed from unwise land use and failure to organise adequately against the threats of floods and mass movements.

These considerations indicate that the process of learning lessons about crises and disasters requires a much broader approach than simply accumulating observations on errors, faults and poor quality responses on the one hand, and good and best practice on the other. Moreover, what is 'best' practice under one set of conditions may be less than optimal in another setting. There is thus a need for work that evaluates what is a "lesson to be learned" in the light of its potential to be transplanted from previous conditions to future ones, and, of course, its ability to contribute to better practice, greater resilience and reduced disaster risk. This requires evaluation of cultural and political factors that inhibit or encourage innovation. It necessitates judgement on whether there is universal or merely local value in adopting a new practice or making a modification in existing rules, norms, plans or procedures. In the final analysis it may also require benefit-cost analysis of any changes that are contemplated.

It is often said that we tend to prepare for the last disaster rather than the next one. Although there is much value in learning the lessons of history, in order not to be condemned to repeat its mistakes, any assessment of past or current practice should take account of how it can contribute in a future characterised by constant change in circumstances and the need to adapt to new realities.

One of the most central issues in the process of learning lessons is the relationship between individual learning and the acquisition of knowledge by the organisations in which individuals function. This will be examined in the next section.

Organisational Learning

In analysing the communication processes it is opportune to use the hierarchical classification provided by IFRCRCS (2005) and sometimes attributed in origin to the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan. At the lowest level of the DIKW pyramid, data are basic facts and statistics with little ontological relationship between them. Information involves the description of physical and social situations by combining and interpreting quantities of data. Knowledge refers to the understanding of how things function (or should function). Finally, wisdom is the ability to make decisions on the basis of principles, experience and knowledge (Figure 3).

Figure 3. the DIKW pyramid (IFRCRCS 2005 and other sources).

Some of the processes inherent in this classification occur in isolation as individuals work alone, but many take place in collective situations of social interaction. As Elkjaer (2003) observed, the individual and the organisation in which he or she works are bound together by power relations, such that there is no net distinction between solitary and collective knowledge. Nonetheless, over the two decades 1991-2011 considerable progress has been made in advancing the field of organizational knowledge. Occupational psychologists, management specialists, operations researchers and economists have all been involved in this multi-disciplinary effort to understand how organisations and their members acquire, utilise and retain information.

In an earlier work Polanyi (1966) classified human knowledge into two categories. “Explicit” or codified knowledge refers to knowledge that is transmittable in formal, systematic language. On the other hand, “tacit” knowledge has a personal quality, which makes it hard to formalize and communicate. Nonaka (1994) considered the processes of interchange between the two sources of knowledge and formulated an epistemological-ontological model to characterise them. Spender (1996) noted that, following Wittgenstein, knowledge is composed of theoretical statements whose meanings and practical implications depend on how they are used and in what context that takes place.

In a further development, Lam (2000) broadened the explicit-tacit dichotomy to four categories of knowledge: embrained refers to knowledge that is dependent on an individual's conceptual skills and cognitive abilities; embodied knowledge is derived from practical action and experience; encoded knowledge is conveyed by signs and symbols; and embedded denotes the collective form of tacit knowledge found in organisational routines and shared norms (Figure 4).

Figure 4. A classification of organisational learning (Lam 2000).

Huber (1991) considered the acquisition, distribution and interpretation of knowledge in the light of an organisation's collective memory. He identified the sources of knowledge as follows:-

  • · remembering and codifying experience
  • · research-based learning and searching
  • · vicarious learning ('second-hand' acquisition of knowledge)
  • · storing and retrieving information
  • · scanning
  • · performance monitoring and evaluation
  • · organised self-appraisal
  • · experimentation.

In this context we can distinguish between enduring and perishable knowledge. The former includes fundamental concepts and procedures, consensus knowledge and information that reinforces, sustains and maintains existing relationships and practices. The latter comprises poorly collected and conserved 'transient' data and observations and may be the fruit of the surge caused by demand for knowledge during periods of an organisation's imperative to adapt to rapid and profound change.

Not all knowledge is beneficial. In studying information overload, March (1991) found that too much information can inhibit learning processes. Kane and Alavi (2007) discovered that although information technology can be beneficial to fast learners, it can retard the progress of people who absorb information slowly. Moreover, Simon (1991) added his concept of 'bounded rationality' in an analysis of the limitations of organisational knowledge gathering.

