Thursday, July 28, 2011

Disappearing waterfall

Speaking of waterfalls, here's a picture of me at Silverband falls in the Grampians, mountains to the Northwest of Melbourne, Australia. The water falls disappear into a rock base. They reappear about 50 meters away, even when the flow is relatively high.   

Here's another angle from someone else's blog

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Weird rivers: upward flowing waterfall

I'm always on the lookout for hydrologic oddities. Here's a great example from the BBC, with video

Waterfalls flow upwards in extreme wind

Winds battering southern Australia over the last 24 hours have been so strong that spray from waterfalls south of Sydney has billowed up into the air. Nearly a month's worth of rain has fallen on the city in 24 hours, and wind speeds have reached 120km/h (75mph). The extreme weather has meant a rough ride on the city's ferries, and a high surf warning has been issued with waves expected to reach 5m (16ft).


Monday, July 25, 2011

Watermark: The simulation builds its own momentum

We're rounding out our week over coverage of Exercise Watermark, the UK flood simulation. The occasion was the follow-up conference with participants. Already there's materials on the web about it, including slides from many of the key presentations. Kristy Chandler from Capita Symonds checked in and had this to say about the conference:

“About 250 people from various government departments attended to provide feedback on the exercise and the recently published interim report. The feedback received to date is positive - with people appreciating the opportunity to actively feed in to the evaluation process. And the feedback received will be very valuable in finalising the post-exercise report. Richard Benyon MP gave a very good presentation, as did Rod Stafford on behalf of the consultants. My company (Capita Symonds / VectorCommand) also sponsored a post-conference dinner which was a lot of fun, and included an awards ceremony. Awards were given to a number of individuals who performed well during the planning of the exercise or as players – all very well-deserved!”

We’ll finish off this week with one last question about Kristy's favorite moment during the Exercise Watermark.
In a flood command center (source)
Tom Pagano: What was the most exciting, or interesting, or insightful moment for you?

Kristy Chandler: We had certain people that were participating on different days. On the second day, the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (where all the ministers sit and talk to the prime minister) was so concerned about the news that there might be a coastal flood event happening, they started requesting all this information from other people. Those were experts that weren’t actually meant to be participating on that day, but the experts came in and started responding without their briefing, just purely in reaction to the requests from this cabinet office because they’re important.

The whole exercise became alive, even without us “stimulating” it by sending them “injects” [points when new pieces of information were revealed]. We thought, “Wow, this is amazing”. All you need to do is just stimulate a group – and this was a very large group of people – for it to become alive and gain its own momentum. I was impressed by that.

But it’s scary because you only need, with a big group of people, a couple of little things and the interaction between them all can turn it into something much bigger. It happens in life all the time. People end up doing something based on a couple little bits of information to start with and get spooked. But in this case it was positive and made the exercise exciting, very “real life”, and part of why everyone has said it’s such a success.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Watermark: Practical advice for surviving a flood

Dealing with disasters can be a useful analogy for dealing with life. We try and prevent bad things, but some problems are inevitable. We need to know how to handle when problems do happen. Today we talk about risk management and Kristy has some good advice on what to do if a flood does hit.


Kristy Chandler: I think [risk management] is relevant to all aspects of our lives. The biggest lesson for individuals and communities is to make sure that they do their own risk assessment, and have their own plan in place. And that’s something that’s really being encouraged at the moment in the U.K. because there are just so many [people at risk].  There’s five million properties currently expected to be at risk of different types of flooding, and there’s no way that all of them can be defended and all floods prevented.  There’s a drive for individuals and communities to be aware if they are at risk and come up with their own flood plans.

It’s just being prepared, really. Aware and prepared- that can go to all kinds of aspects of life, doesn’t it? It can be having a fire alarm in your house in case of a fire or insurance if your house was to burn down.  Be aware of the risk and then do something to manage if it was to occur. We’re encouraging community members to have a little flood pack in their cupboard, and if they were to be flooded, they would grab the pack. It might have a blanket and first aid kit in it, and a can of beans, a map showing them where they’re supposed to go. For that kind of thing, we’re really good at fire but we’re just getting there on flooding.

Tom Pagano: That’s an interesting idea, that not all disasters are preventable. You could try to protect yourself but something is always going to slip through, no matter how hard you try.  You could live in a house with iron bars and bullet proof glass but it’s expensive. Besides, you’re not really living a comfortable life in a Kevlar house.

