Tools to fix Tools

If you needed a hammer to fix a hammer, you’d be out of luck if you had a broken hammer.  It’s like the computer program that teaches you how to use computer programs.  You have to know before you can know.

It’s this kind of irony I read in many urban emergency plans.  Many cities have lists of critical facilities which are vulnerable to weather events.  The irony is that many of these will be just the facilities needed in the weather event.  In Boston it’s 35 Centers for Youth & Families.  About half are vulnerable to flooding.  There are no generators, limited snow removal, and no four wheel drive vehicles.  Good luck.  Also in Boston, the city is the largest landlord and 1500 units of public housing are vulnerable.  So are one-third of emergency shelters, many schools, and 430 miles of roads.  So the vulnerable are more vulnerable, even if they can get to a shelter.

Elsewhere in Boston’s emergency documents, we read that another 57 critical facilities are in flood hazard areas and 870 are in areas subject to storm surges.  Seventy-six critical facilities don’t have any power generating capacity.  The vulnerability to flooding is particularly worrying because there have been 21 disaster declarations since 1991 as a result of flooding.   

Some of Boston’s ambulances don’t have proper garages, so stay parked on the street, even during big winter snow storms.  Imagine digging out the ambulance before it can go rescue someone?

In Baltimore the emergency plan notes that computer modelling predicts damage to 150 schools, 20 police stations, 13 hospitals, 65 fire stations and an Emergency Operations Center.   

In Philadelphia the critical assets in the 100-year floodplain include the third busiest railway station in America, an airport, subway and trolley stations, three EMS and fire stations, 5 schools and 42 hazardous material reporting facilities.  

Where do emergency responders assemble to decide how to fix the emergency operations center?  

Urban planner Richard Florida notes that people like to live near water and that feature of urban areas causes people to move to certain cities which are on water.  In fact our urban areas developed on water because the waterways were our transport system for hundreds of years.  The forests were impassable.  After we built roads, we didn’t move the cities.  As Greg Ip notes in his great book Foolproof, the seeds of danger are sown within safety systems.  Historically, rivers provided fertile ground for growing food nearby when they overflowed their banks and added silt and nutrients to the soil.  People settled nearby.  In the US the levee and dam building of the 1930s was designed to keep the residents safer.  In fact, it attracted “…more homes, factories, and farms … on the floodplain, so more destruction ensued when floods overtopped the levees.”

What is to be done?  If public sector budgets won’t stand for fixing this, how can we harness the private sector?  Isn’t just about the most popular form of private transport these days the truck, SUV and 4-wheel drive vehicle?  Can’t Boston and other cities keep an inventory of vehicle owners and rent at the going rate plus 5% when a storm or flood happens?  Can’t insurance companies insure everything but the basement of buildings on the floodplain?  We can retrofit existing structures with flood-resistant basements, and change building codes to make new construction safer.  Elevated transit, commuter ferries, and multiple types of transit can make people less vulnerable to hundreds of miles of roadways in the floodplain.

Isn’t multiple and alternative sources of energy (gas, solar, wood, wind) just good business for hospitals, social housing and seniors’ centres?

We know we can make long lists of problems. How about short lists of solutions?     

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