Building Resilience by Learning from Past Disasters


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Kanmani Venkateswaran (ISET)

Given the severity of the recent floods in Boulder, current conversation at the city and county levels is centered on flood mitigation. However, Boulder is subject to multiple climate hazards, including droughts, winds, and severe snow storms[1]. This broad spectrum of hazards has always been addressed in disaster planning and continues to be discussed post-flood, particularly by those thinking about broader resiliency.

A recent and particularly severe disaster was the Fourmile Fire in 2010. Between September 6 and September 16, the fire burned 6,200 acres of land and destroyed 169 homes[2] in the foothills above the city. After the fire, disaster mitigation and recovery policies and processes, particularly the Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan, were reviewed by the Office of Emergency Management[3] (OEM). Floods were an important part of these discussions; loss of vegetation in a burn area greatly exacerbates the chances of erosion, landslide, and flash flooding in the event of heavy rains.


Fourmile Fire in the Foothills of Boulder on September 2010. (Photo: Bo Insogna)

pic2Following the Fourmile Fire, a group of mountain community leaders came together and formed the Inter Mountain Alliance (IMA) as a platform to discuss the lessons learned, promote wildfire mitigation among residents, and encourage public participation in improving local disaster plans[4]. The following lessons learned were incorporated into the response and recovery process for the recent floods.

Lesson 1 – Spend time listening to communities to figure out what their needs are. In more traditional models of response and recovery, the needs of affected communities are assumed. After the fire, Boulder County staff spent time speaking to each community to determine what their needs were. Based on this experience, after the floods County staff and the Boulder County Long-Term Flood Recovery Group took the time to meet with community leaders to identify needs and how existing policies could be changed to meet needs.

Lesson 2 – Provide a single point of contact for those affected by disasters. In the aftermath of disasters, affected people need access to information and services that are provided by different departments. After the fire, Boulder County set up a Disaster Assistance Center within days as a one-stop shop for information. When the floods hit, this experience allowed City and County staff to set up flood Disaster Assistance Centers quickly, drawing in local non-profit organizations and FEMA – FEMA normally has to set these centers up on their own. The City of Boulder and Boulder County’s cooperation in this initiative has helped make these centers highly successful. Similar centers were set-up recently to help people with issues surrounding longer-term disaster recovery.

Lesson 3 – Form good relationships across departments, with police, sheriff, and local municipalities. Collaboration and partnerships are vital during disaster response and recovery as they build trust, promote learning and mainstream action. After the Fourmile Fire, the Office of Emergency Management and Boulder County realized that the 23 fire districts were too disparate and therefore worked to establish and solidify relationships with and between the fire districts. These districts worked together to produce a flood plan and have met regularly since to update it. Their collaboration during the floods, primarily search and rescue missions in the mountains, made overall flood response much more effective.


Fourmile Canyon fire crew practicing a rescue mission during a flood training exercise. (Photo: Jeremy Papasso/Daily Camera)

Another salient collaboration is that of the IMA with Boulder County Amateur Radio Emergency Services (BCARES),, and the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) ,, to create the Mountain Emergency Radio Network (M.E.R.N), M.E.R.N. is an amateur radio service that can be used to communicate with mountain residents during emergencies. Their partnership, alongside the Office of Emergency Management’s partnership with the National Weather Service, allowed for streamlined and rapid dissemination of early warning and safety information to mountain communities. Rumors and confusion were minimized.

Lesson 4 – Encourage innovation. The reverse-911 emergency phone-call system in use at the time of the Fourmile Fire was only able to send out messages in concentric circles. This was not appropriate given the geography of the mountain communities, which are laid out along canyons. After the Fourmile Fire, IMA, M.E.R.N. and the Office of Emergency Management worked together to adapt the 911 emergency phone-call system to the unique terrain of the canyons.

What is evident here is that disaster response and recovery systems that were implemented as a result of the Fourmile Fire were highly beneficial during the floods, and are likely to be beneficial in the event of future disasters, whether they are natural, social, or technological. Building resilience is not about adapting to floods or fires specifically; it is about adapting to hazards, change, and variability in general. Key to resilience is the ability to learn, so that communities do not repeat mistakes, but instead build back better each time.



