Readying for Urban Disaster, Post One


Readying for Urban Disaster, Post One

Russell W. Glenn

The first of a series of blog posts on Urban Disasters: Readiness, Response, and Recovery by Russ Glenn.


Photograph by Dr. Russell W. Glenn, Baghdad, Iraq


This is the first of what will be fourteen posts coming over the next equal number of weeks. I will shoot for putting them online around 6 PM Mondays or a bit before. The material covers select observations from Come Hell or High Fever along with several historical examples and additional insights uncovered since the manuscript went to the publisher. The book’s focus (and that of the fourteen posts) is readying for urban disasters (four posts, of which this is the first), responding to those calamities (another four), and recovering from catastrophes (six). The last group receives greater attention in terms of posting numbers because of the understandable need to denote recovery’s challenges given events ongoing in Ukraine. Focusing on recovery alone would be short-sighted, however, for decisions made and actions taken during recovery should always keep in mind possible futures in which Mother Nature, mankind, or (often) the two in cahoots bring urban areas their darker hours. I offer that plans and responses to these yet-to-be events should incorporate lessons from both the past and ongoing challenges.

The fourteen posts seek to lend a bit of insight for practitioners: government authorities, civilian and inter-governmental organizations, and private citizens who will or might play a part in lessening others’ suffering during or in the aftermath of urban crises. The material will also be of interest to readers for whom the topic of urban disasters sparks a desire to know more about what are sure to become increasingly common as nature adds climate change’s ills to already familiar occurrences seen in years past. Coverage provided by both these online offerings and forthcoming book are sudden disasters: cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, war, major acts of terrorism, flooding, heat waves, pollution catastrophes, and the like. We will consider gradual or creeping misfortunes due to climate change, longtime degradation of an urban area’s water or air, criminality, misgovernment, or social inequality only in terms of how they might hasten or exacerbate the consequences of more abrupt events.

Though the words are my own, any wisdom these pages offer is the consequence of good fortune in what I have learned from the over 1,000 individuals who have in recent years granted time and insights during interviews in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Korea, Japan, East Africa, Europe, Canada, at home in the USA, and elsewhere or by phone. So too, many are the books, articles, studies, and additional materials that have advised these observations. Endnotes to this and following posts should provide a starting point for readers who want to pursue any historical event or topic more fully. The book will offer a far more extensive list of references in its bibliography.

There’s also a bit of “been there, done that” in these pages given travels over the past now nearly three decades. Yet one person’s experiences provide only a soda straw view of any problem or event. It’s surely apocryphal, but the tale of Frederick the Great’s mule serves as a reminder for any of us who might like to believe that our personal experiences provide general knowledge. As it goes, the tale has a Prussian general approaching Frederick and demanding a promotion because of the many battles in which he participated. Frederick’s response: “Well, in that case, my horse should be a field marshal.”


So, let’s get on with it. I will tend to provide one or more historical examples with each posting. We’ll start here with World War II Hamburg. The extensive bombing and related firestorm damage suffered by the city meant that its leaders were all but overwhelmed in deciding what to take on first after the destruction. Potable drinking water was a concern from immediate survival and disease prevention perspectives. Rubble clogged streets, making delivery of aid or relief difficult. Some of the debris concealed corpses. Other dead lie in the open, offering fulfillment to insects, rats, and any other animal that might seek a meal. Survivors slept in bunkers, the luckier of those lucky instead housing with friends or relatives. Yet others moved into structures still habitable. Rightful owners sometimes later returned to find their properties occupied by strangers. The squatters were often permitted to stay until other suitable shelter could be found, something that could take months. During all this struggling to survive, bureaucrats in Berlin demanded rapid restoration of the city’s war industries.[1]

