Wednesday, February 8, 2023

It’s Time to Refocus. And Do So Quickly!

Haunting, gut-wrenching images have appeared in worldwide media since last weekend’s horrific dual earthquakes in Turkey and Syria that devastated entire cities and leveled block after block of housing and businesses.  To-date, over 11,000 people are dead, but officials fear the toll will go higher. Much higher. And then there were these photographs.

Aljazeera reports that the photographs above from their post depict “a father holding the hand of his teenage daughter who died trapped under the rubble of a flattened building in the Turkish region of Kahramanmaras.”  The article continues, saying: “Sitting amid the rubble, Mesut Hancer held on to his 15-year-old daughter’s hand which was all that showed from under the slabs of concrete piled above her lifeless body”

Videos of entire city blocks collapsing into rubble while helpless bystanders run for their lives are circulating on social media. The devastation extends as far as any camera can see in all directions. It is so overwhelming, that it fills those who see it—even from the comfort and safety of a living room a continent away—with deep sense of hopelessness. The looks on the faces of the injured and the homeless are of utter despair and emptiness.

These photos hit a nerve in me.  And I believe they should in all of us. We help where we can, our governments supply aid, but the answer must be bigger and more long-lasting. The events of the weekend should renew our resolve to make a difference and rekindle the spark of inspiration that made me start this blog in the first place. That's how this news affected me.

As a parent, seeing these photos made me reach out to my family members and simply tell them I love them. The news of this shocking, heartbreaking event should remind us all that we’re all members of a single human family and that somehow we should share each other’s burdens.  Beyond that, I felt the need to refocus myself professionally (to reconsider what I can do as a single person with my unique skill set to help make a difference) and spiritually (to renew my faith and hope in a better world for all).  The latter I’ll address elsewhere, but I’d like to expound on the former.

Refocusing to Make a Difference

Almost ten years ago, I started this blog with my first entry that included the following statement:

I’ve lived in a number of places that have seen significant damage to shelter and infrastructure, as well as loss of life during natural disasters in recent years.... Hearing about them or watching them unfold, I have often felt a strong, visceral and emotional sense of personal loss.  My response is always the same.  I ask myself: “Couldn’t someone have done more to prevent such widespread damage to life and property? Is there something I can do to keep this from happening?”

There are significant efforts underway by governments, NGOs and others worldwide to plan for effective responses to disasters.  The United Nations, for example, sponsors a Making Cities Resilient program to “advocate widespread commitment by local governments to build resilience to disasters and increased support by national governments to cities for the purpose of strengthening local capacities.”

Besides disaster response, these organizations also help keep provide information on the best means to create resilient cities and town in terms of sustainability, adapting to the effects of climate change, reducing energy consumption, mitigating the impact of economic decline, etc.  All are worth consideration, and all require our attention. 

My professional experience has brought me to a somewhat more specific area of interest, an area where I might be able to help make a difference.  My career has been centered on implementing physical and geographical solutions to development issues—deciding what facilities and improvements are needed by a population, where the new structures should go, and how they should be configured and constructed to make them the most successful and, in the context of this discussion, the least vulnerable.

Climate scientists probe glaciers for clues to what has been and what may be. But at the same time, these same people understand that even if we are able to reverse the current trends, it will take time. We should be preparing for the inevitable. We need to adapt. We need to modify our buildings, our lifestyles, and our expectations to better meet the physical demands of living on a changing Earth.

“Out of Harm’s Way” is the title of this blog and helping keep our homes and communities safe from natural events was the original impetus behind it all.  In the last ten years, I’ve published nearly 150 posts outlining critical benchmarks, standards and exemplary activities that countries and communities have implemented to help do just that.  It’s time to revisit those posts and refocus our efforts on making a difference in the most vulnerable places--then to highlight new solutions, policies and technologies that can help create safer places to live for everyone.

Watch this space!


