Monday, 27 October 2008

Earthquake in Kashmir: A Question of Responsibilities

[Written in October 2005.]

The earthquake that struck Pakistani Kashmir and neighbouring states on Saturday 8 October 2005 killed more people than the 16-year-old territorial conflict that has convulsed the area. Pakistan's President has described the catastrophe as "a test of the nation" and Jan Engelund, the chief disaster relief administrator for the United Nations called it "the worst logistical nightmare that the UN has ever faced."

The world community's response to this pitiful situation has been, to say the least, sluggish. Could it be that we are witnessing 'donor fatigue' on a scale never before seen? If that is so, what are the implications for the next large disaster to be declared internationally, and for the global relief system in general?

Once again in Kashmir a familiar story has played itself out. The elements are common enough to be almost banal:-

* chronic lack of preparedness in an area whose susceptibility to large earthquakes is known in great detail

* spectacular collapses, and associated heavy mortality, in large, modern, reinforced concrete buildings that were not constructed anti-seismically

* vast numbers of homeless people, especially in inhospitable high mountain areas where traditional housing has collapsed en masse

* early relief largely in the hands of untrained, unequipped local people, especially regarding the rescue of trapped survivors

* foreign rescuers arriving in large numbers (and at huge cost), but substantially after the end of the 'golden period' in which significant numbers of people can be rescued from the rubble of collapsed buildings

* rumours and scare-mongering about disease epidemics

* chronic shortage of basic necessities

* inability to provide shelter in a climatically hostile environment

* slowness and inefficiency in the delivery of basic aid and relief

* military organisation dominates over civil protection, which represents a failure to adjust relief mechanisms adequately to civilian needs.

A response like this engenders a sense of weariness and defeat. It has been endlessly repeated in history, yet human organisation, resources, science and technology are perfectly capable of improving it. As sentient beings we are all responsible for the failure to protect, though obviously some of us are more responsible than others, yet the attitudes revealed in debate on the tragedy suggest that no one is assuming that responsibility. Yet regression back to the concept of "Act of God" betokens not only negligence but also a somewhat insulting attitude to the Higher Power who, many people believe, gave us the ability to think and act.

All disasters involve elements that are common and those that are unique, or at least distinctive. Regarding the latter, UNESCO has been widely quoted as stating that the Kashmiri earthquake has destroyed 140,000 schools (see contemporary UN-OCHA situation reports). This number is so preposterously large--in fact it is probably equivalent to the total number of schools of all kinds in a medium-sized European country--that one can only hope it is a misprint or an exaggeration. By comparison, the loss of 3000 schools in the Boumerdes, Algeria, earthquake of 2003 seemed an excessively large number at the time. Likewise, there have been suggestions that more than 60 per cent of the approximately 50,000 deaths in Kashmir involved school children. On the basis of past trends, calculations by Wisner et al. (2005) concerning seismic safety in schools suggested a death rate of fewer than 5000 pupils per decade, and yet here we have a putative 32,000 fatalities in schools during a single earthquake!

Rather than pointing to errors on the part of Wisner et al. (2005), this discrepancy highlights the difficulty of extrapolating trends in the occurrence and nature of disasters, which produce notoriously irregular statistics (IFRCRCS 1993-2005). It also highlights a chronic failure to advance development and reduce vulnerability.

As I write, helicopter landing pads are hastily being built in the ruined villages of the Kashmiri Himalayas, but rather too late to deliver the vital early supplies of relief goods. Prior to this, helicopter pilots encountered numerous difficulties in consigning their loads to the villages: packages rolled down slopes into rivers, people congregated under the hovering aircraft so that nothing could safely be thrown out. It is a principle of civil protection, all too often ignored, that workers on the ground should understand the use of helicopters in disaster relief even if they never have to travel in them, as such people will inevitably have to direct the landing of these extremely useful vehicles, and probably do other work with them. Moreover, for each village to have a landing area requires no great allocation of resources: it merely needs spades, muscles, knowledge and some basic organisation. In fact, as I write I look out of the window of my study, in a small hilltop town, at a helicopter landing pad, built very cheaply to appropriate specifications and not infrequently used in emergencies both large and small. In sum, organisation is not a luxury and it should be afforded by all communities at risk. It does, however, require transfer of expertise to where it is needed.

To return from the local to the global scale, we live in an epoch in which human resources are regarded as cheap and expendable. The dominance of capital over labour means that the world economy lacks concern with the need to protect its workforces (Alexander 2000: 98). It has therefore failed to promote an adequate global effort to reduce the impact of disasters. Hence, in the 21st century the world's least developed areas, many of which are in high mountain ranges, are only as well protected as they were 250 years ago--or worse off, given the rise in populations and diffusion of an aseismic mass-produced building stock (Kalvoda and Rosenfeld 1998, Xu and Rana 2005).

Confronted with repeated disasters the world community seems to have adopted an ice-cream parlour mentality. In October 2005 earthquakes suddenly became the "flavour of the month". Before that it was hurricanes, with Katrina and Rita in the Gulf of Mexico; and before that it was terrorism, preceded by tsunamis. Despite the best efforts of international bodies such as the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, a knee-jerk response to disasters still predominates. Post-impact relief still vastly overshadows pre-impact preparedness.

It is a well-established principle of risk management that, when a problem is chronic or serious, the first expenditures on reducing it achieve disproportionately high rates of risk reduction per unit of money spent. As more and more resources are devoted to the problem, the benefit-cost ratio narrows until it reverses and further expenditure, however desirable it may be in other terms, is no longer economically justified (Crouch and Wilson 1982). In Kashmir, as in many other parts of the world, risk reduction is at such a primitive level that spectacular results could be achieved with minimal science, basic technology and relatively modest investments (Coburn et al. 1984). This is the magic of know-how, but the world does not seem adequately to have learnt how to transfer knowledge to where it is needed. Whether this is the result of political, military and cultural obstacles or is simply due to the indifference of decision-makers is a moot point.

One very well-known example of this concerns the role of foreign rescue teams in disasters, such as earthquakes, in which large numbers of victims are trapped alive. Rates of rescue begin to diminish exponentially after 6-8 hours from the moment of impact, but the rescue teams do not begin to arrive until 28-30 hours later. Commonly, between 1000 and 2000 rescuers will fly in, but only a few score victims will be rescued alive. If knowledge, training and a minimum of equipment had previously been transferred into the area local teams could dramatically have increased the rate of rescue and could have reduced costs from an estimated US$1 million per victim saved to figures as low as 50 cents per person. Likewise, the international deployment of field hospitals, at about US$1 million per unit, is much more expensive and less efficient than investing in existing local medical centres so that they are able to continue functioning after disaster (PAHO 2003). Finally, areas at risk of large earthquakes need a resident corpus of doctors and nurses who are trained in disaster medicine and epidemiology (Andersen 2001). The experience, and sadly in many cases the inefficiency, of doctors in Kashmir illustrates that there is no substitute for detailed local knowledge when organising measures to ensure the health of survivors, but it also shows that specialised medical aid is needed in minutes, not days after the impact.