Could any plan have readied Hamburg for such an eventuality? Is it fair to expect leaders in WWII London, Manila, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Korean War Seoul, or early 2022 Kiev to have readied for the tragedies that struck their populations? Probably not in terms of the specifics of those woes, but could they have prepared a well-considered “generic” disaster plan to act as the sturdy bones on which to hang details of more specialized plans when crises presented themselves? Might Los Angeles or Tokyo’s existing earthquake planning provide an 80% solution should massive flooding, tsunami, or (the gods forbid) a weapon of mass destruction event visit?  There is a saying in the military that it is easier to frag off an existing plan than start from scratch. (“Frag” is an adaptation of “fragmentary order.” The military routinely creates master plans for a contingency knowing it will later adapt the base plan by issuing complementary fragmentary orders to provide adaptations as situations dictate.) The same is certainly true regardless of the challenge at hand. Such preparations need not be limited to plans alone. Forward-looking policies, flexible initiatives, well-conceived training, and broad-vision decisions can be—should be—routine. It is a point to which we will return in future posts.

“Unfair!” you shout. How could Hamburg’s leaders have known of devastation to come? Surely it is wrong to expect them to have been ready for events never seen in history! Methinks you are too kind. Leaders in Berlin, Hamburg, and other German cities would surely have been naïve to believe that Germany’s bombing of London and other British cities would go unavenged. Didn’t those events offer some idea of events to come for any willing to consider the possibility? Or what of insights leaders could have drawn from disasters of other sorts, Lisbon’s trifecta of earthquake, tsunami, and fires in 1755, for example? Or Tokyo’s preparations for and recovery from its devastating 1923 earthquake and resultant fires responsible for over 100,000 lost lives? Officials’ provided Hamburg anti-aircraft guns and fighters to engage Allied bombers, but those initiatives addressed military issues alone. Preparations for disasters that do not encompass the full spectrum of likely requirements, at least generally, do not merit the label “prepared.”

Let’s leap some sixty years forward and 4,000 miles distant from WWII Hamburg to India’s megacity of Mumbai. Many readers will be familiar with Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark’s intriguing book The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel or the movie Hotel Mumbai, both of which address the 2008 terrorist attacks on that city. Ten individuals assaulted the country’s second most populous urban area on a Wednesday. Their attacks continued into the following Saturday before they were killed (nine of the ten) or captured (one). Ten individuals, only ten, held much of the world’s fifth most populous urban area hostage for going on three days![2] The failures in preparation (and response) are epic.

Though it was only one of several targets struck in Mumbai, let us focus on events in the Taj Hotel. Two, later four, terrorists in the facility counted AK-47 automatic rifles among the weapons carried as they killed those in common areas and later went room-to-room, executing innocents unwittingly answering their doors, found hiding, or seeking to escape. (Amazingly, people were still trying to get into the Taj twenty-five minutes after the attacks began as they fled from gunfire and explosions elsewhere in the vicinity. There had yet to be any organized police response or effort to communicate with or control the frantic citizenry.) Among the other locations attacked were the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station, another hotel, a café, and a Jewish centre. Police, poorly trained in how to use what were often inadequate weapons, ran from the danger.[3] Law enforcement failure would be the order of the day as the terror dragged on, the perpetrators shocked at how little resistance alleged public defenders offered. Police only four blocks from a besieged maternity hospital chose to remain in their headquarters. Across the city, some 174 innocents and security force personnel would eventually be killed and another 300 wounded due to the lack of preparation and ineffective response.[4]           

There was little excuse for the failure to better prepare. Officials had received over twenty-five warnings before the attacks from sources that included the US Central Intelligence Agency.[5] Nor was Mumbai virgin terrain when it came to such criminality. The city had previously experienced twelve prominent acts of terrorism. Together these tallied over five hundred dead and nearly four times that number injured. It took less than eleven minutes for 181 to die in the bombing of seven of the megacity’s trains a little over two years before. As with WWII Hamburg, preparations for the scattered attacks in November could have benefited from these previous events’ lessons had officials been willing to learn and act. They might also have incorporated experiences from earlier strikes such as those in London on July 7th of the year before.        

