When You See the Face of God . . . .

Hurricane season is once again upon us. This blog entry is about six years old. I decided to post it in light of our continuing national encounter with disasters and our difficulties in coming to terms with some of their implications. It is a closing plenary speech I delivered at the Carless Evacuation Conference held at the University of New Orleans in February 2007. I hope readers find it of some value.

Scene from New Orleans in November 2005


Presentation at UNO Carless Evacuation Conference

I have a small surprise for Professor John Renne today. It’s called No PowerPoint. It’s something we used to do back in the Stone Age before the invention of the PC. I think these days some people regard this as the oratorical equivalent of riding a bicycle with no hands.

I chose to do this because it seems to me that evacuation is only partially a technical problem. It is primarily a cultural and social problem. I wanted to get away from diagrams and talk about concepts and motivations. I also come to this conference as one who has visited Louisiana more times than I can remember, and who more than a dozen years ago made the state the focus of his longest chapter in a book about the environmental justice movement.

One thing you need to know about me before listening to the rest of this talk is that I have a bad habit of engaging in the free association of ideas. It comes from never fulfilling my destiny as a creative writer because I didn’t have the courage of a New Orleans musician to just stick to my art regardless of whether I made any money or supported myself collecting spare change by performing on the street corner.

So you won’t be too surprised when I tell you that the invitation to speak here drove me to start reading a book that never mentions evacuation or New Orleans. It’s Jared Diamond’s new tome, Collapse, which has the interesting subtitle, How Communities Choose to Fail or Succeed. He lays out certain criteria for failure or success, which largely involve environmental conditions and choices they made in confronting them. But the last of his five main points concerns how societies choose to respond to their crises. In the past, denial was not always even conscious because societies lacked the scientific education or even the literacy to grasp what was happening and what problems they were creating. Today, we cannot generally claim that excuse. Yet interestingly, he begins by examining attitudes toward environmental challenges in Montana, where he has a second home, and where anti-government, anti-regulatory attitudes often preclude effective discussion of planning as a route to a solution. He notes that many people have moved into the wildland-urban interface, the area where forests and housing co-exist, yet they expect the Forest Service to protect them from wildfires and are quite willing to sue the Forest Service for not doing its job if their houses are burned to the ground. At one point, he says, “Unfortunately, by permitting unrestricted land use and thereby making possible an influx of new residents, Montanans’ long-standing and continuing opposition to government regulation is responsible for degradation of the beautiful natural environment and quality of life that they cherish.” Of course, Diamond could have been discussing a number of other similar situations all around the U.S.

An influx of new residents may not be the main problem in New Orleans, but there is much that is precious to preserve, much of which is embodied in its people, and not planning both to preserve the people and make the city more disaster-resilient brings the same result: collapse.

The fact that he makes this point in a book called Collapse may be strong medicine for some people. Yet long ago, in the insurance business, I learned the slogan, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” And that seems to be part of what Diamond is saying. In the wake of Katrina, it is a very potent message that carries overtones concerning the very survival of a city with a unique and vital culture. It is also a city that is very conflicted about how to preserve itself.

Tradition is a wonderful thing. New Orleans has had a marvelous dose of it. It may be time to ask what elements of local culture, those that militate against planning in favor of “laissez le bon temps roullez,” need to undergo drastic metamorphosis or sacrifice in order that the rest of the organism may live. That city slogan is a perfect expression of a lifestyle, but what will preserve the lifestyle, short of effective, widely participatory planning?

This is not a question unique to New Orleans. If it were, Diamond would not have much material for his 525-page book. It is a powerful question that has absorbed a great deal of intellectual effort in communities large and small. Two decades ago, in an article for Planning magazine titled, “Small Towns, Big Dreams,” I explored the difficult choices facing several midwestern small towns faced with economic extinction. One was Babbitt, Minnesota, a victim of the closing of Minnesota iron mines. The mayor decided that his best resource was unemployed people, so he employed them in crafting plans and applications to qualify Babbitt as a Minnesota Star City, crafting a whole new future for itself. The key to success was that the plan involved the most unfortunate people in town–those who had lost their livelihoods. It was an interesting case of staring adversity in the face and defying communal death.