The contextual model of disasters promoted by Mitchell et al. (1989) indicates that the Kashmiri earthquake should be seen in the context of both trends in society and other events that compete with it for attention. Regarding society, over the last 150 years the world has swung from liberal to social and back to neoliberal ideologies. Self-reliance is now as popular a concept as it was in the 19th century, though in some cases mitigated by the concept of a "third way" in which people should be assisted to become self-reliant.

There is no doubt that failure to involve local people in preparing for disasters can lead to either failures of programmes for lack of popular support or dangerous forms of aid dependency. However, the world has not invested and deployed resources--especially of knowledge--in such a way as to make people resilient and self-reliant. This represents a gigantic dereliction of duty, which in part stems from a warped perception of what the modern life is actually about for a very significant portion of the world’s population. The holders and wielders of power by definition have access to technology and resources. Yet half the world's population lives in conditions that the rest would regard as too primitive to be tolerable. Moreover, they lack prominence in world affairs.

The result of this is that disasters such as the Kashmiri earthquake represent a gigantic dereliction of duty. Wisner et al. (2005) have demonstrated that failure to provide a safe environment for children's education is just as much a moral fault as failing to provide education at all, and yet thousands of schools have collapsed on children in Kashmir. A minor tax on investments and capital transfers could have provided the resources to avoid such a tragedy in the Himalayas and anywhere else in the world where it might next occur, yet the leaders of the world's financial system have rejected that initiative.

The debate on recovery and reconstruction in Kashmir will inevitably merge with that on the redevelopment of areas devastated by the Indonesian tsunami of December 2004. Interesting dialogues and symbioses may be generated if it also joins the debate on reconstructing the Gulf coast of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. The literature on disasters is voluminous (my own bibliographies contain 14,000 entries), but almost none of it is devoted to the most fundamental aspect of all, the moral philosophy that should guide relief and development (Beatley 1989).

In a previous paper (Alexander ms.) I argued that although the tsunami of 26 December 2005 reaped a massive death toll and affected ten countries, the value of damage was too small to stimulate a fundamental change in the way the world tackles disasters, especially as the tsunami's effect on the global financial system was negligible. In effect, I was looking for a sudden turning point, of the kind that would occur if a major Tokyo earthquake caused damage valued in the trillions of dollars. However, it could be that the cumulative effect of major disasters forces the world community's hand in the same way.

It is clear that a radical change in the world's approach to disasters is needed, with far greater attention to prevention and preparedness. Perhaps we should begin by tackling the matter at the most fundamental level in order to ascertain and apportion the moral responsibilities for the safety of populations that inhabit risk zones. No one is entirely free of responsibility, and that is especially true of political leaders.


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

Alexander, D. (unpublished MS). A survey of the field of hazard and disaster studies.

Andersen, V. 2001. Training of medical teams on-site for individual and coordinated response in emergency management. International Journal of Emergency Management 1(1).

Beatley, T. 1989. Towards a moral philosophy of natural disaster mitigation. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 7(1): 5-32.

Coburn, A., R. Hughes, D. Illi, D. Nash and R. Spence 1984. The construction and vulnerability to earthquakes of some building types in the northern areas of Pakistan. In K.J. Miller (ed.) The International Karakoram Project, Vol. 2. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 226-252.

Crouch, E.A.C. and R. Wilson 1982. Risk-Benefit Analysis. Ballinger, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 240 pp.

IFRCRCS 1993-2005. World Disasters Reports (see sections on disaster data provided by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium). International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Geneva.

Kalvoda, J. and C.L. Rosenfeld (eds) 1998. Geomorphological Hazards in High Mountain Areas. GeoJournal Library no. 46. Springer, Dordrecht, 328 pp.

Mitchell, J.K., N. Devine and K. Jagger 1989. A contextual model of natural hazard. Geographical Review 79(4): 391-409.

PAHO 2003. PAHO guidelines for the use of foreign field hospitals in the aftermath of sudden-impact disaster. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 18(4): 278-290.

Wisner, B., I. Kelman, T. Monk, J.K. Bothara, D. Alexander, A.M. Dixit, D. Benouar, O.D. Cardona, R.C. Kandel and M. Petal 2009. School seismic safety: falling between the cracks? In C.M. Rodrigue and E. Rovai (eds) Earthquakes. Routledge Hazards and Disasters Series. Routledge, London.

Xu Jianchu and G. Rana 2005. Living in the mountains. Know Risk. ISDR Secretariat, Geneva, and Tudor Rose, London: 196-199.

Symbolic and Practical Interpretations of the Hurricane Katrina Disaster in New Orleans


In the 1960s some valuable sociological research was carried out on the plight of black people in US disasters (Anderson 1970a) and some more on the role of the military in such events (Anderson 1969, 1970b). Although these topics have not been totally neglected since then, they have tended to lapse in the social scientists' agendas (cf. Wright 1997). Now the disaster in New Orleans has thrown them once again into high relief.

The begin with, Hurricane Katrina quickly became a "class-quake" with divisions arranged along lines of social status and ethnic origin (Blaikie et al. 1994 p. 6, Fothergill et al. 1999). Secondly, the descent of emergency relief activities into increasingly strenuous attempts to restore law and order was strikingly anomalous with respect to other disasters elsewhere (Johnson 1987).

Two conceptual models can be applied in order to understand this situation. The first, a symbolic model developed from popular culture, can only be utilised in a negative sense. The second is an evolutionary model that analyses disaster response in terms of the global development of civil protection.

First model: disaster as spectacle

The "Hollywood" conception of disaster is one in which a destructive event leads to the spontaneous breakdown of the social order (Couch 2000). People's true natures are revealed, and violent and egotistical traits are the dominate ones. In the descent into anarchy people are divided into heroes and villains. Among the heroes, a leader spontaneously emerges, more by natural selection than any form of training or preparation, and law, order and calm are restored using drastic means to suppress the villains and stop the anarchy (Mitchell et al. 2000).

The "Hollywood" model, as one might call it, may be ridiculously simplistic but it is endlessly repeated in popular entertainment. Surprisingly, few attempts have been made to assess the extent to which it conditions the views on disaster held by ordinary people. It is certainly often at the back of journalists' portrayals of disastrous events. One wonders whether it has begun to assume the status of a self-fulfilling prophecy, such that in disaster people conform to it because that is what they are familiar with from television, radio and the print media (Bahk and Neuwirth 2000).