Besides these limitations, the field of organizational knowledge is rich in dichotomies. The primary one is between individual and social knowledge, but others are between traditional and affective knowledge (Weber); facts and values (Simon); optimising and satisficing (Simon again); objective knowledge of bureaucracies and cultural knowledge of clans (Ouchi 1979); objective and tacit knowledge (Polanyi 1966); and incremental and radical learning (March 1991). The process of knowledge acquisition in disasters forces the distinction between enduring and perishable information, as the latter includes knowledge that may disappear if it is not collected at certain key times.

A pattern is thus emerging in how organizations learn from their experiences and their mechanisms of gathering information. However, there is a serious lack of research on how this relates to emergencies, crises, disasters and other extreme situations. According to Lampel et al. (2009), if the impact on the organization is low, reinterpretive learning tends to occur. Lant and Mezias (1992) looked at the roles of both leadership and organisational adaptation in relation to the learning process. However, none of this adds up to a clear picture of exactly how organizations and their members acquire, store, share and utilise information in crises, how they do or do not transform it into knowledge, and what forces act to preserve or delete that knowledge.

In order truly to learn lessons about crises and disasters, theories of organisational knowledge need to be adapted to the special case of learning in and about crisis situations. Organisations need to be studied by developing a learning taxonomy that includes their type (e.g. 'blue-light' services, public administrations, civil society organisations, citizens' groups), size, competencies, experience and orientation. Organisational culture needs to be studied using models developed by anthropologists (e.g. Brislin 1984) and adapted for use in crisis situations (e.g. Alexander 2000).


Alexander, D.E. 2000. Confronting Catastrophe: New Perspectives on Natural Disasters. Terra Publishing, Harpenden, U.K., and Oxford University Press, New York, 282 pp.

Beedasy, J. and R. Ramloll 2010. Lessons learned from a pandemic influenza triage exercise in a 3D interactive multiuser virtual learning environment—Play2Train. Journal of Emergency Management 8(4): 53-61.

Brislin, R.W. 1980. Cross-cultural research methods: strategies, problems, applications. In I. Altman, A. Rapoport and J.F: Wohwill (eds) Human Behavior and Environment, Vol. 4, Environment and Culture. Plenum Press, New York: 47-82.

Clancy, T., C. Neuwirth and G. Bukowski 2009. Lessons learned in implementing a 24/7 public health call center in response to H1N1 in the state of New Jersey. American Journal of Disaster Medicine 4(5): 253-260.

Elkjaer, B. 2003. Organizational learning: 'the third way'. Organizational Learning and Knowledge: 5th International Conference, 30 May-2 June 2003, Lancaster, UK, 18 pp.

Fitzgerald, D.J., M.D. Sztajnkrycer and T.J. Crocco 2003. Chemical weapon functional exercise – Cincinnati: observations and lessons learned from a “typical medium-sized” city’s response to simulated terrorism utilizing weapons of mass destruction. Public Health Reports 118: 205-214.

Huber, G.P. 1991. Organizational learning: the contributing processes and the literatures. Organization Science 2(1): 88-115.

IFRCRCS 2005. World Disasters Report: Focus on Information in Disasters. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Geneva, 251 pp.

Kane, G.C. and M. Alavi 2007. Information technology and organizational learning: an investigation of exploration and exploitation processes. Organization Science 18(5): 796-812.

Krausmann, E., E. Renni, M. Campedel and V. Cozzani 2011. Industrial accidents triggered by earthquakes, floods and lightning: lessons learned from a database analysis. Natural Hazards 59(1): 285-300.

Lam, A. 2000. Tacit knowledge, organizational learning and societal institutions: an integrated framework. Organization Studies 21: 487-513.

Lampel, J., J. Shamsie and Z. Shapira 2009. Experiencing the improbable: rare events and organizational learning. Organization Science 20(5): 835-845.

Lant, T.K. and S.J. Mezias 1992. An organisational learning model of convergence and reorientation. Organizational Science 3(1): 47-71.

March, J.G. 1991. Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning. Organisation Science 2(1): 71-87.

Nonaka, I. 1994. A dynamic theory of organizational knowledge creation. Organization Science 5(1): 14-37.

