Beating the Bug Takes Time

This is not the more substantive discussion I had intended to post this weekend. I had planned some explorations of the concept of community resilience, based on recent travels and meetings that allowed me to help explore such topics, and other initiatives in which I am involved would have allowed me to elaborate on the theme in subsequent posts once I started.

Fate intervened in the form of a microscopic being that somehow manages to waylay us human beings. As early as last Sunday, without knowing the precise cause, I began to sense that unnerving malaise that often precedes a full assault by some sort of virus or bacteria. But I got through the week until Thanksgiving morning, when a slight chill the night before became a sore throat, which was not yet enough to keep me from helping fix dinner for 15 people at our home that day. I took personal responsibility for the turkey, stuffing, salad, and yams, and my wife did the rest. While not terribly energetic, I made it through the dinner, but slowly lost steam into the evening. By the time our guests had left, I was exhausted.

But I had plans for the weekend—lots of work I wanted to catch up on, reviewing proposals for a federal grant competition, writing a briefing paper on the use of visioning exercises in post-disaster recovery planning, and other items that keep me busy. Not that I didn’t plan to relax a bit, but I had things that needed to get done.

For the most part, they are still waiting, and the bug that bit me has taught me yet again that my agenda is not always the one that will prevail. A mild fever kicked in, as did throat and sinus congestion, and an overall feeling that my personal energy level was badly depleted. In short, the last four days have made clear that some of the things I want to attend to will simply have to wait because I lack the immediate resilience to make them happen within my intended time frame. Personal resilience is not always a matter of snapping back into prime condition in a day or two; sometimes it is a matter of outlasting the affliction through sheer patience and persistence. I simply decided that, if I could not maintain adequate mental focus for the tasks that lay ahead, those tasks would have to wait. To persist with a level of exertion that denies your body the restorative rest it needs to put things right may well extend the visitation of the offending bug.

I’m a very poor fatalist, overall, but I do understand that in some cases, it pays to just wait it out.

You’ll hear more from me on community resilience later. For now, personal resilience seems a more appropriate topic.


Jim Schwab

Living in an Integrated World

Little more than a week ago (October 28-29), I was participating in a conference in Broomfield, Colorado, north of Denver, sponsored by the Association of State Floodplain Managers, a national organization of 16,000 members dedicated to better floodplain management in the U.S. The conference was the Sixth Triennial Flood Mitigation and Floodproofing Workshop. Along with Julie Baxter, a former staff member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Region VIII office in Denver, who recently left to join the new consulting firm, Risk Prepared, as a planner, I presented a mini-workshop on “Mitigation Planning Integration with Comprehensive Planning.”

Julie Baxter's opening slide, borrowing a cartoon from the Natural Hazards Observer

Julie Baxter’s opening slide, borrowing a cartoon from the Natural Hazards Observer

The first thing I am aware of is the need to explain what that actually means. It sounds like technical jargon, right? Or at least like a typical Germanic-language habit of stacking up nouns atop each other, most of which actually function as modifiers for the words that follow. Which is to say that technical English tends to use nouns as adjectives, but the end result sounds like gobbledygook. I know.

So here’s the story for those not already immersed in disaster lingo: In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Disaster Mitigation Act. Troubled by the rising costs of post-disaster rebuilding, Congress wanted to make states and communities more accountable for how they used federal disaster assistance. The law, in essence, stated that, henceforth, states and communities would receive no federal grants for hazard mitigation projects unless those states and communities had prepared a plan that won FEMA approval for meeting the standards of the statute (and FEMA’s implementing regulations) and was subsequently approved by the governing body, for example, a city council. Fourteen years later, FEMA can count the law a substantial success in that it has induced more than 20,000 local jurisdictions to prepare or adopt such plans. (Communities can choose to participate in a multijurisdictional plan instead of preparing one that is uniquely their own.)

That sounds wonderful, but there has been a problem, and it is only slowly going away. FEMA’s middle initials, after all, are “Emergency Management,” and the agency’s innate tendency is to stovepipe its programs through the state level with its equivalent agencies—state-level emergency management agencies or departments. They, in turn, work with their local partners. All of that is wonderful with regard to disaster response, which defines the core programs of emergency management—evacuation, search and rescue, restoring utility services, etc. Hazard mitigation, however, deals with permanent or long-term ways of reducing the probabilities of a community suffering loss of lives and property in disasters. Much hazard mitigation necessarily implicates issues of land-use planning and regulatory controls, such as zoning and subdivision regulations, which are largely the expertise of urban planners. The issue is both how and where we build. Success in this realm depends heavily on getting urban planners and emergency managers to collaborate, but often it has not happened. The emergency managers prepare the local hazard mitigation plan to comply with DMA, and the planners are either uninterested or on the outside of the process, looking in.  None of that expedites the efficient implementation of cost-effective hazard mitigation measures in our communities, and the losses from natural disasters continue to mount, while development in hazardous areas is not always questioned in a timely or effective manner.

The solution is to bake hazard mitigation into all aspects of the local planning process, from visioning and goal setting through comprehensive planning and on to financing and implementing the plan’s vision with regard to creating a more disaster-resilient community (presuming such a vision exists within the plan). One solution is to make the local hazard mitigation plan required by DMA for funding eligibility either part of, referenced by, or an element in, the local comprehensive plan that guides development in the community. That was, in effect, the underlying vision of a Planning Advisory Service Report we produced (and I edited and co-authored) at the American Planning Association in 2010.