Second model: disaster as a problem of civil protection

The second conceptual model charts the progress of emergency preparedness in recent times. Modern civil protection [1] emerged gradually from its progenitor civil defence during the period since 1970 (Drabek 1991). Various basic principles have been established, including the following:-

(a) Military forces are not the best source of civilian disaster management. Their organisation, rationale and command structures are not fully appropriate to the management of a typical civilian emergency. Hence, in most cases the military should be the forces of last resort, and disasters should normally be managed by civilian organisations that are both more accountable and more sensitive to civilians' needs (Wright 1997).

(b) Good disaster preparedness is a collective effort that requires a system of organisation and administration which is integrated vertically from local to national levels and horizontally among neighbouring jurisdictions (Trim 2004).

(c) The gradual evolution of civil protection requires members of the public to assume progressively more responsibility for their own safety and security. This does not mean abandoning them to their own devices, but ensuring that they understand the risks of disaster that they run and have the means to face up to them. Traditional, indigenous and social coping mechanisms need to be reinforced wherever that would be appropriate (Kirschenbaum 2004).

(d) Civil defence is a progenitor of civil protection. In an epoch of global terrorism the two must co-exist. The maintenance or restoration of law and order may be fundamental to civil defence, but civil protection is based on the encouragement of social solidarity rather than the repression of anti-social tendencies (Dynes and Quarantelli 1997).

A further important principle to take into account when analysing disaster situations is that what transpires will be a function of both the event itself and the pre-existing conditions, including:-

(a) the level of preparedness of government agencies, non-governmental organisations and the general public;

(b) the quality (if not the presence or absence) of emergency planning at the institutional and community levels;

(c) the degree of homogeneity or division in society, including the level of equality or inequality.

Hurricane Katrina: a preliminary analysis

These two models represent diametric opposites. Where is the Hurricane Katrina disaster in this spectrum?

New Orleans is a vibrant and creative place but one in which poverty and deprivation afflict the inner city. Gang warfare and a flourishing market in illicit drugs have contributed to a murder rate that is ten times the national average. Some 120,000 residents lack cars and 80 per cent of the inner city is floodable, to depths that in places exceed three metres. The year before Hurricane Katrina was marked by a debate on the problems of evacuating the coastal towns and cities of the Gulf of Mexico. Scenario-builders had predicted in detail what would occur (Laska 2004, Nolan 2005). Lack of revenue and other resources, lack of political will, free-market ideology, lack of environmental protection, destruction of wetlands and excessive reliance on fallible structural protection are all factors that conspired to make the eventual--and inevitable--disaster what it was. Citizens of New Orleans had been warned that help would be inadequate, especially regarding evacuation. Yet they were not given any alternatives on which to build a strategy of resilience.

Apart from a notable absence of individual, emergent "heroes", the "Hollywood" model seemed to fit quite well to the mayhem that occurred in the wake of Katrina. Yet in truth the reality on the ground defied such a glib analysis. In post-Katrina New Orleans it was impossible to gauge the real significance of sniping, rape, murder and looting (the last of these a myth in many other disasters). Commonly, the darker side of disaster response is exaggerated by the claims of witnesses in the field who are overwhelmed by what they experience (Ploughman 1995). The mass media tend to dramatise events to the extent that damage becomes "devastation" and a shot fired becomes "shootings", or even "urban warfare". Moreover, some looters were people who strove to find basic supplies for themselves and others who were left behind in the city.

Whether or not the anarchy and violence should be played down, there is no doubt that the situation was without a precedent among recent natural disasters. As both commentators and participants have remarked, it resembled post-invasion Baghdad rather than a US metropolitan area (Tracisk 2005).

In disaster situations, epidemics are rare and diseases are usually only a threat if they are already endemic in the afflicted area (De Ville de Goyet 1999). The same is true of social diseases, and in this respect disaster opens an extraordinarily revealing window on the inner workings of society.

Images of heavily armed police and soldiers patrolling the flooded streets of New Orleans bring to mind the extraordinarily ham-fisted response to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, when people were spontaneously shot dead as looters while foraging in the wreckage of their own homes (Hansen and Condon 1989). I know of no other case of short-term, post-disaster evacuation in which evacuees had to be sought by police, soldiers and dogs and taken away in handcuffs. It is axiomatic and well-known in the emergency management community that compulsory evacuation orders are impossible to enforce: attempts to impose them are as time-consuming as they are futile (Perry 1994). Yet it is less appropriate to criticise the instantaneous response than the lack of foresight and preparation that might have made draconian measures unnecessary.

Whatever the resonance--or lack of it--of the "Hollywood" model, the 'civil-defence-civil protection' model leads to some interesting and pertinent observations on what happened in New Orleans. Seen from the perspective of an outsider, the initial response to the disaster was more characteristic of civil defence than of civil protection: i.e., it harked back to an earlier time when civilian disasters were tackled in a paramilitary way under the assumption that the principal problem was how to restore law and order, rather than how to restore health, safety and dignity to the affected population (Alexander 2002).

Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 some influential commentators have argued that US disaster response has taken a step backwards (Mitchell 2003). Paradoxically, the renewed emphasis on preparedness seems to have weakened the Federal capability. Under President Clinton and James Lee Witt, FEMA made disaster prevention the central rationale of its approach. In reality, despite the desire to make the reorientation from response to events to prior prevention their consequences, such was the press of disasters in the USA of the 1990s that two-thirds of FEMA's budget nevertheless went on post-disaster emergency efforts (National Journal 1993). However, when FEMA was subsumed into the Department of Homeland Security its budget was severely cut and the revenue diverted to preparing to respond to terrorist outrages. As there is an infinity of possible scenarios in both conventional and CBRN terrorism, such events are very expensive to prepare for, as well as being for the most part hypothetical (Bailey 1996).

With these reflections in mind, and with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to point the finger of accusation at the US Federal Government (Dynes 1991), but it is not exactly fair to do so. In a federal republic one cannot expect federal institutions to override state and local ones unless the national interest is very directly threatened, and then only as far as the threat should be countered. FEMA's key role used to be one of encouraging the states and cities (their SEMAs and LEMAs, state and local emergency management agencies) to prepare for disaster. The reduction of that role may have been a crucial factor in the failure of initial responses to Hurricane Katrina, rather more than the failure of federal institutions to respond adequately.

