Boston’s Wake Up Call

Where I live in Canada, Boston is well known for a few things. First, it’s “Maritimers’ Heaven.” Folks from the Canadian provinces bordering on the Atlantic Ocean, think Boston is pretty special and sophisticated. Boston is also known as a tough town.

Boston’s urban emergency plan and the Mayor’s recent Task Force on Climate Change are a couple of tough documents, befitting a tough town. Boston’s not fooling around or mincing words. Alone among the 100 city emergency plans I’ve studied, Boston notes that it only has food on hand for 3-5 days and many facilities are located in a flood zone. So a severe winter storm or torrential rain could cause widespread hunger.

Everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.

But it turns out that Boston is actually doing something about the weather, and that makes it a leader in urban emergency planning. The Mayor’s recent Task Force on Climate Change shows the way.   

A combination of sea level rising and soil erosion could spell big trouble for cities on water.

What’s the threat? Boston’s excellent emergency plan notes that the weather in Massachusetts may be more like the Carolinas by the end of this century. Since 1991 most of Boston’s emergencies have been caused by flooding.  There’s been a bad winter storm almost every year in Boston and winter precipitation could rise by 16% according to the Mayor’s climate change report.  One hundred year floods could occur every 2 or 3 years by 2050.  

There are already hundreds of deaths per year in the US because of extreme heat and that could get worse as Boston warms up. When the temperature goes up, crime in the streets goes down, but domestic violence goes up. Heat means more danger for the elderly and those with respiratory problems. Heat means more sedentary lifestyle, diabetes and other diseases.

There is an alarming inventory of vulnerable facilities in Boston, including those which will be needed to respond to emergencies — schools, 1500 units of public housing, 430 miles of roads, half the Centers for Youth & Families, one-third of all emergency shelters and more than 900 critical facilities are susceptible to flooding. Many ambulances are parked on streets and thus immobile in a snowstorm. Even the roof leaks in the Emergency Operations Center.     

Flooding is also a major health hazard since it circulates pollutants. Heat brings in new insects and diseases, such as West Nile.  

Somebody in Boston has done world class research, such as noting that the 1929 Newfoundland tsunami which killed 28 people—a fact many Canadians wouldn’t know.

Someone has actually noted the dangers of the weather in outer space. Solar storms could disable 300 large transformers in the US and cut power to 130 million people.  

Here’s where Boston is doing more than talking. A park on “Parcel 5” has been designed to help with drainage and surging tides. Boston’s plan calls for elevating and relocation boilers, electrical panels and computers. There’s also talk of modifying work schedules, spray mists and water stations at outdoor events. It’s not enough to use water pumps to keep roadways open during floods, Boston is talking about using absorbent paving materials.  New types of asphalt will absorb and even filter water so it can go back into the drinking water supply, not into people’s basements.

There’s always more work to be done. More trees and landscaping is a solution to both heat and flooding. About 35% of Bostonians don’t have a private vehicle, 10% are over 65, and 22% have disabilities. How will Boston evacuate neighbourhoods or move people around during an emergency? Where will the food come from?

Boston’s plan proves that simple, innovative solutions can save money and lives.

First Order of Political Business

Citizens who are hard at work, raising children, going to school and raising social capital might assume that there’s a good division of labour in the community.  They’d be right to assume that the first duty of politicians is to keep citizens safe and thus political leaders have lead the police, fire, EMS, and other first responders to make effective emergency plans.

 

But this isn’t always the case.

 

Many world cities are in danger from their own emergency plans which sometimes feature pages of jargon, acronyms, missing appendices, irrelevant lists of contributors, and wishful thinking.

 

Researchers in the field call them “fantasy plans,” relying on public transit, private cars, and even expertise and help that often doesn’t really exist. Up to 56% of urbanites don’t have cars, and often the remedies listed in crisis plans turn out not to exist. In fact, some evacuation orders have killed more people than the emergency did.

 

Where does Auckland, New Zealand fit in? Auckland’s Emergency Management Group Plan 2010-2015 is a wake up call for the rest of the world. In a study that I conducted of 100 urban emergency plans from the top English-speaking cities in the world, none face up to lack of preparedness the way Auckland does. Auckland’s plan notes that only about 7% of its residents are prepared for an emergency. This means go bags, first aid kits, stiffening up homes for high winds, preparing for floods and so forth. For a city built in a volcanic field, this may seem alarmingly low, but it’s the truth.  Some Ontario response officials claim that 50% of the population is prepared, and I don’t believe it.

 

Knowing the impact of a disaster can be a good first step to preparing for it. So Auckland’s plan also notes the economic consequences of disasters. The estimate is that a severe natural event such as a volcano could have a catastrophic economic impact. Page 8 of the plan notes that there could be a reduction in GDP of 47% in the city of Auckland and 14% nationally. This is double the impact of the Great Depression.

 

Compare this to San Francisco’s plan, for instance, and you’ll see what an improvement Auckland’s plan is. San Francisco’s Hazard Mitigation Plan includes a section on “seismic hazards.” Surprisingly this is mostly about distinguishing among earthquakes, landslides, and tsunamis. A brief history of those events on San Francisco follows. But I could find no procedures describing specifically what to do in the event of those emergencies, nor any assessment of the effect that they might have.

 

Why don’t cities in California note the potential negative impact of an earthquake? How about American cities in Tornado Alley? What about the impact of climate change on cities everywhere?

No plan will ever be able to foresee every form disaster can take. Auckland’s plan rightly notes that “it is not possible to completely remove risk.” It’s important to be flexible and realistic.  Too few cities use pictures to show the risk the way Auckland does, and I don’t recall one that speaks of the “emotional, social, economic and physical well being of individuals and communities.”  There might be one other city that notes the danger from solar winds.  The right kind of storm can knock out power to 131 million Americans, but I don’t see Americans particularly worried about this.

There’s always room for improvement in evacuation, shelter in place, emergency kits, and so on.  But Auckland is on a better track than the vast majority of plans I’ve seen.