Case study of the city of Prague (2013); Towards Better European Union Through Improving Resilience of Cities

31. 05. 2018 | 12:44
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Towards Better European Union Through Improving Resilience of Cities

A text from the conference "Cities Facing Major Risks: Organising Resilience", 31st May 2018, Brussels

Tomáš Hudeček
Mayor of Prague 2013-2014, First Deputy Mayor 2011-2012
Member of the European Committee of the Regions 2013-2014, Deputy member 2015+
Head of Department of Public Administration and Regional Studies, CTU in Prague
Assistant professor in Department of City Engineering, Faculty of Civil Engineering, VŠB-TU in Ostrava

Good morning, my name is Tomáš Hudeček, from 2013 to 2014 I was the Mayor of the capital of the Czech Republic – Prague. During the first week of my appointment, I had to deal with floods. Already now, in the introduction, I can say that successfully, mostly due to my education in the field of geography, thus also hydrology and climatology.

During the floods in 2013, some of the city's security systems did not work quite well, some worked exceptionally well – usually those where the senior posts were held by people who experienced also the past floods in 2002. However, we will describe those that worked worse.

In the life of each city there are two basic modes of decision making, we can call them a period of crisis and a period of calm (or peace). During the period of calm, the municipal government meets and each decision is discussed at length, support for resolutions is sought across the political spectrum. In the period of crisis, quick decisions are made, and if state legislation addresses this issue, the group of decision-makers is narrowed to the mayor and possibly a few other people. There is no time to discuss at length, for example, evacuations and there is no time at all to deal with trifles. Decisions must be made immediately and errors made in decision-making should be resolved only subsequently, in the next period of calm. And then, from these errors, consequences and changes to crisis plans should be drawn. During the period of calm, the resilience of the system – the urban organism – must be increased in this way. The next period of crisis will then subsequently reexamine everything.

During the period of crisis, city consciousness – thus, its self-government headed by the mayor – is the most important thing at the beginning. They have to make several key decisions that will, as a rule, greatly influence the success or failure of the subsequent (rescue) measures. When the work has progressed in some direction, the role of self-government diminishes.

This initial moment of each crisis situation can be likened, for example, to a situation when we face an attacker. We need to decide quickly what to do, but as soon as we have decided for some action, our subconscious will automatically begin to perform the appropriate actions. However, the first decision is crucial – for example, we can be experienced and know that we can very likely drive him away with a counterattack. Although the subconscious is whispering "run away" to us, we take a step forward. On the contrary, escape may mean our end because we turn our backs at him and he will catch us. Knowledge and ability to make a high-quality first decision during a crisis situation can be a matter of life and death.
It is the same with a city. During the period of crisis, it is essential that the mayor (in accordance with the Czech law it is him who is the chairman of the emergency committee) makes the right decisions at its beginning. However, the mayor is a politician, thus, for example, a bank clerk or a history teacher…
It happened to me that before the beginning of the flood in June 2013, it had been raining in Prague already for some days and I personally collected telephone numbers of the responsible persons at the Czech Hydrometeorological Institute and also at the State Enterprise of the Vltava River Basin and I discussed everything directly with them.

The task of the Czech Hydrometeorological Institute is to communicate probabilities of precipitations. Because only in that case their staff do not have to worry about being later prosecuted for incorrect forecasts. 40% chance of rain is certainly truthful data, although it does not say anything about whether or not people should be evacuated.

At two o'clock in the night of the flood day (Sunday 2nd June 2013) I was sitting with a little lamp lit over
my desk calling the expert of State Enterprise of the Vltava River Basin and counting patterns of precipitation and flow rates in individual river basins in southern Bohemia from where water flows to Prague. From the situation in the last days and hours, I estimated additional precipitation, counted the retention capacity of the reservoirs on the Vltava river, subtracted the possible water infiltration and considered other hydrometeorological indicators. I created model with anticipated flow rates in the Vltava river for 4, 8 and 12 hours. In the end, I was not mistaken in my calculations too much. The second level of flood activity, which occurred 3 hours later, I missed by 1 minute. The third highest level of flood activity, which occurred 10 hours later, I calculated 35 minutes earlier.

Prague has a sophisticated system of anti-flood mobile barriers since the turn of the millennium. Suffice is to pull them out of the warehouse, drive them to the river by trucks, assemble them with the help of many hands and several assembly sets, and, in the case of up to 500-year flood in the Vltava river, the historic centre and other parts of Prague are saved. However, in June 2013 for some reason, neither the pulling nor the transport worked well, not even the assembly of the flood barriers. Several key city clerks were on vacation and their substitutes were unable to take command.

That's why, through my old acquaintances, I got hold of trucks to transport these barriers. I forced the Government of the Czech Republic to commission the army, which then sent me their men. However, not even the army anticipated crisis situations, they were not ready, so it was not easy at all. However, after several arguments – I was firmly convinced that Prague would be underwater on the following day, unless we get at least 100 men within 5 hours and then other 200 – the work was successful and, eventually, we found the men somewhere.

Urban crisis documents were, with the exception of a few details, all right. The flood control plan, updated on the basis of the situation in 2002, was accurate in saying what should be done at what flow rate in the Vltava river. However, the flood in 2002 had a much slower onset. Therefore, the plan did not take into account any rush and logistical problems during the construction of the flood barriers.