The US National Weather Service is famous for its ability to forecast hurricane activity and paths (Sheets and Williams 2001). Hurricane Katrina joins the list of major events (such as death of 23,000 people in the eruption of the Colombian volcano Nevado del Ruíz in 1985) in which prediction and warning became disengaged (Voight 1990). Warning systems involve technological-scientific, administrative and social components (Lindell and Perry 1987). The heart of the failure in New Orleans lay in the evaluation and translation of scientific information into public action. Moreover, the inefficiency of evacuation from New Orleans during Hurricane Ivan in September 2004 should have furnished some clear lessons, for example regarding the staffing and extension of contra-flow evacuation of vehicles on freeways and the organisation of an efficient public transit evacuation system (Laska 2004, Wolshon 2001). Instead, it seems that the well-known "gambler's fallacy" prevailed (Burton and Kates 1964): Ivan was a near-miss hurricane, that may have implied that New Orleans had already had its quota of major threats for the time being.


In 1972 Sims and Baumann published an article in Science magazine which suggested that responses to similar tornado threats differed between the north and the south of the United States. Southerners, they opined, were more fatalistic and less practical than northerners and hence less prepared for the damage, destruction and casualties. Since then, few other articles have tackled this theme, perhaps because culture is extraordinarily difficult to analyse, and perhaps because Sims' and Baumann's conclusions had overtones of cultural determinism.

This is a field in which there are no absolutes. Shortage of resources need not deter a community from organising itself (Buckle et al. 2003). Poverty need not be synonymous with vulnerability and incapacity (Alam 2005). Good things can come out of adversity. One striking aspect of the intellectual response to Hurricane Katrina is that left- and right-wing commentators have sought diametrically opposite moral conclusions from the same evidence (e.g. Tracinsk 2005, Wisner 2005). Either excessive reliance on welfare has weakened the underclass in New Orleans or the same has resulted from lack of welfare. At the time of writing this, barely two weeks after the hurricane, it is impossible to predict what lessons will be judged important and to what extent they will be taken on board. However, it is clear that substantial lessons are there to be learned at the federal, state and local level, and regarding environmental protection, early warning, evacuation, emergency planning and reconstruction. In emergency preparedness most positive changes follow specific events, which are thus catalysts for legislative, institutional, organisational, technological and social change. Seldom has there been such a good opportunity for this to occur as in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and so we must hope that the proposals that emerge are intelligent, practical, far-sighted and broadly acceptable.


Alam, K. 2005. Poverty, governance and disasters. Know Risk. ISDR Secretariat, Geneva, and Tudor Rose, London: 269-270.

Alexander, D. 2002. From civil defence to civil protection--and back again. Disaster Prevention and Management 11(3): 209-213.

Anderson, W.A. 1969. Social structure and the role of the military in natural disaster. Sociology and Social Research 53: 242-252.

Anderson, W.A. 1970a. Role in salience and social research: the black sociologist and field work among black groups. American Sociologist 5: 236-239.

Anderson, W.A. 1970b. Military organizations in natural disaster: established and emergent norms. American Behavioural Scientist 13: 415-422.

Bahk, C.M. and K. Neuwirth 2000. Impact of movie depictions of volcanic disaster on risk perception and judgements. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 18(1): 63-84.

Bailey, K.C. 1996. Policy options for combating chemical/biological terrorism. Politics and the Life Sciences: 185-187.

Blaikie, P., T. Cannon, I. Davis and B. Wisner 1994. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People's Vulnerability and Disasters (1st edition). Routledge, London, 320 pp.

Buckle, P., G.L. Marsh and S. Smale 2003. Re-framing risks, hazards, disasters, and daily life: a report of research into local appreciation of risks and threats. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters (2002) 20(3) and Australian Journal of Emergency Management 18(2): 81-87.

Burton, I. and R.W. Kates 1964. The perception of natural hazards in resource management. Natural Resources Journal 3(3): 412-441.

Couch, S.R. 2000. The cultural scene of disasters: conceptualizing the field of disasters and popular culture. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 18(1): 21-38.

De Ville de Goyet, C. 1999. Stop propagating disaster myths. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 14(1): 9-10.

Drabek, T.E. 1991. The evolution of emergency management. In T.E. Drabek and G.J. Hoetmer (eds) Emergency Management: Principles and Practice for Local Government. International City Management Association, Washington, DC.

Dynes, R.R. 1992. FEMA: disaster relief or plain disaster? The World and I. 7: 110-115.

Dynes, R.R, and E.L. Quarantelli 1997. The Role of Local Civil Defense in Disaster Planning. Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware.

Fothergill, A., E.G.M. Maestas and J.D. Darlington 1999. Race, ethnicity, and disasters in the United States: a review of the literature. Disasters 23(2): 156-173.

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Kirschenbaum, A. 2004. Chaos, Organization, and Disaster Management. Marcel Dekker, New York, 328 pp.

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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.

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[1] The term 'civil protection' is widely used around the world to denote emergency planning and management activities, in part because it translates easily from English into some of the major languages (Horlick-Jones et al. 1995). In the USA the synonym 'emergency preparedness' is used instead, though in Canada 'civil protection' remains current.

The Role of Emergency Management Training in an Advanced Civil Protection Degree

Emergency management is a relatively new field but one that can call upon an 88-year tradition of scholarship and research. Whereas it is sometimes included with management science, in reality it is a distinct discipline that has other bases. It sets out to achieve four objectives:

- to match available resources with urgent needs effectively in situations of crisis

- to enable organisations to work together effectively under difficult and probably unfamiliar circumstances

- to communicate with units in the field and with other operational centres in order to achieve adequate command and control of emergency situations

- to apply the provisions of the emergency plan, as well as operational protocols and any mutual assistance pacts that might need to be exercised in a crisis.

This process requires an understanding of how specialists and organisations work. Emergency management is thus a transverse discipline, that seeks to create a common language and common culture among at least 35 different disciplines and professions that participate in the disaster cycle (mitigation, preparedness, emergency response, recovery and reconstruction). The process of co-ordinating complex emergency work requires the ability to understand and liaise with the exponents of the different disciplines, in effect to "talk their language" to the extent of being able to help the various protagonists apply their skills to the problems efficiently and effectively.

Emergency management is a holistic, applied, problem-solving discipline. It is indissolubly linked with emergency planning, business continuity management (BCM), emergency medical response and other practical fields. Its imperative is to save lives, help co-ordinate the rescue of victims, contain and reduce damage, and ensure a speedy recovery to acceptable normal conditions.

In the modern world, there are numerous societies which emergency managers may join. The Institute of Civil Protection and Emergency Management (formerly the Institute of Civil Defence and Disaster Studies), which was founded in the United Kingdom in 1937 and is a learned society. The UK Emergency Planning Society (EPS) has 3000 members and the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) has 4500. It offers a professional qualification of world-wide validity, the Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) examination. Throughout the world, IAEM vigorously promotes the following eight principles of emergency management (see Table 1). From these it is evident that managing emergencies requires leadership and co-ordination skills along with a fine understanding of what emergencies consist of.