Friday, September 30, 2022

“Flooding happens, but flooded buildings don’t have to happen”


The title quote belongs to Roderick Scott, a Certified Floodplain Manager and a long-time resident of Mandeville, Louisiana.  In a post by the National Institute of Building Sciences earlier this year, Scott reviewed the efforts taken in his town to mitigate what had been a long history of flood damage from frequent hurricanes.  Ultimately, he reports the following significant progress:

Hurricane Isaac (2012) and Hurricane Ida (2021) also brought 9-foot storm surges. However, thanks to the community’s efforts to mitigate buildings, just look at the progress, in terms of flood claims: 

  • Katrina (2005) – 750 NFIP claims for $25 million
  • Isaac (2012) – 250 NFIP claims for $7.5 million
  • Ida (2021) – no NFIP claim data yet, but only 59 documented occupied flooded buildings

I have a saying: “Flooding happens, but flooded buildings don’t have to happen.”

More information here (also the source of the photo)

U.S. Resiliency Council

In case you hadn't yet been made aware of this organization, the U.S. Resiliency Council states their mission and vision as “improving community resilience, through a focus on engineering, equity, environment and economics” in support of  a "future where we not only have a low impact on the environment, the environment has a low impact on us.“  The Council web page (linked above) provides significant resources to assist designers, builders and owners. 

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Great Minds

In the "great minds think alike" category, I was pleased to see the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA). This is something I've been encouraging on this page in multiple posts like this one.  The product of this collaboration, titled Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy and Hazard Mitigation Plan Alignment Guide, will help economic development planners (and others planning for community development) create successful, long-lasting outcomes that are resilient and resistant to the potential impact of natural hazards.  The EDA web page that introduces the new guide describes it as follows:

When communities align their CEDS [EDA Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies] and mitigation plans:

  • Businesses and business districts are built in safer areas with a lower risk of hazard impacts.
  • Private investment is directed to safer areas. It is also developed to be more resilient to hazards.
  • Buildings are placed and built to design standards that help withstand hazard events.
  • Businesses can reopen more quickly after hazard events.
  • Critical facilities and infrastructure keep working during and after events.
  • Economies can diversify. This builds the ability to withstand and recover from hazard events.
  • Local and regional partners can identify and plan for shared goals to protect, sustain and diversify the inter-connected economic base.
  • Regional marketability improves as businesses and investors see the community as safe and well prepared.
  • The community can manage open space and natural resources in ways that reduce hazard impacts and support the economy through agriculture and tourism.

Hazard mitigation plans and CEDS are key plans to improve resilience. A CEDS must include economic resilience in its strategy while a hazard mitigation plan identifies and plans for natural hazard risks to key sectors, including the economy.

Aligning hazard mitigation plans with CEDS will create more resilient communities and businesses. It incentivizes investments that support safer and more resilient housing, businesses and workforce.

Community partners will coordinate better, share priorities and actions that reduce risk, and better use a wide range of resources and funding when hazard mitigation and economic plans are aligned. This is because plans reinforce each other and are easier to implement.

Check it out!

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

A Hazard That's Out of This World

There are those whose job it is to literally watch the skies for potential risks to our civilization on Earth.  We don't think much about hazards from above on a daily basis, but the world was watching Monday night as a refrigerator-sized spacecraft launched last year was directed at 15,000 MPH toward an egg-shaped asteroid (above) the size of a football stadium (seven million miles from Earth) in an attempt to redirect its orbit slightly.  As the photos from NASA show, the impact was fairly dramatic, though the exact  result of the redirection attempt is still being evaluated by scientists.  The bottom line is that the test is being hailed as the first step in learning how to mitigate a future event where a heavenly body of some kind may be hurtling toward Earth.  

As the dinosaurs know all too well, an asteroid strike--even if it's on the other side of the globe--can cause lasting, world-wide devastation.  Unfortunately, a random object from space falling to the earth cannot be avoided simply by choosing to move somewhere else or strengthening (or raising) your home, as may be the case to avoid other natural hazards to life. So we'd have to go try to face the hazard directly, and redirect it.  Asteroid impacts have not typically been included in the scale of potential natural hazards to life and human settlement--at least when it comes to traditional hazard mitigation plans.  And, frankly, there's little any of us can do on our own--as individuals or communities--to avoid the potentially catastrophic effects of such an event.  But this underscores the importance of technical intervention of nations and (in this case) teams of nations working together to resolve certain types of hazards.