Maybe not the best place for entertaining guests (source)
Original caption: This reinforced concrete safe house is designed to allow someone to control the new hurricane protection gates at the mouth of the 17th Street Canal, even during a hurricane. If it looks like a storm is going to be strong enough to destroy the safe house, the people inside can escape out the back and then the gates can be remotely controlled. Read more

Kristy Chandler: It’s part of the risk-based approach. You can never completely eliminate flood risk because it can always rain more than you expect, and more than you design for.  So you design for something that’s appropriate to the level of consequences. In an area that’s, say, farmland, you may not defend it to a level that’s very high, but a hospital you may want to put extra measures in to make sure it doesn’t flood.

There’s always – even if you do put defenses in– the risk that those defenses will breach.  So, quite often, we’re putting emergency plans in place to respond to flooding if primary defenses fail. That’s another [issue] for flood risk management.

Tom Pagano:  I saw something about this for the Tsunami in Japan. They have natural flood barriers of trees on the shore. The barrier is good for breaking up a medium-sized tsunami. But for something that’s overwhelming, then those trees just become projectiles. Then you have trees rammed into buildings. I’ve seen some astonishing photos.

Japan tsunami damage (source)

Kristy Chandler: The legislation in the U.K. requires you to assess the risk behind defenses.  So even if there is a flood defense against a Tsunami, you need to assess the risk if that was to fail or over-top, and put measures in place to make sure that people would still be safe.

Tom Pagano: Do you have any practical advice for if you’re ever in a flood? Someone asked me the other day if I knew what to do if I had warning of a meter of water in my living room. I’m not sure I know the answer to that… and I’m a hydrologist!

Kristy Chandler: You don’t want ever want to walk through flood water.  One of the very dangerous things is that manhole covers lift, and if you’re swimming or walking through flood water, you can get sucked into the sewer… Obviously, that’s going to be the end for you because there’s no oxygen. [Walking through a flood is] the thing you just don’t want to do. 

If you’ve got a double story house, then you might want to go to the top floor. In Queensland recently they camped on the roof. You would probably want to evacuate the area if you don’t have a double story house, before the flood water hits. And if you can’t evacuate in time, go for the highest point and call someone, if you can.  Try and get some kind of a message to people to come and rescue you.

Not the kind of thing you want to see on the news (source).
Tom: I might add that you should be very cautious about driving through water. You’re never completely sure what’s under the surface and even 6 inches of water can cause problems. If you stall when the exhaust is under water, the car won’t restart until it is towed or pushed out of the water. In Arizona they had what was called the “stupid motorist law”. If you drive into water and get in trouble, you have to pay for the cost of being rescued. The irony, of course, is that whenever there’s a flood, the standard image on the evening news is of cars driving through water. For more driving advice during floods, go to

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Watermark: So “code white” doesn’t mean “smoke break”?

Today we’re discussing the essentials of good communication in a disaster situation. We’re also talking about having to make decisions based on limited information and in a hurry.


Tom Pagano:              I imagine there was a lot of communication that you did with the emergency managers, and then they had to communicate a lot with each other. Do you have any ideas for what makes a good, clear, effective message when you’re communicating?

Kristy Chandler:           One of the really important things to do is to have a generic email address that’s not It’s better to have so that it’s a dedicated emergency line that people communicate to in any kind of situation. It should be on a highly secure system that’s been assessed for all kinds of risk. You should make sure it’s capable of receiving attachments of different sizes and doesn’t screen out because it’s got a firewall that’s too high. 

                                    There needs to be a secondary system in place if that was to go down. There should be another way of doing that communication, and that that needs to not only be in your plan, but it’s communicated to all of the people that may wish to contact you.

Tom Pagano:              And then the actual message itself?

Kristy Chandler:           Well, it’s difficult because there’s codes that all emergency responders use. Sticking to the published/industry standard codes is useful because in different areas they will have their own codes that they like to use. If you stick to a published standard then that’s useful, and using as much plain language as possible.

The fifth keyboard is being used as a foot pedal (source
This is much like how they say “code blue” in hospitals as shorthand for when someone in cardiac arrest and is in need of care, urgently. Frustratingly, different hospitals have different codes. “Code black” means severe weather in Chicago, someone’s being attacked in Australia or there’s a bomb threat in Wyoming.  Imagine if you shouted “code white” and the local nurses clamored for the rubber hoses and the visiting nurses went for a smoke break. Clearly everyone wants to be using the same standard, but it can be tricky getting people to give up what they know to learn something new.

