Friday, March 19, 2010

Better Living by Design?

I had a conversation with an engineer from another Carribean country yesterday about future plans for permanent housing here in Haiti. The generally accepted practice here is to start building a simple dwelling and add on to it over time as your budget and time allows. This makes perfect sense to the average family here but if the materials and structure design aren't sound you may end up with a house of cards ready to topple in the future.

This topic has been covered extensively in various places so let's skip ahead to the relevant part here. Our organization's plans for permanent homes would incorporate better design and materials but we also plan to encourage incremental building (horizontally, not vertically). We would build in areas affected by the earthquake that would be much less dense than Port-au-Prince so there would potentially be less need for multi-story residential housing.

On the other hand this does involve an artificial limit on what families may decide to do in the future. Our volunteer engineer would point out that for an additional cost we could design homes that could better handle additional stories. But is cost the only issue here? I would say no. The NGOs that will be here for the long-term rebuilding effort will have to draw a line at some point in order to balance the (estimated) desires of one family versus the overall need for permanent housing solutions. It is a hard decision to make. There needs to be some government influence in this as well (i.e. building codes and zoning hopefully.) 

Would you spend more to give some families additional flexibility or spread the opportunity at simple, decent homes to some more families? Feel free to post your comments below.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Just Need a Cot to Sleep On

Usually I wake up whenever the generator gets cut on at our Petionville apartment but today the sun and about 80 other people getting up at the same time did the trick. Of course this was at about 5:45 in the morning. Today is my first full day working in Leogane.

The extent of damage in this community is fairly severe (approximately 90% of buildings here are destroyed or in need of repair) so coming upon accommodations is fairly tricky. So for the sake of comparison allow me to illustrate the difference in sleeping arrangements using the pictures above and below.

Really I just need a cot to sleep on and a mosquito net to avoid malaria (as well as lymphatic filariasis) so I'm glad that I was able to be hosted here for a few days by Hands On Disaster Response. I'm sure we'll be working on a bit more furnished accommodations down the road though.

P.S. You can probably tell that photography isn't one of my core skills.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Getting Your Hands Dirty

Volunteer demolisher with sledgehammer
I flew into Santo Domingo Saturday on my way back to Haiti and was picked up by one of our Dominican staff members. It being the weekend I asked him if there was any build work going on at any of the job sites. He told me that there wasn't and I quickly remembered the distinction in how our organization works in the US versus in other places around the world. Saturdays are our most active days for building back home in the States since that is when most of our volunteers are able to build. In developing countries (well, really in most countries in general) people are trained and employed to build our houses with a varying component of local and international volunteers coming in to chip in on an individual or group basis.

Volunteering is a great way to directly engage people in solving issues around the world, whether its digging wells in Africa, working in a field hospital in Myanmar, or cleaning up trash at a park in your own town. The concept seems to have its foundation based in Western/developed nation culture but other areas of the world identify with this concept of giving back to those who may need it most or working for the benefit of the greater good.I met a couple of guys a few weeks back who volunteered with an NGO in Gonaives and are now working with the same organization in Leogane now on a stipend based on the good work they did in 2008.

When disasters occur many people take this volunteering spirit to a whole new level. It reminds me of some commericals that used to come on TV for Pike Nurseries with this jingle focused on "playing in the dirt." Some people found it annoying as all heck but I think it was done well for the people they were trying to target. There's a big difference in hiring someone to plant a garden for you versus you doing the planting yourself and getting to feel rich dark earth between your fingertips. I think the same thing is true when it comes to helping communities after a disaster. Even if you can't literally be on the ground it does feel better to be working in a kitchen feeding volunteers or managing a warehouse rather than sitting at home and calling a nonprofit to donate $25 or $50 (maybe not 100% of the time, but you get my drift.)

That means there's a lot of frustration out there when organizations try to hold back the tide on volunteers rushing into to help after a disaster in Latin America, Asia, or Africa. In the case of Africa that tide may not be as high (unfortunately) but its true there as well. Whether its for security reasons, lack of infrastructure, or neutralizing the affected community's ability to tap into its own capacity to recover and rebuild we can say we need help meeting the needs of people but just bringing in more people may not be the right answer at the moment. It gets even more complicated when your organization has a history of bringing volunteers to a place and you suddenly have to restrict that to take new factors into consideration. From the volunteer's standpoint though these things sometimes aren't that clear (and can get even less clear depending on the media coverage.)

So where am I going with this? We have to find ways to help people "get their hands dirty" in other ways when it comes to certain disasters recovery efforts. This could be done by assembling teams to assemble distribution kits or taking in displaced families from the affected area on an interim basis. The NGO community needs to continue to work on these kinds of ideas because we have a bevy of ways (TV, websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) to let potential volunteers know what they can do to help in their own community. The volunteers need to consider this guidance well to avoid making mistakes that many NGOs have learned from decades of experience rather than go on their own.

Photo above courtesy of Inside Disaster  CC BY-NC 2.0

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Another Go Round

I'm making plans to head back to Haiti this weekend for a few more weeks. If you thought we'd forgotten about Haiti on this website be assured that it will continue to be a recurring subject.