Like millions around the world, I watched the live TV coverage of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft as its target grew larger and larger on the screen, ultimately going blank as the tiny ship hit the asteroid. As I did so, I pondered the worldwide attention, financial resources and scientific expertise at places like the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University (here in Maryland) that had gone into simply finding, and then launching a rocket to intercept (perfectly), a 560 foot diameter object seven million miles away.  Sometimes it's stunning what we can do as human beings if we work together for good.

Today much of the nation is watching a hurricane named Ian (above) slam into the west coast of Florida with near Category 5 winds (155 MPH) and an estimated storm surge "wall of water" that could engulf coastal communities with up to 18 feet of water. The scale of the potential damage may not have global implications, but the frequency of such storm events--particularly in some places of the world--underscores the need for our society to be directing the same level of attention and resources that are going toward toward critical defensive tests like "DART," to mitigating the potential effects of these catastrophic storms. Unlike the asteroid, a monster storm can't simply be redirected to avoid human settlements.  Continuing preparation and strengthening--hazard mitigation--then become absolutely critical.

Here's hoping the asteroids and comets of the universe stay away from Earth. And here's hoping all my friends and relatives in harm's way in Florida today avoid serious problems from Ian.  We'll be watching. And praying.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Miracle? Or the Result of Preparation? (Maybe Some of Each!)

The following is cut & pasted from an email bulletin from FEMA [Building Science: January Updates from, Wednesday, January 26, 2022 11:10 PM, Subject: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Daily Digest Bulletin]  No online link is available, but the information is too important not to share here.

Building Codes, The Foundation for Resilience: Kentucky Tornadoes

On Dec. 10-11, a violent storm producing multiple tornadoes moved through four states--Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The outbreak included an EF4 tornado that was on the ground for 165.7 miles through northwest Tennessee and western Kentucky and another EF3 tornado running for 122.7 miles.

A pre-Mitigation Assessment Team (pre-MAT) was deployed on Dec. 19-23 to investigate building damage and look for safe rooms or storm shelters that may have been hit along these two paths, focusing on the EF4 track.

Bremen KY

The pre-MAT discovered an interesting success story regarding a hardened structure pre-dating current storm shelter criteria in Bremen, Kentucky. Bremen is a rural town hit hard by the tornado, with 12 confirmed deaths out of a population of about 300.

Having survived a tornado in 1979, a military veteran in Bremen rebuilt his home with a hardened structure to protect him and his family if it were to happen again.

He hired a local contractor and got an engineer to design the hardened structure, hoping he would not need it while having peace of mind that it was there. Forty years later, he and 15 others including members of his family and neighbors took shelter in his hardened structure and survived while their homes were destroyed.

The pre-MAT team found most of the structure to be well designed and built, likely meeting many of the current requirements for a storm shelter.

Safe Rooms in Benton, KYAnother success story in the town happened at the Benton Wood Products Facility. As the storm approached the area, 25 employees were split into groups and moved inside two 9 feet by 9 feet safe rooms near the main facility.

Luckily, search and rescue were not needed at this site. The facility is located approximately two miles off the tornado track and was not impacted. However, the employees were very thankful to have a safe room with such a close call by a devastating tornado.

The safe rooms were prefabricated and installed by a private vendor, appeared to comply with FEMA P-361 guidance and ICC-500 criteria, and registered with the National Storm Shelter Association. Safe room owners can also register their location with local emergency officials to help facilitate search and rescue efforts.

For more FEMA resources on Safe Rooms, please see


Thursday, November 4, 2021


Nearly every major cultural or religious tradition on earth includes a historic deluge myth.  An online article by the Public Broadcasting System noted that, “while not all flood stories are the same, the description of the destruction of the world by water is a common theme in many religions and cultures. Most flood stories include an angry God or deity, and a catastrophic water event that destroys the world but is only survived by a chosen few.”

