Preview on Post-Disaster Recovery Report

This post is not a substitute for my normal blog commentary, but I am catching up. Just a little bit. I am on a vacation from the American Planning Association for two weeks, and will blog this week and next on some more leisurely topics as a result, but right now I want to introduce you to a free streaming media download just released online from APA. As the result of a funding agreement between APA and the Governors’ South Atlantic Alliance, APA was able, during its 2013 National Planning Conference here in Chicago in April, to provide a live webcast of two back-to-back 75-minute panel discussions on planning for post-disaster recovery. The presentations were drawn from our work through the APA Hazards Planning Research Center on Planning for Post-disaster Recovery: Next Generation, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to recraft an aging 1998 document we had produced, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction (Planning Advisory Service Report No. 483/484). Each session included three speakers, two of whom were authors of sections of the forthcoming report, and one each from communities that served as case studies in the report. The agreement not only permitted the live webcast but recording, which has now been posted online for universal accessibility. Enjoy the show.

An APA announcement of the streaming download also appears on the Recovery News blog.

Jim Schwab

Calling All Disaster Experts

Think not only of the natural disasters suffered within the U.S. each year, but around the world. Then imagine finding between 400 and 500 of the most experienced experts in the various fields related to research and practice on natural disasters and bringing them together in the same space for three days. These would include emergency managers, urban planners, social and physical scientists, government policy makers, geographers, architects, and engineers, among others. Finally, imagine instigating wide-ranging discussions among all these folks, getting them to talk to each other and explore interdisciplinary solutions to the numerous problems posed to humanity by natural hazards. Imagine the richness and creativity of the conversations that would follow.

For about 20 years, with a few intermissions, I have had the privilege of attending precisely such an event every summer in Colorado, hosted by the Natural Hazards Center of the University of Colorado. This event was initiated in 1976 by the late Professor Gilbert F. White, who launched the Center that long ago with help from the National Science Foundation. Dr. White is known today as the father of modern floodplain management, and is famous for saying, “Floods are acts of nature; flood losses are largely acts of man.” After his death in 2006 at age 94, his life was memorialized in a biography by Robert E. Hinshaw, Living With Nature’s Extremes: The Life of Gilbert Fowler White. It is worth reading because it relates the saga of a man who managed over the course of a long career to bend the needle of history without taking himself too seriously in the process. He was more interested in knowing whether his many achievements, such as helping to engineer the creation of the National Flood Insurance Program way back in 1968, were actually making the difference he thought they should make. He had not the slightest interest in idle congratulations or in the hazards professional community sitting on its collective laurels. The question was always what lay ahead.

And so this summer we met for the 38th annual Natural Hazards Workshop in Broomfield, Colorado, with attendees not only from the U.S., but according to Center director Kathleen Tierney in her opening remarks, from 31 other nations as well. For the first time in several years, I did not actually speak in any sessions, although I did speak on a plenary panel for the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association, which sponsored a one-day event added on at the end of the Workshop. I had to follow Margaret Davidson, director of the Coastal Services Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and David Miller, director of FEMA’s Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration, which oversees the NFIP and thus is responsible to some extent for implementing Gilbert’s vision. Both are tough acts to follow. I spent a notoriously quick ten minutes describing the American Planning Association’s work on a FEMA-supported project to publish a second-generation version of our 1998 publication, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction. It was no easy task, but I knew that many people at the conference are anxiously awaiting the completion of APA’s work, slated for early next year.

Photo credit: NHMA

There were many highlights to both events, including a plenary panel probing the impacts of Hurricane Sandy and a significant presentation by Gary Machlis, of the National Park Service, on the deployment of a scientific task force during Hurricane Sandy by the Secretary of the Interior. It would take considerable space in a blog to explore all the nooks and crannies of individual sessions, but it is fair enough to say that the real value of such a conference lies as much in the many passionate conversations that populate the halls outside the meeting rooms as in the sessions themselves. The Natural Hazards Workshop has always allowed space for and fostered those conversations, even through such simple techniques as facilitating lunchtime exchanges by hosting a large buffet in the outdoor pavilion at the Omni Interlocken Resort and Hotel, which has hosted the event in Broomfield for the last several years. The traditions, however, date back to Gilbert White’s original vision, which looks better with every year that goes by.

This year, APA took advantage of all this creative flow by allowing me to bring our Interactive Media Coordinator, Mike Johnson, to help videotape a series of interviews with both U.S. and international participants. You can watch those on the Recovery News blog, where we will roll them out in coming weeks. I hope it provides some sample of the activity of the conference. I also invite you to use all the links in this post to explore the rest of what went on, as best as can be done vicariously.