Ouchi, W.G. 1979. A conceptual framework for the design of organizational control

mechanisms. Management Science 25: 833-847.

Plafker, G and Galloway, J.P., eds. 1989. Lessons learned from the Loma Prieta, California, earthquake of October 17, 1989. U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1045, 48 pp.

Polanyi, M. 1966. The Tacit Dimension. Routledge, London, 128 pp.

Schumacher, J.A., S.F. Coffey, D.T. Elkin and G. Norquist 2006. Post-Katrina mental health care in Mississippi: lessons learned. The Behavior Therapist 29(6): 124-127.

Simon, H.A. 1991. Bounded rationality and organisational learning. Organization Science 2(1): 125-134.

Spender, J-C. 1996. Organizational knowledge, learning and memory: three concepts in search of a theory. Journal of Organizational Change Management 9(1): 63-78.

White, G.W. 2007. Katrina and other disasters: lessons learned and lessons to teach: introduction to the special series. Journal of Disability Policy Studies 17(4): 194-195.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011


Looting, the very public theft of private property, is probably the most contentious of the so-called 'myths' of disaster. It has been misidentified or greatly exaggerated in many emergency situations. Moreover, it is often hypothesised as part of scenarios in which, in reality, it is unlikely to be a significant factor. It is usually treated as symptomatic of anarchy, the destructive side of the human character and the degradation or spontaneous abandonment of social norms. But while looting is refreshingly absent from many disasters, or at least is scarcely important in comparison with positive behaviour, it remains a factor in some events and, after years of study, it still demands clarification.

In 1968 sociologists Henry Quarantelli and Russell Dynes recognised that there is a difference between the causes and patterns of looting in disasters and civil disturbances (Dynes and Quarantelli 1968). Over the following two years they elaborated models of looting with particular reference to situations in which it has been prevalent, most of which were riots and few of which were natural disasters (Quarantelli and Dynes 1968, 1970). Indeed, with regard to the latter, there probably have to be specific preconditions of instability in the social fabric for looting to be a factor at all. Thus, after the Armenia (Colombia) earthquake of 1999, residents looted food stores and supermarkets. This was both a protest at the inefficiency of the Colombian Government's relief effort and a move to satisfy a basic need for sustenance (Brancati 2007). It was not a set of random acts of vandalism. Moreover, it probably stemmed from pre-existing instabilities in society, such as lack of faith in the role of government as the true and responsive embodiment of the common will.

According to Quarantelli and Dynes (1968), looting in disasters tends to be stealthy (although it clearly was nothing of the kind in the Colombian city of Armenia). In civil disturbances it follows a more open and complex model. In this, the first stage is marked by attacks on symbols of authority and there then follows the mass redefinition of property rights. The looting that occurs after this is a collective, participatory action in which pillaging tends to be more important than acquisition of goods: property norms have been redefined.

Dynes and Quarantelli (1968) broadened their model into three stages, in which the first is largely symbolic, the second is systematic and organised and the third is a free-for-all. The middle stage involves co-operation between those elements of society who wish to profit from the anarchy by organising theft and those who are doing it for the thrill. In the third stage, plundering becomes an acceptable, if transient, social norm.

Interestingly, Quarantelli and Dynes found that there is no simple correlation between the level of poverty or disadvantage of a person is and his or her propensity to engage in looting. Research in the 1990s (Wortley 1998) even went so far as to suggest that looters tend to be relatively well educated and adept at communication. Moreover, other work (Grabosky 1996) found that there appears to be no discernable difference in the average profiles of people who do and do not take part in rioting and looting.

Research conducted in the 1990s by sociologists and criminologists came up with new models. Bohstedt (1994) disaggregated the context of riots into the physical situation, the tactical conditions, any pre-history of similar incidents, prevailing social relationships, the local culture of norms and expectations, the political context of previous conflict, and the structural distribution of political power.

As long ago as 1969, Zimbardo had proposed a theory of deindividuation, in which individual responsibility for one's actions disappears amid impulsive mass behaviour that is dominated by crowd dynamics. Self-control disappears with it. In his contribution, Forsyth (1990) added that arousal is an important condition for the emergence of deindividuation. Turner and Killian (1972) developed emergent norm theory, in which crowds adapt to changing circumstances and their members conform to the developing trend of mass behaviour. Deindividuation is characterised by uninhibited behaviour, but strategic interaction theory suggests that a person's payoffs depend on what other people do at the scene, which can change a person's estimate of the costs and benefits of participating (Miller 1999). Bohstedt (1994) considered imitative riots and saw them as a communication process which he termed 'chronic contagion'.

