The People Affected by Harvey

A few days ago, in my last post, I wrote that Hurricane Harvey would last a few days, but the recovery would last years. However agonizingly long Harvey appears to be taking to inflict its misery on the Texas Gulf Coast, and now parts of southern Louisiana, it will go away. And then the real marathon will begin. People will have to face the necessity of reconstruction, both as individuals and as whole communities.

In writing about this now, I am crediting readers with a longer attention span than seems to be assumed of most Americans on social media today. I truly hope, however, that the news media does not forget about Harvey or the Gulf Coast as the recovery process grinds on over coming months and years. Certainly, most residents of the Texas coast will have little choice but to bear with the process, and ideally, they will participate. Recovery needs to be as participatory as possible to succeed fully.

FEMA teams managing the distribution of water, and meals for hundreds of semi-trucks at an incident Support Base in Seguin, Texas. Photo by Dominick Del Vecchio – Aug 29, 2017 (from FEMA website) 

It will not always be a pretty picture. The news media in recent days have been full of photographic and video evidence of the best aspects of humanity—people in boats rescuing neighbors and strangers alike, public safety personnel risking personal safety as they save people from flooded homes and transport them to shelters, and other heroic acts away from cameras and too numerous to count. People from other states and nations will contribute to disaster-related charities to help people they have never known and may never meet. Politics and race and religion will all take a back seat to saving lives and reducing suffering. For just a brief moment in history, we can stop shouting at each other long enough to care for each other and be proud of one another.

Several years ago, Rebecca Solnit produced an intriguing book, A Paradise Built in Hell, that explored many of the positive community-building relationships that emerge when people are challenged by adverse circumstances such as major natural disasters. It is a journalistic journey through the informal alliances and communities created by people under what seemingly are the worst possible conditions, but which challenge our humanity and force us to consider how we value those around us. It is an optimistic book that forces readers to rethink what it means to live through a disaster. I have always hoped that it would spark similar efforts among academic researchers, particularly in the social sciences, to study this phenomenon more closely. I think that is happening to some extent, but perhaps not nearly enough.

The Texas Gulf Coast communities stricken by Harvey will need as much of that spirit as they can muster to produce successful long-term recovery. Recovery takes years because, while no one wants to delay rebuilding unnecessarily, hasty rebuilding that fails to consider the failure points that allowed destruction to occur is even more undesirable. Under considerable time pressures, which researchers Robert Olshansky and Laurie Johnson, both wonderful friends of mine, have notably referred to as the problem of “time compression” in disaster recovery, planners and local and state officials will need to meet with constituents, hear their concerns, explain both the obstacles and opportunities involved in reconstruction, and ideally, inform the public process to help lead to a better outcome. During this time, minor and modest repairs may go forward while the bigger decisions, like where to buy out damaged properties, how to rebuild infrastructure and to what new standards, and how to produce a stronger, more resilient community to handle future disasters may need to undergo vigorous debate.

I point this out because, inevitably, and despite Solnit’s rosy scenarios in the context of community building, tempers will rise and people will need to iron out significant differences and widely varying perceptions of the causes of, and solutions to, the damage that occurred. There will surely be some debate about Houston’s sprawling development patterns and relative lack of development controls. There may be debates about strengthening building or zoning codes or, in Houston, the absence of zoning. If there is any echo of Hurricane Sandy, there may be discussion of a greater role for green infrastructure in mitigating hazards, though that alone would have made only modest difference in the flooding from Harvey, but it might have helped.

More importantly, people will have undergone trauma that will make them deeply and justifiably emotional about the disruption of their lives. They will bring that trauma, and a need to vent and share their fears and anger, to public meetings. Public officials will need to exhibit patience because, as Christine Butterfield, another good friend who served as community development director in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, during and after the 2008 floods, has noted, those public gatherings will be therapeutic. People may cry, they may yell, they may accuse. Most of all, they need to know that someone else wants to hear and share their pain. They want to know that someone cares. Once most have achieved that comfort level, they may be ready to move forward and discuss options for recovery. But first, community leaders must build trust.

Some people may never trust, and the rest of the community may need to move on. Life is not perfect. Human beings are not perfect. Recovery cannot wait forever, but it must demonstrate compassion and a commitment to social equity.

In a few weeks, the entire process will begin, and people will decide what role they want to play. Leaders will arise in unexpected places. Just last week, my students at the University of Iowa School or Urban and Regional Planning, during a field trip with which I launch my course on “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery” every year, heard from United Methodist pastor Clint Twedt-Ball, a co-founder and executive director of Matthew 25, a community organization that arose from almost nothing after the 2008 floods in Cedar Rapids to help rebuild 25 blocks of downtrodden neighborhoods in the city, raising money but also making tough decisions about what would work and what would not. Nine years later, his organization is still working to make a difference. Before 2008, Clint would confess, he knew next to nothing about floods or community development. My guess is that now he could nearly write a book. Who knew?

Watch Houston, and Rockport, and Corpus Christi, and all the other cities on the Texas Gulf Coast for both surprises and struggles, and mostly for deep human engagement in solving massive redevelopment problems the likes of which most of us will never have to confront. And be ready to cheer them on when good things happen. They are likely to need the encouragement from time to time.

Jim Schwab

Initial Observations on Harvey

Map from National Weather Service. http://www.weather.gov/akq/Harvey

For the people of the Texas Gulf Coast, the rain and winds of Hurricane Harvey are just the beginning of a long journey. The storm will last a few days. The recovery will last years.

Destruction in the Bolivar Peninsula after Hurricane Ike in 2008

I am not there, so I can only surmise, based on the news coverage I have seen, the full extent of the damage and suffering that people are enduring in Corpus Christi, Houston, Galveston, and hundreds of other communities in a wide arc that has fallen under the impact of this storm. I do not even expect that people there will read this, certainly not right now. Nonetheless, it may be worthwhile to offer some insights to people elsewhere. I have never lived or worked in Texas, but I have been there numerous times and visited Louisiana more often than I can remember. I saw first-hand the devastation wrought in the Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston after Hurricane Ike. I have worked with people in Texas, including those at the Texas A&M Hazards Reduction and Recovery Center, over many years. They have educated me greatly on the vulnerabilities of their state.