Jim Schwab


First Impressions of Venice

Gondolas on the Canal Grande at the Accademia Bridge


If you are a veteran of Venice prone to sniff at the observations of a first-time visitor, this commentary may not be for you. I was invited to speak at a May 23 conference on climate change and cities at IUAV (Architectural University of Venice). I spent the next four days touring the city with my wife. I cannot pretend to be an expert, though I spent a modicum of time trying to absorb Italian, via Rosetta Stone, in the weeks preceding the trip. I also dived into a tour guide, plus Garry Wills’s book, Venice: Lion City: The Religion of Empire, and other sources to begin to divine what brought this gorgeously remarkable city into being and what sustains it today. I have learned a great deal quickly, but I am well aware of how much more there is to learn. It was a pity to have to return home, but most of us cannot afford to stay indefinitely. Too many other commitments lay ahead to allow me the luxury. For me, Venice was a brief encounter that begs for more.

I will blog more than once about Venice because the subject deserves it. Let me start this time with some general observations.

First: I have visited a few countries, though not dozens. Venice is absolutely, objectively unique. The sheer density of high-quality artwork produced per capita in this city over the centuries is astounding. Nothing appears in Venetian paintings by accident. Throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods, this art was almost entirely religious in focus, yet, as Garry Wills observes, art and religion were in the service of empire. Venice claimed St. Mark as its patron; to ensure that the point was not missed that he belonged in the city, Venetian merchants in the eight century stole his remains from Alexandria, where he had died at the hands of a mob. In the Venetians’ view, they repatriated them to what is now the Basilica San Marco. The palace of the doge, the ruler of Venice, was located in the same piazza adjoining the basilica. No one was to miss the point. This relationship is just the tip of the iceberg. One could spend considerable time exploring the intricacies of Venetian politics in the days of the city-state’s independence. Whole books have endeavored to do so.

Second: But there is more. The unusual setting—a city built atop a lagoon—is directly attributable first to the attempt by people in the area to escape the marauding Lombards in the fifth and sixth centuries, and then to the uniquely defensible attributes of this floating city with a navy to rival any in its time. European cities on “terra ferma” built moats and walls to defend themselves. Venice had none of that, but it built around and between canals and water bodies in ways that made it nearly unapproachable by any enemy that did not want to engage that navy, which even for the Turks could prove an exhausting enterprise. It has now been more than two centuries since Venice was independent, but the city that remains lacks cars—there is no place for them—but allows people to move about on foot or in boats. Take a map. We strolled the many narrow streets and squares (campi), crossed numerous bridges across both the narrow canals and the Grand Canal, got lost a few times, found our way again, and took water buses (vaporetti) in the rain, but the experience was special enough to justify every little frustration and every wasted minute. In fact, no minute was wasted. Turn a corner, wander down a narrow alley, discover some more history. In how many cities can you say that?


Jean and I at Accademia bridge, enjoying a beer.


Third: Of course, when you wish, you can stop. And rest. Or eat. Or watch the boats go by. Near the Rialto, having spent a morning finding small gifts for friends, we simply stopped at a ristorante  at the edge of the Grand Canal, ate a lunch of two types of spaghetti far better than most we are used to, imbibed some red wine, all while sitting outside just five feet from the Grand Canal, in the shadow of the Rialto. It would be hard, if not impossible, to find such settings in other cities so easily. On another occasion, having wandered from the Gallerie Accademia to the Santa Maria della Salute church, built in 1631 after the plague had struck the city, we found our way back to the Accademia bridge to discover a small restaurant and bar in its shadow, sat down for a pair of beers, and watched others hop into a gondola for the expensive ride (80 euros for 40 minutes)—all on a day when the temperature hovered around 70° F. with a slight breeze off the water. I could have stayed there much longer. Despite the concerns about Venice’s eventual fate as a result of global warming and sea level rise, for now at least, the climate seems quite congenial, if sometimes damp.

This is not much of a start, I know. It is merely a teaser to a sampler. More will have to come in bite-size installments throughout the summer. But it is a tiny hint of the richness of a visit to Venice. I can only wish I had been in a position to make it last longer.


Jim Schwab

Reflections on Independence Day

Yesterday we celebrated Independence Day. In Egypt, protesters celebrated the removal from office of an elected president by the military. On the 237th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it is worthwhile to reflect on all the ramifications of that event over the last two and one-third centuries. Those ramifications are not always as obvious as most Americans, including political commentators, may think. The wheels of history often turn slowly, and sometimes they seem to switch directions with lightning speed, but there is an underlying logic that bends that arc toward freedom, born of desires that run deep in the human psyche.

This essay is decidedly not a book review, though it is the product of decades of reading and thinking and, at times, direct involvement in protest and politics and community affairs, plus whatever knowledge was instilled in me by degrees in political science, journalism, and urban planning. Readers can find a plethora of writings on the topics of political movements and protests and revolutions, ranging from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine in the 18th century to Samuel Huntington and Fareed Zakaria more recently. For my own benefit, I recently completed a 16-year quest to read, sequentially, biographies of all the U.S. presidents, Washington through Obama. The exercise taught me respect for the forces that launch men (and, hopefully, women) into high office and either keep them there or cause their removal. National leaders only seem to be in control of events. They can bend the needle of history, and often do, but ultimately they are also the lucky few in the right place at the right time.