At the same time though we see that there are other hazards are out there that steal our attention away from areas of need. Our friends in Oklahoma and Arkansas already know that tornado season has begun and this spring is expected to be an active one. FEMA and the states in the Upper Midwest are monitoring rainfall totals and river conditions to see which areas will get more than their fair share of floods. The interesting thing about these threats is that we should be able to anticipate them on an annual basis and be ready for them but not every family has this high on their priority list. Maybe if we had General Honoré visit every community along the Missisippi River Valley and give folks an old-fashioned but insightful talk on preparedness we could mitigate some of the risks but it'd just be  the beginning (by the way if you have a chance to hear him speak in person or see him on CNN every now & then I'd recommend you take advantage of it). 

A wise man once said its easier to fight fires than teach people how to prevent them. I'd add that its easier to show people fighting fires than it is to show what people are doing to prevent them.

Speaking of families, I know my household is not thrilled about another long-distance trip for me but this is all a part of what we do to make things better for others. I must say I feel a bit guilty at times knowing that there are people out there that would go at a drop of a hat to get their hands dirty helping others but its hard to give your kids and wife a hug through Skype (when you have internet access). I try to keep in mind the pictures that one of my colleagues showed me the last time I was in Haiti from the birthday party for his son that he missed to help me put this in perspective though.

I'll save the factual updates for another post - until then keep your eyes and ears open and we'll see you next time.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Blog post changed America

Today's post takes off on another article from the AJC - we'll chalk it up as a coincidence and not a trend. 

I decided to spend the extra time taking the train in to work today and finally read an article that I've kept putting off for a while since the headline intrigued me so much (of course you may have noticed on this site that I have low standards for headlines considering the ones I've used in the past.) This article was titled "Doraville subdivision changed America."

Wait for it....wait for must be wondering how a subdivision in Georgia could have changed America, right? (Ok, maybe I'm the only one.) Did someone invent some new type of cul-de-sac there? Maybe it led to a lawsuit or a major Supreme Court case. Anyway, I decided to read this article and I ended up a little disappointed. Why? Let's make a small list:
  1. So this subdivision (Northwoods) was the first large-scale planned development in Georgia. Alright - that's a notable claim despite the dubious honors that Atlanta has gotten from suburbs spreading like kudzu around here.
  2. Apparently some local & state officials are seeking to make this community a historic landmark because of its ranch houses and "a vision of what suburban community living could be."
Let me stop right there for a moment. I understand the importance of post-WWII residential development but once you give Levittown a historic designation shouldn't we have this category pretty much covered already? I'm sure this community is a very nice one but historic...not too certain about that. Yes, it would be good to capture the architectural elements that were used there and study how the community's social ties develop but where do we draw the line at historic? Looking at the official designation from the state's criteria (since there is a state list and a national list), I guess this community could be considered historic but I'm still not sure it sits well in my mind.

I say let's not hand out these historic designations like candy but if they want the sign let them have it (especially considering the ~30,000 national designations given out each year.) If I live in this area and want to modify my lovely little ranch house it would be a bit trickier with the requirements that come with the national designation though.

So those were my thoughts - if you have some let me know in the Comments section. Other than giving me some food for thought this morning one more positive benefit from this article is the introduction of a new tag category on the PlanMetro blog: Only in Georgia. I bet I'll get to use it a fair amount in the future.

P.S. Apparently the folks at the AJC realized there was a slight letdown from headline to content so they changed the title of the article to "Doraville subdivision preserves American turning point." Might have skipped over this one entirely if that was the headline I originally saw though. Thanks to the AJC for giving me a valuable and practical lesson in writing headlines.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Flood of Attention for the AJC

I've always been leery of accepting the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a big city newspaper worthy of the reputation that other big city newspapers get by default. My opinion may have been affected by comparing it to other news sources here like Creative Loafing or even from my birthplace. I think they've done a fair job of covering the Hawks (thanks to their recently departed beat writer Sekou) in recent years but a lot of times their news coverage in general just seemed to be lackluster (I might have hinted at this a few months back.)

Well today I'm going to give them credit where credit is due. If you've seen their recent articles looking back at the September floods and doing a little bit of investigative reporting then you know where I'm going with this. These articles highlight a connection that is at the heart of what this blog is meant to focus on: community planning (or lack thereof) and the effect of natural disasters on communities. In other words, bad planning turns troublesome hazards into serious disasters.

Actually, I think the AJC writers working this beat summed things up a bit better than I just did. They found that the Army Corps of Engineers told the community of Austell as early as 1964 that it was built in a bad place. In essence the local government itself has to accept some responsibility for being in situations like 100 and 500-year floods. I doubt anyone working for the city right now though was around back then for us to point the finger at them and remove from office.

Norfolk Southern at some point thought it was wise to place an intermodal yard in Austell even though their location was at "at the lower end of the 245 square mile drainage basin of Sweetwater Creek." Several government bodies tried to stop them from using this site but their attempts were in vain even though the railroad company built retention ponds to control runoff. We'll add go ahead and add Norfolk Southern to the blame list too.

Cobb County, the Atlanta Regional Commission, the State of Georgia, and even the federal government have their own piece of blame to take on to in this for not effectively regulating storm water runoff. We say that we want property owners to control their runoff but we let GDOT, the Department of Agriculture, the Postal Service, and the CDC off the hook for paying their fair share of impact fees.