With all due humility, therefore, but also with experience from other disasters over the past quarter-century, I offer some observations that may enhance what readers of this blog may learn from the news.

Photo from NOAA. The NOAA/NASA Suomi NPP satellite captured this infrared image of Hurricane Harvey just prior to making landfall along the Texas coast on August 25, 2017 at 18:55 UTC. NOAA’s National Hurricane Center has clocked Harvey’s maximum sustained winds at 110 miles per hour with higher gusts. Infrared images like this one can help meteorologists identify the areas of the greatest intensity within large storm systems, such as the areas with the most intense convection, known as overshooting cloud tops (dark orange), surrounding the eye and along the outer bands. https://www.nnvl.noaa.gov/MediaDetail2.php?MediaID=2086&MediaTypeID=1

First, this is apparently a somewhat unusual storm system. It approached the coast just northeast of Corpus Christi as a Category 4 hurricane, although it is now downgraded to a tropical storm. That does not make it less dangerous. The Saffir-Simpson scale that is used to rate hurricane strength deals only with wind speeds. Winds are certainly important, especially when they reach the 130 mile-per-hour range that was the peak for this event. Winds have, from all the visual evidence on the various news outlets I have watched, wreaked tremendous havoc along the coast, tearing apart buildings and overturning trailers and other vehicles. Moreover, hurricanes often spawn tornadoes, and some of the intermittent damage—that is, buildings ripped apart near others largely intact—suggests that this has occurred. In other words, if the more diffuse hurricane winds don’t get you, the tornado just might. It is no laughing matter. It is a wonder the death toll remains relatively low, although we almost surely don’t know the full tally just yet.

One specific impact that always accompanies coastal storms of this magnitude is storm surge, the waters pushed landward by the winds that in this case ranged from six  to twelve feet. These can do considerable damage in low-lying areas along the coast and may also exacerbate coastal erosion.

What makes the storm somewhat unusual also makes it dangerous even after being downgraded to a tropical storm. The storm system appears to have stalled a bit on Sunday and may even be backing out into the gulf for another landfall. At least two very serious consequences can flow from this. One is that the stagnant storm front will dump immense amounts of rain over consecutive days. The projected precipitation totals, even larger than what has fallen so far, mount up, so that projections for many communities range as high as 50 inches. Keep in mind that 30 inches is ample rainfall for an entire year in many parts of the country, and almost no city in the United States is prepared to absorb even half that amount in just a few days. The average yearly rainfall in Houston is just shy of 50 inches.

Moreover, as the storm moves back out over the Gulf of Mexico, it may regain strength that storms typically lose as they make landfall. Tropical storms draw their strength from the warmth of the water over which they pass until they make landfall, after which wind speeds begin to die down. The water of the Gulf right now is in the mid- to high 80s Fahrenheit, reportedly a full two to three degrees above average. That is the source of the strength of Harvey. Regaining any strength from the warm Gulf waters is not a good omen for the Texas coast, and as the storm moves slowly northeast, more of this will affect Houston than was originally the case. That is why we are seeing such intense scenes of flooding in Houston: The storm began with enormous amounts of moisture and has moved along the coast at a snail’s pace, at times just a mile an hour. As the week progresses, however, the storm is projected to move northeast over Louisiana and Arkansas, weakening along the way.

Of course, those warm waters raise questions about the influence of global warming, a topic that does not always receive a warm reception in Texas political circles. It is impossible to say that a specific storm like Harvey would not have happened but for climate change. It is also possible to say very credibly that warmer waters make stronger storms possible. Warmer waters can reflect seasonal and yearly variations, but over time they can also reflect climatic trends. For now, let’s leave it at that. People will have plenty of time later to debate this topic. In due course, as recovery proceeds, it should become a topic of reasonable, informed public discourse.

Other factors are at work as well. The sheer extent of flooding reflects the inexorable fact that the ground in any area has limited capacity to absorb rain. The hydrological cycle allows much rain under normal circumstances to drain into the ground, depending on the types of soil present in any given location. Sand absorbs very well but does not provide a very solid building foundation. Clay provides a better foundation but does not absorb water as quickly. Soil types matter, therefore, but in urban areas we have complicated matters greatly with large quantities of impervious surface that absorb little or no water by design. Impervious surface includes buildings (with the limited exception of green roofs), paved surfaces like roads, parking lots, and driveways, and other structural impediments to the movement and absorption of water. Houston is a very large metropolitan area with the fourth-largest population among major cities in the U.S. Although it is making strides, it is also far from the greenest city in America. Like most major cities, the percentage of impervious surface varies widely, depending on density levels in specific neighborhoods and corridors. Flooding is also influenced by the quality of the drainage systems; Houston is challenged in this respect by low-lying, flat terrain. It is criss-crossed with numerous bayous and canals that provide paths for the movement of water but also have serious limits to the water they can absorb before spilling over onto streets and highways. Those water-filled streets are the main obstacle to evacuation for those who stayed behind. There comes a point where people are better off remaining in place than trying to move, which is why Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner chose not to recommend evacuation.

Some dangers of mass evacuation for 6.5 million people are self-evident: clogged highways that are rapidly filling with water, producing death traps for people in stranded vehicles. Pedestrians cannot see steep drop-offs in elevation as they wade through high waters and can trip and drown. In Houston, the bayous may also contain alligators, water moccasins, and other wildlife hazards that are more easily avoided in dry weather. Moreover, the sheer volume of water can produce eddies and swirls that catch people off guard, and not everyone will be strong enough to regain their footing. Finally, flood water is always dirty water, sometimes just plain filthy, posing a potentially serious threat to public health.

All that said, many other major cities suffer from similar problems. I can think of no city that is prepared for the sheer volume of water currently falling along the Texas coast.