In all of this research there are several points to bear in mind. The first is that natural disasters and civil disturbances such as riots tend not to generate the same kinds and scales of looting--indeed, the former might not generate any at all, and what occurs tends to be overshadowed by, or even (paradoxically) linked to, Barton's (1970) 'therapeutic community'. The second is that theories of rioting and looting can be divided into those based on association and communication, and those that require dissociation of the participants and a greater level of spontaneity. The third point is that looting can be purposeful or aimless. In disasters and riots that are a response to specific grievances, the purposeful kind dominates: i.e., looters want to make a point to the authorities. Aimless looting bears out Bohstedt's (1994) observation that the circumstances and dynamics of riots are not linearly related. In synthesis, the likelihood, occurrence and severity of riots cannot, it seems, be predicted from levels of social deprivation (Forsyth 1990). Hence, it is not easy to apply sociological analysis to situations dominated by social tension.

Rioting and looting occurred widely throughout England in early August 2011. The official response was seen by the general (non-rioting) public to be inadequate and to have let a bad situation degenerate into the uncontrolled proliferation of violence and anarchy. Suddenly the underclass had shed their mantle of invisibility and were up in arms. In terms of emergency management, there may have been a failure to create adequate planning scenarios based on similar events in the past and in other places, notably in Paris in October and November 2005. Similar inadequacies can be seen in the response to the bombing and shooting spree carried out in Norway on 22 July 2011 by Anders Behring Breivik.

It is important not to overstate the effects of the English case. In the Detroit race riots of 1967, some 2,700 shops were looted (Quarantelli and Dynes 1968), far more than in England in 2011. However, the images and accounts of immoral and criminal behaviour in the latter case were striking. Moreover, the dilemmas of crowd control were all too apparent in the operational shortcomings of the forces of order. Nonetheless, much ill-informed comment appeared, especially in foreign news media which did not take the trouble to read detailed accounts of the riots and thus tended to attribute them to deteriorated race relations. In reality they are a clear artefact of unfettered robber capitalism in which any form of social contract has been replaced with commercial profiteering that does much to increase the gap in wealth and opportunities from successful people and those at the bottom of the social pyramid. Small wonder that the latter rebel.

My last point is my most important one. What can be learned for disaster studies from the English looting spree is clearly rather limited, as circumstances obviously differ. However, the social study of disaster has been predicated for decades on the assumption, indeed the affirmation, of the therapeutic community--at least as it exists in the heat of the moment. Models based on the breakdown of society have been labelled as "Hollywood myths" (Mitchell et al. 2000). Whereas the English social fabric is emphatically not going to break down as a result of the August 2011 riots, it is as well to remember that society has its darker side. The moral consensus generated by floods and earthquakes, for example, is not necessarily as deep as social scientists have tended to assume. The answer for students of disaster is to pay more attention to the context of events.


Barton, A.H. 1970. Communities in Disaster: A Sociological Analysis of Collective Stress Situations. Doubleday, New York, 368 pp.

Bohstedt, J. 1994. The dynamics of riots: escalation and diffusion/contagion. In M. Potegal and J.F. Knutson (eds) The Dynamics of Aggression: Biological and Social Processes in Dyads and Groups. Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, New Jersey: 257-303.

Brancati, D. 2007. Political aftershocks: the impact of earthquakes on intrastate conflict. Journal of Conflict Resolution 51(5): 715-743.

Dynes, R.R. and E.L. Quarantelli 1968. What looting in civil disturbances really means. Trans-Action 5: 9-14.

Forsyth, D.R. 1990. Group Dynamics (2nd edn). Brooks-Cole, Pacific Grove, California.

Grabosky, P. 1996. Unintended consequences of crime prevention. Crime Prevention Studies 5: 25-56.

Miller, R.A. 1999. Regime type, strategic interaction, and the diversionary use of force. Journal of Conflict Resolution 43(3): 388-402.

Mitchell, J.T., D.S.K. Thomas, A.A. Hill and S.L. Cutter 2000. Catastrophe in reel life versus real life: perpetuating disaster myth through Hollywood films. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 18(3): 383-402.