There were preparations. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that those preparations were “red teamed,” tested in sessions during which individuals assume devil’s advocate roles to challenge assumptions and other aspects of plans, rehearsals, or exercises. (The good guys are generally depicted on maps with blue symbols in the US, the bad guys with red. Red teamer responsibilities include viewing plans or exercises from enemy perspectives.) The Taj Hotel, for example, installed blast-resistant glass. However, combined with a decision to seal entries and exits to keep additional terrorists from entering the building (an action that failed as a second pair of terrorists nevertheless gained entry), some individuals trying to escape found the glass further trapped them as furniture and other objects thrown against windows bounced off. Other failures in preparation included not incorporating Indian navy MARCOS personnel, akin to US Navy SEALs, into plans as state-level decisionmakers felt the naval personnel’s expertise was not in keeping with the challenges at hand, and not addressing glaring disaster coordination disconnects between city officials and those of Maharashtra state (of which Mumbai is the capital).          

Before identifying our first key point (a series of which will appear throughout future postings), it is worth noting that activities taken in readying for urban disaster should address more than actions to be taken once calamity visits. Well-advised plans and other preparations can also address actions taken before crises to lessen their impact. Authors David Adams and Peter Larkham, in their book The Everyday Experiences of Reconstruction and Regeneration, provide an observation in keeping with our own that it is easier to adapt an existing plan than start from scratch. Recalling two British cities in the aftermath of WWII bombing destruction, they found“Birmingham was in far stronger position than Coventry to proceed with reconstruction because of the range of plans for zoning (from 1913) and road plans (of 1919) that had already been well developed before the onset of the Second World War.”[6]      

Readying for urban disasters is not cheap. Effective preparations inevitably consume money and other resources such as training time and equipment. Rare, however, is the case when good groundwork does not ultimately save more—likely much more—than the cost of disaster response and recovery in the absence of readiness. Smart planning, training, and other steps need not be as expensive as they might otherwise be either, which brings us to our first key point:

Key Point #1: Preparation for any urban disaster helps to prepare an urban area for catastrophes regardless of cause or type.


This post first appeared as Russ Glenn, “First of fourteen weekly urban disaster posts; Readying for Urban Disaster, Post One.” LinkedIn, 10 October 2022,

Author’s original preface: I realize it has been a long hiatus since my last urban posting. Been busy reviewing editor’s comments for Come Hell or High Fever: Readying the World’s Megacities for Disaster [my forthcoming book from Australian National University Press in January 2023, which ANU Press will both offer for sale in hardcopy form (as will Amazon, I am told) and provide online with free access for readers. Either way, the author’s (my) royalties are the same: ($0)(number of copies sold/downloaded) = $0. That’s true whether the dollars are US or Australian.] 

[1] Material from this description of Hamburg’s woes comes from Keith Lowe, Inferno: The Fiery Destruction of Hamburg1943, New York: Scribner. 2007, pp. 266 & 278.

[2] Demographia World Urban Areas, which I prefer for insights on the world’s urban environments given its rigor and annual updating, identifies Mumbai’s just less than 25 million as number five in world urban area populations. Delhi is India’s most populous with just over 32 million, making it third. (Tokyo and Jakarta rank first and second, respectively.) See Demographia World Urban Areas, 18th edition, July 2022, p.21, (accessed 9 September 2022). 

[3] Sources differ regarding the number of casualties suffered during the 2008 attacks both in terms of individual locations and total. Those used here draw on what are thought to be particularly well researched sources.

[4] Shanthi Mariet D’Souza, “Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008,” Encyclopedia Britannica, (accessed 8 July 2020).

[5] Material in the remainder of this discussion capitalizes on the following unless otherwise cited: Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel. New York: Penguin, 2013. 

[6] David Adams and Peter Larkham, The Everyday Experiences of Reconstruction and Regeneration, Cambridge: MIT Press. 2006, p. 59. (Emphasis in original.)