Probably the worst part of this blame pile is that we place new homes in risky areas (especially ones for families that are probably first-time homebuyers) because we want new businesses, residences, and their tax dollars to come to our communities and we don't want to bother them with expensive fees and delays to cover all of our bases. Actually, the worst part of all this is that all of the entities I just mentioned (except for renters of course) will likely receive some sort of assistance from the federal government if there is a federal declared disaster in their area, which is exactly what happened in September for Cobb and 17 other counties in Georgia. Guess where those assistance dollars come from...your pocket.

So while we continue to hear about more recent disasters in the news its still important for us to look back and see how the people that are trying to move on after previous disasters are doing now and how we can avoid this happening in the future. I had a chance to see some of the areas around Austell affected by these floods and the evidence of the disaster was hidden by normal looking subdivision entrances despite the extent of the damage. Kudos to the AJC for spending time and energy on this (knowing that it isn't easy these days to justify staff time on old issues in the newspaper industry) and I hope that people in key places are learning this lesson, albeit the hard way.

If you're from Atlanta I'd like to hear what you think about this issue in the Comments section. If you're not from Atlanta I'd like to hear about this issue from your neck of the woods (I know this problem is bigger than just our region and state's delusional way of planning and enforcement.)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Quick Hits - Tuesday, March 2nd

It seems my most successful contributions the past few days have been of the 140 character variety rather than full posts. In that same spirit (but with a few extra characters) come take a stroll with me this morning around the World Wide Web (does anyone still use this phrase anymore?):

  • MARTA cuts to the bone: I knew it was really bad when they asked about cutting weekend service back a few hours in a survey to downtown commuters last week. By the time the state is ready to provide some level of funds (finally) there may not be much of a system left.
  • The White House Office of Urban Affairs has a website: Good to know, when they start making things happen let me know. The Initiatives list is pretty thin at this point.
  • Census ads are popping up: There was the Super Bowl one (I wondered what this was about, too much to think about with Super Bowl on) and this one I saw during a recent Hawks game. I even heard there were some ads with Rosario Dawson in them. I'd be interested to hear your opinions on what you think of all these but whether they're silly or not isn't that big a deal (the fact that I've spent more words talking about the Census then the other links tells me they're doing their job though.)
  • Chile: Sigh. Another big one this past weekend. We've talked about this before though: same hazard, different depth & strength, different resilience. I think this one diminishes the focus on Haiti in a number of ways, mainly that we now will probably have a good example of recovery and a choppy and demanding example over the next few years.
That's all for now, enjoy your Tuesday.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Blogging without Borders (Trivia Question)

As a result of the Haiti earthquake response I've found some interesting groups that seem to follow in the path of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). Today I'm testing out a new feature on this page by asking you the following trivia question below - I'll do my usual type of post later on today. Go ahead and see if you can guess the right answer (without using Google...)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Never Settle for an Email

We live and work in a world today that is increasingly reliant on a wide assortment of communication tools to talk to each other. We can email someone, chat with them on Skype/Messenger/Gmail Chat/etc., Tweet someone, send a text message, or call them on a variety of devices. Some people even use a more primitive form of communication known as a face-to-face conversation. All of these communication methods present opportunities to catch someone at the right time or miss them completely in the shuffle of dealing with all of the avenues I've just mentioned. The question is which one do you use if you need to get something done quickly.

It's fairly easy to default to email as Option #1. You have a record that you actually talked to someone, you can get notification that it was received by the other party, you don't have to worry about a character limit and you can access it on a number of devices. What you lose with emails is personality and tone (despite the fact that you can throw in a variety of colorful language and exclamation points when you want to.)

Emails aren't always the best option though. In some cases you are at a disadvantage if you get someone's email address and expect to get an answer back to you in minutes or hours. That's why my motto is Never Settle for an Email (ok, if I had a motto this would be it.) Let me give you a recent example.

My organization is expecting some large shipments of shelter kits to arrive in Haiti next week to go to families in need of solutions beyond bedsheets and trees that would not last through a Wisconsin winter. We have limited warehouse space in Port-au-Prince and we've decided that it would be ideal to work through other NGOs on distribution since its not our core compentency. Regardless of who distributes them they are needed by Haitians ASAP. Our goal was to secure agreements to distribute our kits in a number of communities in a way that would allow us to minimize the need for our warehouse space in the short-term.

After doing some assessment in one community we found a few groups that we thought could accomplish this task last Friday. I talked to one international organization that same day in person and sent a follow up email over the weekend with more details. I called a second organization and after not getting through to their field contact I sent an email with the information I wanted to share with them.  I attempted to follow up with both groups on Monday but still did not reach the second group by Wednesday. Luckily I received an email from our department head that mentioned that some senior folks from our end had talked to senior folks from the organization that had not gotten back to me and made a tentative agreement for us to work together. I now had my new route of access.

I sent a second email to this organization on Wednesday and dropped some of the names mentioned in the email I received earlier. This got me a reply back that night with 2 contact emails and phone numbers and one of those people called me back the following morning.

Getting back to my point - the lesson here is one email address is not enough if its really important and needs a reaction quickly. There are caveats to this since you have to judge how far you can go depending on your previous knowledge of the recipient and knowing when to push hard and when to ease up. I know my example involved other emails (and phone is better than that if you can't get a face-to-face) but again one email is not enough.