Quarantelli, E.L. and R.R. Dynes 1968. Looting in civil disorders: an index of social change. American Behavioral Scientist 5: 131-141.

Quarantelli, E.L. and R.R. Dynes 1970. Property norms and looting: their patterns in community crises. Phylon 31(2): 168-182.

Wortley, R. 1998. A two-stage model of situational crime prevention. Studies on Crime and Crime Prevention 7: 173-188.

Zimbardo, P.G. 1969. The human choice: individuation, reason, and order versus deindividuation, impulse, and chaos. In W.J. Arnold and D. Levine (eds) Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, Vol. 17. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Disasters, Government and Governance

On theory

The purpose of disaster research is to seek the truth, not to legitimise particular actions, decisions or phenomena. This may seem too obvious to need stating, but in reality there are cases in which research has distorted, rather than clarified, the image of reality.

The root of the problem lies in people's motivations, and what the researcher assumes about them. In an ideal world, the threat or impact of disaster would move people to act for the common good. Thus they would respond to, or help create, Barton's 'therapeutic community' (Barton 1970). Disaster would reinforce the commonwealth, instead of promoting the interests of its individual members. In reality, motivations vary and hence decisions and their outcomes cannot be analysed in terms of a single modus operandi. For fear of appearing biassed, disaster researchers are usually reluctant to attribute unethical motives to particular decision makers, or even to question their ethics (Beatley 1989). However, not all protagonists of disaster response and disaster risk reduction act ethically, or at least their view of ethics is not that which a bona fide researcher would be likely to agree with.

It is in any case difficult to assess both motivations and corruption. The clandestine and illegal character of the latter means that information is hard to come by and the process of acquiring it can be dangerous. Thus surveys of global corruption are restricted to compiling a 'corruption perception index', rather than any concrete measure of the phenomenon (Transparency International 2009). However, the disruption caused by disasters offers a great opportunity to both organised and casual criminals to subvert legitimate activities. In extreme cases of political or economic scarcity, this may be the only way to get things done. In no case is it a sustainable way of managing recovery from disasters.

This essay will use the case of the L'Aquila (Italy) earthquake of 2009 as an example of how conventional analysis based on the idea of a common social motivation can distort the interpretation of events and decisions. We live in an age that often prizes individualism over the common good. The concept of disaster as a social leveller (at least in the first instance) has had a long history but has been vanquished by events, especially Hurricane Katrina, a paragon of unequal opportunity (Germany 2007). Social inequality is not merely a matter of access to resources, power and publicity (Tierney 2006), it is also a question of motives, as the following example demonstrates.

The L'Aquila (Italy) earthquake of 2009 as a case history

On 6 April 2009 an earthquake of magnitude 6.2 occurred in the Abruzzo Region of central Italy, with epicentre close to the regional capital city of L'Aquila (population 73,000). Some 308 people were killed, 1,500 were injured (202 of them seriously), 67,000 were rendered homeless and 100,000 buildings suffered major damage. In brief, the response involved committing 94,000 volunteers and copious resources of the Italian state to the relief effort, housing 40,000 people in tents and hotels and then building more than 50 complexes of transitional housing, about 40 per cent of which consisted of base-isolated (i.e. anti-seismic) multi-storey buildings. According to official sources, the cost of the latter averaged €280,607 per dwelling unit (€3,875 per sq. m), including the costs of urbanisation and landscaping. In the meantime, buttressing went ahead in the 15 town centres and one city centre (L'Aquila) that had been cordoned off for reasons of public safety, but reconstruction stagnated. During the first year after the earthquake, four million tonnes of rubble remained in situ and the process of repairing buildings was largely restricted to those that were only lightly damaged.

Various aspects of the Italian Government's strategy for responding to the L'Aquila earthquake are singular and perhaps debatable (Alexander 2011). They can be questioned in terms of logic, efficiency, outcome, economy, fiscal prudence and general efficacy.

