The U.S. military has little experience with how extreme weather events interact with culturally-complex megacities and how their characteristics play into future security and public safety planning.

The U.S. military has little experience with how extreme weather events interact with culturally-complex megacities, and how their characteristics play into future security and public safety planning. We offer a few observations from our recent experience working in the Houston, Texas area after Hurricane Harvey. As global disaster and emergency response specialists, including for refugee concerns, we were asked to assist with relief efforts after the hurricane. We were specifically tasked with finding and serving vulnerable and marginalized populations. Our experience provided numerous opportunities to observe the challenges faced by at least one megacity after a large-scale disaster, and helped us to ponder lessons for future public safety operations in sprawling urban environments.

There is a growing consensus among military scholars and planners that a greater proportion of armed conflict and security operations in the 21st century will take place in large, urban areas. This reality stems from major global population shifts away from rural areas into burgeoning megacities, especially in Asia and Africa. Urbanization has been underway for centuries, but in the last several decades it has accelerated. By 2050, 70% of humanity will occupy urban areas and 50 of these areas will be sprawling megacities with 10 million or more inhabitants. Most of these urban dwellers will be poor, unemployed, or underemployed. Many will live in makeshift, peri-urban environments (“slums”) characterized by lawlessness, crime, exploitation, poor or nonexistent health care facilities and schools, vulnerability to disasters, inadequate infrastructure, food and water insecurity, and—potentially by the millions—recruitment by extremist groups. Furthermore, most megacities are growing in littoral zones, making millions of people vulnerable to rising sea levels and major storms. All communities are vulnerable to natural or manmade hazards, but the growth of megacities along coastlines renders their poor inhabitants particularly vulnerable to climate change, severe weather, rising sea levels, and conflict. The likelihood of more insecurity in large urban environments and less conflict in rural areas is the product of timely analyses that rethink traditional concepts of warfare, security, and intelligence. These sprawling urban environments already present significant operational challenges due to their size, population density, and political and cultural complexity. Severe weather and rising seas due to climate change will only make coastal megacities more prone to disorder and violence.

The counterinsurgency expert and author David Kilcullen wrote about the “megatrends” leading to urban warfare in the world’s growing megacities in his prescient 2013 book, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla. Other scholars and security professionals have also recognized that climate change, food and water insecurity, destabilized regions, and ungovernable megacities pose security challenges for the United States at home and abroad. In 2016, the National Security Council concluded that climate change “and its resulting effects are likely to pose wide-ranging national security threats for the United States and other countries over the next 20 years” including mass population dislocation and urbanization.

The Army has taken note. The Chief of Staff of the Army convened a Megacities Concept Team, which argued that massive metropolitan areas pose threats to host nations that are ill-equipped to handle explosive population growth and to maintain security: “Megacities are a unique environment that the U.S. Army does not fully understand…It is inevitable that at some point the United States Army will be asked to operate in a megacity and currently the Army is ill-prepared to do so.” The U.S. Military Academy’s Modern Warfare Institute also formed an Urban Warfare Project. Clearly, urban security concerns remain highly-relevant to the U.S. Army, and megacities are one of its most demanding potential operating environments. Our observations on Houston, Texas after Hurricane Harvey hit in August 2017, present important considerations for military and public safety personnel working in domestic megacities after mass disasters. We offer them in four broad categories, involving: the massive scale of the area of operations, second- and third-order effects of poor urban planning; the cultural complexities of such environments; and the uncertainty or ambiguity of public safety concerns.

Massive Scale of the Area of Operations

The National Guard and other military services provided valuable services after Harvey, and in many cases, they made up for limited local emergency resources. However, the urban and suburban areas affected by Harvey were so large and complex that despite the assistance of military personnel, outside expertise, and incoming supplies, the totality of resources was insufficient to meet the scale of need. The American Red Cross estimated 28,000 square miles of land were flooded by Harvey, an area “the size of Lake Michigan.” This displaced at least 32,000 people. Twenty-two states sent a total of 160 helicopters and four states sent a combined 17,000 troops. The military played a critical role in the places it served, especially with air rescue, but most people we worked with across the area never encountered a member of the National Guard or other forces, due to the sheer size of the disaster. The storm affected large parts of dozens of counties across multiple states. Army Major General Brian Harris admitted that, “we are used to a three-day storm. Hurricanes, they come in and move fast and they go in three days…We’ve not seen a storm that came in and lingered for six days and drops [sic] 50-plus inches of water in one place.” This trend of mega-disasters affecting megacities presents significant challenges to providing public safety services across numerous local, state, and even national jurisdictions.

Second and ThirdOrder Effects of Poor Urban Planning

The costs to Harvey’s victims were enormous and it will take years for many of these people to fully recover. Their losses and suffering are second- or third-order effects of a cascading disaster exacerbated in the first order by limited or poor urban planning. The utter chaos in the wake of Harvey was worsened by an ‘anything-goes,’ hands-off version of mixed zoning that led to Houston’s massive urban sprawl in disaster-prone areas.