Photo courtesy of Mark Manalaysay via Stockvault.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Haiti Earthquake Slideshow

I wanted to take a moment this morning to share something that was shown to me yesterday since it is very good work in my opinion dealing with the one month anniversary of the Jan 12 earthquake in Haiti. A colleague of mine (Ezra Millstein) spent some time taking these shots and providing some good narration in the background.

So, without further ado here's a presentation from a real pro: Haiti Earthquake Slideshow. It's a little less than 5 minutes long.

Ezra has some really good shots from his other work around the world that might interest you on his website ( I'm a bit jealous at how much more sophisticated it is over my little Blogger site here but its to be expected - he's been at this for a good little while. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Going A Bit Beyond Google Maps

Some of us like to have things explained to us verbally while others like to glean new information in print or images. We can debate over how many prefer one method over another but to save time we'll start from that point. I like to think I can go both ways but I must say I have a special fondness for the right visual spin on a topic.

I grew up having 2 parents that worked in graphic design. This did not make me an artist or even someone with one iota of visual talent. What it did do is give me an appreciation for good design and bad design. In college this appreciation evolved to the point that I had a good deal of interest in GIS and maps (not the Calvin and Hobbes kind but ones that had a practical application.) I've always wanted to do a good bit of GIS and map work but I haven't really had a chance to dabble in it (outside of a upper-level elective in college) until recently when I came down a few weeks ago to work in Haiti.

I know there are some purists out there that would say that Google Earth isn't a robust GIS tool but its pretty darn good enough for me. I'm still learning how to use it but I thought I'd share some interesting maps I've recently come across just to showcase an interest of mine:

OpenStreetMap Haiti (currently using this on our GPS in the field)
UNOSAT Map of Comprehensive Building Damage Assessment for Carrefour (low-res version but will still take a little while to open)

Last but not least the following site offers up some interesting maps in general: Strange Maps.

Photo courtesy of Emile Ogez via Flickr.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Climbing Mountains

I’ve noticed that I always end up with issues if I’m away from home for awhile. Today’s issues are an upset stomach from a great cookout last night at the local project management team’s place here in Montagne Noire and a persistent leak from my bathroom’s toilet which has slowly crept in other people’s sleeping areas. In essence my living situation has started to evolve into The Real World: Haiti. I should have been wary of choosing the room with the great view.

We spent a good deal of time on Monday going over the growth and structure of the new organization chart for the local program and what it means for the current staff and future staff that may come from around the world as well as from Haiti. From my point of view there was nothing shocking or surprising with the new model – I was just surprised to see my name on it. I think the local staff here are still a bit unsure on how this will all play out (which I totally understand) but I hope that over time the outsiders will be eased out and their responsibilities will be passed on to Haitians currently living here or abroad so that they have a full opportunity to be a part of the efforts to rebuild their country. Hopefully this rebuilding will not be like others but it will be a steep climb for all of us. As for me I believe that my role here is on an interim basis but I hope to get some clarity on it soon. I joked with one person after our meeting and told him that if I were to move down here I would need one ticket instead of three (meaning my wife would be more likely to move to Hanover than Haiti.)

Other updates: I was successful in watching the game here on Sunday, my streak of breaking cameras seems to have continued, and I found out Sprint would be happy to give me free wireless calls from Haiti if I owned one of 4 phones they support on their network that will work down here (which I don’t own now.)  

Pwochèn jouk tan…orevwa.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Is it Saturday?

There are no days off after a disaster if you're working on the ground. The only way I would know its Saturday is the lag time in hearing back from folks via email or phone call that normally doesn't happen during the workweek. Today is a good day for me to catch up on messages that came to me while I spend most of the day out in Cabaret.

Cabaret sits about 20 miles north of Port-au-Prince and was originally built as a testament to the will of the Duvalier regime here in Haiti (some maps still show it as Duvalierville - not a good thing for them due to the issues around the last Duvalier in power here.) This community was still reeling from flooding after multiple storms in 2008 when the earthquake hit and damaged more than 9000 homes there. We had a chance to see some of the homes we built there and only some of them sustained damage. All but a few of those were repairable.


We met with the local CCPC (civil protection committee) and talked about how we could help there by providing structural engineers (and other engineers that had been properly trained) that could go through homes and tell families whether or not their home was safe to stay in and what kinds of repairs they would need. This would help address the many tents that we saw sitting outside of homes in perfect condition after earthquake. We would also later work on building about 400 transitional homes there.


On the way back from Cabaret we hit a massive traffic jam near the airport in the early evening. Despite the traffic we had a chance to joke around with some of the UN, US military, other NGOs, and doctors passing by us since there wasn't much we could do about the cars in front of us. Lesson learned: try to avoid bringing stuff into Port-au-Prince on Friday.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Turning Down the Pressure

It seems like its been a long time since I've written in this space but a lot has happened since my last posting (obviously). I am now sitting in an apartment in Pétionville, just to the east of Port-au-Prince, trying to catch up on things back home as well as evening messages for work.

The irony I noted earlier via Twitter (or an earlier post here) is that I don't necessarily spend time keeping up with some of the news coming out of Haiti and would only know it if I happened to catch it while looking for something else on the Internet or overheard it. I've talked and wrote back to a lot of people that have more language and cultural expertise that could be put t use here that I need to prove myself worthy of the opportunity to be a part of the solution. Maybe I'm just kidding myself though.