I also needed to inform the inhabitants. However, the sirens ceased to work. The radio system for coordination of the city rescue units stopped working as well. Initially, televisions refused to give information to the news – one Czech actor was getting married and also, for the Czech Republic a very rare event, quintuplets were about to be born (neither of these is a joke but the real response of the then editors to the requests for information in the news!).

Moreover, a couple days after the second peak of the flood, there was a massive and until then an unprecedented blackout. One of the three substations burned down, which connected the surrounding power grid, supplied by power plants, with the power grid of Prague, which by itself does not have any source. The direct connection with the flood has never been proven, but these days safety and energy systems are on the edge of their capabilities to such an extent that the association with extraordinary fluctuations in consumption is more than likely.

That's why within that year we organized special exercises on the topic of blackout for all security forces and city associations.

During those exercises, several things came to light. First of all, telephones will most likely not work in the event of a power failure. Although operators are obliged to run a certain percentage of their network (at a capacity of 7% of normal operation), in reality, key transmitters with diesel generators are located on the roofs of usually high-rise buildings, elevators will not work, refueling is handled by a private company and its "regular" employees. Also, with the exception of several petrol stations listed in the crisis plan, these will not work, which can also be a problem. Moreover, people trying to get out of the city will also cause traffic collapse, and traffic lights will not work. While, unlike in case of other crises, we can escape from blackout, especially people with health problems will be in trouble. They will not be able to call for help.

We also found out that even though hospitals have emergency aggregates, these do not serve the elevator at the reception. Also, almost all social houses in Prague did not have any backup resources. The electronic devices of the inhabitants of the city will not work and they will lose sources of information. Most likely, the public network will not last long in operation. They will not remember the only working radio they have – that in the car in front of the house.

The conclusion of the exercise was that Prague should build its backup power source, prepare its inhabitants for the threat, they should be obliged to have at least two liters of water in separate bottles in their basement.

All these are just a few details of my, now already past, city administration. Most of the conclusions I have shared with you here are not introduced in the current Prague. Thus, the system has not learned much from the period of crisis and, unfortunately, is probably waiting for another lesson. And if we go back a little, let's not forget that the mayor is usually that bank clerk or history teacher...

Can we do it differently? Can we prevent all these problems even better? Can we support city resilience more strongly and more consistently? And can we somehow help to the history teacher or bank clerk during the period of crisis?

One example from overseas. In the USA, on the Mississippi River, when there is a flood, and on a river more than 6,000 km long there is a flood somewhere virtually constantly, pass boats of the Mississippi National Guard. Mississippi National Guard is commanded by one general of the American National Guard. Where is the flood, there he is in command, not any history teacher, not any bank clerk. Does it make sense? In a big city, such as Prague, it definitely does. Maybe it is different in a small village where the local familiarity of everyone with everyone else is more important. It is hard to say as no research has been conducted regarding the size of the city from which experience prevails over local knowledge.

The American National Guard is a supreme, all-federal organization. In case of any error, it has sufficient funds for compensation. Mayors of flooded towns are not pushed into the role of criminal responsibility in a situation they cannot (with a few exceptions) understand. In the National Guard, possible mistakes in the procedure and decisions can be traced in a clear and strictly defined hierarchy. Its internal system processes and habitual practices can personally solve the situation also in the future. Thus, it cannot happen that someone without experience becomes its commander. You have to prove with your life and deeds, that you have what it takes. It is the complete opposite of politics.

Should not even we in the EU think about the difference between periods of crisis and periods of peace? About the periods when discussion and politics take precedence, and periods when command and experience have precedence? The EU is currently facing a certain decline in its legitimacy among its own citizens. To some extent, this is understandable because we have already got used to the conveniences of the united European Union, they have grown old to us and at this point we cannot quite feel any new positive ones. On the contrary, reports of various bizarre regulations are coming to us, recently on refugees. In the Czech Republic, although 99% of the citizens have never seen any immigrant, we are all quite clear about their dangerousness.

However, in times of crises – for example, during floods – people are more receptive to help. During crisis situations, we stop worrying about curved cucumbers and other silly things. The idea of an international assistance team, a “pre-version” of some inner EU National Guard, which would mean that an international team composed of Germans, Italians, Greeks or Finns would be intensely helping during a flood, blackout, etc. in cities across EU – don't you think that this is exactly what the EU needs now? The European Union has long failed to address its external security – however, it has not been much concerned with its internal security either. Yet, this is an absolutely fundamental obligation of any supranational grouping. And, most importantly, in the case of coping with this task successfully, it is perhaps also the only way to continue the successful integration by means of increasing its own legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens.

To connect the issue of the resilience of cities and regions, where a lot of work has already been done, with the issue of the internal security policy of the European Union is a way out of the crisis of identity which the EU is currently going through. If something similar were put into practice a long time ago, there could have been no Brexit, the English people might not perceive the Poles and members from eastern countries as parasites of their labor market. Perhaps the refugee crisis would not be so escalated because, from its beginning, the states would have worked on it effectively and in mutual harmony. The nations of the European Union would value one another much more.

I submit the above-written for consideration to the responsible officials.

Thank you for your attention.

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