The Texas Gulf Coast communities, therefore, will emerge from this storm with a widespread pattern of both wind- and flood-related damage that will vary significantly from one area to the next, but collectively the costs will probably skyrocket into tens of billions of dollars. It is impossible to know the full costs just yet, but this will almost surely rank as one of the most expensive disasters in U.S. history. The recovery will take years of planning and implementation. If done well, it will involve a great deal of reassessment of patterns of development along the Gulf Coast and of the quality and importance of building codes. Social equity considerations will demand a new examination of the location and quality of low-income housing and the adequacy of affordable housing. Development regulations have seldom been politically popular in Texas, a state that still has never empowered counties to enact zoning codes. Some coastal communities may also wish to look more closely at the prospect of undergrounding utility lines to protect them from hurricane winds.

Events can push public attitudes in new directions. Part of that may depend on new lines of thought gaining traction in the discussion of rebuilding after the disaster. That may require some degree of courageous political leadership. Some very significant changes occurred in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, including consolidation of levee district management, adoption of a statewide building code, and a charter amendment in New Orleans that gave a new master plan more control over development regulations. We should not make perverse assumptions about outcomes, just as we also should not be naïve about the obstacles. But in my time at the helm of the Hazards Planning Center of the American Planning Association, we certainly worked hard to create a thorough blueprint for those willing to advocate better planning in response to major and catastrophic disasters, and I assume APA remains prepared to further that discussion and provide technical assistance where it can.

There will also be plenty of help available from the federal government, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other agencies. We can only hope that Congress will sidestep much of its partisan bickering to ensure rapid allocation of the necessary resources. And we can hope that those resources and personnel are managed well to advance the recovery process, which is complicated and daunting.

One encouraging factor in the response has been the emergence of both willing volunteers and the effective use of social media to expedite search and rescue operations. The number of boats driven by volunteers rescuing people from rooftops and the interiors of flooded homes reminded me of the so-called Cajun Navy that operated throughout New Orleans in the desperate days that followed Hurricane Katrina. Disasters have a fortunate tendency in most cases to bring out the best in people, but we are also at a point in history where our new technologies facilitate the ability of willing heroes to find the people who most need help. Even the elderly and disabled are largely capable of dialing 911, or tweeting, or posting photos of their situation on Facebook, sharing their location, and pleading for help—and then finding their guardian angel at the front door with a motor boat. That is a huge advance from only a decade ago because it enables the willing volunteers to become effective heroes. If those civic and humanitarian instincts carry over into the slower grind of recovery, perhaps a stronger, more resilient Gulf Coast can yet rise from the mud, the grime, and the shattered buildings we see now.

Jim Schwab

A Brief American Declaration of Intelligence

Ignorance did not make America great. Ignorance will not make America great again. Let’s all vow to stop the glorification of #ignorance.

 

Like millions of other Americans, I have been deeply disturbed over the past week by the comments of President Donald Trump regarding the events last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia. I contemplated what I could possibly do or say in response to someone who seems to possess so little desire to educate himself on the basic issues of U.S. history or to consider the impact of his words on the people threatened by demonstrations of torch-bearing, bat-carrying, shield-wearing neo-Nazis chanting Nazi slogans and white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members invoking the horrors of the Confederacy. I finally concluded there is no point in refuting someone who clearly cares so little for the truth. The truth, in his mind, seems to be whatever he wants to believe is the truth.

Instead, I posted the statement above earlier today on both Twitter and Facebook as an offering to those other millions of Americans who cherish equality and dignity and understand that compassion and truth are the foundations of a better future for our nation. If I can share anything with America, it is a gift for condensing the message in articulate language, and so that is what I tried to do here. It is what I can do for my country at a moment when it is pining for clarity of purpose. We need to honor intelligence and intelligent, thoughtful inquiry concerning the kind of nation we want to become. We must rise above hateful slogans.

One reason I titled this blog “Home of the Brave” was that I felt we should not accede to the appropriation of our national symbols and phrases by extreme right-wing forces at odds with democracy for all. We need to keep in mind the closing words of the Pledge of Allegiance: “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Those who want more, and those who want to dispute my perspective, can dig through the rest of this website, and the rest of this blog, and parse and dissect it to their hearts’ content. I have left a long trail by now. But for tonight, at this time, my three-word statement above is what I have to offer. Share it, retweet it, put it on your placard or bumper sticker. But please insist on intelligent dialogue.

 

Jim Schwab

Our One-Day Peek at Oslo

Oslo is pleasant, scenic, historic, and modest enough in size to be easily navigated. You can learn a great deal about it quickly, but perhaps not as quickly as my wife and I were forced to do by circumstances. But we thoroughly enjoyed our short stay.

View of Oslo from our room at the Radisson Blu Scandinavia Hotel.

Despite better intentions, we had but one full day to explore Oslo. Our hopes for a second day, as noted in my last article, were dashed by a three-hour United Airlines flight delay out of Chicago that became a six-hour delay in reaching Oslo. In effect, we lost an entire Sunday afternoon that might have afforded us a greater opportunity to learn about the Norwegian capital before continuing to Bergen. But in this piece, I will focus on Oslo.

First, some general comments. Although I will not claim any sort of fluency, I usually try to learn at least the rudiments of the language of countries I visit. The only exception has been Spanish because I learned a great deal in high school and college long before working in the Dominican Republic in 2000 and 2001. In other cases, I have often had a relatively short window of opportunity between learning that I would travel on business to another country and had to cram mercilessly in a painfully limited amount of spare time. The most daunting such experience involved acquainting myself with a tiny amount of Sinhala before joining a team in Sri Lanka after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. I did much better with Italian in a short two-month window following an invitation to Venice, in part because it bears considerable similarity to Spanish. I thought I had a much longer window in planning our trip to Norway, but it followed my retirement from APA by just six weeks, and spare time was almost nonexistent before that. So, I squeezed most of it into a month, but I learned something important. As a Germanic language, Norwegian bears a substantial similarity to English in many respects, while retaining distinctive Scandinavian characteristics. But that similarity allowed me to begin making sense of things quickly. Once you are in the country, if you know a little bit of the language, you begin making sense of much more of it because of the constant exposure. Even that limited knowledge of the native language of the country you are visiting enriches the travel experience in unanticipated ways.