It is stunning to see so many people sleeping out on the street here not knowing if there house is safe enough to stay in at night or because they just don't have a house any more. Many people fear that there will be more quakes soon and they could be right on the money with that prediction. I've been working with others here on a big push to get engineers organized to at least be able to give families some sort of assurance on their home so they know what they're dealing with. We hope to bring local and international engineers together soon to start this. That should help lift some of the burden on the caregivers until the rains start.

I've only been to one cluster meeting so far but it seems like the UN cluster system has some distinct advantages over the way we do things in the states. I think one of the good things that can come out of this event is the exposure of the international response arena to our friends in federal government.

I think I'll stop there for now and try to bring you some interesting maps next time. Orevwa.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

15 Days in Haiti

I've been getting the usual questions from folks that I know ever since the earthquake happened in Haiti. Are you going down there? Are you working on it? I can usually answer these pretty quickly (#1 -No and #2 - Yes). I have only been on one international trip since I began working in this field (India) and that was right after I moved over to the team exclusively handling disaster response in our organization. I've never shied away from accepting overseas assignments (whether its support or ground work) but I have tried to specialize in domestic work since there was so much potential for our group in doing more in that arena. The rest of my group focuses primarily on international response work so I've been able to wear both hats from time to time.

On Thursday I was asked to make my second trip outside the US. It will be quite different than my trip to India - I have no doubt of that. I was given some latitude to check with my wife before committing to it and I definitely appreciated that since my wife isn't too fond of my extended travels. I know the next few days will be hard for her but I have complete trust in her support and ability to watch our 2 little grown folks while I'm gone.

My assignment on the ground will be working on the logistics side of the response, in particular the transport and distribution of shelter items. I won't be going in alone on this and my involvement in some of the early planning on the stateside piece is helpful as well. Originally this task was going to go to someone else but visa issues have held him up and I'm coming in as a short-term solution. Better to be option B than option D I say.

So what does this mean for this space in the next few weeks? Hard to say. I'd like to think that I can find some time to post daily updates in this space but I expect to be working longer hours (this always seems to happen wherever I travel for work) with limited internet access from time to time. I'm leery of turning this site into a diary of sorts as well (although it can come close to that from time to time depending on the topic I'm dealing with.) Twitter seems like an easier venue for me to deal with right now...but I'm willing to sacrifice a little bit of my sleep and sanity to keep this space current too. My final verdict would be to encourage you to subscribe to the RSS feed for this site and see what happens. I also hope my 2 or 3 regular readers (if I believe the site statistics) will continue to stop by and hit me with a comment or email...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Haiti Earthquake: Crunching the Numbers

Today is Tuesday, January 25th, 14 days after the 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti and sparked a massive disruption in the lives of Haitians in their home nation and abroad. Let's look at few moments to take a look at some of the numbers so far:
The stories and commentary behind these numbers are more important than the numbers themselves when it comes to finding long-term solutions to Haiti's problems. As events continue to unfold in Haiti it will be interesting to see just how well the government of Haiti, the UN and foreign governments can work together to bring security and aid to the affected communities. Hopefully the ongoing recovery efforts will continue to be covered as vigorously as the first 2 weeks were following the disaster. That being said, there hasn't been much in the news lately about the last tsunami we've seen in the news or the last major earthquake (although to its credit Indonesia has a bit more awareness and resilience for this type of threat.)

Photo courtesy of du.schultz via Flickr.

Note: Looks like CNN was in a number crunching mood today as well - I guess that's to be expected as we hit the 2 week mark.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Movin' on Down to the East Side

It's a bit of a challenge these days for me to find time to keep up with general news circulating around the Internet but I have noticed some references to a new report released by the Brookings Institute that I think are worthwhile noting here. We'll take a break from the Haiti earthquake coverage here for a moment and spend some time on this topic.

"The Suburbanization of Poverty: Trends in Metropolitan America, 2000 to 2008" highlights trends that  I hope a lot of folks (community development professionals, social service providers, planners, politicians, etc.) have already had a suspicion of or are paying attention to today. If 1/3 of all poor people in the United States live in the suburbs of large metro areas as this report indicates then we need to make sure that our fellow citizens that fall in this category have sufficient access to the things they need to help them break the poverty cycle regardless of where they live. That means they need low-cost but extensive transportation networks, multiple health care facility options, and access to jobs that pay decent wages. I can't help but think that one of a number of factors at play in these shifting trends was the large availability of affordable housing in the suburbs that the nation cranked out in the '90's.

One of the authors of the report (Elizabeth Kneebone) had this to say in regards to how the current recession has affected these trends:

The first year of the recession has already translated into significant poverty increases nationally, with suburbs once again showing the fastest growth rate in the number of poor. Looking at the unemployment numbers for 2009, we can expect even greater poverty increases to materialize in metro areas across the board. We have also seen unemployment grow at a faster pace in suburbs than cities over this time period, and more suburbanized industries—like real estate, retail, construction, and manufacturing—have borne some of the greatest job losses during the downturn. Taken together, these factors suggest that the trend of suburbanizing poverty is likely only to continue, if not accelerate, in coming years.