At the same time, faced with both natural and man-made crises, plenty of other communities reach some sort of day of judgment largely unprepared. Chicago, for example, is good at many things, but the city did a remarkably poor job of assisting its most vulnerable citizens during a heat wave in 1995, a situation documented by Eric Klinenberg in Heat Wave. More than 500 of our elderly, disabled, and isolated citizens died as a result. That is fully half the number that died in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina. What did we learn? For one thing, that we could and should use our social service networks proactively to identify our most vulnerable populations in order to reach out and assist before it is too late. We have mapping tools like GIS, public health systems that can be mobilized for phone calls and home visits during a heat emergency, and other options. What we learned yesterday from people like Linda Carter is that ample means exist to do all this, including disability registries and alert systems, but we need to marshal the political will to make these goals a priority.

What we need to avoid a collapse of social responsibility is a plan.

For areas potentially affected by severe storms and hurricanes, evacuation is a serious social responsibility. It is also recognized as a social responsibility in areas affected by wildfires, as is the need to devise means of allowing people to stay safely in their homes. At APA, we looked at both options in the latter instance in a report called Planning for Wildfires. Much of our ability to avoid the need for mass evacuations in wildfires revolves around controlling the pattern of development in the wildland-urban interface, creating defensible space around homes, creating building codes that reduce the combustibility of homes in the interface, and, for the day when evacuation is a necessity, at least devising multiple routes of access and egress to keep people from being trapped. Very little of that happens without some kind of planning. All of that is intended to reduce the likelihood of catastrophe, and then we start to talk about how to get people out when danger is imminent, including those who need some sort of help. But our first responsibility from a planning perspective is to reduce the likelihood of lives being placed in jeopardy and the likelihood of serious property damage.

The best way to achieve this is to be realistic about our choices in building our communities and to approach development with integrated thinking. We need to approach the whole planning process more holistically instead of stovepiping functions like emergency management, transit, land-use planning, and social services to special needs populations. Before they build, we need to ask about health care facilities how they will evacuate patients in an emergency, new subdivisions where the tornado shelter will be built, or how people will escape in a flash flood or a wildfire, or how they will survive an earthquake or a landslide. We need to ask how our communities can become more resilient.

To promote such thinking, we at APA over the last year have worked patiently with FEMA to reach agreement on producing a new best practices report, which we should be able to launch soon, on the integration of hazards into all forms of local plan making. The project will build on a portfolio of research and outreach stretching back 14 years to the onset of our work to produce Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction, which many of you no doubt have seen. This new project is the logical next step in pushing communities to be fully accountable for the opportunities they must seize to plan adequately to address their natural hazards. What it means is that we shall look at how communities can address hazards within the various elements of their comprehensive plan, including transportation, land use, housing, and economic development. We will look at how communities link hazard identification and risk assessment to their decisions on development, including small area planning for neighborhoods and functional plans like sewers and transit. It means thinking about and addressing natural hazards at any point in the process where they become relevant, and not just in emergency management plans. In too many communities, planners and emergency managers never talk to each other. It means that we figure out how to minimize the need for evacuation, and then ensure that the resources are there to facilitate it when it is necessary, including giving priority to evacuating those who lack personal transportation. And it means that we have an element that describes how the plan will be implemented.

Another piece of this integration is the avoidance of duplicate planning work. For instance, communities preparing hazard mitigation plans under the Disaster Mitigation Act ought to be able to use an existing hazards element in their comprehensive plan to meet the FEMA requirements, and making that work is precisely what FEMA staff whom I know want. But in too many communities, one plan is prepared by emergency managers, another by the city planners, and lots of people aren’t coordinating and talking to each other to make all these plans mesh.