That brings me first to the subject of just who led the American Revolution. These men clearly pledged their “Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” to the cause of independence, a noble sentiment in view of what many were in a position to lose. These were not the paupers of American society. Paupers undoubtedly served in the revolutionary army, but they did not lead it. These were men of the middle and upper classes, educated men who understood the revolutionary ramifications of their aims. Americans, at the time of the revolution, were already relatively prosperous by global standards of the times, raising the question of what they had to complain about. They had had some taste of liberty in governing their own local affairs, but they wanted more. That word more is critical to the theme of this essay. To spur protest and revolution, two ingredients are essential: first, some sense of what is possible in life; and second, some sense that gaining more of it is possible despite some present political obstacles. The reason that protests do not occur more often in the very poorest of societies is that the element of hope is typically missing, replaced by acceptance or resignation. One can change a society’s expectations, of course; Mohandas Gandhi was a genius at doing exactly that. But the expectations are vital in creating the urgency for protest in the first place.

Repeatedly, we have seen emerging societies with growing economies and a mushrooming middle class explode in protest. It is a theme common to both the American Revolution and the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and many other movements in between.

What is particularly interesting today is that the new element is the speed of communication among protesters, facilitated by social media like Twitter and Facebook. It has been a common element in recent protests from Turkey to Egypt to Tunisia to Brazil and even to China. It is fair to say that the Chinese leaders’ biggest nightmare is a social media-driven protest that spins out of their control. In the midst of this phenomenon, it is worth noting that, while one need not be wealthy to have access to such tools, it certainly does not help to be desperately poor. The use of social media depends on education and a modicum of wealth every bit as much as the dissemination of revolutionary tracts did in George Washington’s day.

There are variations and exceptions. It is worth noting here that the very first successful anti-colonial rebellion in North America, in 1680, occurred when the Pueblo Indians rose up against the Spanish in what is now New Mexico. The social media of their day were well suited to their environment. Long-distance runners, common to the Pueblo culture, disseminated the news of the planned uprising, with its identical timing in all pueblos, by counting the number of days it took for each runner to reach his destination, so that all could strike at the same time, thus catching the Spaniards off guard. It worked, and the Spanish did not return again until 1692, somewhat chastened by the experience (but probably not nearly penitent enough). People work with the tools available.

So let’s return to the policy dilemma facing the West regarding events in Egypt. Here we have, under a president elected just a year ago, a sagging economy where the public was looking forward to improvements following the end of the Mubarak regime. President Mohammed Morsi, somewhat an accidental president, led an administration dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged from decades of repression and imprisonment under authoritarian regimes and with little sympathy from the military. With this history, it is entirely natural that leaders of the Brotherhood felt their time had come, and that it was now their privilege to govern the country as they saw fit. The problem was that their priorities were at odds with those of vast segments of the Egyptian population, which was more interested in economic gains than in Islamist ideology. The protesters had tasted better, even briefly, just a year ago, and had both the education and social media with which to conceive of a path forward, however sketchy it may sometimes seem. Morsi’s leadership, instead of providing a democratic outlet for those frustrations, seemed instead to become a growing obstacle, and the fire was lit. The problem is that their vision of leadership was cramped. An Egyptian-American friend commented to me that Morsi was “intransigent,” and that “there is more to democracy than the ballot box.” Yet the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to view their election as a form of entitlement. Their entitlement, however, meant a form of disenfranchisement for their opponents. Democracy works that way to a certain extent, of course; the question is just how much, and the ability of leadership to compromise and to navigate through troubled waters. In a true democracy, electoral majorities are seldom permanent or long-lasting.

In contrast, consider the case of Nelson Mandela. He had every bit as much reason to view election as entitlement after years of imprisonment, but he used those years to craft a vision of a post-apartheid society that would be inclusive and forgiving. Like Washington, who set the two-term precedent for U.S. leaders, Mandela chose to step down after serving once. He had set the tone, and that was enough. Clearly, South Africa has a long way to go, and Mandela’s leadership only scratched the surface of the problems it sought to address, but he did not suffer from hubris. Quite the opposite. Likewise, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, facing protests both unexpected and widespread, chose not to crack down but to respond with measures seeking to respond to the more reasonable grievances. Brazil has made enormous progress in the last 20 years; the protests demonstrate that Brazilians, given a taste of prosperity, have learned that they can push hard for even more—without the military repression of half a century ago. Given her commitment to improving public transit infrastructure, some of Rousseff’s promises may serve to improve Brazilian society anyway, much as the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights measures were an entirely sensible response to the American civil rights movement in the 1960s.

I am not saying any of this to comment directly on whether military involvement in Egypt’s struggle to achieve a functioning democracy is good or bad, a step forward or back. The relationship between the Egyptian public and the Egyptian military is fraught with features unique to Egyptian history, which is worth studying before one jumps to too many conclusions about what it all means. But I am saying that there is a relationship between our Independence Day and their protests, and there is a common cord in humanity that responds to the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s the fact that we can see through the tunnel to perceive that light in the first place that motivates us.


Jim Schwab