Discussing Drought in California

Drought is just different from other kinds of disasters. It has a very slow onset, so slow that affected regions often do not realize they are ensnared in a prolonged drought until months or even years have passed and water supplies are severely depleted. How do we better plan for these drawn-out, stress-inducing, patience-draining tests of a community’s endurance?

Back in July, I was contacted by host Steve Baker at KVMR Radio in Nevada City, California, to join other experts on a one-hour show exploring this vital question, one that has been testing the patience and resilience of nearly 40 million Californians for the past couple of years. I joined the show from a hotel in Washington, D.C., but followed it online until I joined the discussion. Subsequently, KVMR shared the recording and allowed its use on the American Planning Association’s Recovery News blog. Two days ago we posted it, so I am linking the more than 7,500 current subscribers to this blog by offering a direct link here to the one-hour show. If the California drought concerns you, or you simply want to learn more, please listen.

Jim Schwab

Prepared for Disaster in Maui

Paradise is not always paradise. Hawaii generally is vulnerable to a number of potential disasters, including tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, drought, and, in the case of the Big Island, volcanoes (although not of the explosive variety). The entire archipelago is nature’s creation following volcanic uplift in the middle of the ocean over millions of years of geologic time. Humans have occupied these islands for less than a millennium, after their discovery by Polynesian explorers, and Europeans only discovered them in 1776, at the time of the American Revolution, when England’s Captain Cook landed there. We are a mere blip in the evolution of the Hawaiian landscape. It is best we approach such landscapes with humility, for our own sake.

Officials in Maui County, which includes not only the island of Maui but the nearby smaller islands of Molokai, Lanai, and Kahoolawe, seem to realize as much. The best way to convey what they are doing to prepare Maui County for future hazardous events is to let them speak for themselves. In August, at the American Planning Association, we taped a podcast interview with both James Buika, a planner for the county, and Tara Owens, a coastal hazards specialist who has worked with the county on behalf of Hawaii Sea Grant. They explained the county’s planning process to prepare for future disaster recovery needs, including sensitive approaches to native cultural concerns.

Click here to listen to this 23-minute podcast.

Jim Schwab

Fix the Little Things

I am writing this story about a week after the fact that triggered the idea for this blog post because I have pretty much been on the road (or in the air) ever since, and will complete the two-week stretch of travel tomorrow with a flight to Tulsa. On Monday, September 14, I will give the opening speech there for the Disaster Risk Reduction Ambassadors Pilot Workshop of the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association. It is not the biggest assignment in the world, but an important one.

The fact that I am on the move to that degree, however, has a great deal to do with the point of this story. To the extent that they can do so, frequent travelers appreciate the willingness and ability of airlines, rental car companies, and others whose clientele we are to make our journeys just a little bit easier instead of more challenging. In that context, sometimes a little bit of common sense goes a long way. I am not writing to pick on Budget Rental specifically, nor on the Sacramento International Airport, but I certainly am using them as an example of a problem because they provide a case in point.

I was in Sacramento September 3 to help deliver a pilot workshop, and then, because the rates were so much cheaper, chose to take a 6:00 a.m. flight on US Airways to Phoenix the next morning, followed by a connection from there back to Chicago, where I live. I might have liked a later flight with a shorter layover in Phoenix, but I also wanted to get home at a decent hour, it’s a long trip, and the alternatives were more expensive. Projects have budgets, and flights between Sacramento and Chicago seem to be rather costly these days. The workshop was almost 20 miles from the airport, so renting a car made sense. Budget had the best deal.

So on that Friday morning, I set my alarm for 3:00 a.m., got up and dressed, and packed, and was on the road back to the airport by 4:00 a.m. Traffic at that hour, even in California, is not much of a problem, so that went smoothly, and the GPS kept me painlessly on track. The problem arose only as I got near the rental return station, on McNair Circle, which is almost literally a circular area within which all the rental car facilities are located.

Then things went haywire. It is dark at 4:30 or 4:40 a.m., when I approached. I eventually saw a small sign along the side of the road listing all the rental firms for returns, but did not see an entrance behind that sign. I found myself circling McNair Circle, and coming in for a landing on a second try. Again, I saw the sign, but could not identify the entrance, although I had noticed an employee-only parking lot. On my third try, I pulled into that lot so that I could get off the street and call Budget to clarify the location of the entrance for rental car returns. I discovered that the envelope containing my contract had only an 800, not a local, number, but I tried it. I was soon launched into meaningless waits for no one in particular, and began to get nervous as I watched the time slip away toward 5:00 a.m., knowing that, even after I turned in the car, I would still need to board a shuttle into the terminal.

In the midst of my frustration, I saw a car enter and park, so I left my car and approached the gentleman, who was wearing a Budget shirt, and asked for directions to return my car. He told me to leave the parking lot, turn right, follow the circle, and turn right at the next entrance. I found myself skeptical but willing to try, having passed the same area twice already. But sure enough, before the sign I had seen earlier, I discovered a small entrance, somewhat shrouded in the dark by roadside foliage, and turned right. I drove back a small distance and discovered the return location and the same employee to whom I had spoken, but he did not handle the returns. In a minute, a young lady came out of the hut, relieving my anxiety because it was 5:00 by now and I was getting anxious to move on. I had carry-on luggage but still needed to go through security. One never knows how long that line will be.

As she checked the car and gave me a receipt, I hurriedly told her that the entrance was very poorly marked and hard to see in the dark.

“I hear that all the time,” she said, rather matter-of-factly. I did not argue the point, but in my mind, I thought, “And no one does anything about it?”

But my first priority by then was not to make an issue of it, but to catch the shuttle and get to the airport. I suspect most other patrons have done much the same thing. Fortunately, a shuttle was waiting in front of the main building, and I boarded. I mentioned my experience to a man sitting across the aisle from me as we departed.

“I agree,” he said. “I missed that entrance once myself.”

Now, I will confess that I have not checked further at either Budget or the Sacramento International Airport to find out who is actually responsible for the signage on McNair Circle or the visibility of the entrance for rental car returns. I have not had time, and having made myself clear at the time I returned the vehicle, I don’t feel I have to make it my responsibility. Nor did I have time to get out my camera and take photos of the entrance to make my point. My objective was to board my flight on time.

If Budget employees in fact hear this complaint as often as the young lady admitted, the problem should be obvious anyway. Whether it is ultimately the responsibility of the various rental car firms that share the space in McNair Circle, or that of the airport authority, does not matter to me. The firms and the airport officials undoubtedly talk to each other once in a while, or can. If well aware of a problem, they can put it on their agenda to fix it. But it is apparent that it may not be on any agenda if the lady at Budget hears this complaint “all the time.”

One might think that a company trying to make travel easier in order to attract customers would want to ensure that they do not leave in frustration because a problem like this goes unaddressed. I don’t care whose job it is. As I said, if they know people have experienced a problem repeatedly, they can talk to each other and find a way to resolve it.

Failure to respond is the real failure in customer service. Little things often matter in big ways. Fixing them shows that an agency or company cares. Enough said.


Jim Schwab