This issue of plan integration may seem small, but it is actually central to the whole enterprise of making our communities and our transportation systems more disaster-resilient. Florida has led the way in this region by requiring its communities to prepare comprehensive plans and to include in them a natural hazards element. Florida has worked hard to integrate emergency management and planning. Florida was able to control much of the recovery process after its four hurricanes in 2004 not simply because they were less powerful storms than Katrina, but because it had a planning infrastructure in place statewide that could speak effectively for what Florida wanted even when much of the process involved massive federal assistance. Not many states are so well prepared to assert their own vision. Florida is far from perfect, but it is farther along the road toward intelligent disaster planning than almost any other state in the union. The important point is that Florida has found the political will to take this issue seriously. That sets the stage for taking seriously the efficient evacuation of its carless population.

I hope I have not insufficiently emphasized the degree to which evacuation planning, including carless evacuation, is a subset within a much larger issue of overcoming denial in order to plan effectively for future disasters. There is a moral imperative that needs a special spiritual appeal to help public officials and decision makers rise above racism, classism, sexism, nepotism, indifference, inertia, and corruption. The public needs a moral imperative for dealing with an issue that too often is swept under the rug. Let me suggest one, in a region that takes religion seriously, by augmenting a sermon in the gospel of Matthew in which Jesus describes the righteous asking the Lord when they had seen him naked, hungry, and in prison. I think that God can only smile if I propose the addition of one line in which the righteous also ask, “When did I see you stranded in the storm and offered you a ride?” Then the king will reply, ‘As you did this for the least of these, you did it also for me.’

Perhaps we can finally infuse into our communities and their elected leaders a desire to start planning as if every desperate face in a natural disaster is the face of God, but we must not wait until disaster strikes to activate that sentiment. By then, it may be too late. By then, we may be facing the imminent collapse of our cities and their social structures. We must incorporate this sense of urgency into numerous planning opportunities long before it is too late. We must not only think of people in this way in an emergency, but in our daily planning operations at all levels in order to reduce the need for last-minute heroics and instead, to the extent possible, take care of our special needs populations and the poor in a systematic and effective fashion.


Jim Schwab


A Universe of Imagination

Literary daring comes in many forms. Some authors attempt to redraw the boundaries of traditional genre. Others try daring new themes that have previously been verboten in the society of their time, and though some gain lasting fame in this way, others find that, over time, what was once daring becomes banal. The discussion or destruction of sexual taboos, for instance, often goes this route unless the work that pushed those boundaries is noteworthy for some more fundamental achievement. A few, like Ernest Hemingway, change the stylistic preferences of a generation, showing in his case how a few words in a very short sentence can speak volumes.

One year ago, a legend of modern American fiction died. I grew up with that legend, still in his prime as I was barely learning my craft in high school and beyond. Ray Bradbury was 91, and his work had spanned most of a century, though the bulk of it emerged from his fertile imagination in the space of a quarter-century after World War II. He reshaped American fiction in his own way, not through stylistic finesse, though his style was among the best, and not by reinventing literary forms, though he used them very well, but by demonstrating the power of the human imagination to expand and alter our perceptions of reality. He took us to distant worlds to hold a powerful mirror to the one in which we already live. Despite the tendency in many quarters over many years to pigeonhole him as a science fiction writer, one can say of him in that regard something like what was said (by the  New York Times) of Walter Van Tilburg Clark with regard to The Ox-Bow Incident: “[It] bears about the same relation to an ordinary Western that The Maltese Falcon does to a hack detective story.”

Why am I writing about Bradbury now? Admittedly, the daily news media wrote what it needed to write about Bradbury within 48 hours of his death and moved on. Personally, when Bradbury died, I was at the front end of a busy six-day stay in Hawaii, at the invitation of the University of Hawaii’s National Disaster Preparedness Training Center to speak at a conference and guest lecture. More importantly, I see no need for this blog to hurry anything into print. The world is not waiting breathlessly to hear what I have to say. That said, I would rather say something important in due time than to say something trivial quickly.

I did not absorb the story fully until I returned and had the chance to read the Chicago Tribune. Bradbury, after all, was a local boy made good, born in Waukegan, Illinois, who moved to Los Angeles with his family in his teens. The Depression had sent his father, a utility worker, to the West Coast in search of work. Almost 80 years later, Bradbury’s death was the top headline, and his story filled an entire inside page. Waukegan Main Street is planning a Bradbury museum in part of the now-shuttered Carnegie library that Bradbury had deemed a second home in his youth. If Salinas, California, can have its Steinbeck Center, a wonderful facility I visited in late April, then Waukegan shall have its Bradbury museum.