Houston offers a domestic version of what happens when major storms hit millions of people living in the littoral zone of the Gulf Coast. Houston is flat “like a pancake” with most suburbs never rising 40 feet above mean sea level.  Downtown Houston is only 50 feet above sea level (the highest point in the Northwest suburbs is only 128 feet above sea level). One result of Houston’s rapid, sprawling growth is that a significant proportion of the area’s previously rain-soaking wetlands have disappeared in the last 25 years, now covered with concrete and asphalt. Although the area was hit by hurricane force winds, the major problem was the record-breaking rainfall produced by a slow-moving storm. Drainage in the Houston area relies on a series of bayous, all of which were overwhelmed by trillions of gallons of water. Many socially-vulnerable populations lived in these areas that were most disaster-prone, due to their lower cost.

Megacities … require strategic, operational, and tactical strategies to maintain overall public safety and order. [They] reflect a global trend of dense urbanization along coastlines, with many marginalized populations at risk from further climate change and mass disasters.

Despite the loss of life and property and an economic decline, there are very few signs that Houston’s laissez-faire approach to human settlement is going to change. Instead, the area will probably continue to grow. Considering the types of megacities where the Army is likely to operate in the future, the Megacities Concept Team proposed New York City as an example of a highly integrated city that enjoys central planning, high-quality infrastructure, managed growth, and high resilience to natural and technical stresses and instability. Loosely integrated cities, such as Lagos, Nigeria, lack formal control over much of the urban environment. Mass in-migration and growth of unregulated slums leave such cities particularly unstable and vulnerable to infiltration by non-state actors. Moderately integrated cities, such as Bangkok and Rio de Janeiro, exhibit both formal and informal systems, as well as mixed-infrastructure qualities and growths of less-integrated parts of their urban environments, with limited formal government control. We suggest military planners will not necessarily have to visit Bangkok or Rio to learn about moderately integrated cities when many of their same lessons can be learned in Houston.

Culturally Complex, Changing Environments

Like many megacities, Houston is one of the most culturally-complex areas on earth, with multiple urban centers, social disparities, and unique neighborhoods. It is the fourth largest city in the United States and one of its most ethnically-diverse, large metropolitan areas. The city’s proportion of foreign-born residents to natives has increased at twice the national rate since 2000, comprising almost 1.5 million of Houston’s 6.3 million population. Approximately 575,000  undocumented migrants live in the Houston metropolitan area. This level of fluid, rapidly-changing ethnic diversity brings a cultural richness to the city, but it also complicates the work of emergency responders and military personnel, who perform rescue and relief operations in hundreds of culturally-complex sub-communities with dozens of languages. Post-Harvey Houston provides the military with an opportunity to learn the anthropological skills necessary to conduct future operations in global cities. During the Cold War, the principal enemy of the U.S. was the Soviet Union, dominated by the single Russian language. Today, and into the future, security operations in megacities will face multiple languages for which insufficient numbers of military and civilian personnel are being trained. Their lack of training also holds true for addressing multicultural and multiethnic environments. The U.S. Army should collect and study data from domestic megacities’ disasters to apply them to future missions at home and abroad, especially with regard to those megacities which involve hundreds of unique languages and cultures.

Uncertain and Ambiguous Public Safety Concerns

Public safety operations in megacities during disasters are particularly daunting. Law enforcement must still contend with all day-to-day, typical public safety concerns, but must also address urgent, life-threatening situations. Many police officers we met went several weeks with minimal sleep, preoccupied with damages to their own homes, even as they assisted with swift-water rescues, relocations of families, setting up of highway detours, and protection of property devastated by the storm. Limited looting did occur, as well as the typical disaster-related frauds and scams some opportunists attempt. Having learned from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, numerous local, state, and federal prosecutors and law enforcement agencies formed a working group to “bring a comprehensive law enforcement focus to combat any criminal activity arising from the tragedy of Hurricane Harvey and the rebuilding efforts underway.”

Some neighborhoods and isolated migrant communities became even more vulnerable to organized criminal behavior. We briefed local and federal law enforcement agencies on some of these behaviors we witnessed in the Houston area, including the diversion of relief supplies. These activities reminded us, albeit on a much smaller scale, of the chaos that we have seen in developing nations after mass disasters, such as in Haiti or the Philippines. Criminals preyed on minority, immigrant, and refugee groups — who were already vulnerable before the disasters happened — thereby exacerbating the chaos. In other cases, sexual predators and trafficking rings tracked hurricanes and other mega-storms to hunt for missing and separated children who they could abduct for organized crime purposes. In ungoverned or semi-governed parts of megacities, insurgents, criminals, and extremist organizations represented security threats, and in many cases, these organizations become the de facto governments after conflicts or mass disasters.

As the Army looks forward, valuable lessons about the future of urban conflict and security considerations can be learned from burgeoning cities in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. We contend, however, that many lessons can also be learned from cities right in North America, especially from sprawling metropolitan areas such as Houston. Such megacities represent challenging operating areas which are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, and which require strategic, operational, and tactical strategies to maintain overall public safety and order. These kinds of megacities will only proliferate in the 21st century, and will reflect a global trend of dense urbanization along coastlines, with many marginalized populations at risk from further climate change and mass disasters.


Mark Grey and Michele Devlin are adjunct professors at the U.S. Army War College. Mark Grey is Professor of Anthropology from the University of Northern Iowa. Michele Devlin is Professor of Global Health from the University of Northern Iowa. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.

Photo:  An aerial view of buildings standing on July 15, 2015 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The city is South America’s largest and holds approximately 20 million residing in the overall metropolitan area.

Photo Credit:  Mario Tama/Getty Images

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