The initial crisis appears to be over in Queensland. Government response at every level has been commendable. Already, the government at every level is turning to the painful but necessary task of rebuilding Brisbane and other cities affected. The leadership and organisation of this effort is clearly well ahead of most recent disasters in Australia and the United States. The Premier has moved quickly to establish a recovery task force with able leadership and co-operation seems to be underway to re-establish basic infrastructure. These are good steps but recovery is a long term activity.
There is a recent fad of suggesting all difficult human change needs to be divided into steps. This approach is being applied in activities ranging from weight loss, to dependency reduction. It seems an apt device to communicate the long term, intricate and often painful process involved in the economic, social, environmental and physical recovery of a metropolitan region. Clearly, the application and the order of these steps depend on a myriad of local circumstances. The tendency to get back to normal is one that must be tempered with the requirement to make a safer and a better place for the future. I offer these steps as a template and not a remedy.
- The worst may not be over - while we do not like to think about it, floods do unseen damage underground that collapses some infrastructure and loosens supports for buildings and other structures that are not visible. Gas lines may rupture several weeks or months after a flood because of underground subsidence that is not detectable by testing current pressure or even with telescopic analysis. Buildings that seem habitable may have minor cracks that become larger as the ground dries unevenly. Even homes that had no structural damage may be affected by slippages hundreds of meters away. So, careful deep analysis of structural integrity is required with ongoing surveillance of public structures for several months.
- Eco-regional restoration - is required to put the eco system back in order and not merely to replace what is broken. A long-term view is required with an assessment of whether all the areas can or should support structures and be rebuilt on. The water will rise and flow again so it is important to develop channels for it rather than trying to deny raging water access to its natural course.
- A Regional Recovery Institution - is usually necessary to deal with a myriad of governmental and private organisations that have to make decisions about the future. Each infrastructure agency public or private in most instances wants to move back to the way things were. But, it may be better to think of how these organisations might be configured for the future and not merely replacing them as they are. It takes an organisation with the strength derived from the Premier and Cabinet with the collaboration of other government agencies to undertake this task. A small example, do we need separate schools, library and recreations agencies or why do we have water and power delivered separately and should water and power be decentralised in the future as they are in Japan’s disaster response system.
- Incorporating international experience - is very useful in attacking long-term recovery issues. Now is the time to get this global knowledge before the recovery process is locked into place. I found that the Japanese and Dutch experts had enormously valuable information to add to the recovery in New Orleans and Australian knowledge was critical for me in the recovery of Oakland from the hills fires in 1991.
- Information Systems - are powerful tools for decision-makers post disaster. There is too much data and not enough information. That is, each agency has lots of interesting data that needs to be organised geographically and in decision scenarios as well as turned into measuring tools. This is critical as the recovery gets underway or the temptation is to assume what we know is enough and we will repeat the past errors because we use the old data to make decisions about an unknown future. Fresh analysis can lead to new ways to create a better, safer future.
- Develop an infrastructure system - that is based on the latest technologies for the long term while you are repairing the existing one. This would entail for example digging deeper or wider trenches to put in future underground capacity as the existing systems are repaired. In some instances if the organisation and delivery approach is to be decentalised, develop the corridors underground or above to get to the future now.
- Future Proof Neighborhoods - now is the time to provide incentives to residents to upgrade their homes with the best insulation, solar and water systems. This strategy is already part of the building codes like the City of Berkeley, California where homeowners are provided loans and grants to future proof their residence. In New Orleans community facilities are being rebuilt using this approach. Let’s not wait, let’s prepare for tomorrow today.
These seven steps are a simple sensible guide aimed at the future. As a one un-named general said, “we always seem well prepared for the last war and not the next one”. Let’s prepare now for the next disaster and not merely attempt to avoid the last one.
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