Katrina at 10

Eminent Domain for Who

All photos by Stephen D. Villavaso

For the first time since launching this blog,  I have invited a guest author, Stephen D. Villavaso, a New Orleans native, urban planner, and land-use attorney, to comment on today’s tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf Coast. I was heavily involved not only in the Shreveport conference he mentions below in October 2005, but also in the subsequent Louisiana Recovery and Rebuilding Conference in New Orleans the following month, and supplied Steve with the “boxes of books” to which he refers, which consisted of copies of APA’s 1998 report, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction, which he dutifully distributed to fellow professionals in the weeks that followed. I am happy to turn over this forum to Steve on this special occasion.

How Do We Set the Right Tone for an Anniversary, a Milestone….a Birthday??

by Stephen D. Villavaso, J.D., FAICP

Ten years seem like a long time to someone growing up, but not so long to mature elders watching and nurturing a new budding person. Some may even tire of the annual milestone review that seems to redundantly and almost imperceptibly move toward some unknown completion. Such may be the feelings people entertain as the ten-year milestone of the events centered on Hurricane Katrina arrives.

House for sale, tree for free.

House for sale, tree for free.

First, some myths need to be dissolved in favor of some clear starting points. Hurricane Katrina did “hit” on August 29, 2005. But more importantly, dozens – no, hundreds, possibly thousands –of events cascaded (and continue to cascade) from the moment of the so-called “hit.” Lives lost, homes destroyed, neighborhoods shattered, and cultures wrecked are but a few that should be marked in time and remembered. New beginnings, renewed faith, technology advancements, and new ideas and creativity should also be hallmarked and remembered. Remembered because “ten” is an important benchmark (a birthday?), some might say.

Katrina-fatigue was, and continues to be, discussed and experienced in many areas. In movies, songs, political speeches, product placement ads, and even in publishing, the Katrina-fatigue syndrome has caused many glazed eyes, bad reviews, and the occasional attack on the underlying motivations. Urban planners have not been immune to any of these phenomena surrounding Katrina. Within the first six hours of the “hit”, communications between planners at local, state, federal, and international levels exploded the airways.

LNW ground zeroTen years ago the “airways” were primitive as compared to the instant, high speed, always-connected cyberspace a mere decade later. To say that bandwidth was very restricted is a geeky way to say the phones just plain did not work very well. Flip phone texting was slow and unreliable, and most people did not even know how to do it. Land lines in the general vicinity of the hit (within 100 miles) were gone for the most part, and the few satellite phones in use almost never worked. The systems that did work were the existing professional and cultural networks that had been established prior to and nurtured since these events. Getting out of the impacted zone was a key step in linking communications out and then eventually back into the areas.

These exploded airways actually resulted in a sort of boundary of communication accessibility that existed around the most impacted areas. The mobilization of planning resources began in Shreveport, Louisiana, at the already scheduled October 2005 state conference of the Louisiana Chapter of the American Planning Association. This North Louisiana location was just far enough away from the impacted zone to allow for the dialogue and planning solutions to emerge.  Ironically, the conference was almost cancelled due to incredible logistic issues (i.e., air service limitations and infrastructure failures). These hurdles were overcome with two other significant forces that also served to overcome the psychological roadblocks: the dogged local perseverance to recover and the sincere national commitment to assist. Thus, within 72 hours of the impact of Katrina, national and state APA leaders made the decision to stay the course and convene the state conference on schedule, albeit with a new, urgent focus. So now another point of remembrance is this unique gathering of the best and brightest planning minds that converged in Shreveport to begin the dialogue of replanning neighborhoods, restarting communities, recharging regions, and reconnecting these levels with the rest of the state and even the nation. These events that emerged from the early days after the hit have rocketed the field of what was called “disaster recovery” into the robust science of resilience planning and implementation mandates that serves city planners and decision makers a mere decade later.

Subsequent hurricanes (i.e., Rita, Gustave, Ike, Sandy, and others); inland riverine flooding in Kansas, Colorado, and other basins; almost regular earthquakes (followed by tsunamis) along the western U.S. fault zones; and the now cyclical drought/fire/landslide scenarios have continuously added chapters, techniques, and new policy initiatives and solutions to the planners’ resilient recovery toolbox.

A ten-year milestone is an important mark in an event’s history if it can teach or continue to teach.  Teaching a community to be better prepared (to plan), of course, is fundamental, but for urban planners, the “teachable moment” never ends. The dozens of stories that should be documented on this anniversary will be told. These planning stories should be viewed through many lenses.  One key focal point is the role of the American Planning Association (APA). APA landed in Shreveport ten years ago with the best minds on the planet, boxes of books, some meager funding sources, and an undaunted spirit to “build belter communities.” That moment continues, the remembrance is important, and the story needs to be told and retold.

Stephen D. Villavaso is a New Orleans native whose family has lived in New Orleans for 300 years. For the past forty years Steve has worked as an urban planner/professor/attorney, spending the last ten (post-Katrina) years rebuilding his home, city and state, in that order. See his full bio.