In Broomfield on October 28, I took the matter one step further. I strongly suggested it was now time not only to include hazard mitigation in the local comprehensive plan, but some type of pre-event planning for post-disaster recovery as well. I announced that APA in December is due to release our newest effort, funded by FEMA like the hazard mitigation study, titled Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation, a complete overhaul of an earlier study we produced in 1998, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction. There are certain things we can do before we know what specific kind of disaster will strike our communities, and when, I told the assembled planners, and some things that must await knowledge of a specific pattern of damage resulting from a disaster. Those we can address beforehand, in order to give our communities a leg up in kick-starting their recovery, are the organization of a recovery management structure and certain policy goals guiding the recovery effort. With those two key points already settled, a community can regain crucial weeks and months that might otherwise be wasted after a disaster in establishing an effective strategy for planning and implementing recovery. In fact, as part of the new report, APA just released our new Model Recovery Ordinance, prepared by Kenneth C. Topping, a veteran California planner who, among other experience, was once the planning director for the city of Los Angeles. He has worked on and studied this question for a number of years and developed incomparable expertise. I have enjoyed working with him for the past two decades.

None of this should surprise anyone, even outside the field of disaster preparedness, who has thought more broadly about the need for more integrated approaches to managing the problems of business and government in the modern world. The old ways of compartmentalizing and bureaucratizing our responses to social and business problems is still with us, of course, but it is a dying breed. The path to creative solutions and business and community resilience lies with those who can think about and pursue integrated, collaborative solutions.


Jim Schwab

One Thing Leads to Another

I have been to my fair share of presentations on disaster-related issues. When I hear a particularly good presentation, I know it is good because I have a lot of others to which I can compare it. Sometimes local planners, emergency managers, and engineers, among others, can bring a certain parochial flavor to their presentations. I think this is usually the result of not having either the experience or the inclination to think beyond the set of problems and challenges immediately before them.

But there are also those who have thought bigger thoughts, figured out larger patterns, and validated them through observation and experience. Last week, at a conference in Broomfield, Colorado, north of Denver, I heard one such presentation that I thought gave listeners something serious to think about.

The Association of State Floodplain Managers, which is based in Madison, Wisconsin, was holding its Sixth Triennial Flood Mitigation and Floodproofing Workshop. I was invited to help present a 90-minute workshop on the integration of hazard mitigation into comprehensive planning, a subject I will address in a forthcoming blog. Before I do that, however, I thought it more important to discuss what Brian Varrella, an engineer and certified floodplain manager for the city of Fort Collins, Colorado, discussed in a plenary presentation based in part on his city’s experience with serious floods in September 2013.

Varrella did not settle for merely telling us about the extent of the flood and resulting damages in Fort Collins, and how the city is rebuilding again. He took the audience back to some neglected basics. In teaching graduate urban planning students about hazard mitigation and disaster recovery at the University of Iowa, I often try to do the same thing early in the course. I stress that all hazard events involve some very basic equation rooted in physics. Want a wildfire? Combine oxygen, fuel, and heat. Want to predict the direction of a flood? Think about gravity, and you will find the water, which inevitably flows downhill. Of course, the specific circumstances of any disaster require some knowledge of the local conditions, particularly topography, to make that understanding useful. But the basic equations never go away.

What differentiates a disaster from a natural event—what, for instance, turns a hurricane into a disaster—is the presence of the built environment and humans in the path of that event. A hurricane (typhoon) passing over an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean does not produce a disaster. The same storm assaulting Miami becomes a disaster. The difference is what we have built in harm’s way.

What if the conditions exist for several hazards simultaneously? That is the Colorado challenge that Varrella addressed. Wildfire, he noted, creates other problems from one disaster, in part by baking the soil when it is particularly intense. Subsequent thunderstorms cannot penetrate the now hardened soil, and instead carry vegetative and muddy debris downhill into the watershed, producing “muddy material that is opaque,” water that is heavy with silt. The result is a more intense flood. Colorado, Varrella noted, lost 10 people in last year’s floods; that was fortunately not even close to the record of 140 lives lost in the Big Thompson flood of the 1970s.

Yet some solutions commonly used to mitigate future damages elsewhere cannot always work because of Colorado’s steep terrain. Elevation, for instance, is commonly used in riverine and coastal floodplains to place the living area of a home above projected elevations of future floods, as determined by National Flood Insurance Program maps. But in mountainous terrain, watersheds can rapidly migrate in flash floods, washing out the toe of ledges beneath houses on hillsides. Elevation does nothing to restore the underlying stability of the soil, but significant setbacks from such ledges may help. Varrella suggested that Colorado borrow standards for such situations from other states with similar experiences, citing Vermont, New Mexico, and Washington. He noted that flood insurance rate maps (known as FIRMs) do not show all hazards. “We must find a new way of doing business,” he said. Maps that are static in time are not prone to show or predict such dynamic erosion.

It is always helpful when such a speaker has a set of recommendations for moving forward with a dynamic, complex problem, and Varrella did, so here goes:

• Create a framework for understanding wildfire and flood as cascading, related events.

• Reduce the human side of the disaster equation, for example, by requiring setbacks in the cases cited above.

• Treat wildfires as a prelude to the sequence of floods followed by erosion and debris.

• Change our hydraulic and hydrological practices to think in the fourth dimension of time; advocate for unsteady hydraulic models that reflect dynamic realities.

• Collaborate as a watershed among local governments. The watershed is the most efficient level at which to mitigate damages from wildfire and flooding; combine resources, stakeholders, and solutions.

• Communicate all natural hazards to the public. Establish flood warning systems before wildfires ever happen.

• Break the fire-flood-erosion cycle by managing forests as assets, not just resources.

• More helicopters, please; get eyes above the ground to see what’s happening on the ground in a timely fashion in order to save lives.

It’s a tall agenda, but a sensible one that is manageable if we focus on the problem. I think he’s clearly on the right track.

Jim Schwab