However, one factor limited that exposure even as it made life easier: Almost all Norwegians these days learn English from early elementary school and are fluent before they reach adolescence. Many then learn a third language in high school. Because of our short visit, however, that may have been just as well. It reduced confusion a great deal. Moreover, in places where tourists abound, such as hotels, airports, cruise ships, and museums, local familiarity with English is virtually universal. This will come as no surprise to veteran European travelers, but is worth sharing, perhaps, with newbies.

As a result, getting suggestions and directions was remarkably easy, enhanced by the almost universal friendliness of Norwegians in responding to visitors. We learned quickly that we could obtain an Oslopass for 24 or 72 hours that would allow us free access to numerous museums, the transit system, and ferries. The ferries were important because we decided to visit Norsk Folkemuseum (the Norwegian Folk Museum), which was in Bygdøy,a peninsula on the western side of Oslo that requires a ferry ride from the downtown area where our hotel, the Radisson Blu, was located. Fortunately, the harbor was at most a 15-minute walk from the hotel.

The path lay through the Royal Palace grounds. You can, by the way, take a tour of the palace, although we noticed that it was not included in Oslopass. With only one day, we regrettably decided to pass on the experience, but we certainly enjoyed the spacious grounds and shot some photos. We then followed our directions to the pier, only to find ourselves also passing the National Theatre, a delightful old building that made me wish we could stay to enjoy a concert. Again, time was our enemy. We shot more photos and continued to the pier, passing Oslo City Hall as well on the way because it sits right near the waterfront.

National Theatret in Oslo.

At that point, we unexpectedly discovered something we inexplicably had not thought about, but which was in the Oslopass package. The Nobel Peace Museum, with exhibits about the history of the Nobel Peace Prize and a nice gift shop for those seeking mementoes or books, sits right across from the dock. It was a wonderful serendipitous discovery, and we decided we would be fools not to visit.

Those less inclined to ponder some of the most serious questions of modern history may not enjoy the museum as we did. The current exhibit dealt with the efforts of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (the 2016 winner) to bring peace to his nation by negotiating a pact with the FARC rebels, ending a conflict that had raged for nearly five decades in some form, costing the lives of thousands of Colombian citizens killed by rebels or paramilitary forces, often in connection with deadly drug cartels. Those stories are sobering enough. But there is a room illuminated by soft glow lights with haunting background music and winding rows of brief explanations about the dozens of Nobel Peace Prize winners since the beginning of the 20th century. One soon realizes, even in a cursory review of their stories, how many people have laid their lives on the line to advance world peace. If you have a decent shred of humanity in your bones, walking through this chamber will be a very humbling experience. It was clear to me that, whatever I thought I had contributed to the betterment of humanity, it pales alongside the sacrifices of these noble men and women.

One of the most striking cases was that of Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist arrested by the Nazis in 1933 and awarded the prize in 1935. Despite his poor health, the German government refused to allow him to leave the concentration camps to accept the prize. He died in 1938, still in the camps. His award infuriated Hitler, and the government demanded that he decline the honor, which he refused to do. Years later, a similar scenario played out in the Chinese government’s angry response to the Nobel committee honoring dissident Liu Xiaobo, who later died while under house arrest. Speaking truth to power remains a very hazardous occupation.

It was still only late morning when we emerged and found our way to the nearby Bygdøy ferry. The ferry provided its own joy as we exchanged cameras with nearby couples for photos. Not sure who among our fellow passengers spoke what languages, I overheard a family conversing in Spanish and asked them if they would shoot our photo. I immediately learned they also spoke English and were from San Diego. They obliged, we obliged, other people obliged, and we all ended up with something better than selfies because we had made some momentary friends. It did not matter that we would probably never meet again; we had broken the ice for our short journey across the bay on a sunny, breezy day.

And so, we all went our own ways once we went ashore. Bygdøy has two primary attractions for visitors, the Viking Ship Museum and the Norwegian Folk Museum. My wife opted for the latter, although I might like to have found time for the former as well. In either case, the route involves walking uphill along a charming residential street and then following signs to the museum of your choice. This apparently prosperous residential area features very attractive hillside vistas above the harbor.

Exhibit hall at the Norsk Folkemuseum.

The Folkemuseum can easily justify several hours of devotion with indoor and outdoor exhibits. The indoor exhibits are in large brick buildings closer to the Visitor’s Center and gift shop near the main entrance. They include some Norwegian art, a rather frank photographic discussion of both Sami culture and the history of social discrimination against the indigenous Sami people, for which the Norwegian king and queen issued a formal apology in recent years, and the difficult role of homosexuals in that environment. There is also a display concerning the role of the Reformation in Norwegian history and culture. In the 16th century, as many people are aware, Norway broke from the Roman Catholic Church to become a predominantly Lutheran nation. Several centuries earlier, Norway and Sweden experienced dramatic changes when Christianity was introduced into a previously pagan Viking culture. Scandinavia was never the same again, and Viking culture, as such, ceased to exist.

Life in those times could be harsh and bleak in Norway because, despite the striking beauty of the landscape, it was also difficult for farming. Much of the land is mountainous, and landholdings were generally small. These and other factors drove much of the immigration to the United States by the 19th century. One gets some sense

Stave church at the museum.

of this history from looking at the preserved barns, farmhouses, and other buildings in the numerous outdoor exhibits that line dirt walking paths throughout the museum’s domain. While my wife chose to sit and rest at one point, I climbed a hill on the eastern end of the museum grounds to find a preserved stave church at the top. To my surprise, the interior did not seem very big, and it also seemed largely dark and foreboding. A painted communion scene illustrates the wooden walls behind the altar. Stave churches relied on wood construction without nails, using the skills of medieval master craftsman to fit supporting beams (staves) into perfectly fitted crossbeams to create what today is a precious piece of the world’s architectural heritage. I acquired a book about this phenomenon and have learned that, while medieval Norwegian Christians built about 1,000 of these structures, only 29 remain, largely in the hands of preservation organizations. The Gol church I saw was slated for demolition when it was replaced in its home town by a new structure in 1882, but King Oscar II of Sweden purchased it and donated it to the museum, which then reconstructed it on its current site in 1885. While a mere handful of stave churches continue to function as parish churches today, most experienced salvation as this one did, usually being acquired by one of several preservation organizations functioning in Norway, which typically reopen the buildings as museums as a means of supporting their efforts.