Financing Environmental Infrastructure

DSC00626For a number of years, the American Society of Civil Engineers has been issuing an annual report card on the condition of the nation’s infrastructure. Generally speaking, those grades have not been good: In 2013, the nation’s grade point average was a D+. It is not my intent in this short post to review all the deficiencies that ASCE describes, although I will note that part of the problem is a penny-wise, pound-foolish national politics that is so concerned about lowering taxes that it has lost sight of the value of investing wisely in the nation’s future. National, state, and local economic development all depend crucially on well-functioning infrastructure. The fear of raising taxes to pay for important infrastructure repair is short-sighted and ultimately unpatriotic.

Essential pieces of the national infrastructure are and should be environmentally related: water and wastewater treatment plants, sewer and water delivery pipes, green infrastructure that helps to mitigate stormwater runoff, and so on. Much of that environmental infrastructure also serves to mitigate natural hazards and thus reduce damages from major storms and other disasters. Regions affected by prolonged drought have learned the hard way, in many cases, that water-conserving infrastructure is critical to drought resilience.

How do we find new ways to pay for all this? The real point of this short blog post is simply to link the reader to a video interview by me with Dr. Jack Kartez, a long-time professor of urban planning at the University of Southern Maine. Dr. Kartez also serves as director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 1 Environmental Finance Center, which is hosted at the university but serves all of New England. This is the second of two interviews we conducted during the July 20-22 Natural Hazards Workshop in Broomfield, Colorado, this summer under the auspices of the American Planning Association’s Hazards Planning Center. I think he offers some valuable insights into solving some of our problems in this arena.


Jim Schwab

Flood Regulations Not a Taking


In a ruling on August 12—just four days ago—the South Carolina Supreme Court, in Columbia Venture v. Richland County, did the nation a great favor that, I suspect, stands little if any chance, in my opinion, of being overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court even if it is appealed by the developer that filed the case against Richland County. The Association of State Floodplain Managers is happy with the decision, as well they should be, having played a role by filing a significant amicus curiae, or “friend of the court” brief on behalf of the county, which includes the state capital of Columbia.

The essence of the case is that Columbia Venture, a joint venture firm led by Burroughs & Chapin, a developer based in the Myrtle Beach area, sued over Richland County’s application of floodplain regulations based on an expansion of the floodway and regulatory floodplain by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) while the firm was acquiring the property from an area farmer about a decade ago. Curiously, Columbia Venture argued that the taking of its property that it alleged began in 2002, at the time FEMA revised its flood maps, as the date the taking occurred, even though it was suing the county for its regulatory actions.

Columbia Venture was clearly hoping to produce a major development in acquiring 4,461 acres of land along the Congaree River for $18 million, although the Columbia Venture was an attempt to muster adequate investment when Burroughs & Chapin had commitments of only $11 million. The farmer selling the property was persuaded to take $6.65 million in shares as part of this process. Columbia Venture was also relying to some extent on public investment in levees under a county resolution that included a number of contingencies that failed to materialize. Those facts helped persuade the court that the company’s investment-backed expectations were unrealistic.

Ultimately, prior to the state high court decision, Columbia Venture sold about two-thirds of its land, mostly to State Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, who farms in the area and say he has no plans to develop it. Land that began as farmland apparently will remain in farm use.

Among other points, Columbia Venture alleged that the county’s regulations prohibiting development in the floodway as newly defined by FEMA constituted a flood easement across its property without compensation. Both the trial court referee and the state high court disagreed, noting that any financial losses experienced by Columbia Venture were outweighed by “the important public purposes of mitigating the social and economic costs of flooding” served by the county’s ordinances, which also “further the important federal purposes” of reducing flood losses. Moreover, all county taxpayers and residents benefited “by reducing the County’s potential liability incurred in emergency response, rescue, evacuation, and other actions taken during a flood.”

Indeed. One might think that, in light of all the experience with flood damage of recent decades, this point would not even need to be argued anymore, but apparently some developers are still wont to try. Most, unlike Columbia Venture, are more inclined to recognize a bad or speculative investment in flood-prone land when they see one.

Frankly, the case also recognizes good planning. Rather than elaborate further, I encourage readers to explore the decision and resulting news coverage for themselves. But I will note that a footnote early in the decision quotes the testimony of former Richland County Planning Director Michael Criss with regard to the public safety benefits of the county’s regulations:

The federal flood maps do not account for the continued urbanization and development of the corresponding watersheds and the resulting increase in stormwater runoff and potential flooding . . . . The federal flood maps are not retrospective. They rely on historical flood records and don’t project th potential of increased flooding in the future from urbanization or from the possibility of more intense storms due to climate change.

This is a victory for good floodplain management, sensible planning in the interest of public safety, and for common sense. Supporters of effective hazard mitigation have reason to celebrate.

Jim Schwab

Postscript: The day after I first posted the above article, APA posted on its Recovery News blog my video interview with Chad Berginnis, the executive director of ASFPM, about the new Federal Flood Risk Management Standard. View it here.

