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October 2007

Guest Column:

Tackling disasters in an energy-restricted Boulder

ilan kelman

Ilan Kelman.

Any sort of disaster—a storm, flood, terrorist attack—is difficult enough to handle as it is. But something that few people may have considered is how a disaster could affect their community in a future world where fossil fuels aren’t as readily available as today.

Ilan Kelman can easily imagine such a scenario. An ASP postdoc in SERE’s Center for Capacity Building, Ilan researches disasters in all their varied forms, with his eye on the qualities that make communities vulnerable or resilient when trouble strikes. Working with a small group of Boulder citizens concerned about local sustainability, he conducted a study on disaster risk reduction in Boulder within the context of energy restrictions. Along with Eric Karnes, a Boulder resident with more than 25 years of experience in emergency services, he published the results, “Relocalising Disaster Risk Reduction in Boulder, Colorado,” in the Australian Journal of Emergency Management earlier this year (vol. 22, no. 1).

As a guest columnist for this issue of Staff Notes Monthly, Ilan shares some thoughts about local disasters in a world low on fossil fuels.

A disaster may strike Boulder at any time with little warning. It could be a Boulder Creek flash flood. It could be a tornado through Pearl Street Mall. It could be a drought reducing water supplies. How have you prepared your family and your neighborhood? Have you stored one week’s worth of water and non-perishable food (and a can opener)? Do you know first aid and have a kit?

Yet think further. It is standard to prepare for a disaster by assuming that there is no post-event electricity; for example, by having flashlights and batteries. Other options are a diesel generator for your house, or for hospitals and emergency operations centers at a minimum. But what if there is no diesel fuel available? What if all your batteries run out but the power is still not back on?

Such energy restrictions are becoming a reality and impacting “disaster risk reduction.” This refers to actions to deal with disasters beforehand, such as preparedness and mitigation, and actions afterward such as response and recovery. In Boulder, the cost of oil and gas has gone up without similar budget increases for disaster risk reduction. Limited electricity generating ­capacity has also affected Boulder, as witnessed over the past few years with blackouts during hot and cold spells.

Yet disaster risk reduction activities in Boulder often assume the availability of unlimited energy, especially gas and oil for vehicles, as well as centralized and nearly unlimited electricity generation—much of which comes from fossil fuels. This assumption should be revisited so that disaster risk reduction can explicitly tackle operations in an energy-restricted society. How could that be achieved?

All disaster risk reduction is best achieved at the local level with community involvement. Top-down guidance is frequently helpful, especially for legislation and resource allocation. The most successful outcomes, however, result from broad support and action from local residents, rather than relying on only external specialists or post-disaster assistance. In the United States, an example of a successful initiative is Community Emergency Response Teams.

Local disaster risk reduction

Analyzing and understanding local disaster risk reduction for an energy-restricted Boulder involved three main tasks.

First, identifying possible disasters that would be particularly influenced by energy restrictions. These included blackouts and brownouts, temperature extremes, wildfires, disease outbreaks (because response relies on energy-intensive health care infrastructure), and drought (which would reduce the capacity of hydroelectric systems). Energy restrictions would complicate all other events too, including floods and tornadoes, but not to the extent as the highlighted disasters. Consideration was also given to longer-term disruptions to energy supply due to civil disorder and economic decline.

A more specific example: as oil supplies become scarcer and more expensive, the use of motorized vehicles for disaster risk reduction will become increasingly limited. This affects snow plows, ambulances, police cars, fire trucks, and aircraft, and includes training time on these vehicles. Diesel generators for hospitals, emergency operations centers, and residences could be impacted, and lack of electricity could inhibit water supplies, indoor temperature control, and communications.

The second task was considering scenarios of, and solutions for, the possible disasters identified. Two examples are an infectious disease outbreak that incapacitates or quarantines more than 20% of Boulder’s population for more than three days, and an energy crisis that is used as the basis for eroding civil liberties, along with undermining Boulder’s referendum-mandated “home rule” status that gives some Colorado state powers to the municipality. An approach for tackling such challenges is each family having enough supplies stored to be on its own following an emergency for at least one week, with consideration given to such contingencies as the cache being put out of use or family members being separated at the time of the emergency. In addition, “home rule” could be reinforced and strengthened to encourage less reliance on state and federal authorities.