And there is no better home than the old Carnegie library. Books were the center of Bradbury’s life and fueled his imagination; they expanded his world far beyond Waukegan, but his literary imagination ultimately brought him back in such classic works as Dandelion Wine. For Bradbury, as for many great writers, childhood was a nearly inexhaustible mine of material from which he sculpted his themes and refined his fiction.

I have had the honor of judging two books detailing Bradbury’s life from two varying perspectives. For several years, since stepping down as the past president of the Society of Midland Authors, I have been tapped for service as one of three judges on the biography panel for the annual SMA book awards. The awards are for authors anywhere in 12 Midwestern states who excel in any of six categories.  In 2006, we awarded the biography prize to Sam Weller, a professor who teaches creative writing at Columbia College in downtown Chicago. Earlier this year, one entry among the 2011 books was Becoming Ray Bradbury, by Jonathan R. Eller, an English professor at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, and the cofounder there of the Center for Bradbury Studies. This latter book, which did not win a prize, is nonetheless well worth reading for Bradbury fans because its tack is to examine the evolution of Bradbury’s style and thematic focus as a writer, at least up to the time of his emergence as a major author with Fahrenheit 451 and a subsequent offer from film maker John Huston to write the screenplay for Moby-Dick. That last act more than established Bradbury’s versatility. It is apparent that Eller is planning to continue the story of Bradbury’s evolution in future volumes moving through the remainder of his career.

But by far the better book is The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury. Weller spent considerable time with the author, who entrusted him with producing an authorized but honest biography that displays Bradbury with both warts and halos. The warts in Bradbury’s case are largely ordinary peccadilloes and some bad choices that have relatively little to do with his literary productivity. Far more interesting are the ideas that he induced millions of the rest of us to ponder. Big ideas in many cases, but even the smaller ideas had this way of nestling into your brain and making you see something differently. And that was Bradbury’s obsession in life—to change the lens through which the rest of us viewed the universe around us.

One of his earliest big ideas surfaced in The Martian Chronicles. In this book, Bradbury envisions humans crossing space to settle on the very foreign world of Mars, where they encounter an ancient and alien but intelligent race whose ways they cannot understand. The inevitable result is a clash of cultures in which only the intruders can survive. The Martians are extinguished, but back on Earth so are the humans, where thermonuclear war finally takes its toll as the last interplanetary nomads make their trek to a new home, unable to return.

Lest readers think this big idea too pedestrian, too predictable, think about when The Martian Chronicles was published—in 1950, at the height of American paranoia and self-congratulation, the two going hand in hand with World War II still close in the rear-view mirror, a horde of totalitarian Communists invading South Korea, and the Cold War producing fears of nuclear annihilation. The idea that dominant human cultures often despoil others with which they come in contact was not exactly what most wanted to hear, yet the book found an audience and made an impact that continues to be felt to this day because its message cuts close to the bone.

On one hand, there are vivid reminders from the past. For Americans, most of whom would prefer to be left in ignorance on this point, there is the history of our fiftieth state, Hawaii. Essentially disconnected from the rest of the world until 1776, it was encountered (let’s not say “discovered”) by Captain James Cook in the same year that Americans were launching a revolution against the British Empire. Cook died at the hands of the Hawaiians as the result of serious cultural misunderstandings, to put it mildly, some of which continue to be disputed. Did Hawaiians actually think Cook was Lono, the moon god? You can read the disputation in How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, for Example, in which Marshal Sahlins, Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, takes issue with Sri Lankan Gananath Obeyesekere’s The Apotheosis of Captain Cook, which argues that the Hawaiians were too rational to have thought any such thing. Sahlins’s counterargument, which strikes me as valid, is that the Hawaiians were rational within the context of their own vision of the world.