Tom Pagano:              Is there negotiation that goes on between [emergency mangers?] Is it just, “I’ve detected something.  I’d like to pass it on to the people that need to know”, or is it [more like “we should be putting more people down in district X”]?

Kristy Chandler:           Negotiation does happen in these cross-agency meetings. They do that face to face, and it really depends on peoples’ personalities…

Tom Pagano:              I wonder about how you keep personality out of this? Sure, there are good things about having intuition and charisma… but then there’s the other side of it.

Kristy Chandler:           [Laughing] I don’t think there’s any Hollywood movie that hasn’t had some charismatic, gutsy, yelling-at-his-boss hero in an emergency situation.

Tom Pagano:              “We need to get those helicopters in the air right now!”

Kristy Chandler:           Whether or not the gutsy rebel hero is the one that would actually be beneficial or whether that’s just a Hollywood myth is something that’s interesting to look into.

But one of the things that we’ve noticed in this exercise is that during normal operational work, the people in these roles and doing these jobs (the ministers and their support staff) can operate in a risk adverse way - to avoid a bad political situation.  

In emergency situations these people are expected to just switch and turn into Rambo and become people who can take risks. They have to make decisions with potentially limited information. And it’s a challenge. Some people just aren’t used to switching within the time scales that are required. The behavior and dynamics of these things is very, very interesting…

A flagrant violation of parlimentary procedure (source)
Tom Pagano:              Which would you say you were…[more of a planner or a doer]? Have you changed through going through these exercises?

Kristy Chandler:           I personally am a very detailed planner who is very willing to then change the plan. [Laughing] I like to know that I’ve thought about things and that I’m not doing anything too ridiculous. But I’m very adaptable and willing to change that plan if things aren’t going well. 

Thanks Kristy! Take a code white and we’ll see you again soon. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Watermark: Behind the scenes of a mock disaster

I asked Kristy Chandler about her favorite waterway and she didn’t hesitate in saying the Swan River in Perth, Western Australia. She grew up there before moving to the UK in 2003. I can see the influence of both continents- She has a cultured confidence that seems typical of the English. She also has that cheerful warmth that comes from heavy doses of sunshine during certain formative stages of development.

The Swan River 

She’s now an environmental engineer for Capita Symonds. She deals with all aspects of flooding – hydrological assessment and hydraulic modeling and risk assessment, and the application of those technical things to different areas. More recently she’s been looking at emergency planning. She flew to Melbourne to give several presentations about her work and we talked in a meeting room overlooking the Yarra River and the Polly Woodside, an 1880s sailing ship. I asked if the Swan River was small enough to jump across and said it would be better to catch the ferry.

So, here’s the first part of our conversation where we talk about Exercise Watermark and what it was like to be a part of a country-wide disaster simulation.

Kristy Chandler

Tom Pagano:              There’s a project that you’re involved with that you gave a talk about at this conference…what was [Exercise Watermark]?

Kristy Chandler:           People will probably be familiar with fire drills; essentially it was a flood drill. We hosted a mock flood event so that people could test how they would react and respond to that flooding if it was a real flood. It went from the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR) [top level organizational response and reaction] all the way through to where the public were involved….We hosted a four day very widespread severe flooding exercise…50 organizations participated, and 10,000 people were involved.

…It started with the summer 2007 flood events and a post flood review that recommended that one of these exercises were held.  The U.K.’s government department’s responsible for flooding (the Environment Agency), were in charge of running it, and they needed some help for such a large scale event.  They hired a group of us consultants to provide that specialist expertise plus the software that was required to run the exercise. We’d plan it and deliver it, and are now reviewing it.

Tom Pagano:              Ok.  You developed all kinds of scripts of what would happen at different times… Put us in the place of one of the [flood exercise] participants…

Kristy Chandler:           They would have received a briefing pack a few weeks before to say that something is going to happen on the day. It included some general principles about the conduct of play during the day.  But everything else was a secret. 

                                    What we tried to do was to make it as realistic as possible so that they could go to work in the morning, sit down at their desk, grab their cup of tea, and then it would just start as it would in a normal event. It’s called a “command post exercise”, meaning that participants sit at their normal desk and receive bits of information in the normal way that they would receive it. 

                                    They would get a phone call (if they normally would) or they would get an email, and we produced television scripts so that they could watch the news three times a day to see the events unfolding.  And then they would use all those little segments of information to piece together the actual situation and then react to that. That’s how they would do that in reality.

