Reflections on 4ICUDR

Mid-October I had the amazing opportunity to attend the 4th International Conference on Urban Disaster Reduction in Wellington, New Zealand.

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The conference venue, photo kindly borrowed from Architecture Now

I hope the original conference founders forgive me if I get this wrong, but the conference series began in the early oughts as a collaboration between American and Japanese researchers, expanded to Taiwan in the next round, and the third conference was held in Boulder two years ago. For the 4th, New Zealand researchers jumped into the mix, which was really special because many of the local presenters were able to speak from their recent experience with the Canterbury earthquakes. On top of the diversity in nationalities, I really loved the eclectic mix of practitioners and academics at the conference. There was a troop of fellow engineers as well as accountants, public policy folks, sociologists, economists, psychologists, public health experts, and even a law professor.

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Me, likely talking way too fast

I presented on the initial analysis of interviews and observations from July and August in Tacloban City. In this phase of research, I’m really digging into understanding the institutional environment influencing relocation and construction decisions. In the same session another graduate student, Sam Penta from the University of Delaware, presented on her work to analyze post-disaster decision making and it was really fun to connect with her on our varying strategies. Her advisor at the Disaster Research Center, Tricia Wachtendorf, predicted research partnerships between us once we’re grown up academics with PhDs in hand. I’m totally on board. Sam is great, and I really loved the conference-wide emphasis on feedback and networking for young researchers. There was clearly a tradition of long-lasting relationships founded at previous ICUDR events, and I’d be thrilled to join the family.

There were a few presentations that have stuck in my mind, I’ll share them briefly in case any fellow hazard nerds find inspiration like I did. First, Tricia presented on a little-known part of 9/11, the waterborne evacuation of hundreds of thousands off of Manhattan Island. It was organic and spontaneous, smartly coordinated by the Coast Guard but lacking any pre-arranged plan. Working with James Kendra, also from the Disaster Research Center, Tricia found that many of the responders gravitated to help in “the only way they knew how”, acting off their expertise and identity as mariners. She compared it to a puzzle so large that individual actors could not know what the picture looked like and only had the means to stitch together a few pieces, but they trusted that others would be working on the puzzle pieces they couldn’t see and solve. For instance, ferry operators had no idea what would happen when they dropped people off in New Jersey, but it turned out a legion of bus operators was standing by to handle that piece of the puzzle. I thought it was a great analogy for emergency management, but I also realized that after an emergency, during long-term recovery, improvised and unassisted puzzle construction slows. In long-term recovery, actors can no longer operate under the assumption that random and unknown others are also working on the puzzle. Coordination is hard and requires purposeful, habitual, communication. I’d also argue that for successful recovery, the best outcomes will be derived from a shared picture of the puzzle while the individual actors work on their few pieces.

James Kendra also had a presentation, a bit of an off-the-cuff reflection of the needs and growing trends in the disaster research field. The biggest need in disaster research? More. Simply more. James cited a shift in hazards, changing recovery strategies (re: relocation, holla!), degradation of infrastructure and critical interdependencies as drivers for more disaster research. He also responded to common criticisms of disaster research, particularly critiques of the researcher’s impact in the emergency environment. He shared stories over his decades of disaster research that pushed back on negative myths and demonstrated researchers are not in the way, they don’t consume scarce resources, and they are not manipulating interview participants who are too distraught to provide informed consent. He argued that quick reconnaissance research should be kept informal and low impact, and in doing so is not a drain or detriment to the response effort.

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Dr. Kendra delivering his thoughts on changes in the disaster field

Dr. John Hopkins, a Scotsman uprooted to New Zealand, provided an impassioned argument “in defense of red tape” from his perspective as a lawyer and law professor. He explained legislative controls, the bureaucratic processes that counter executive discretion, exist for good reasons and those good reasons don’t disappear during disaster recovery. Rather, in the exact moment we may most direly need good governance structures, we come to label those structures “red tape” in the way of swift and valiant recovery actions. I was intriguing because I’ve found the degradation of several conventional regulatory processes in Tacloban City has had unintended and unfavorable consequences on the quality and timing of the relocation project overall.

My favorite presentation was by Dan Neely, a community resilience manager for Wellington. He talked about the city’s efforts to draft a post-disaster recovery framework now, in the pre-disaster time. The average reader might not be so impressed, but I was elated. Wellington’s plan is rare and wonderful. Thinking about the recovery environment ahead of time allows for an alignment of expectations. It’s an opportunity to decide power distribution depending on the scale of the disaster and put careful thought into communication and coordination. Honestly I failed to take good notes on the talk because I was just wrapped up in listening.

There were many, many more stellar researchers and plenty of newcomers like me. The executive director of EERI, Jay Berger, is extraordinarily kind and noticeably took time to reach out to all the young researchers. I was stoked to meet economist Ilan Noy, who recently published an article with World Politics Review that I really loved. Keynote Dr. Kimiro Meguro shared lessons from Japan and emphasized the need to act smartly in a disaster regardless of how your location is coded on a hazard map; “some people misuse hazards maps as safety maps.” John Vargo from Resilient Organisations kindly invited me to dinner with several New Zealand researchers. I found a kindred spirit in Marc Azotea because he’s also from the Philippines… then I remembered oops no, I’m not a Filipina I’ve just been surviving on adobo and kinilaw the last few months. Marc moved to South Korea for his graduate studies even though he doesn’t speak Korean, mastering civil engineering and a new language at the same time!

I made many of them promise to try their best to attend the Natural Hazards Workshop in Colorado next July—hopefully I can keep my end of the deal and attend as well!

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