The article continues by noting that “these flood stories also seem to have significant roots in science. Geomythology is the study of how these stories and geology could intersect.  Flood stories  may explain geological [and climatological] phenomena such as volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, fossils, and other natural features of the landscape.”  These stories have been depicted for millennia in folklore, literature, art and, most recently, even in movies.


Building a Traditional Wooden Ship (Source Here)

In the Judeo-Christian tradition (from the accounts in the Torah and the Bible with which I’m most personally familiar), I’ve always pictured it this way:

While ominous storm clouds gather overhead and darken the skies, a sense of impending doom begins to overshadow the Earth.  People become worried and begin to wonder and talk amongst themselves about what it all means.  Conversation turns to debate. And as the first drops of rain begin to fall, debate turns to heated arguments among various factions.  Chaos ensues.  Some groups are convinced they can prevent or turn back the storms, but they disagree on how that can be done.  Some argue that there’s little that can be done, so they sit down to await their fate.  Still others claim it’s just a passing rain shower and rebuke the others for their claims and beliefs. 

In the midst of all this turmoil, there’s one man and his family who are quietly and with great effort building a massive barge in the hope that, should a flood come, they and all the other living things they wish to save, will be spared.  Ultimately, of course, the floods came and the ark lifted to the surface and those on board were kept (yes, I’ll say it) “out of harm’s way” until the water receded.  The simple fact that this family took action to protect themselves is the real lesson in this story.

I thought about this recently watching the debates rage on via news coverage of the most recent United Nations Climate Change Conference.   As I’ve said before on this page, there are plenty of things we’ll do in the name of “climate mitigation” that will no doubt enhance the resilience of our communities and our populace. Regardless of one's particular feelings or political leanings on the topic, there are logical, non-judgemental reason to reduce our carbon footprint and do all we can to prepare for the changing future of our world.

"Since we can work here, if we insist, on geological time, we can always say that more and better data is needed. But there again, if we risk losing a large chunk of humanity while we conclude a few centuries of fieldwork, that is a high price to pay for reliable data. It may be more prudent to proceed on guesswork, and to guess that we should probably do something to guard against a worst-case outcome, if... scientists say that that is where we are currently heading, and if the measures needed to combat climate change (also provide benefits in other ways)."

But I hearken back to my story of Noah.  Storm clouds are gathering (literally) and there may be little we can do to prevent the inevitable.  Climate mitigation is just one piece of the puzzle.  But, like Noah saw, it may be getting too late to mitigate our way out of this.  Which is why he opted to take his family’s fate into his own hands.

In our modern age, there’s a lot of finger pointing going on, even among those who acknowledge there’s a climate problem (e.g., Who’s at fault for causing the problem? Who should pay? And to whom?). Where’s that getting any of us?  And what about all the other geologic hazards that continue to affect human development? We can’t stop volcanoes from eradicating island resorts or earthquakes from leveling entire towns and villages.  And, as we’ve learned recently, events like a global pandemic can overshadow them all.

If the point of all this is truly to save as many lives as possible, maybe it’s time we shift our focus to actions we can take to harden our buildings and shield our communities against potential hazards of all types. 

Maybe, as the ULI says, we should be “investing in places and infrastructure that are the most likely to endure.”  

Maybe better building codes should be better enforced. 

Maybe more resources should be directed toward better zoning and locational decisions. 

Maybe we should eliminate the incentives (like flood insurance) that encourage development in areas prone to natural hazards.

Maybe the proceeds from “carbon credits” should be directed, not at trying to sequester carbon, but at agencies and NGOs that are helping relocate and rebuild safer towns and villages in underserved and hazard-prone regions of the world.

Because maybe by making adaptation the priority (rather than the “back-up plan”) we’ll be able to better ensure that vulnerable populations all over the world remain safe. 

That’s what Noah did.