1st Picture: Fourmile Fire in the Foothills of Boulder on September 2010. (Photo:Bo Insogna)  8yXAk2-8yXD6F-8z7ZZc-8z1LTW-8z1KL1-8yXBwH-8z1LwC-8z1L7b-8yXEFM-8z1Ln9-8yXB5D-8yXC2c-8yXDzc-8z1Gw5-8yRD8b-8z1U5p-8BnnTX-8BqobJ-8BqomE-8z4n2i-8BngA4-8Bqo2A-8BngvT-8Bqo7w-8z4iR4-8Bbbc9-8z8eP3-8AfZtC-8zsnse-8yN17U-8z4j6P-acpATb-8z1q7s-8yXeXz-8zimWk-8zijBx-8zmvf9

2nd Picture:

3rd Picture: Fourmile Canyon fire crew practicing a rescue mission during a flood training exercise. (Photo: Jeremy Papasso/Daily Camera)

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Floods in Boulder: A Study of Resilience


Floods in Boulder: A Study of Resilience
Link to Study:

We are pleased to share our most recent publication Floods in Boulder: A Study of Resilience. The focus of this study is our hometown Boulder, Colorado. This case study provides concrete examples of what makes a city “resilient” through the analysis of built infrastructure, human systems, and legal and cultural norms. This study diagnoses why the county came through unscathed in some areas while encountering massive damages in others.

Selected findings of the case study include:

  • Built Infrastructure: Six of the seven roads into the mountains failed because they were all next to rivers; systems are not redundant if they have the same point of failure.
  • Human Systems: Lessons and response from previous disasters directly improved the flood response of the county.
  • Legal and cultural norms: The western culture of individuality gave staff the freedom to take independent action and innovate. This allowed systems to be operated effectively under a wider range of conditions than what they were initially designed for.
  • A recovery process should include county-wide understanding of what is needed to make Boulder County more resilient.

Boulder County held up well to the floods in certain ways, but in others the floods exposed gaps in our disaster preparedness. This study looks at what made Boulder County resilient, and where we need to improve,” said Chris Allan, ISET-International Senior Research Associate and co-author of the report. “We hope the study will be of use in ongoing discussions across the county in bouncing forward, and for the City of Boulder in their resilience building process which starts this week with the kick off of the 100 Resilient Cities event.

About ISET-International

ISET-International was one of the original members of the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), a program funded by the Rockefeller Foundation from 2008–present. Through our engagement with ACCCRN, we have developed and refined the Climate Resilience Framework (CRF), a systems-based approach to building resilience to climate change. The Boulder Flood’s case study was modeled off of our approach which has been piloted and tested in cities across Asia (Vietnam, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Vietnam).

Success Story: City of Da Nang adopts new regulation that will implement resilience principles to all new housing construction.


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Alexis Wagnon (ISET-International)

A family residence in the outskirts of Da Nang, Vietnam.

A family residence in the outskirts of Da Nang, Vietnam.

On November 1st, 2013 the city of Da Nang, Vietnam adopted a new policy that will require all new housing construction in the city to adopt key resilience principles such as storm-resistant construction techniques in their post-typhoon recovery support programs for damaged households.

This success stems directly from The Storm and Flood-Resistant Credit and Housing Scheme in Da Nang City, a microcredit and technical assistance program aimed at developing storm resistant shelters in vulnerable districts of Da Nang. Read more about the project details here.

With approvals from Mayor of the Da Nang People’s Committee, The Department of Construction is instructed to use storm-resistant techniques in considering house construction permit to households. The Da Nang Climate Change Coordination Office has also been asked to support the Women’s Union in organizing events promoting storm-resistant housing techniques in each of the wards involved in the project.

For more information:

Details on the storm-resistant design:

New Insights on Climate Resilient Shelters Presented at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Bangkok


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Justin Henceroth (ISET-International)

Ken MacClune, Senior Staff Scientist for ISET-International, presents new research on temperature and heat stress in Pakistan and India. View Ken’s presentation here.