There are at least 400 books of relevance to emergency management that are presently in commerce and more than 19,000 books and journal articles have been published on this and related subjects. When teaching emergency management it is important to utilise the fruits of research and to marry theory with experience derived from managing past events. Theory is the road map of emergencies that enables the manager to make sense of apparently chaotic situations. Complex processes must be explained and fully understood by trainees. These include command and control, evacuation, vulnerability analysis (social, economic and physical), communications (again, both the social and physical components), warning, search and rescue, and emergency medical response.

An emergency manager must be able to create, disseminate, maintain, apply and update emergency plans of three kinds. First there is the permanent plan that disposes resources. This requires impact and response scenarios to be built (with great rigour), resources to be audited and procedures to be designed and tested. Pre-emergency contingency planning is followed by short-term strategic planning during the emergency phase. Plans must be compatible between many levels of public administration, jurisdictions and geographical areas, and different emergency services. There is also an international dimension which includes the European Union and the United Nations, for example the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN-ISDR) and the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA). Emergency management work can be local, inter-regional (in the case of a national emergency), European (in the case of an event that effects more than one country or is large enough to require extra help to be sent) or overseas (in the case of humanitarian interventions in developing countries). Standard methodologies for emergency planning exist and must be taught.

In terms of hazards and scenarios, the modern emergency manager must understand and respond to a wide variety of risks. Natural hazards such as floods and earthquakes represent one category. Technological hazards such as transportation crashes and toxic spills are another. Social hazards such as mass gatherings and protests constitute a third. In the fourth category there are acts of terrorism, which also involve intelligence gathering and responses by civil defence and military forces. Then there are the emerging risks: pandemics are considered to be the most dangerous, but climate change and shortages of basic necessities are also very important threats. As the outlook for civil protection could change radically in a matter of only a few months, flexibility is a vital quality of the emergency manager (see Table 1).

An information and communications technology revolution is occurring in emergency management. It has had profound effects on how the response to disasters and crises is co-ordinated. It is important to teach both the mechanics and the human side of communication, including the associated research in sociology, psychology and perception. As about four fifths of emergency planning consist of a spatial problem, geographic information systems are an essential tool. Activities are likely to be concentrated in the emergency operations centre (EOC), and the emergency manager must fully understand its potential and functions.

Recently there has been an enormous growth in business continuity management (BCM). This new discipline has been applied to both the private and public sectors of the economy. It is designed to make companies and public administrations resistant to disasters and crises and able to overcome their impact without going into liquidation. This is a very strong risk for business that have not made preparations and modern emergency managers are heavily involved in promoting preparedness.

In synthesis, the modern emergency manager is involved in creating societal resilience. The term resilience derives from rheology and is rapidly becoming a distinct philosophy of organisation against hazards, crises and disasters. In aiming to create resilience the challenge is to ensure the professionalism of emergency managers by training them well and endowing them with respectable qualifications. It is also important to ensure that the job of managing emergencies is handled by trained professionals, in other words that there are institutional roles for graduates. Other countries are forging ahead in this field (particularly the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and India). It is important that Italy not be left behind.
Table 1. The IAEM Principles of Emergency Management

1. Comprehensive: emergency managers consider and take into account all hazards, all phases, all stakeholders and all impacts relevant to disasters.

2. Progressive: emergency managers should anticipate future disasters and take preventative and preparatory measures to build disaster-resistant, resilient communities.

3. Risk management: in co-ordinating priorities and resources, emergency managers should use sound risk management principles, based on hazard identification, risk analysis and impact analysis.

4. Integrated: emergency managers should ensure unity of effort among all levels of government and all elements of a community.

5. Collaborative: emergency managers should create and sustain broad and sincere relationships among individuals and organizations to encourage trust, advocate a team atmosphere, build consensus, and facilitate communication.

6. Coordinated: emergency managers should synchronize the activities of all relevant stakeholders to achieve a common purpose.

7. Flexible: when solving disaster challenges, emergency managers should use creative and innovative approaches.

8. Professional: emergency managers should value a science and knowledge-based approach based on education, training, experience, ethical practice, public stewardship and continuous improvement.

Information and Emergencies

Information is a prime necessity in disaster situations--some would say the prime necessity--as it is the essential first input to the process of making decisions about emergency response. Paradoxically, disasters are characterised by simultaneous information overload and shortage. That which absolutely must be known--what has happened, where, when and with what degree of seriousness--is often elusive and obscure in the early stages of a disaster. Instead, it is usual to receive a mass of conflicting, inaccurate and contradictory information that must be painstakingly verified and classified.

Fortunately, help is at hand: as in most other walks of life, so in disaster management, a revolution is occurring in information and communications technology. It is bringing new opportunities and challenges to the field. On the one hand, information flows have increased vastly in size and strength, while on the other, there is a need for new working methods to cope with the information overload that the new channels and technologies bring. There is even the prospect that information technology will cause a disaster, perhaps through spreading incorrect knowledge or mismanaging vital processes.

The question of the collection and use of information in emergencies can be divided into three main elements: (a) information management for professional emergency managers, (b) the impact of information about disasters on society and the mass media, and (c) the role of information in how the general public reacts to emergency situations. In hazard and disaster situations, information flows can be classified into those directed to the emergency management community, those that reach the mass media, and those that affect the general public directly. The information itself is of two main kinds: perishable and durable. The first of these refers to time-sensitive information that is liable to disappear unless it is collected and stored at the time it becomes available; the existence of the second type is not dependent on time.

This paper will examine each of the three main uses of emergency information and then draw some general conclusions about the "state of the art" in this rapidly evolving field.

Information management for the emergency preparedness community

This section will consider the place of information in emergency management first in terms of its direct role in crises and disasters and secondly with respect to new developments in training the emergency managers.

Information for managing emergencies

Faced with a disaster, the emergency manager first needs to know what has happened, where it has occurred, where the cardinal points are (these are the places where destruction and entrapment of victims are concentrated), where the boundaries of the affected area are, what level of seriousness the event has attained, what resources will be required to cope with it, where they will come from and how soon they will arrive at the scene. Viewed with hindsight, most of these questions seem very simple, but in the heat of the moment the answers are likely to be uncertain and subject to change at a moment's notice. Hence, decisions about the deployment of resources must be taken on the basis of incomplete and potentially incorrect knowledge.

The modern age is characterised by advances in technological sophistication which are so rapid that the social adjustments needed to absorb them and make wise use of them lag behind. Instantaneous or rapid communication over very long distances has changed the process of emergency management. In particular, it has engendered a pressing need to develop a new technique of managing information in large quantities and with extremely rapid delivery in order to extract the valuable data from that which is not useful.