Other folks have put forth some good observation on this research so I will stop here for now and recommend that you check out their sage commentary:

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Leadership in a Crisis (plus other Crises just for kicks)

After an extended weekend bogged down with a pesky stomach bug, work carried over from a hectic workweek, and the usual weekend activities it seemed natural for me to spend a bit of time today talking about leadership in a crisis. Especially since some people had a much harder weekend than I did. As a side note I did find out why Twitter is referred to as a microblogging site - you had a better shot of hearing from me via that venue then on this one the last few days.

Why leadership in a crisis? I believe anyone can be a leader at some point in their lives (Caveat: I don't write books on leadership so give me a break for a little while as I get going on this one.) but its the rare group of individuals that can do so in a crisis. Even fewer can do so "successfully" in a crisis. I spent a good bit of my college years in the Army Reserves and ROTC so I've always had an appreciation for the way the military approaches this concept and I believe the American public in general has confirmed that over the history of our country. Leaders can be taught and trained to be better leaders but it still takes something extra to do it well when the bullets start flying at you (literally and figuratively speaking.)

Today President Barack Obama has a whole lot of crises circling "Chocolate City" (no offense intended - just wanted to pull off a semi-relevant reference to "Talk to Me", the Bootsy Collins "Unsung" episode, and the Obama/MLK Day interview in a 24 hour span on TVOne). Let's rattle off just a few:
  1. Health care/Social Security reform
  2. Iraq/Afganhistan/Where in the World is Osama bin Laden
  3. The Recession (with a capital R)
  4. ...and now we've added Haiti.

Could we handle those crises if we were in those shoes? It's easy for us to play Monday Morning Quarterback with our favorite sports teams but when lives are at stake its much harder to look ourselves in the mirror and say we can do better. If I'm right very few could do so and be honest with themselves. The closest some of us will come is to be in a position similar to this exercise I wrote about in an earlier post.

My point here is not to defend the actions that the US government is taking in Haiti this point - they've done some good things and not so good things so far and they'll probably do more of the same over the next few weeks. My point is that at least we are in a position to ask and hold our leaders accountable for this crisis (while other crises eat up some of our time and energy) - imagine what it would be like if we didn't have any decent candidates to fill those shoes?

Let me know what you think in the Comments section. Also, if you haven't done so and are able please do what you can to support Haiti. You can go here to donate to one of the groups you favor most or click on the earthquake response banner that's now up on the right side of the blog.

Image courtesy of US Navy

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Working in the Dark

It's a bit of a challenge to hear from someone in a place with no working cell phones, Internet, or power. I think its hard for most of us to imagine what that's like in this day and age. If we were to add to that situation the extreme distress of over 3 million people we might be a bit closer to understanding the experience of being on the ground in Haiti right now. We can't know for certain until we're in that situation no matter how vivid an account you get from someone first-hand.

My organization is still wrestling with basic issues. Is all of our local staff okay? As far as we know yes, but we haven't heard from all of them directly. Can we get around to do an assessment? Yes, but who knows when we will reach a point on the road we'll have to turn around. At the headquarters level two of our most important tools at this stage are Twitter and Skype. Satellite phones are great until everyone tries to use them to coordinate primetime television coverage in the field for US audiences.

Everyone wants to help. I mean everyone. I don't know if they've had a chance to check out Wikipedia before but Haiti was not the kind of place I'd send any type of volunteer on Monday nor on Tuesday. A lot of our time was spent today showing people how to help - not a bad way to spend time but something that can be managed easier with the right messaging. We shine a bit of light on a dark situation.

You also hear stories as the day goes on. One aid worker who comes back to whose home community only to find several family members have passed away. A mid-air collision of VIP transport just narrowly adverted while other planes taxi in the air for hours trying to land in Port-au-Prince. The stories remind you that everyone is coming into this with a few knowns and a lot of unknowns - just hoping for a little light to be shed in the right spots.

Image above courtesy of Associated Press via New York Times.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Long Day's Night

It has been a long day. Even when you know it will be a long day its hard to over come it in your mind. My day started out with the normal routine of getting my daughter to school followed by a very brief check-in at the office to make sure I wasn't needed urgently after Tuesday evening's earthquake. I then proceeded to a scheduled meeting at the FEMA field office just north ofdowntown for the morning.

The morning meeting was primarily aimed at providing a wider audience of folks an overview of the state's Disaster Housing Task Force, which had been activated rapidly last fall after the flooding here in the Atlanta area in September. It was interesting to note the following observation from one participant (paraphrased):

In some ways we are more prepared for catastrophic disasters and how to work with our local/state/federal counterparts than the smaller disasters like an EF-3 tornado that wipes out 12 homes in a rural county. The tornado won't trigger a federal declaration (and activate federal resources) but it can be more challenging for the locals to recover from and for the state to support.

Had to agree with that observation based on my experiences to date.

The rest of the day saw me wearing my international hat rather than my domestic hat in terms of work. Situations like the one currently going on in Haiti produce a chain reaction of rapid-fire crises and decisions to be made in order for voluntary organizations to develop their plans to be a part of the post-disaster solution. I must admit there is a certain rush that comes from this work and knowing that you are going to be a part of the solution for thousands of people struggling after such a cataclysmic event but it also brings more stress and frustration with it. We try our best to do what we can given the circumstances. As a group we've spent a good bit of time just making sure our local staff is okay and safe as well as planning how to get "feet on the ground." I was specifically assigned the task of investigating our potential for generating Gift In Kind for a potential response as well as connecting with a few of our key partners. My boss came into the office this morning but will hopefully spend this evening in Santo Domingo and cross the border into Haiti tomorrow afternoon to start the assessment process.

