Archive for the ‘Oakland hazards’ Category

The Resilient Oakland Playbook

21 November 2016

Last month the city of Oakland released its long-awaited resilience plan, the Resilient Oakland Playbook. “Resilience” is the 21st-century name for the concept that communities can get up quickly when they’re knocked down, and avoid being knocked down in the first place.

I’ve always thought of resilience in terms of how we deal with natural hazards — earthquake, flood, landslides, sea-level rise, fire. Oakland used a definition that seems closer to familiar city politics and good-government ideas. Frankly, it read as if Mayor Schaaf had simply copied and pasted part of her recent speeches:

Resilience in Oakland means equitable access to quality education and jobs, housing security and community safety. It means building vibrant infrastructure to better prepare for shocks like earthquakes and stresses like climate change. In Oakland, resilience means catalyzing our diverse pool of talents and perspectives to tackle these challenges, both inside and outside our government, with particular focus on addressing the needs of the most vulnerable members of our community.

This will take some getting used to. The geologic hazard of earthquakes is given its due, although there are no new ideas in the playbook beyond the ongoing, snail’s-pace work of encouraging retrofits of old soft-story apartments. The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, a major source of relevant knowledge that’s headquartered in Oakland, didn’t participate in writing the Playbook.

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Emergency preparedness is represented by a seven-month “Love Your Block” initiative in the Fire Department’s valuable CORE program. That was supposed to start in October, but there’s no sign of it on the city’s website.

The geologic hazards of climate change (a possible rise in floods and wildfires) and sea-level rise are pervasive in the Playbook. That’s OK, although I consider them remote problems. They will slowly creep up on us, noticeable only if you take a snapshot every decade. We need to make long-term plans and float bond issues to deal with them.

But there’s no mention of the mud that wipes out roads in Oakland every year. A “vibrant infrastructure” has to deal with our chronic landslides.

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The word “landslide” isn’t in the playbook once — homebuilders in the hills, you’re free to continue business as usual. Houses on alluvial hillsides, you’re off the radar.

Oakland needs the things in the Resilience Playbook. But we need more than that — we need to cultivate what Robert Muir Wood, a writer I’ve long admired, calls a disaster culture. Last month in the L.A. Times, Wood pointed to the Dutch as exemplars, citing their centuries-long effort to win land from the sea. “What Holland created — a national narrative of resilience, shared by all the people — is what L.A. (and every city threatened by natural disaster) should aspire to. Today, with the power of information technology and education, it won’t take centuries to evolve.”

Disasters don’t wait decades, and neither can we. Maybe the Playbook is how we’ll get to resilience. I’ll be happy if it is.

The coming trauma

17 October 2016
US Geological Survey photo by John Nakata

Ruins of the Cypress Structure after the 17 October 1989 earthquake. US Geological Survey photo by John Nakata

When the giant Tohoku earthquake struck Japan on 11 March 2011, followed by a colossal tsunami and the crippling of two nuclear power plants, the effects rippled out in many directions. In my chosen community of Earth scientists, there were many phenomena to investigate; in the engineering community, many case studies to enter in the record; in the disaster-response community, many failures to learn from.

To Takashi Murakami, a Japanese artist based in New York, it was the chance to accept movie director Yoshihiro Nishimura‘s invitation to work together on a feature film project at a time when movie crews were unexpectedly idle.

The story Murakami chose to tell grew out of witnessing the extensive failures of the nation’s authorities, failures that everyone saw firsthand. Lest we forget, the Pacific coast of northern Honshu was first laid in ruins by the earthquake and then overwhelmed by the tsunami. Both were larger than anyone, even the experts, foresaw. The tsunami in turn caused the explosive failure of the Fukushima Number 2 nuclear power plant, spewing radioactive material over a large — still depopulated — area of land.

Murakami drew upon his childhood exposure to gojira monster cartoons, his experience teaching kindergarten and his love of modern anime to craft a cathartic exploration of the Tohoku trauma, costumed as a children’s fantasy. Just two years later the resulting film, “Jellyfish Eyes,” was released in Japan. The Oakland Library has a copy of the Criterion disk, issued in 2015.

In “Jellyfish Eyes” a newly fatherless boy, Masashi, is displaced to a strange and challenging city. He meets and adopts a hovering, spritelike creature who befriends and protects him from similar creatures controlled by his new classmates. These “friends,” supplied by an advanced research lab in the city, are part of a scheme by renegades in the lab to harvest negative emotions from the children, especially Masashi, and acquire a new source of cosmic power. A classic Godzilla plot provides the climax, and the “friends” become benign at the end.

Critics faulted its quick-and-dirty CGI, stylized plot and cartoon visuals. I’m not sophisticated enough a film viewer to care. Those things work. I appreciated Murakami’s singular focus on his audience of Japanese children, a traumatized generation with its own culture and its own need for sensitive candor. I appreciated that he avoided studio financing, knowing that funders would insist on removing the blood (a few drops) and radiation (a few mentions).

“Jellyfish Eyes” is authentically Japanese, as it should be. American viewers won’t get all the hat-tips and references. But they should be able to easily see the deep emotional story beneath the plot — how a disaster hurts and how we can come back from one.

In Oakland, we have an overwhelming earthquake in our own future. We all know it will destroy things no matter how well we prepare. We know the government, whatever it does, cannot do enough. How will our youngest children respond? How will we respond to their needs? Until our own Murakami can rise to the occasion, we’ll have to study the experience of others and do the best we can.

Fallen trees

30 May 2016

Naturally, the people of a city named Oakland cherish their trees.

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But trees are living things, and every one must die at some point. After years of drought plus one wet winter, I’ve noticed a lot of downed trees. This one was in Leona Heights, an oak. When oaks topple, that’s the end of them.

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This one, a bay laurel, was in Joaquin Miller Park. Fallen bay trees commonly reroot, which is a handy thing in their preferred moist habitat.

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Fallen trees may interest field geologists because as their roots rip out, they expose the bedrock in areas with thick vegetation. Thus information from “tree throws” can help in mapping the rocks. For instance, I inspected the rocks uprooted by this tree . . .

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. . . and noted that they were typical mudstone of the Joaquin Miller Formation. The park is the formation’s type area, after all.

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Another treefall farther downstream exposed serpentinite. (The two very different rock types are separated by the Chabot fault.)

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Sometimes data points like these are the only way to get a handle on steep, vegetated terrain.

Research-type geologists consider “tree throw” a significant actor in the evolution of wooded landscapes (here’s a taste from a recent conference).

Down by the water, especially along the smaller creeks, fallen bay laurels often span the stream and root on both sides. Sometimes it’s charming, like here above Dunsmuir House, but it’s usually a hassle if you’re trying to walk along the streambed.

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To hydrologists — geologists who specialize in streams — fallen trees are a crucial part of stream systems. Natural streams always contain some amount of dead wood, because it lasts for years before it rots away or burns up.

Wood doesn’t act like sand and gravel. It doesn’t wash away easily, it sticks around and snags stuff. So making a realistic model of stream behavior requires a sophisticated understanding of how this “wood load” affects the water. Hydrology journals publish a steady trickle of papers on this topic.

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Most of us would rather that trees stayed standing and streambeds stayed clear. That only happens in landscaped parks. To know nature, you have to learn to appreciate snags.