Immediate relief

The immediate response to the earthquake involved directing a huge quantity of relief resources to the area, including 94,000 volunteers, more than one for every survivor. While this solved the problems of search, rescue and care of the survivors, it did not do so efficiently and would not work in a larger earthquake of a kind, which, unfortunately will one day be inevitable further down the peninsula or in Sicily. Such a strategy contributed nothing to the future ability to ration disaster response resources in cases of scarcity. It is akin to the doctrine of overwhelming force (Lantis and Moskowitz 2008)

Transitional housing

Survivors were accommodated in tents for 6-7 months and then transferred to transitional housing in wooden prefabricated buildings or steel-framed two- or three-storey blocks (the base-isolated housing). Initially, they paid no rent and were given all necessary furnishings and fitments. Some of the complexes were built on expropriated conservation land, and others on prime farmland. Some are on floodable terrain, others on hillsides. Some are susceptible to winter weather hazards and all had a degree of isolation from basic services. Many of the sites were also somewhat isolated from public transport.

The base isolation was very expensive (Calvi and Spaziante 2009). The cushion capitals cost an average of €1,427 and each of the 187 buildings required 40 of them (€57,000, a grand total of €10.6 million). It could be argued that, as fewer than half of the transitional dwellings have base isolation, either it was not necessary or the majority of prefab-dwellers are disadvantaged in terms of seismic protection. The whole project (known as CASE - Complessi Antisismici Sostenibili ed Ecocompatibili) appeared to be a lavish experiment in seismic design.

Learned authors have argued that transitional housing creates a risk of slowing down permanent reconstruction (Johnson 2007). In the L'Aquila area, the contrast between the vast parks of prefabs and base-isolated buildings and the abandoned town and city centres was striking. Visually, and perhaps functionally, it appeared to be a kind of enforced modernity in an area that had never known anything of the sort. Moreover, it is modernity on the American model, in which the so-called "sustainable" and "ecocompatible" housing induced a massive dependence on the private car, without making provision for those residents who lack their own transport, or for needed improvements in infrastructure and access to services.

Survivors were left with the paradox of transitional--i.e. temporary--housing and no plan for returning to their original homes or revitalising the town centres. The paucity of services and induced social fragmentation in the transitional housing areas led to high levels of depression and post-traumatic stress, especially among women (Microdis 2011). It also contributed to stasis in the long-term recovery process.

Economics, employment and livelihoods

During the year 2009 some 24,000 jobs were lost in Abruzzo Region, 16,000 of them in the L'Aquila area (ISTAT 2010). The effects on employment were partly mitigated by outmigration, particularly of professionals and owners of small business who had lost their accommodation. Government policy offered few incentives to businesses and little flexibility to restart the local economy. Moreover, the new Italian fiscal federalism championed by the Northern League left rich provinces well off and deprived poor provinces of revenue. L'Aquila was at the bottom of the list, the greatest net loser of tax revenue as a result of the policy of decentralising taxation. This was welfare in reverse.

Although a modest boom was experienced in the construction industry (as is usual after earthquakes--Olson 2008), other sectors struggled to survive, including education, which is a vital economic motor for L'Aquila, a city that lacks other sources of employment. Moreover, the local infrastructure was placed under great strain during the aftermath and clearly needed major improvements, for which funds were not available.


In the aftermath of disaster it is common for groups to emerge that respond to the need to safeguard public interests. Although there were emergent groups in L'Aquila, they never achieved the public profile and political weight that such organisations have managed to acquire elsewhere in the world. This was one of several indicators of the lack of effective public participation in the recovery. Moreover, the local and regional political processes showed a lack of focus, power and influence, and thus responded ineffectively to public demands.

This decision-making and power vacuum was filled at the national level. Policy and strategy responded directly to the will of the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

It is unusual that the National Department of Civil Protection (DPC), a disaster response organisation, was so heavily involved in both the early reaction to the emergency and the medium-term recovery process (Alexander 2010). Although there is noting inherently wrong with such a strategy, elsewhere in the world more specific institutions have taken over. For example, in Pakistan after the 2005 seismic disaster the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) was constituted to manage the recovery (Zimmermann and Issa 2009).

There are two probable reasons for the deep involvement of the DPC in the recovery process. One is its role as a dependency of the Council of Ministers, the national cabinet presided over by the Prime Minister. After a brief, abortive attempt in 2000 to make it an independent agency, it has increasingly become an instrument of prime ministerial policy and has thus been politicised (Alexander 2002). The other is the ability of the DPC to issue emergency ordinances, which are legal instruments that in the interests of rapid reaction conveniently bypass the normal checks and balances on law-making. The scandal that broke in Italy in late 2010 about the misuse of ordinances from more among than 600 that had been passed in eight years, and the uncontrolled expenditure of €10.6 billion, can be seen as a means of wresting arbitrary power from the Prime Minister back to the other organs of state (Alexander 2011).