The third task was to articulate visions and goals, describing what should ideally be reached along with parallel, realistic statements that are more likely to be achieved.

The ideal goals focus on making certain that everyone is ready for an event without any reliance on top-down interventions and with no need for external assistance in any crisis. That means having 100% of the population with an adequate emergency cache and trained in local disaster risk reduction.

The achievable goals would be the same as the ideal goals, but assuming that 75% of the population could be reached rather than 100%. No external assistance would be needed in a crisis for at least one week and a Boulder volunteer program would be created for local disaster risk reduction teams, including identifying all skills and skill gaps within each neighborhood along with a plan to fulfill needs.

Lessons and conclusions

The lessons from this work emerged from our specific investigations in Boulder, yet work in other places around the world shows how many parallels and overlaps occur. In fact, Boulder is not particularly special or unique because all places have advantages and disadvantages in dealing with local disaster risk reduction in an energy-restricted society. Exploiting the advantages while trying to bypass the disadvantages leads to similar solutions in many places.

In particular, implementing more generic solutions, rather than focusing on specific perils or single scenarios, usually assists disaster risk reduction. Examining scenarios related to, or exacerbated by, energy restrictions led to solutions which would be helpful for, and which have been promoted for, non-energy-related scenarios. Many of the solutions have an implicit or explicit assumption that energy supplies are limited, because that frequently occurs after disaster events. Yet focusing on energy restrictions over the long term engages residents concerned about an energy-restricted society, placing those concerns in the context of all disaster risk reduction activities—a useful technique for motivating support for local initiatives.

Thinking beyond disasters, local initiatives apply not only to disaster risk reduction, but also to other aspects of day-to-day living. Any links forged through local disaster risk reduction help to lay the foundation for local action in other sectors such as food and public health, thus contributing over the long term to a more sustainable Boulder—and a more sustainable world.

Few of these ideas are new. Before globalization, before mass transportation and instant communication across distances, and even before large countries were governed federally, people had to survive. Despite millennium-old trading routes, the focus was often local: having enough food and water for each community without importing much and also dealing with crises without outside help. Failure could mean death. The challenge we face today is to marry the old approaches that worked with the advantages of our new world, so that we are self-sufficient without rejecting technology or becoming isolationist, exclusionist, or survivalist. –Ilan Kelman and Eric Karnes

On the Web

More on Ilan’s work

View the UCAR Safety Manual

More about emergency communications at UCAR

When a disaster hits at work

This does not mean you have a bad hair day and then spill coffee on your supervisor’s stack of important documents. If a true disaster were to strike at UCAR/NCAR (such as a chemical spill on the railroad tracks between Foothills and Center Green) or across the Boulder area in general, the organization’s emergency response plan would go into action.

The plan, which is found in the UCAR Safety Manual, details practices, policies, and procedures for managing emergency evacuations from UCAR facilities. These include making sure that alarms and detectors are in good working order, alerting staff in the event of an emergency evacuation, assuring that all staff are accounted for, and communicating effectively with emergency responders. The plan also describes hazard prevention measures for flammable materials, labs and lasers, diesel fuel, bloodborne pathogens, forklifts and other heavy machinery, and more.

UCAR also has a Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) to deal with sudden illnesses or injuries at work. MERT is a group of employee volunteers who are trained in Adult First Aid and CPR. When needed, members are paged and respond to medical emergencies and first aid needs. Team members provide standard first aid or begin CPR procedures, and stay with the injured party until professional emergency medical services arrive.

To learn more or inquire about volunteering, contact Bob Wiley at ext. 8554.

In this issue...

Ice in clouds

Surprise finding in the desert

Tackling disasters in an energy-restricted Boulder

Jeffco bears fruit

Short Takes

Getting their paws wet

Delphi Question

Random profile: Chris Golubieski

Just One Look


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