It’s Okay to Fail (Sometimes)

Ascension Parish Strike SceneJust in case anyone out there is unduly impressed with my intelligence, I have a revelation: I flunked calculus in my first quarter of my freshman year in college. I was attending Cleveland State University on Kiwanis scholarship money, no less. Not that I really understood what hit me or saw it coming, and that’s the point. I entered with high SAT scores, and the guidance counselor duly noted that I had high placement scores for both Spanish and Mathematics. She recommended a fifth-quarter placement for Spanish though my three years in high school ordinarily equated to fourth-quarter placement. We ended up choosing more conservatively, and I aced both the fourth and fifth quarters of Spanish to complete my language requirement. I probably should have skipped that fourth quarter and taken the advanced placement. On the other hand, we stuck with the advanced placement in calculus, and it backfired. Not so good.

A little background is helpful, as it almost always is in understanding how and why any student performs at the college level. I entered the fall quarter on crutches because of an industrial accident late in the summer. I was earning money working in a chemical plant in a nearby Cleveland suburb, but the dome of an antimony kiln tipped over and trapped my ankle, which was fractured. I collected worker compensation for the next six weeks until the doctor removed the cast, at which time I hobbled for a while until I rebuilt strength in my left leg. That was certainly a distraction, but not a dire impediment. More importantly, but exacerbated by the injury, I had a tendency developed earlier in life not to reach out for help when I needed it, in part because of a stubborn tendency to assume I could figure things out, which I very often had done. I was in deep water in that calculus class, and by the time I realized I could not swim, I was drowning—even though the ankle had healed just fine.

In a subsequent quarter, I asserted some hard-working grit by getting permission to take 20 credits (the limit was 18), five courses instead of four, in order to regain the lost ground from that failed class. And I pushed my through that grinding schedule with respectable grades.

Failing that class, which may have cost me a renewal of the scholarship (I never found out), may have been vital, however, for my growth as a student. I worked two more summers in that chemical plant, which would only qualify as easy work if you enjoy such activities as unloading 50-pound bags of sulfur on a dolly from a railcar in 95-degree heat while wearing a face mask. I should note that my father worked there, too. He ran the garage and was the lead mechanic, repairing and maintaining all the trucks and forklifts and such. When I started college, he too was temporarily disabled. He was in the hospital with a disk injury that required lower back surgery that kept him out of work for six months. Suffice it to say that all the undergraduate tuition for my education came from my own savings from those summer and other seasonal jobs. Thank God for union wages. But it did mean that my education was for me a valuable commodity, hard earned and well paid for. Although I attended college from 1968 to 1973, in the midst of the civil rights, Vietnam war, and environmental protest era, and I did participate in all those causes, I was decidedly not inclined to get silly about drugs, sex, and parties because it was my money that was paying for that education. It makes a difference.

There is a certain right-wing mythology in American politics that says such self-reliance induces a conservative outlook in life. What it does, which has little to do with modern American conservatism in my opinion, is instill a strong dose of resilience and common sense. That may or may not lead to a conservative political outlook. In my case, it led to a strong identification with those struggling to get ahead and a willingness to balance the social scales better than we typically do. My intellectual curiosity drove me to learn more about other cultures and lifestyles and perspectives.

I should also add that I had a powerful hankering to write, one that has asserted itself repeatedly throughout my life and career. It seemed at first that majoring in English made sense; the university did not offer a major in journalism. I enjoyed reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald and 17th-century English novelists for a while, and the honors English classes in which I was placed were stimulating. But I soon realized that another part of me was itching to be born. In high school, perhaps in part because of nerdy tendencies, such as they came in the 1960s, I was somewhat withdrawn. Our high school was a high performer, and I was on an academic quiz show team, but no matter. I never felt that I fit in very easily, but I was president of the Writers Club and active in one or two other groups—but nothing major.

At Cleveland State, however, I quickly found that my inner extrovert was eagerly waiting to burst its shell, and the higher intellectual climate was just what I needed to find my comfort zone. I started doing less well in those honors English classes as I became heavily involved in campus politics, at one point running credibly but unsuccessfully for president of the student government. I founded Cleveland State’s first student environmental group and led it for three years. It was time to blend my academic studies with my real life aspirations, and I shifted my major to political science, which undoubtedly aided my GPA. Suddenly my activities and my studies bore some relation to each other. I could excel again.

None of this led to instant change. It led to perpetual evolution. It took years for many of the seeds planted in those college years to grow and mature, and failure contributed to that growth and maturation every bit as much as any success along the way. Someday I may need a whole book to relate the entire story, and right now I lack the free time to write it thoughtfully and thoroughly. But in all the discussion of resilient communities of which I am a part, I am at least willing to offer that, beneath all the intellectual definitions of resilience, some of us also harbor perspectives on resilience that are built on a solid foundation of personal experience. And in real life, those perspectives matter every bit as much in collectively defining resilience as any words in a dictionary or scientific report.


Jim Schwab