This text is excerpted from Creating Resilient & Livable Cities, a report by Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative based on their annual forum.
Sir Bob Parker was mayor of New Zealand’s second-largest city, Christchurch, when it was devastated by a series of violent earthquakes in 2011. Close to 200 people died during the quakes, and at least 10,000 were injured. Parker suggests some practical steps that cities can take both in preparation for and recovery from a major disaster.
1. Practice, rehearse, test, Trial, train: preparation is everything.
No one can really understand what it is like to be in a major disaster until one is in one. Living in a seismically active country like New Zealand, we should spend time rehearsing what to do should such an event strike. But it is important to remember that nothing can prepare you for that moment when you’re actually in the middle of chaos. The key thing I’ve learned is that disaster training is vital, even though so little of it will play out the way you imagined. However, you will have internalized the structure of the process and have a clear understanding of who the key people are, what your lines of communication will be, and where you can set up a base.
2. Organizations should prepare for the worst-case scenario.
Take a broad view and remember that it’s not just about your organization surviving; it’s also about systems and records. If you can’t get your building operating as soon as possible after a disaster, it will cost you far more than any insurance will cover. The most important thing is to keep your organization functioning for your employees and community. The leadership of any given organization should be asking the decision makers what risk management analysis has been done and what risks they need to manage: What does our risk portfolio look like? What would happen if we couldn’t bring staff into the workplace for a month? What would happen if I couldn’t make visits to my clients? Organizations need to think through these questions—a relatively simple but time-consuming task.
3. As disaster unfolds, focus on the basics.
In Christchurch, all communication was out, bridges were down, and thousands of people were trapped. The key thing is person-to-person communication in those first few hours. Who’s in charge of the police? How can they be contacted? Who’s in charge of the ambulance? How can we find out what state the hospitals are in? You will need a comprehensive and regularly updated list of assets.
4. Use every avenue to communicate and be innovative.
Loss of information is one of the first things that will happen. Letting people know what’s going on will restore functionality much more quickly. If people know what’s going on, that you are moving swiftly to help them, they will accept the inevitable deprivation that comes with a major emergency.
5. Build your intelligence networks.
When you are in a situation where the power is out, chaos has ensued, and pressure is high, building a big picture of the overall event is key. We often forget this when we watch television coverage of major disasters from afar. Ensure that your “intelligence gathering units” are in place in advance, whether they are civil defense, fire departments, local media, or community groups, who can all help shape a better picture of the overall event.
6. Solve one problem at a time.
You can’t do everything at once. A major disaster is a complex puzzle that comes out of nowhere, and you find yourself in the middle of it when you’re least prepared. You must take things one step at a time—go back to the basics, including collaborative prioritization with fellow agencies.
7. Leaders must stay in touch with their communities.
In the aftermath of the earthquakes, I made a point of spending several hours per day reaching out to various communities, including street meetings, to “mind-map” what was needed and see what was going on. By building an accurate personal picture, you don’t just rely on the reports of others.
8. Be flexible.
Even though having a structure in place is key, the greatest asset is flexibility. Whatever is in place must be modified, adapted, and changed. In a major disaster, there is no perfect outcome, which is why adaptability and flexibility are key. Flexibility is difficult to build into bureaucratic structures, which becomes part of the challenge.
9. Accept you’ll get things wrong.
It doesn’t matter how much planning you do—there will be things you haven’t accounted for that become major challenges. This is to be expected, but everything depends on how quickly you can respond to and rectify these challenges.
10. Local authorities must remove the roadblocks to recovery.
What the Christchurch Council did was simplify a lot of rules. Cordoning off the central business district (CBD) would have meant that the workplaces of 50,000 people ceased to exist. Therefore, we reduced red tape and said, “If you have a business somewhere in the CBD that wasn’t critically damaged, you can operate in your house. All you have to do is keep us informed and if you’re not about to start a blast furnace on a quiet suburban street, you can do it.” We wanted people to stay at work, and through this simple process, 90 percent of businesses in the city were operating within three to four months after the earthquake. Getting people back to work quickly is key to keeping people in the area and keeping the community and economy running.
Sir Robert “Bob” Parker is former mayor of Christchurch, New Zealand.
Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative is a partnership between the Urban Land Institute and the Asia Society.