Archive for January, 2010

Disaster-readiness in urban areas

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

For Burners, preparing to go to Burning Man is a good exercise for disaster-readiness. People test their outdoor shelters, plan and purchase enough water and food supplies for a week or so, assemble first-aid kits, pack extra batteries, and ready their flashlights, hand-crank radios, solar-powered lanterns, and generators. They also check through their toolkits (sledge-hammer, swiss armyknife/leatherman, duct tape, GPS, etc.) and stock up on dustmasks and ear and eye protection. People prepare fun gadgets, too, like a bicycle-powered blender, and learn new skills, such as building temporary shelters or putting together machinery.

Sociologist Lee Clarke, who specializes in understanding disaster preparation, notes that your chances of surviving a major disaster are increased if you can pool efforts and resources with your neighbors and colleagues. Another sociologist Chick Perrow argues that given the complex and tightly coupled nature of modern systems, normal accidents, such as a nuclear plant meltdown or major transportation snafus are bound to happen. Given that we are likely to encounter a major disaster during our lifetime, I tell my students to look to their classmates on their left and to their right – most likely, if and when something bad happens, they will have to depend on each other, as governmental agencies and relief organizations may not reach them immediately. Recent natural disasters such as Haiti’s earthquake and Hurricane Katrina should remind us that help, if it arrives, may be days or even weeks away. Preparing what we usually take for granted – shelter, food and water, and communication – can increase the chances of survival.

We should also consider how socio-economic inequalities can increase vulnerabilities to disasters. For example, we can construct homes and buildings that can withstand the elements, set up access to drinkable water and regular health care, maintain multiple transportation routes, and reduce social isolation and enhance participation opportunities so that people can collaborate. Such measures ensure that people not only have a fighting chance during disasters, but that they also have a better quality of life as individuals and as a community.

The Great Metropolis face-off, Big Apple vs. Burning Man, round 3: cacophony

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Living in New York City can be tough on one’s hearing. According to a group that measured the noise levels of several public places, the loudest areas include transportation hubs, busy streets, and even small parks surrounded by busy streets. Compounded by all of the new construction and outdoor repair work, it’s likely that pedestrians will pass through a gauntlet of ear-splitting noises. Parents shield their toddler’s ears as a screaming fire truck passes, and subway riders pull out ear plugs or crank up their music during especially noisy commutes.

While Black Rock City doesn’t have the constant cacophony of sirens and large vehicles that afflict a permanent metropolis, it does have its share of noise. Last year, I regularly woke up to the music of a group singing at the near-by Jazz Cafe. During the daytime, I heard the murmur of chatter, punctuated by the occasional rousing cheer, from the adjoining theme camp, a watering hole for passers-by. One night, I passed by an elegant recitation of a Shakespearean sonnet, which earned the earnest gentleman an enthusiastic double hug from the Hug Deli. However, I never had to listen to inane, one-sided cell phone conversations (remember when cell phone usage became popular and cities became populated by people who seemed like they were talking to themselves?).

For years, noise from large sound systems and generators caused contention between those who wanted to sleep and those who wanted to spin or dance all night. Burning Man organizers eventually resolved these issues by locating sound camps along the edges of the city and designating a generator-free zone.

Tips for protecting hearing: carry around at least one set of earplugs for yourself, plus more earplugs to share with friends. Toddlers and babies can wear earmuffs.

Enjoyable noise: Big Apple: 0, Burning Man: 1.