The heart of the matter

Mr Belusconi made his reputation as a populist prime minister who could be seen to exercise benign power in favour of needy people. In reality that power was wielded as a matter of self interest. The transfer of the G8 politico-economic summit from the Sardinian island lf La Maddalena to L'Aquila was a grand gesture. It led to the abandonment of facilities on which €300 million had already been spent and, in the end, it contributed very little to the recovery in L'Aquila. But it looked good.

The decision to concentrate efforts on the very rapid provision of durable, very high quality transitional housing also raised the Prime Minister's public profile. Again, it looked good, despite the damage done to the overall recovery process, the salvaging of cultural heritage, the viability of urban and regional systems and the processes of local governance. Resources were channelled into housing but not into other aspects of recovery. Considerable--and favourable--media attention was gained by the inauguration of this housing (1), which also helped Mr Berlusconi's party win provincial elections on 6-7 June 2009. Thereafter, the dysfunctional nature of the recovery process no longer mattered, as the political objectives had already been achieved.

Analogous conditions occurred with the problem of unplanned mass migrations from the other side of the Mediterranean. At the end of March 2011 Mr Berlusconi promised to liberate the island of Lampedusa of the 17,000 North African migrants that has accumulated there and severely overtaxed its accommodation facilities. He did so in the promised 60 hours by loading them onto a ship and dispersing them among other regions of southern Italy, notably Puglia, which is governed by the main opposition party. This transferred the problem elsewhere without solving it. Indeed, absconding, conflict and overloading of facilities were probably worse on the mainland. However, the net effect on his public image was positive, as the negative impacts had been offloaded onto other administrations.


In 1931 the writer B. Traven wrote a book called Government, which has since been reissued (Traven 1994). Set in provincial Mexico, this apocryphal novel contrasts the rigorous, severe democracy of the indigenous peoples with the corrupt, immoral administration of the Hispanic ruling caste. As each day passes, this 80-year-old work becomes more and more current. In a remarkable parable it chronicles the descent of democracy into subservience.

Traven's work combines acute observation of culturally specific factors with the elaboration of universal truths. Both sides can be seen in Abruzzo after the earthquake. At the time that Traven was writing so was the Abruzzan novelist Ignazio Silone (Fontamara, 1930; Bread and Wine, 1937). He chronicled the misery and subservience of 20th century feudalism. Both authors share a rich vein of irony and a prescient sense of history. In Abruzzo it is only a matter of decades since modernity arrived, unable to cancel out the traces of the feudal past in such a short space of time. Perhaps this explains the lack of demand for participatory democracy in L'Aquila. Where it has occurred in an exemplary manner (at Onna village), the prime mover has been the German Federal Government, which has sponsored the recovery there.

The key words that point the way to a valid interpretation of the L'Aquila earthquake are 'paternalism' and 'political expediency'. By means of the former, and in the name of the latter, vast sums of public money have been spent on image-mongering and vote garnering. The welfare of the earthquake survivors has thus been reduced to a byproduct of the national political process.

The essential conclusion of this analysis is that any attempt to understand the recovery from the L'Aquila earthquake in terms of conventional logic (i.e. common sense) is doomed to failure. Conventional logic assumes that people act in good faith for the common good. Undoubtedly, some of them do. Heroic efforts are being made in L'Aquila to recover from the earthquake by people who have the region's best interests at heart. But at the levels of policy and overall strategy the process responds to a political logic, whose priorities are not those of "the greatest good for the greatest number of people". Any attempt to force the model of recovery into something as Benthamite would lead to nothing but an erroneous interpretation. Worse still, by providing a normalised explanation, it would legitimise decisions and actions that deserve moral condemnation.


(1) On behalf of the Italian State, and in the glare of television lights, the Prime Minister also inaugurated the transitional housing at Onna village, the worst damaged settlement outside L'Aquila city. This was despite the fact that the new village was largely paid for and constructed by the Autonomous Province of Trento, whose president conspicuously refused to participate in the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the founding of modern Italy, stating that his home territory had been annexed in 1919, not founded in 1861.


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