New developments in the use of information and communications technology in civil protection include the following:-

(a) Software has been created for developing emergency plans and posting them on computer networks, including the Internet. The main advantage of this is that it allows more flexibility than traditional, paper-based methods of planning. The disadvantage is that there is no guarantee that a more rational plan will emerge, or that it will be more rationally used than its traditional counterpart (Gruntfest and Weber 1998).

(b) Many pieces of software have also been developed for managing emergencies, with standardised procedures based on spreadsheets, geographic information systems and computerised communications. The principal advantage is one of being able to handle information more efficiently during emergencies. The disadvantages include the tendency to duplicate effort in producing new proprietary software packages to do the same work (Comfort 1993).

(c) Emergency management has made ample use of modern communications networks, which in some cases are dedicated to emergency work. These include cellular networks, intranets and extranets. They have the advantage of being more robust than traditional methods, and of carrying more redundancy, which enables higher peak loading during disasters (Tobin and Tobin 1997).

The full implications of these developments have yet to be felt in emergency management. However, some trends have already emerged (Stephenson and Anderson 1997). To begin with, information and communications technology (ICT) has tended to flatten the chain of command. It allows more emphasis to be placed on collaboration than on control, and more autonomy to be gained in field operations. It facilitates clearer ideas about what is going on in an emergency, with greater ability to develop a co-ordinated overview of events as they unfold. In its prototype form, ICT gave rise to the Incident Command System (Irwin 1989), which is a participatory, bottom-up form of emergency management and has proved very successful when applied to emergencies of all sizes.

The future is undeniably bright for information technology (Alexander 1991) in the service of emergency management, but some important traps and pitfalls must be avoided. To begin with, one hopes that we are not moving from the 'syndrome of the paper plan' to that of its digital counterpart. It was once easy to write an emergency plan that was then ignored or neglected rather than diffused, practised and updated (Fischer 1998). However, despite the greater immediacy of computerised methods, there is no guarantee that the paper plan's digital counterpart will be treated any differently, despite the ease with which it can be activated and revised. This is true despite the existence of a plethora of digital products for information management in disasters. Much reinvention and duplication have occurred, leading to shortages of compatibility and interoperability. The problems becomes acute when international collaboration is involved.

Modern information management demands a radical reorganisation of working methods. It requires that emergency manager learn quickly to scan potentially vast amounts of information, to judge that which is useful, discard that which is useless and judge the quality and accuracy of what remains. Through this process, there has been a reduction in reliance on face-to-face and verbal communication. This is potentially a worrying development when we consider that the world's worst air disaster resulted from a mere verbal misunderstanding (Quarantelli 1997).
There are other ways in which information technology is potentially the author of disaster. It controls vital processes in industry, transportation and power generation and, moreover, an increasingly large proportion of companies and organisations depend on it for record-keeping and business transactions. Thus, failure of information systems, above all where back-up systems are inadequate or missing, could have catastrophic consequences with complicated knock-on effects throughout society. This could greatly complicate the development of scenarios upon which to base emergency plans.

As there is every sign that information technology will be widely used in training emergency managers, it is to be hoped that it will also teach them how to use it wisely when managing risks and disasters.

Information and training of emergency managers

During the 1990s in the field of emergency preparedness there was a huge increase in information dissemination via the Internet. Growth has now levelled off and the emphasis is changing. There will probably be a considerable development of on-line courses in various aspects of the field, including management, medical response, psychology of emergencies and business continuity maintenance (Neal 2000). For example, 22 of the United Kingdom's 135 universities are already involved in initiatives of this kind.

One central aspect of training refers to the availability of scientific and managerial literature, which in this field is notoriously hard to obtain as many journals and books tend to be limited in publication and circulation. This problem will gradually be solved by increasing access to material on line. For example, the journal Disasters is available in a web-based subscription format and electronic access to it will soon be donated by UN agencies to the universities and institutes of poor countries. Eventually, we could see the development of "distributed geo-libraries", in which there is a drastic reduction in the restriction of access to information on the basis of geographical location.

These examples imply that information and communications technology can radically alter the attitude to learning of trainees. ICT, of course, is also causing deep changes in the collective attitude of society to emergencies and disasters, as discussed in the following section.

Disasters, information and society

In 2001 Americans donated $16 million to the survivors of the earthquake in Gujarat, India, in which 19,700 people died and about one million were made homeless: they donated 100 times as much, $1,600 million, to the families of victims of the collapse of the World Trade Center, in which 2,890 people died and no one was left homeless. The reasons for the discrepancy have to do with patriotism, personal relationships with events and the degree of immediacy of events, but they are also a function of the collective images of disasters as managed by the news media. Although the news media can motivate the public to contribute to relief appeals, they can to a certain extent turn disaster relief on and off like a tap by arbitrarily highlighting, minimizing or ignoring the plight of survivors (Benthall 1997).

"The medium," wrote Marshall McLuhan, "is the message." Mass media are both created in the image of society's values and designed to reflect those values, in an endlessly circular relationship that is as true for L'Osservatore Romano as it is for the New York Post.

Disaster researchers who have studied the news media tend to divide into two categories: those who believe that the media will always seek to distort the news in order to increase sales or ratings (Goltz 1984), and those who believe that the media can be treated as responsible agents of information diffusion and if this is done they will collaborate with the emergency managers in order to get the story right (Scanlon 1983). In either case, the media cannot be ignored. Rarely do emergency operations centres lack television receivers, as what the media tell the public may well determine what the public do during an emergency.

Modern technological changes affecting the mass media have profoundly altered the way in which disasters are viewed. To begin with, there is a greater sense of immediacy and--in a certain manner--participation. There is also a tendency to conflate news values with entertainment values and to exalt disaster as spectacle. The picture is complicated by the ceaseless accretion of more, and more copious, sources of information, which are available at more times of the day and week.

As Professor Quarantelli (1997) has noted, "The IT revolution is clearly undermining the traditional quality control framework." It has not substituted another, but most members of the public are not trained to distinguish reliable from inaccurate information, especially if the latter is presented as authoritative. However, in a healthy, democratic society information management does not signify centralised control of the information or the means of diffusing it. Indeed, the independence of journalism is to be safeguarded as one of the prime means of ensuring proper public evaluation of official decision-making. Hence, emergency plans that seek to control the media are bound to be flawed.

Information management for the public

As noted, a freer information market also leads to the greater diffusion of inaccurate information. A simple test can be done by looking up the key words 'earthquake prediction' on an Internet search engine. The short-term prediction of earthquakes is a scientifically contentious issue, but one that fascinates the fringe scientists and assorted futurologists. Typically, the search will yield sites dealing with the scientific progress on (and impediments to) prediction, but also sites in which charlatans claim to have discovered infallible means of predicting earthquakes, perhaps by "conjunction of astral rays" or some such nebulous means.