Improving the design of shelter—the homes, apartments and buildings where people live—can build the resilience of individuals and families in South and Southeast Asia to climate related disasters, according to new research from the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition–International (ISET) recently presented at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Bangkok, Thailand. ISET’s work was funded by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) and looked at the impacts climate change will have on natural disasters in Asia, with a specific focus on typhoons in Vietnam, flooding in India, and temperature increases and heat waves in Pakistan.

Shelter is a critically important element in any city or community. Homes are often the single largest asset owned by a family or individual, and damaged and lost shelters account for the highest monetary loss in climate related disasters[1]. For most low-income households, their homes are also where income-generating activities occur creating a greater dependence on structures. When destroyed, families and individuals have a reduced ability to bounce back quickly and recover from not only their structural and asset losses, but their inability to work.  The peri-urban populations around rapidly growing cities are often exposed to disasters due to the locations where these communities settle. In order to understand how to build shelters that would withstand and protect families during and after disasters, ISET conducted design competitions in Da Nang, Vietnam and Gorakhpur, India where teams of local architecture students submitted ideas for resilient homes. The competition helped spark conversations about the needs of residents and introduced future architects and designers to the questions and concerns of resilience.

Resilient Shelter Cost and Benefits

Climate-based cost benefit analyses were conducted to understand the value of new shelter designs. Across the three countries, investments in improved shelter showed high benefit to cost ratios for individuals and households under a range of future scenarios. These findings were bolstered by experience on the ground, 250 homes incorporating resilient designs were built in Da Nang under a loan program supported by The Rockefeller Foundation. Last year, the homes that have been built under this program survived Typhoon Nari, even when nearby houses were damaged or destroyed. As a result, demand for these homes has been increasing.

Despite the value of new resilient designs, the research also identified an area where changes in shelters may not be able to have as large of an impact—temperature increases. Throughout the world, temperature is expected to increase over the coming decades. Notably, many regions will see that the minimum temperatures experienced on a given day may increase more than maximum temperatures. People across Asia may find that they are increasingly exposed to temperatures above 37 degrees Celsius, the temperature of the human body and a critical threshold related to health and well being, and that during the hot season both daytime and nighttime temperatures may remain above this point. These kinds of temperature patterns could have dramatic effects, particularly on women, the elderly, children and other vulnerable populations that are often confined to homes and indoor spaces and therefore have little access to outside cooling. Apart from air conditioning, which is prohibitively expensive for many, there are few measures that can truly reduce temperatures, and those that are available are not effective when minimum temperatures increase for extended periods of time.

Bangkok Dissemination Event

At the presentation of this research in Bangkok, scholars and leaders from top development organizations and research institutions, including US Agency for International Development, The Rockefeller Foundation, Oxford University, The Asia Disaster Preparedness Center and King Mongkut’s Institute for Technology at Lat Krabang, among others, discussed the implications of this research and how the findings can be applied. Attendees expressed interest in understanding how to scale up the findings from the resilient design competitions and the cost benefit analyses.

Much of the discussion at the event focused on the various levels from which this problem could be addressed. At an individual scale, homeowners and builders need to be educated and empowered to make changes to their homes. In cities like Gorakhpur, wealthier and more educated citizens are already making investments in homes with resilient designs; the key is to ensure that other citizens have the knowledge and ability to do the same. Training and education programs for contractors and builders were highlighted as a pathway for sharing knowledge and building these skills.

At a more macroscopic level, policy and regulation change could promote shifts in shelter design and construction. For instance, standardizing and updating building codes to integrate elements of resilient design could spur incorporation across a region. At the same time a range of, city, provincial, and national policies need to be modified and linked so that governments at all levels are working towards improved shelter. As part of this research, some of this is already happening. New training materials that build on the experience in Gorakhpur were developed by the National Department for Disaster Management in New Delhi and will be shared with regional and provincial governments across India.

Shelter Challenges

One of the largest challenges for upgrading shelter, though, lies in the cost. In particular, new and improved homes and other buildings require a significant investment up front. Most families and individuals do not have the kind of resources to make this investment on their own. Loan programs, like the kind developed in Da Nang, are one potential solution, but they require families or individuals to take on a high level of risk. The question of how to make sustainable and accessible ‘forward financing’ available is one that has been raised across many sectors, including disaster risk reduction. Developing solutions that allow for sufficient financing up front to incent changes, while at the same time minimizing risk for both investors and individuals remains a challenge for widespread promotion of resilient housing.