I'm going to try to use this space to give you (the reader) a brief glimpse into the details of the work that gets done behind the scenes with a nonprofit/NGO that is gearing up for major work after a disaster over the next few days. By now you will see a lot of coverage on the general situation from thousands of media outlets (traditional and social) so there's not much point in me duplicating those efforts.

I will point out that Haiti was a hard place to send volunteers before Tuesday and it is even more so now so the best way for people to help in Haiti is to make donations to the cause they feel best suits their intent in these early days (there is a reason why the UN has decided to make Haiti one of the 13 places around the world with a semi-permanent peacekeeping mission.) If you want to make a donation (no matter how small or large) you should check out the InterAction list of agencies for the Haiti response.

Image above courtesy of Getty Images via CNN.

A Tale of Two Earthquakes

As I write this it is fairly early on a Wednesday morning. I didn't plan on posting articles in the middle of the night when I started this blog but I find its best to be productive when your brain won't turn off at 2:47 in the morning.

Unless you've been extremely busy and detached from all sources of news and information for the past several hours you have probably heard about Tuesday evening's earthquake near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The situation there as we can best tell at this point is deadly serious. It was interesting to see the Larry King Show last night feature both a management disaster (Conan vs Leno) and a natural disaster and it was quite easy to guess who would be on Anderson Cooper's show immediately thereafter. There are lots of pictures showing the destruction caused by this quake floating around the Internet from the last hour or so of daylight on Tuesday. I won't post them here but you can check some of them out by visiting PicFog.

As we wait to hear more about the situation later on today I think its interesting to note that only 3 days prior to the Haiti earthquake we were looking at news from Northern California regarding the 6.5 earthquake there. The relative difference in Richter scale (6.5 versus 7.0) and distance from the surface (18.2 versus 6.2 miles) is of little use in comparing the two earthquakes. What we're looking at here is the huge distinction between communities that have been mandated to be resilient and have the resources to properly prepare and mitigate this type of risk and communities that have had little to no chance to build up any resiliency at all (especially after being hit by 4 tropical storms in 2008.) Today we find that Eureka, CA (about 29 miles away from the CA quake epicenter) is cleaning up its town with no injuries from the weekend's event. We know that is far from the case Haiti will be in as the UN and the national government hope to account for all of their people, let alone maintain operations, as daylight arrives on the island country.

If you've been to this site before you may have noticed that the posting schedule has been pretty regular (Mon/Wed/Fri) up until this point. That schedule has gone out the window at this point so look for updates from me before and after work for awhile. Thanks again for stopping by.

Monday, January 11, 2010

RSS Anonymous

I think I'm starting to develop an addiction to RSS feeds.

It was a very casual habit at first. I noticed the little orange logo at the end of certain web addresses one day and decided to find out what it meant. I figured out how to subscribe to a few random things that I checked from time to time (craigslist seaches for Mac items, new articles from the newspaper, new posts in my hometown team's fan board...) in the FireFox menu bar. It was simple, it was easy...and they just kept coming in.

More and more sites started to add RSS capability. Then my employer rolled out SharePoint to all of the departments and I found I could keep up with documents related to my work just by adding the feeds in Outlook. I would read everything...and then go find more things to subscribe to.

Things accelerated when a friend of mine recommended I try using Google Reader last year (thanks Brian). I started off with a few subscriptions here and there but when I didn't see any new updates coming in for an hour or two I went after my subscriptions. "Surely, there must be something going on that I need to scan in 3 seconds or less," I'd say to myself as I went feed hunting.

I looked at my statistics in Google Reader a month ago and was shocked to see 80+ subscriptions in there. "What? That can't be right." I cut loose a few that only produced updates every 4 or 5 days, then added a few more that updated 4-5 times a day. Looking at my stats today (Sunday) is a bit more disturbing than it was at the end of last year. It's time for me to take the first step. 

Here are some numbers:

  • Subscriptions: 106
  • Items read: 14,045
  • Frequently updated subscriptions: 1) Articles - 67.3/day 2) eRepublik military events widget - 58.1/day 3) craigslist atlanta/church search - 49.7/day 4) Top Stories from Newser - 49.4/day 5) Metro news (AJC) - 24.0/day

My name is Giovanni, and I'm addicted to RSS feeds.

Hey, I know I'm not the only one. You can tell me about your RSS problems in the Comments section. I should also point out that RSS is a really great tool to use in the same fashion as Twitter. Both can sometimes be too much of a good thing though...

Special thanks to Matthew Inman for the RSS graphics. You can check out his site at (I need to get me one of those short urls one day...)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Tunnel Vision

On Wednesday our city paper had an interesting article about a proposed tunnel under east Atlanta. My first reaction upon reading it: Typical, just typical.