In a certain sense, in the modern world a large disaster defines itself by the information flows that it generates. Hurricane Mitch in 1998 gave rise to 29 dedicated websites. A similar figure pertained to the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake of 1995 in Kobe, Japan. Thus the public has free access to copious amounts of information, but not necessarily to an independent assessment of its quality. Some of the information is likely to be inaccurate, potentially even deliberately misleading. That, of course, has always been a risk, but it has been compounded by the huge increase in sources of and outlets for information.

In disaster preparedness, one of the great challenges of the 21st century is to involve the public in managing its own safety. This will require a more open attitude to the diffusion of official information on risk, preparedness, emergency planning and emergency operations. In some quarters the age-old attitude "don't tell the people, they may panic" still prevails, despite decades of sociological research that shows convincingly that instead of panicking the public tends to become more responsible when it is properly informed. The corollary on the part of ordinary people is the attitude that emergency preparedness should be left to the experts. Studies tend to show that resilience in the face of disaster is greatest in communities that are fully involved in protecting their own resources.

Disasters have long been the subject or rumour, myth and misconception. Many myths are remarkably persistent. For example, there is little or no evidence that the presence of unburied dead bodies in a disaster area gives rise to a significant risk of disease epidemics among the living. However, there are numerous--and recent--examples of unwarranted hasty burial or cremation, which can demoralise survivors and compromise arrangements for death certification and, where necessary, autopsy. Mere increase in access to information, and in the rate at which it is supplied, does not appear to have reduced the level of dependence on misconceptions. Indeed, it is worrying that under commercial and political duress, the purveyors of information are becoming increasingly superficial and manipulative (Wenger and Friedman 1986).

Concluding remarks

As the United States has for long been the world leader in emergency preparedness, its policy and attitudes towards disaster management have had a considerable impact elsewhere. The effect of the events of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent "War on terrorism" have led to a sudden interruption of a developing trend, followed by a considerable change of direction. Prior to September 2001 emergency management was steadily becoming more inclusive, open and comprehensive. Subsequently, the emphasis on 'homeland security' has engendered a retreat towards secrecy and a restricted form of preparedness. Some experts fear that this will destroy some of the gains in resilience achieved to date, or at least set back progress. Whether or not this is so, there is little doubt that greater emphasis is now placed on restricting the flow of information to the public instead of augmenting it (Mitchell 2003).

The world has learned how to create sophisticated networks for the supply of information but all the signs are that it has not yet learned how to use them to overcome some very traditional problems. New developments in technology have tended to reinforce traditional images of reality and symbolic constructions and to have done little to change the cultural and perceptual filters that change the value and quality of information as we receive and interpret it. As T.S. Eliot wrote in 1934 in his poem The Rock,

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?


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Benthall, J. 1993. Disasters, Relief and the Media. St Martin's Press, New York, 267 pp.

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Fischer, H.W. III 1998. The role of the new information technologies in emergency mitigation, planning, response and recovery. Disaster Prevention and Management 7(1): 28-37.

Goltz, J.D. 1984. Are the news media responsible for the disaster myths? A content analysis of emergency response imagery. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 2(3): 345-368.

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Scanlon, T.J., 1983. Canadian communications in crisis situations. In B.D. Singer (ed.) Communications in Canadian Society. Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts: 268-281.

Stephenson, R. and P.S. Anderson 1997. Disasters and the information technology revolution. Disasters 21(4): 305-334.

Tobin, R. and R. Tobin 1997. Emergency Planning on the Internet. Government Institutes, Inc., Rockville, MD, 230 pp.

Wenger, D. and B. Friedman 1986. Local and national media coverage of disaster: a content analysis of the print media's treatment of disaster myths. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 4(3): 27-50.

Flood Risk in Florence: Forty Years On

[Written on the 40th anniversary of the 3-4 November 1966 floods in Florence.]

The night of 4 November 1966 was marked by severe storms, floods and landslides throughout central and northern Italy. At 3.30 a.m. the River Arno burst its banks in the Casentino area near Arezzo and by sunrise water had invaded the historical centre of Florence, reaching depths of 3.65 metres at the Bargello and 3.96 m at San Niccolò oltr'Arno. Water eventually came over the top of the Ponte Vecchio but thankfully failed to demolish it. Thirty two of the 112 deaths recorded in the 1966 floods occurred in Florence, and the impact upon architectural heritage, art treasures, archives and libraries was incalculable. The damage is symbolised by Cimabue's crucifix, a work dated 1290-5 that hung in the church of Santa Croce (flood depth 2.7 m) and which, despite painstaking restoration, was 70 per cent destroyed by the flood such that it now lacks parts of the face of Christ.

Marble tablets that indicate the maximum flood level in 1966 (and for some cases in 1844 as well) can be found on walls throughout the centre of the city, including inside the Municipal Theatre. Periodically, video cassettes and books of photographs are issued to commemorate the floods, which are clearly an important point of reference in the city's history and in the life of all Florentines over the age of 40. Ten years ago a major national emergency management exercise, Arno-30, was held in Florence using the 1966 floods as the reference event for the scenario that was enacted. Arno-30 took place only a few years after three seasons of serious flooding had again affected the western periphery of the city from Piazza Dalmazia to Campi Bisenzio, which in 1991 was well and truly submerged.

Despite these developments, many decision-makers in Florence still regard the floods as detracting from the city's image and hence as something that should not be remember very publicly. Nevertheless, commemorations will take place and the 40th anniversary of the disaster provides many people in the Italian emergency management community with the opportunity to reflect on progress--or the lack of it. This article will consider the heritage of the floods and some of its emergency management implications.

Updating the impact scenario

Anyone who has visited Florence in recent years will be aware that the city is very different from what it was like in the 1960s. Restrictions on traffic have been imposed in the centre. Electric and gas-powered buses now circulate, two new metropolitan tramlines are under construction (trams were abolished in Florence in 1957) and Eurostar trains arrive at Santa Maria Novello station via a high-speed intercity rail link. Many historic buildings have been comprehensively restored, though the restoration of Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral, is so complex and delicate that it is taking decades to achieve. Moreover, tourist numbers have increased relentlessly, adding to the general overcrowding. Despite a steady reduction in the population of the municipality of Florence, which is now about 350,000, extensive urban renewal is underway on the flat plains to the north and west of the city. Light industry is abundant here, and at Calenzano there is even an oil storage facility with remarkably similar characteristics to the one at Buncefield in the UK.

In 1966 most of the physical damage was wreaked by a combination of water, mud and heavy oil from ruptured central heating tanks. Since then, oil has been replaced by natural gas as the main heating fuel, but on the other hand there are now an estimated 10,000 cars in and around the city centre. Where the Viali di Circumvalazione, the inner ring-road, dips under the main railway line, it is extraordinarily vulnerable to sudden flooding. Moreover, the city's road network frequently suffers from gridlock and work to expand the A1 motorway so that traffic can effectively bypass the city will not be complete until the end of the decade. Hence the plan to encourage people to self-evacuate from the city centre, which was published in the telephone directory in 1991, was withdrawn several years later for fear that it would only lead to more gridlock.