By late afternoon, however, we caught the ferry back to downtown Oslo. We wandered along the waterfront, checking out the menus in the various waterfront restaurants until we found something sufficiently Norwegian to satisfy our curious palates. (Oslo, like any major city, has developed a diverse cuisine and imported other cuisines that provide a range of options for citizens and visitors alike.) We ended up at Louise Restaurant & Bar. My wife decided to be brave and try cheek of beef, which she had never had before, while I opted for salmon; as we often do, we exchanged samples. Frankly, her choice had much of the taste and texture of pot roast and was much less exotic than she feared. Both dishes included other well-prepared ingredients that added to their appeal, such as potatoes, kale, and cauliflower. Although a retired Norwegian airline pilot we met later informed us that other restaurants in town were less expensive, we relished the waterfront ambience on the last evening we would spend in Oslo. I understand his perspective; I don’t often eat at waterfront restaurants in Chicago, but that is in part because they occupy such familiar territory. We were in Oslo just this once, and we meant to enjoy it. When we were done, we hiked back to our hotel and settled in, knowing we would need to rise early the next morning for an adventure I will describe in the next installment.

Jim Schwab

Still Room for Improvement in the “Friendly Skies”

It has been almost a month since my last blog post, for a reason. I spent most of the remainder of July at a conference in Colorado, for four days, and then overseas, for nearly two weeks. My wife and I traveled to Norway for a vacation, and I chose to separate myself from my laptop for the duration. In coming weeks, I will produce some travelogue posts about that trip, as I have often done in the past. Norway has a great deal to offer for curious travelers.

But first, I want to describe some issues from an experience I am sure many other travelers have shared. Some aspects of this experience, I am sure, are an inevitable part of travel, which always involves the possibility of delays, whether from weather, traffic accidents, or equipment malfunctions, on highways, in the air, or on water. Other aspects are a function of corporate culture and the way in which airlines or other transportation providers choose to communicate with and respond to their customers.

Our flight from Chicago on July 15 began with United Airlines, on which I had used award miles to book both of us to Frankfurt, Germany, with connection on Lufthansa (a Star Alliance partner of United) to Oslo. United Airlines suffered earlier this year from a tsunami of negative publicity for its ill-considered removal of Dr. David Dao from a flight to Louisville, Kentucky, from O’Hare International Airport. The brutal dragging of this paying customer from his seat to make room for airline staff also besmirched the reputation of the Chicago Department of Aviation’s airport police, whose desire to become armed police suffered a long-term setback because of the incident. Followed by some inadequate corporate explanations before CEO Oscar Munoz finally issued a full apology, the incident made no one look good.

I mention this only because, in my opinion, the situation that evolved on our trip shows that United Airlines still has considerable room to improve in learning how to inform and serve its customers when problems arise. Our flight was scheduled to depart at 2:35 p.m., arriving at Frankfurt at 5:55 a.m., with a 7:05 a.m. connecting flight to Oslo. About one hour before that, I began to notice that no one was arriving to staff the original gate assignment, and the number of people present seemed modest for an international flight. Naturally suspicious, I rechecked the monitor in the hallway to discover that the flight had been moved to another gate. That happens, but I did politely ask at the new gate why I had not gotten a text from United, which routinely happens with all updates.

“You always have to check on gate assignments,” she said. I was aware of that—I have traveled a great deal over the years—but she did not really answer the question of why a routine update had not occurred via text. Instead, I got a reply that implied that I did not know any better. Thanks for the condescension, United.

It went downhill from there, as the United personnel learned that something was apparently awry with the engine on the aircraft and needed inspection. What followed was a slow drip of information that materialized in eight separate text messages that ultimately resulted in a departure at 5:30 p.m. In the absence of more definitive information in place of the assortment of 15- and 30-minute delay announcements, it was impossible to know at what point one’s connections would become impossible or, for that matter, which subsequent rebooked connection would be viable. Predictably, the lines for rebooking at both the gate and the United service center became long. At one point, one of the gate attendants checked on later flights and told me, “I’ve backed you up for 10:00.” What I learned later was that the phrase “backed up,” which I’d never heard before, effectively meant nothing. A new boarding pass in Frankfurt might have been useful. In the confusion and amid the crowd of frustrated passengers, getting better answers proved challenging, to put it mildly. Suddenly, in the end, before any of us knew what connections we would have in Frankfurt, airline personnel announced that boarding would commence. We were in the unenviable position of waiting until we got to Frankfurt to find out how we would get to Oslo. The only advice in Chicago was to go to the Lufthansa desk in Frankfurt (a huge airport) to find out. Our flight finally arrived in Frankfurt around 8:30, as best I recall. By then, I was more interested in facilitating the next leg of our journey than in recording the precise time.

Aboard the plane, those needing to rebook connections were told which gate to go to, but as we deplaned, a woman with a sign was telling the same passengers a slightly different gate. Where to go? Many of us ended up at the gate we were told as we got off, only to find that the Lufthansa attendants seemed even more preoccupied with serving passengers from a flight from Washington, D.C. One challenge in these situations is knowing precisely which line will best expedite your request without being able to just cut to the front to find out. When we did reach the desk, an attendant printed out something other than a boarding pass—I have by now tossed it and can’t remember what useless information it contained—and directed us down the hall to the “gate with the yellow signs.” I soon wondered if she was just getting rid of us because “down the hall” meant nothing. Every Lufthansa desk has yellow logos because that is their corporate color. We began to ask again, but we learned that the 10:00 a.m. flight that had been promised was at A52, which we could reach after going through Passport Control, which went quickly enough. But at A52, we were informed by a somewhat sympathetic Lufthansa agent that the flight in question already had a “wait list” of 30 people. So much for being “backed up” on the 10:00 a.m. flight. Soon, she made clear that she simply could not get both of us on the flight, and we made clear we did not want to fly separately, which would only mean Jean would wait in Oslo for my arrival, adding confusion to an already difficult journey.