Both books came long after Bradbury’s portrayal of life on Mars, but they deal with the same disturbing question: the clash of cultures that leads to the end of one way of life and the triumph of another. One wonders at times whether this is the only way in which we can get to know each other on this planet or any other. Some might argue that a certain amount of creative destruction, like that which many economists advocate, is necessary for progress. Certainly, in this case, Hawaiians rapidly progressed in adapting to new circumstances before being overwhelmed with the power and influence of the United States. It is also hard to argue that life was paradise for the natives before Westerners arrived. In fact, Hawaiians fought each other fiercely and frequently, and only stopped when one of them—Kamehameha—knocked enough heads together, aided by the acquisition of modern weaponry, to put an end to the divisiveness forever. One can get much of the flavor of Hawaii’s violent transition to modernity by reading The Warrior King: Hawaii’s Kamehameha the Great, the often gory biography by Richard Tregaskis of this physically powerful man who ultimately united the Hawaiian islands. (Tregaskis, for the record, has that element of redundancy in his descriptions that betrays a hack writer, but on the other hand, there are few other biographies of Kamehameha.)

That we seem not to learn from all this is evident from the rash of cultural and political missteps that clearly accompanied the U.S. invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush. The dismissive arrogance of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld toward critics as the conflict progressed would be almost comically clichéd if it had not produced such tragic consequences. Just when you think the human race is starting to mature just a little, we are pulled back to the theme of The Martian Chronicles, which doesn’t look so trite after all. Quite the contrary. Bradbury shaped the outlook of a new generation of artists, most notably James Cameron in the film Avatar, which features human military and economic exploitation of a remote planet rich in exotic resources prized on commodities markets. In Avatar, the “indigenous” become expendable until they rise up in revolt. One has to be rather obtuse to miss the artistic connection between Bradbury and Cameron. The plot may differ, but the underlying theme is fundamental. Humans with advanced technology but limited cultural understanding, or more importantly with a cramped understanding of their own motives in life, are like bulls in a china shop. Nothing is safe that lies in their path.

Paranoia—a consuming fear of the alien or unknown—often pairs easily with hatred. Each one fuels the other. Bradbury throughout his life, but particularly early in his life, displayed a profound and progressive concern for racial injustice. It is not hard to connect the themes in The Martian Chronicles with Bradbury’s observation in Weller’s book that “even if we are not aware of them, we all have our hidden prejudices.” No one presented these quite so eloquently as Bradbury in his short story, “The Big Black and White Game,” featuring two baseball teams of opposite race playing each other. The story arrived on the literary scene just a couple of years before Jackie Robinson was to make his entrance into the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Bradbury was 25 when the story was published, a young author with a very fresh new viewpoint who nonetheless had to labor very hard in the vineyards before he found himself under the bright lights with a best seller. On a positive note, Bradbury must have been cheered with much of the racial progress of the last half-century, despite its occasional roller-coaster features. And he certainly became a bigger fan of the national space program than The Martian Chronicles alone might have suggested. Of course, there is no intelligent life on Mars to worry about. Those alien cultures, in reality, are all on our own planet and always have been. We must learn to live with ourselves.

It did not take too many years for the bright lights to find Bradbury, for his imagination was prolific and his work ethic rock solid. By 1953, just 33 years old, he launched what surely is his most enduring literary legacy, born of the book-burning, blacklisting, paranoid legacy of the McCarthy era—Fahrenheit 451. When I was in college, back in the turbulent era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, discovering this book about a future society in which books were burned as contraband was a delicious experience that opened insights in ways that still resonate for me today. I regard this as Bradbury’s masterpiece, in large part because of the way in which he slowly but surely reveals Montag’s evolution from a naïve fireman, in a world where homes are fireproof but books are deemed dangerously subversive, to a man with growing doubts about his mission in life and about the intellectually anesthetized society around him. There is nothing wrong with an inquiring mind, Bradbury seemed to be telling me, even if everyone around you wants you to accept the status quo. I link that in my own mind with my favorite quote from Studs Terkel, who always insisted that his epitaph would be, “Curiosity did not kill this cat.”