In summarizing the presentation of this research, ISET’s president Marcus Moench noted that (1) there are many known and readily available solutions for improving resilient housing, but (2) some areas, such as how to address heat and how to provide financing, require additional research and inquiry. With this understanding, there is a space for a range of actors, including local and national governments, businesses, researchers, individuals, NGOs, aid agencies, and others, to utilize these research findings to undertake many different kinds of activities to build and promote new kinds of climate resilient shelter.

View the entire Sheltering From A Gathering Storm Dissemination event here.

ISET’s work on Climate Resilient Shelter is available in a four part series online.

Learn more about ISET’s work on climate resilient shelter and more at

[1] Comerio, 1997

Boulder Floods: Recreation, Biodiversity, and Floods – Open Space in Boulder (Part 2)


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Chris Allan (ISET-International)

In September 2013 the Boulder area saw almost a year’s worth of rain fall in 5 days. Creeks raged, streets were flooded, houses were washed away or damaged. Four lives were lost in the county.

Yet it could have been so much worse. Smart spatial planning over many years kept buildings and people out of many floodplains, so raging creeks were able to flow over undeveloped areas at a far reduced cost to property and lives.

The City of Boulder alone has 42,000 acres (17,500 hectares) of Open Space – land that is set aside by the City, where no building takes place. The Open Space program has three goals:

  • Provide opportunities for outdoor recreation
  • Conserve local biodiversity
  • Provide outlets for flood mitigation.

The first two of these goals are met every day. But for many the value of the third goal was not evident until they saw the water washing over open fields rather than residential neighborhoods. There was still considerable damage: fences, gates, trails and other structures in Open Space were destroyed all over the city, and the cost to repair them will be in the millions of dollars. However, this cost is far lower than it would have been had these areas been developed with houses and businesses.

These three goals are often in conflict: recreational users bump up against the need to close areas during raptor breeding seasons; restrictions on dogs often frustrate others who want their animals to romp free in the outdoors. Yet, the three distinct services provided by Open Space create a wider constituency of support – Boulder voters have been taxing themselves to buy and maintain Open Space since 1967.

The Open Space role in flood mitigation is clearly evident in the aerial photo below. South Boulder Creek flows through Open Space along the Bobolink Trail, a popular spot with runners, dog walkers, bird watchers, and cyclists. During the deluge, the creek overflowed its banks and spread across the land on both sides. Because there were no buildings in the area, the water flowed freely with minimal damage to property and people. But when the water reached the edge of the Open Space property at the top of the photo, houses in that neighborhood were badly damaged. The water continued to flow, but now it flowed through living rooms and not over pasture. Some houses in the area had been built on raised grades, and these fared well in the flood. But many others became part of the river.

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Aerial photo showing where flood waters overflowed into Open Space and then a residential neighborhood. Photo credit: Chris Allan (ISET-International)


South Boulder Creek spilling over into Open Space on the Bobolink Trail. Photo credit: Chris Allan (ISET-International)


Even though this neighborhood at the end of the Open Space was hit by the flood, the damage could have been even worse. Pre-planning by the City and County reduced the some of the damage there. Some of the flooded houses in this area were built in the 1950s, and until 2010 most were not connected to the City water or sewage lines. At that time, local government officials worried that a neighborhood with septic tanks and well water in a major floodplain was a risk to public health. So in 2010, the County and City pushed residents to annex their neighborhood into the City in order to hook them up to City water and sewage. When the neighborhood flooded in 2013, the houses were damaged, but there was no contamination from water or sewage. Threats to public health were avoided.

However, the neighborhood just downstream — which had declined to annex itself to the city in the past — did experience contamination in its well water for months after the flood. Boulder City Planner Chris Meschuk was quoted in the local newspaper about annexing this second neighborhood: “The interest is a lot higher.…When we met with the Old Tale Road residents, some of the people who invited us had not previously been interested in annexation, but because of the flood, their perspective had changed.”

The vast majority of the time City of Boulder residents benefit from the recreation and conservation opportunities that Open Space provides. And, for those rare occasions when floods threaten the city, Open Space also provides a critical safety valve for raging creeks.