When we made clear we would stay together, she directed us to A12 for rebooking. That became another interesting feature of communication involving signage. We reached a hall where signs to the right indicated A11 and below, while Gates 13 and above were to the left. Where was A12? We asked one middle-aged airport employee, who sounded like an American, about the gate and he pointed us to the left. Wrong—when we did not see it and asked at a gate, we were pointed back just behind where he had been. In fact, there was no sign for A12, but it was the Lufthansa service desk, not an actual gate. Why not tell us that to begin with? In any case, one friendly worker there tried to get us new boarding passes from one of the kiosks, but that did not work. We had to take a number (A3108) and wait for the electronic sign to tell us which of five desks would handle our problem. Fortunately, about ten minutes later, we were directed to a lady at the end of the wall. After shaking her head at one point, asking me at another if we had been booked with award miles, and discussing the matter by telephone in German with someone, she finally said, “You’re lucky. These are the last two seats on the 1:15 flight.” I thanked her; she had at least accomplished something for us. As for being lucky, I had mixed feelings. After so much non-direction and misdirection, and some other Lufthansa personnel adding to our growing feeling that customer service was not a high priority, I was no longer sure what “lucky” meant. But at least we knew when we would connect to Oslo.

Exhausted by then, Jean took a short hike down the hall from our new gate while I watched our belongings. We were getting hungry, so she bought hot dogs for both of us. That may have helped revive us a bit. We reached Oslo at about 3:10 p.m., got our luggage by 4 p.m., and caught a shuttle to the downtown Radisson Blu Hotel, and checked in by 5 p.m. We had lost an entire Sunday afternoon of sight-seeing that we may otherwise have enjoyed. Once we had stored everything in our room, we crossed the street to a Spanish restaurant, our only activity for the evening, and enjoyed tapas and Sangria and chatted with the waiter. Upon discovering that the trip was in part a celebration of my retirement, he arranged for a complimentary dessert of delicious flan with caramel sauce.

At least someone still knows what good customer service still looks like. The place is called La Sangria Restaurante Espanol. If you’re ever in Oslo, pay them a visit and tell them I sent you.

 

Jim Schwab

Climate of Hope

For some time, it has been my intent to address the question of how we communicate about and discuss climate change, with a focus on books that have tackled the issue of how to explain the issue. Several of these have crossed my desk in the last few years, and I have found some time to read most. These include: Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science, by John J. Berger (Northbrae Books, 2013), and America’s Climate Century, by Rob Hogg (2013). The latter, independently published, is the work of a State Senator from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, inspired by the ordeal his city underwent as a result of the 2008 floods. I met Hogg while serving on a plenary panel for the Iowa APA conference in October 2013 with Dr. Gerald Galloway, now a professor at the University of Maryland, but formerly with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when he led a major federal study of the causes and consequences of the 1993 Midwest floods.

Another book that made it into my collection but still awaits reading is Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall (Bloomsbury, 2014), an English environmentalist. To him and the others, I apologize. Many good ideas for blog posts went by the boards in past years when my occupational responsibilities at the American Planning Association sometimes kept me too busy to implement them. Whether it is still worthwhile to go back and review these works of past years is debatable, but at least I offer them up here as contributions to the literature. It is critical that we keep revisiting the issue of climate communication because, clearly, much previous communication has failed in the face of determined efforts by skeptics to sow doubt and uncertainty, to the point where the U.S. now has a president who has withdrawn the nation from the Paris climate accords, a subject I addressed here a month ago. It is imperative that we find better ways to share with people what matters most.

From https://www.climateofhope.com/

As a result, I was overjoyed to see two heavyweight voices, Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope, offer what I consider a serious, well-focused discussion in their own brand new book, Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). Bloomberg, of course, is the billionaire entrepreneur of his own media and financial services firm, Bloomberg L.P. I confess I read Bloomberg Business Week consistently because it is one business magazine that I find offers a balanced, thoughtful analysis of business events. Carl Pope, former executive director of the Sierra Club, is an environmental veteran with a keen eye to the more realistic political opportunities and strategies available to that movement and to those anxious to address the problems created by climate change. Theirs is an ideal pairing of talents and perspectives to offer a credible way forward.

This book will not seek to overwhelm you, even inadvertently, with the kind of daunting picture of our global future that leaves many people despondent. At the risk of offending some, I would venture that the most extreme and poorly considered pitches about climate change have nearly pirated for the Earth itself Dante’s line from The Inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” I know one person who literally suggests something close to that. I fail to see where that sort of message leads us. The harsh political and social reality is that most people need to understand how something they can do will make some concrete difference that may make their lives better now as well as perhaps a half-century from now. There are temporal factors in human consciousness that greatly affect how we receive messages, and most of us are not well programmed to respond to issues too distant in time or in space. Framing the message effectively matters.

The bond that brings these two authors together is that combination of hope and realism. They may understand that polar bears are losing their habitats, but their message focuses closer to home: Business opportunities await those willing to embrace solutions to climate change. Cities can make themselves more livable even as they reduce their negative impacts on the atmosphere. Despondency is not only counterproductive; it is downright pointless in the face of such golden eggs waiting to hatch. This is more than rhetoric. Climate of Hope provides a steady diet of details for investing in solutions, whether through public policy and programs such as Bloomberg highlights in New York and other cities, or in the business sector, which both authors do very well.

Of course, there are some very tough questions that must be addressed. The biggest involves the future of energy both in the United States and around the world. In a chapter titled “Coal’s Toll,” Bloomberg is unflinching after crediting Pope and the Sierra Club for bringing to his attention the public health costs of continued reliance on coal. He notes that pollution from coal emissions “was prematurely killing 13,200 Americans a year,” or 36 per day because of various lung and respiratory diseases, with a resultant financial toll exceeding $100 billion annually. In many other parts of the world, the figures are even higher. All this is in addition to the environmental damage of lost and polluted creeks and rivers wherever coal is mined or burned. To counter this toll, the Sierra Club, with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, undertook a campaign to close outdated coal-fired power plants. It is also important to recognize the degree to which fossil fuel companies have benefited from public subsidies and relaxed regulation that has failed to account for the magnitude of negative externalities associated with coal and petroleum.