But it has killed many people in many places. We need look no farther in recent times than North Korea, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and China, or even much of Latin America before the wave of democratization replaced most military juntas. If we wish to make ourselves uncomfortable, we can even look inside the U.S., at the South before integration, at much of the racist reaction to the tragedy of 9/11, and other efforts to stifle intellectual, cultural, and religious diversity, to know that the repressive instinct remains strong within us. We are our own worst enemies in resisting the liberation of the mind, or to quote Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

When we insist on seeing the world the way we want to see it, we tend to construct a hall of mirrors that eventually betrays us.

But let us not concentrate on cursing the darkness. There remains Montag, stumbling through the darkness, almost accidentally finding the light through that spark of humanity that will not be suppressed, asking questions, eventually the right questions, and finding his way to the Book People. Welcome to the light. And thanks, Ray. We owe you a lot.

Jim Schwab



Iowa Faces Its Fluid Future

It was just five years ago that Iowa was awash in flood water. Many people are familiar with the dire scenes from Cedar Rapids, where record floods forced the evacuation of 10 percent of the city’s residents on June 13, 2008, swamping the downtown and causing extensive damages. Plenty of other Iowa communities suffered as well, however. Cedar Falls, 90 miles north of Cedar Rapids along the same Cedar River, struggled to contain flood waters that overwhelmed its north side and almost overtook its downtown. To the southeast, Iowa City watched the Iowa River flood major University of Iowa buildings like Hancher Auditorium and the Iowa Memorial Union and learned, maybe, that the university had invested in too much real estate on the riverfront. Across the state, the rivers swelled and dozens of small towns coped with mud, pollution, and lost memories.

On Friday, May 31, I joined a panel on water management policy at “Five Years Out,” a one-day conference at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids that examined Iowa’s past and future with regard to these issues. As if on cue, nature responded by sending a line of thunderstorms to assault the area the day before, accentuating the moisture in soil that had already become a huge, wet sponge throughout the spring. The Dubuque St. entrance to downtown Iowa City from I-80, always a flash point because it closely parallels the Iowa River, was closed before the day was out. As Yogi Berra would have said, it seemed like déjà vu all over again. Fortunately, the sun triumphed on Friday, and Iowa got a reprieve. Summer could still be challenging.

What I found most revealing was the information shared by William Gutowski and Rick Cruse of Iowa State University. Gutowski teaches in the Department of Geological and Atmospheric Sciences and has been tracking data on Iowa’s changing climate for some time. He discussed the seeming contradiction of Iowa suffering both increased propensity for extreme precipitation events, leading to flooding, and increased propensity for drought. The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive or contradictory, however. Higher average temperatures lead to a situation in which the atmosphere is capable of containing higher amounts of moisture because warmer air can hold more moisture before being forced to dump its load. That also means that storms become worse when they do occur. Gutowski showed that average annual precipitation in Cedar Rapids had increased between 1890 and 2010 from 28 inches to 39 inches per year. If global warming pushes that trend even further, Cedar Rapids and the rest of Iowa can expect more extreme weather of both types over time. That means, in part, that the so-called 100-year flood event, or that flood having a repetitive one percent chance of occurring each year, may well become more frequent. The record-breaking flood of 2008 could well become more common. The only thing saving the city in the future is the fact that it has given the Cedar River “room to breathe,” as various speakers put it, through the city’s acquisition of more than 1,300 flooded parcels in the floodplain since 2008, thus removing a good deal of vulnerable housing from the prospect of future damage. Rick Cruse, an agronomist, accentuated Gutowski’s data with significant data on how land use and land cover affect water infiltration into the soils and water tables. Forcing increased runoff with vegetation or impervious surfaces that do not hold the water as well serves to increase our propensity for flooding. As it turns out, woodlands do the best job of absorbing rainwater, while ubiquitous Iowa crops like corn and soybeans have a more questionable track record. The result is that Iowa may need a serious debate about farming practices, including crop choices and rotations, in order to confront its flood threat adequately for the future. That will not be an easy debate because it affects serious economic interests in the state. Yet it may be the most important debate Iowa can have about its climate future.

The University of Iowa Public Policy Center, which presented the conference, will be posting the PowerPoint presentations and videotapes of the sessions on its website in coming days. For those the least bit serious about exploring the implications of these issues, I urge you to follow the link above and check it all out.

Jim Schwab