Despite the best of intentions on the part of planners, the hazard scenario remains almost unchanged. In the late 1980s a river basin authority was created along American lines, but it has had only a limited effect upon hydrological planning. The Arno is a flashy river--more accurately a torrent with serious pretensions to become a fully-fledged river. In mid-August its flow can diminish to zero, engendering severe eutrophication problems. The effect of a mighty river flowing through the centre of Florence is actually created by weirs which in high summer pond the stagnant water. In November and March the Arno can flow over the Chiusa di Santa Rosa, next to the Ponte Vespucci, with awe-inspiring discharge, roaring furiously and sending up clouds of spray.

River management strategy

Unfortunately, an ill-considered strategy to bring the national economy out of stagnation was put into place in 1967, the year after the floods. Temporary restrictions on the implementation of the 'Ponte Law' governing urban planning led to six months of free-for-all in granting building licences. The result was sudden, massive urbanisation of the banks of the Arno upstream and downstream of Florence, including the main pressure points where topography forces the river into a gorge and funnel effects occur on flood-flows. In 1967 one of the most vulnerable of the Middle Arno Valley communities expanded across the floodplain by 75 per cent.

The intense levels of development in central Tuscany mean that there is little opportunity to regulate flows in the Arno by natural means. Dredging and levée building are held to increase the flood hazard downstream. Hence, where possible, the River Basin Authority uses semi-structural flood defence measures and has thus created many casse d'espansione, parcels of land that is held vacant so that it can be flooded with minimal effects. A major dam and reservoir, the Bilancino, have been constructed in the Mugello Mountains north of Florence. However, this will only affect the River Sieve, a relatively minor affluent of the Arno, and in any case most of the casse d'espansione are necessarily situated downstream of the city centre, as there are the only areas where there was still space for them.

In central Florence the Arno has been dredged and the river banks have been raised and consolidated. The main obstacle remains the Ponte Vecchio, as little can be done to increase the flow through it beyond 2500 cubic metres per second (at the peak of the 1966 floods the discharge was 4000 cumecs). A bypass tunnel has been proposed, but there is little support for the idea, as it would involve serious hydrological and geotechnical problems, as well as huge costs. At least, decades of hydraulic and hydrological modelling, and of improvements in regional meteorological forecasting, mean that the physical side of the problem is now exceedingly well known.

Emergency planning strategy

In 1992 Italy promoted a national emergency planning and management strategy, the Augustus Method, which has unified methods of assessing risks and organising the response to disaster. It is based on the codification of emergency support functions for efficient communication during crisis situations. With regard to emergencies in Florence it provides the formal mechanism for coordination between the municipal, provincial and national levels of civil protection administration.

In the early 1990s the City of Florence inaugurated a new emergency operations centre in Via dell'Olmatello, located on the western periphery of the city strategically close to rail links and the airport. It was recently enhanced by the construction of a two-storey, state-of-the-art emergency control centre, which is shared with the Province of Florence. The latter has offices close to the city centre and an equipment storage facility to the north at Sesto Fiorentino.

Links between Florence and the surrounding communities have gradually been strengthened, but there are currently problems with the evacuation arrangements. The City's Civil Protection service has a four-volume emergency plan that is being updated in a somewhat different manner to the Provincial administration's fully computerised plan. Ensuring compatibility of arrangements for notification, departure and arrival of evacuees is a delicate problem in a complex, congested situation like the Florence metropolitan area. Moreover, the civil protection office of the Region of Tuscany, which is also located in Florence, has been dogged by problems of ensuring compatibility between the emergency plans of the nine Tuscan provinces.

Emergency response arrangements

The Olmatello centre is also the co-ordination headquarters of volunteer organisations. In Florence the Venerable Company of the Misericordia has an unbroken tradition of emergency response operations that stretches back to AD 1245. It has been joined by a number of other organisations, including several that deal with forest-fire fighting. All of them are registered with the government for civil protection work and they regularly train and exercise their members in this field. Hence, Pietro Bortone, the chief emergency co-ordinator for Florence boasts that if necessary he can mobilise 1000 volunteers within ten minutes and 5000 within one hour: given the wealth of experience available in the area and the high degree of organisation, this is probably a fair assessment.

In 1966 the emergency response was dominated by the so-called angeli del fango—literally "mud angels". These volunteers were mostly students or other enthusiastic young people but they lacked training and specific skills. For the last 15 years emergency response has been heavily regulated and increasingly subject to complex planning. In a future flood alarm, squads of trained volunteers would immediately start work on sandbagging the national library and state archives (both of which are situated on the banks of the Arno), lifting major works of art out of harm's way and conducting other pre-programmed activities. The municipal GIS system has registered the addresses and details of all pensioners and handicapped people in floodable areas and this would be used to give them assistance with evacuation.

On the more negative side, although the Italian Fire Service is highly professional and fully trained in all forms of rescue, measured per head of the population it is the smallest in Europe. Currently, initiatives are being pursued to expand it, including beefing up the volunteer contingent. The abolishment of military conscription in the 1990s means that there is now no surplus of military personnel to conduct disaster work. No one yet knows whether the increased professionalism of volunteer civil protection associations will be sufficient to compensate for these deficiencies when the next major disaster strikes Italy.

Flood disaster risk in the 21st century

Coincidentally, 2006 also marks the 30th anniversary of the industrial accident that occurred at Séveso near Milan and the tenth anniversary of the catastrophic flood that swept through the villages of the Versilian Mountains west of Florence. The latter event, which killed 13 people, had an estimated recurrence interval of 700 years. It galvanised the Tuscan emergency planning community into action.

However, it is one thing to have small mountain villages under water and quite another to have a major city, many thousands of tourists and a priceless artistic heritage under threat. Emergency management in Florence, Tuscany and Italy is still under-funded, and despite strenuous efforts it is still in need of further professionalisation, as well as greater political and public support. Fortunately, the basic model and organisation are very sound. We can conclude that as a result of changing patterns of human activity the flood risk in Florence has not diminished, but in any future event the emergency response would be vastly more professional and well-organised than it was in 1966.

In conclusion, one should not forget the other risks. In 1993 a very serious terrorist attack occurred in Florence, and in 2000 a fatal plane crash occurred at the airport. Earthquakes are a potentially serious hazard in the Apennines north of the city, while landslides and occasional snowfalls are hazards to many roads in hilly and mountainous areas. Hence there is no shortage of work for the civil protection community in central Tuscany.