Emergency response command center (source)
Tom Pagano:              In every disaster movie you see a command center… How realistic is that, people with clipboards running around? What is a realistic scene at an emergency control center?

Kristy Chandler:           It depends on where they are. In the U.K. there’s command centers all over the place. When they’re responding or interacting with people on the ground, that’s when they’re running around with the clipboards. [Laughing]

When the situation gets a bit higher, it becomes a meeting room, probably like in the movies. There’s a meeting room with a big table and all the chiefs of different organizations are sitting around it, discussing what their next moves are and what they’re going to do. And so we gave them the information and a scenario that was severe enough to actually make those centers and those meetings start up.

Tom Pagano:              What would be a severe enough situation to activate [the command centers]?

Kristy Chandler:           The U.K. is probably quite similar to Australia. You need two regions being affected by an emergency.  We ended up having 14 regions that were affected at various times during the exercise. If two or more regions need help, it needs to be coordinated by a tier above that.  It can escalate up all the way to the prime minister.

Tom Pagano:              Did you get to meet “the big guy”?

Not "the big guy", but pretty close when it comes to flooding. (more)

Kristy Chandler:           [Laughing] No, but we had plenty of minister [politician] participation.  One of the good things was that they were very enthusiastic and had a lot of fun playing. They came out of the day saying really positive things about their experience and how they enjoyed participating. There was a bit of a buzz, actually… There’s a kind of adrenaline that you get in these emergency situations.  That was good to know that they felt involved and engaged enough that they got that kind of buzz – you know, electricity.

Tom Pagano:              For someone who’s never been in that situation, how would you describe that adrenaline, or that feeling, that buzz?... Is it the sense of not knowing? Or the confidence that you have when there’s something to do and you know how to do it? Did you have your own sense of anticipation organizing this and not knowing how it was going to turn out?

Kristy Chandler:           Yes, I was one of the staff members at exercise control.  There was one central command center where we issued all the bits of information from and monitored how things were going.  And if things weren’t going quite right, we did some on-the-spot additional bits of information to get it back on track.

…Essentially we set up our own command center. Every morning you got the ten minute warning and your stomach turned slightly. You take a deep breath and then get going and there’s people running around… We had quite a lot of planning and testing.  And on the big day, yeah, it was a bit nervous! [Laughing] Butterflies, that’s how I’d describe it.

Tom Pagano:              Yeah. “Uh oh, cappuccino machine is down, what do we do?” [Laughing]

Kristy Chandler:           More like what if “our whole IT system is down!” But thankfully due to all of our testing and planning that did not happen.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Exercise watermark week

Flood drills in the UK (from RNLI
In March, about 10,000 people participated in a 4-day realtime flood simulation in the UK called Exercise Watermark. The Cabinet Office Briefing Room (something like the bunker in the basement of the White House) was activated, helicopters were flying, mock-fatalities were strewn about. It was the UK's biggest yet emergency response exercise. It was done on recommendation of the report that reviewed the UK's flood response during 2007. 

You can see the big board from here (source)
At last week's IUGG meeting I had a chance to catch up with Kristy Chandler from Capita Symonds’ Flood Risk and Water Environment team. Her company coordinated the exercise, helping to write the script, manage the simulation command center and so on. We talked about what it's like to be a fly on the wall during a flood response, how people cope with the pressure and what's the best way to survive a flood. 

Today is the first day of a followup conference in London to review how it all went. There's been a few interim reports released. Stay tuned, we'll be discussing the exercise and seeing how the conference is going!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Most Polluted River in the World

So... We have a first destination. Indonesia. World's fourth most populated country. Get some scuba diving under our belts and go see the most polluted river in the world, the Citarum, east of Jakarta.

At a recent conference someone said "If you're looking to go on hydrologic tourism, you shouldn't miss the most polluted river in the world." I thought, it may be dirty, but surely there's some dribble of uranium coming out of an abandoned mine that's worse. It can't be so bad that it would cause instant death to anyone coming near the banks? Did it catch on fire like some other rivers?

Cuyahoga River catching fire, 1952

Well, there have been some awful things done to rivers. The Citarum River was a floating mat of waste. You would guess there was water by the boats of people floating through it. Washing their children and restaurants' dishes in it, it provides 80% of the water for 14 million people.

Citarum River 

The government got a loan for $500 million in 2008 to fix the river up so it may be less of an issue now. 

It may or may not be the most polluted river now, but Indonesia is a hub of activity for hydrology in the Pacific, home of the World Meteorological Organization's regional office for Asia.