Inevitably, someone will ask, what about the jobs? The strength of Bloomberg in this debate is his understanding of markets, and he rightly notes that, for the most part, coal is losing ground because of the steady advance of less polluting, and increasingly less expensive, alternatives including not only natural gas but a variety of new energy technologies like wind turbines, energy-efficient LED lights, and electronic innovations that make coal essentially obsolete. The issue, as I have noted before in this blog, is not saving coal jobs but investing in alternative job development for those areas most affected. Once upon a time, the federal government created a Tennessee Valley Authority to provide economic hope and vision for a desperately poor region. Although the TVA or something like it could certainly be reconfigured to serve that mission today, the federal vision seems to be lacking. Instead, we get backward-looking rhetoric that merely prolongs the problem and makes our day of reckoning more problematic.

It is also essential to balance the problems of coal against the opportunities to shape a more positive, environmentally friendly energy future. In many parts of the world, off-grid solar can replace more polluting but less capital-intensive fuels like kerosene or wood for cooking. Hundreds of millions of poor people in India and other developing countries could be afforded the opportunity to bypass the centralized electrical facilities of the West through low-cost loans to build solar networks. Again, what may be missing is the vision of world banking institutions, but under the encouragement of international climate agreements, and with the proper technical support, places like India can make major contributions to reducing their own greenhouse gas output. The U.S. expenditures in this regard about which Trump complained in his announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the climate accord are in fact investments in our own climate health as well as future trade opportunities. In chapter after chapter, Bloomberg and Pope describe these opportunities for private investment and more creative public policy. The intelligent reader soon gets the idea. This is no time for despair; it is instead a golden day for rolling up our sleeves and investing in and crafting a better future.

It is possible, but probably not desirable, for this review to roll on with one example after another. We face tough questions, such as reshaping the human diet to reduce the environmental and climatic impacts of meat and rice production in the form of methane, but there are answers, and Pope explores them in a chapter about the influence of food on climate. Food waste is a source of heat-trapping methane. Both en route to our plates and after we scrape them off, food waste can be a major contributor to our problems because of decomposition, but again there are answers. The issue is not whether we can solve problems but whether we are willing to focus on doing so. There will be disruption in the markets in many instances, but disruption creates new opportunities. We need to reexamine how the transportation systems in our cities affect the climate, but we should do so in the knowledge that innovative transit solutions can make huge positive impacts. We can reframe our thinking to realize that urban density is an ally, not an enemy, of the environment, when planned wisely.  Urban dwellers, contrary to what many believe, generally have much lighter environmental footprints than their rural and suburban neighbors. They ride mass transit more, bicycle more, and mow less grass.  Lifestyles matter, where we live matters, planning matters.

Quality of life in our cities is a function, however, of forward-looking public policy. Bloomberg notes the huge changes being made in Beijing to reduce its horrific air pollution. He notes:

One of the biggest changes in urban governance in this century has been mayors’ recognition that promoting private investment requires protecting public health—and protecting public health requires fighting climate change.

I have personally found that, even in “red” states in the U.S., it is easy to find public officials in the larger cities who recognize this problem and are attuned to the exigencies of climate change. Mayors have far less latitude for climbing on a soap box with opinions rooted in ideology because they must daily account for the welfare of citizens in very practical matters, such as public health and what draws investors and entrepreneurs to their cities in the first place. Hot air, they quickly discover, won’t do the trick.

Staten Island neighborhood, post-Sandy, January 2013

Necessarily, the authors, toward the end of the book, come to terms with the potential consequences of failing to act. Bloomberg, in a chapter titled “New Normals,” describes the state of affairs in New York City after Hurricane Sandy, a storm that could easily have been far more destructive than it already was. For a dozen years, he was the mayor of a city with 520 miles of coastline. To its credit, New York City pursued numerous practical solutions and recognized that no one size fits all, that making the city more resilient would require implementing hundreds of individual steps that dealt with various aspects of the problem. Some of the solutions may seem insignificant, such as restoring oyster beds, but collectively they produce real change over time. Other changes can be more noticeable, such as redesigns of subway systems, changing building codes and flood maps, and rebuilding natural dune systems. The battle against climate change will be won in thousands of ways with thousands of innovations, involving all levels of government, but also businesses, investors, and civic and religious leaders.

All of that leads to the final chapter, “The Way Forward,” which seems to make precisely that point by identifying roles for nearly everyone. Bring your diverse talents to the challenge: the solutions are municipal, political, and financial, and require urban planning, public policy, and investment tools. In the end, although I recognize the potential for readers to quibble with specific details of the prescriptions that Bloomberg and Pope offer, I would still argue that they provide invaluable insights into the practical equations behind a wide range of decisions that our nation and the world face in coming years. The important thing is to choose your favorite practical solution and get busy.

Jim Schwab

 

 

On the Question of 70-Year-Old Men

There is no doubt about it. President Donald Trump’s latest tweets have rightly triggered a firestorm of disgust and angry responses. The personal attacks on MSNBC reporters Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski have revealed a level of meanness and misogyny even Trump’s most craven defenders find impossible to ignore, with the exception of his White House press team, whose jobs, of course, depend on continuing to justify whatever he says. Thus, we have deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reminding us that, when Trump feels attacked (read “criticized”), he feels compelled to “fight fire with fire.” The problem is that he typically goes off the rails with comments of little substance or truth that would cause most other people to be fired and led out of their office by security. But he is, after all, the President. The people hired him. Or at least, that portion of the public voting in the right places to comprise a majority of the Electoral College even as he lost the popular vote by roughly three million.

My focus in this essay, however, is different from all that, although connected to it. I do not intend to reprise Trump’s acid tweets or analyze or parse or dissect them. My target is certain members of the television punditocracy who should know better and are insulting senior citizens in the process of criticizing Donald Trump. The fact that Trump is their target does not blind me to the ignorance of one statement some reporters have repeated so often I have not kept track of exactly who has said it or how often: “Donald Trump is a 70-year-old man, and 70-year-old men don’t change.”

Poppycock. This is a lazy excuse for failing to take a closer look at the real problem in his case. It is also a display of ageism that should not go unchallenged, certainly not any more than Trump’s misogyny. It is an expression of bias that needs to stop.