This wasn't the first time I had heard of this idea. Or the second. AJC writer Jim Wooten thinks it’s a "cracker-jack idea". I disagree - let me count the ways:

  1. This is another way to direct funds away from public transportation (i.e. MARTA, GRTA, the Beltline) that could handle higher loads of traffic in a more efficient way than building even more highway miles.
  2. This is a band-aid idea (and an expensive one at that) for our current growth woes. (We should not have allowed such rampant growth to tax our infrastructure in the first place, but hindsight is 20/20.)
  3. I'm sure the folks in charge here are smart people. But they do know that cars produce carbon monoxide, right? Where is that going to come out of the ground? Are there going to be vents near the Carter Center and Grant Park?
  4. Can someone name me any "successful" tunnel projects in the US over the past few decades? By successful I mean completed relatively close to budget and on schedule. I can do the opposite easily - Boston and Seattle would start off the list.
  5. Do we really want to run more highways through established neighborhoods (under or over ground)? The Downtown Connector pretty much killed the thriving black communities it went through in the 50's.
Flower Sample
Proposed tunnel (courtesy of GADOT)

I could go on but let's talk a bit about what lies beneath the surface of this proposal.

This is just typical "Atlanta versus Georgia" politics at play. There's a reason why our state legislators have let any community leave the city of Atlanta (Dunwoody, Milton, Alpharetta, Sandy Springs….) and sided with the suburbs over the city on almost every political issue for decades (its not just a race thing either.) If the state could get a new capital building in Milledgeville for free I'm sure most of them would be happy to avoid Braves traffic in the summer. Surely they know they'll get a big fight on this from the neighborhoods this tunnel would go under or the connecting toll road would go through - history will repeat itself for the most part.

I suspect the official stance from the DOT and the Atlanta Regional Commission will remain the same on this until they can find the right amount of funds (and I'm sure private interests will give it to them for the chance to make billions off of metro residents in tolls) despite new leadership coming in for the city and the state in the near future. Hopefully this idea ends up being as successful as the Northern Arc (I'm sure the DOT still flinches whenever someone brings that political bomb up.) 

I'll bring more updates on this project in future posts - its just too fascinating a story for me not to say something about it in this venue. Let me know what you think in the Comments section. (Don't worry, I won't blast you for liking the project, just some healthy debate. We all know the problem is a tricky one to solve.)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

In the beginning…there was SimCity

As a kid I had no idea what urban planning was. I liked cities, I liked real estate (courtesy of my summer vacations helping my grandfather with his rental properties in Milwaukee), and I figured there was some future in both of these interests for me. I also liked building things with Legos - had no idea that could be a career option (If I had a time machine…). At some level I understood that certain places had a better "feel" to them than others due to someone saying, "Let's not stick these kinds of buildings near this landfill/cemetary/airport/etc." I understood that Milwaukee was a city that had been shaped differently than Atlanta for various reasons.

SimCity didn't make me a real estate tycoon or a urban planning expert but it did open my eyes to a certain extent on how communities can be shaped and built. I remember playing it on my first Mac and at school and spending hours trying to build big cities. According to Wikipedia the game first came out in '89 but I don't think I saw it until I was 8 or 9 ('90). Like any simulation game it had its loopholes and flaws but I was always curious to see how I could Test the limits of a city's infrastructure or build a place where businesses and residences worked together happily. If I made a mistake I could always send in Godzilla In to finish off the inhabitants. Of course, I was really doing more than just city planning - I was really acting as a city administrator with total control over zoning and budgeting.

I did graduate to other Sim products like SimEarth, SimTower and the updates to SimCity (SimCity 2000 & SimCity 4) but after awhile I noticed that these simulations Started to lose some of the essence that made me such a big fan of the original. I could barely get SimCity 4 to run on my PowerMac Performa with all of the graphic details and would sneak on to my parents' computers in their home office to try using theirs. By the time the Sims rolled around I had lost a good bit of interest in the games. My appreciation for being in the shoes of the people making plans for cities and suburbs never waned. I like to think that the original SimCity compares to the Sims in the same way that you would compare Miles Davis to Kenny G (no disrespect to you Kenny!).

The other day I noticed that I could download SimCity onto our new Nintendo Wii and I've also found out the game is available for the BlackBerry and the iPhone. It's Not Tetris but I'm sure tons of money has been made off of the franchise. One day I may get a little nostalgic, perhaps in the summer, and crack open the game again.

Do you have want to reminisce or talk about your SimCity experiences? Just leave me a note in the Comments section. If reading this post makes you want to play again hold on to your wallet -  you can go here or here and get the old version for free. Another cool link is this Wikibook on SimCity and Urban Planning. Enjoy!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Decisions for Recovery: How would you implement a response program?

A co-worker shared the following website link with me a few weeks ago and I decided to check it out on the morning of New Year's Eve while catching up on some loose ends for the year:

It's a high quality interactive quiz that was put together by the British Red Cross to show real-life problems that are faced by humanitarian aid agencies as the implement a disaster response program and give you a very general idea of why they made some of the decisions they made in their work. I can't say I agreed with every "right" or high value answer for each of the questions that were posed but there's a reason that there are so many organizations and agencies out there that seek to help disaster affected communities. As an example, one question asks you where to obtain timber for rebuilding homes (locally or importing) and it seems logical to me to use local materials relative to the type and design of homes normally built in the community. Local materials may not be plentiful right away but could easily be used in the future if the family is adding onto a simple "core house" to make it more liveable for an extended family.

I'd encourage you to give it a try and come back here and let me know what you thought of the quiz.

Special thanks to the British Red Cross for allowing me to link to their site and share the image above. You can visit their blog at