Slicing the cake at my APA retirement party, May 31. Not that was I about to disappear to a Florida golf course. Photos by Jean Schwab

I will reveal a personal stake in this debate. In little less than two and a half years, I will be one of those 70-year-old men. At 67, it is not just that I feel very little in common with Trump’s world view. It is that I know in my gut that I remain capable of change, that I have core principles that I hope will not change, and that I have one fundamental quality that Trump appears to lack—that of spiritual, moral, and intellectual curiosity. I approach 70 in the humble knowledge that I do not know everything, have never known everything that matters, and that I never will know everything that matters. I also approach 70 in the certainty that my thirst for new knowledge must remain until my last breath, barring any mental deterioration that might forestall such curiosity. I recall a friend of mine, who had read a biography of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, telling me of book, Honorable Justice (by Sheldon M. Novick). Although the passage does not appear in that book, he noted a story in which newly inaugurated President Franklin Roosevelt is visiting the retired 92-year-old man and finds him reading Plato.

“Why do you read Plato, Mr. Justice?” Roosevelt asks.

“To improve my mind,” Holmes responds.

Which gets us to the problem of the current President. It is commonly said that he does not spend much time reading. Reading is one activity that informs learning, and learning inspires change, and therein lies the problem. We have a President who is so certain of his own superiority, who, on the wings of inherited wealth, has spent so little time being challenged on his core beliefs, that he has not acquired the habit of intellectual curiosity. This is the only trait that truly explains his poorly informed intransigence on climate change, immigration, election fraud, and numerous other issues where his depth of knowledge often appears paper-thin. It also explains his intense, narcissistic preoccupation with personal image reflected in comments about other nations laughing at “us,” and in his perceived need to strike back at anyone who merely disagrees with him, however honest and honorable that person’s disagreement may be.

To what can we attribute this sad state of affairs? Clearly, not just to Trump himself. After all, despite the distortions in popular will wrought by the Electoral College, no one can win the Electoral College without being at least close to a plurality of the popular vote. No one with a weak base of voter support can even hope to win the nomination of either major party in the United States. Inevitably, we must look at the nature of the support that launched Trump into the White House.

There can be little doubt that some of that support involved a level of dislike or dissatisfaction with Hillary Clinton that allowed voters to overlook the manifold shortcomings of Donald Trump, although polls surely indicate that many are now reassessing that comparison. Let’s be honest. Clinton had her own baggage and an imperious style that turned off a large part of the electorate. She could have spent far more time with blue-collar voters in the Midwest but chose not to. Whether Sen. Bernie Sanders could have beaten Trump, we will never know. History does not afford us the luxury of testing such scenarios. Sanders did not win the nomination, and there is little more to be said. Better luck next time.

Colleague Richard Roths (right), still stirring the waters and challenging conventions in his own retirement, alongside Benjamin and Rebecca Leitschuh, former students (of both of us) and co-workers (of mine), at my APA retirement party.

What I want to emphasize, however, is that Trump’s lack of intellectual curiosity, and his remarkable ability to tune into similar qualities among people very unlike him—the working-class voters worried about job security—reflects a sullen streak in American culture that has long glorified ignorance. Mind you, I am not saying that white working-class voters all fall into this category. I emerged from that environment. My father was a truck mechanic. I have met and known many union members and leaders with much more generous and positive attitudes. (I am married to a Chicago Teachers Union activist.) I am speaking of a particular tendency that can be found anywhere but tends to assert itself in uncertain economic times and under certain cultural circumstances, such as those highlighted by J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy.

There is a cultural tug-of-war within America that is as old as America. It is between the intellectual innovators and their curiosity and all the changes they have wrought that have launched this nation to international leadership in technology, literature, and science, and those who willingly disparage the value of education, knowledge, and curiosity, whether out of jealousy or resentment or stubbornness. There is an element of social class attached to it, but more often it transcends class. Sometimes, aspects of both traits can be found in the same person. For all his innovative genius in science and politics, Thomas Jefferson remained a racist to his dying day. On the other hand, another “70-year-old man,” his contemporary George Washington, rose above his heritage long enough at the end of his life to free his slaves, upon his wife’s death, in his will, believing that the institution of slavery would need to wither away. Jefferson did no such thing.

So, we fight this war within ourselves at times, and as we do, we need to acknowledge it in order to overcome it, so that our biases are not petrified in old age. Trump seems to have chosen the opposite course. Unfortunately, he won election by tapping into an anti-intellectual streak in American politics that runs rampant across age groups, although we can hope that the worst biases are dying off among the young. But beware of the mental calcification that can start at an early age.

Deene Alongi, to my right, will begin managing speaking tours for me this fall. I may have a few things to say!

Seventy-year-old men and women can readily change. Having retired from APA just a month ago, I am rapidly acquiring new routines, setting new goals for the coming years, and trying to think new thoughts. Like Holmes, I cannot wait to read books new and old, and I want to remain intellectually challenged. I hope everyone following this blog has similar aspirations. It is the only way we will keep our nation, and indeed the entire world, moving forward and confronting challenges in a positive way.

And I don’t want to hear one more ignorant reporter talk about how “70-year-old men don’t change.” To them, I say, look inside yourself and ask why you are saying such a thing. Is it because you anticipate being stubborn like Trump when you reach his age? Perhaps you have some biases of your own to overcome.

Beware: From now on, I may start recording reporters’ names when I watch the TV news and hear comments about old men not changing. And I will call them out when they repeat their ageist slurs.

 

Jim Schwab

When Words Lose Meaning

This is not going to be a polite blog post. It is going to be blunt and brief. Politeness serves a purpose in life, but mostly when engaging with other people of honest intentions but different perspectives, in an effort to keep discussion civil and respectful. It is not an effective tool in dealing with prevarication, obfuscation, and deflection.

Those are the tools of the current President of the United States, and I feel sorry for those who are so enamored of the narcissist named Donald Trump that they have become incapable of seeing this reality. But I am just stubborn and old-fashioned enough to believe there is such a thing as truth. Most of us may struggle to various degrees with the challenge of discerning it, but it does exist. And many of us also are at least aware when someone is trying to obscure it rather than illuminate it.

Let us consider the case of a presidential candidate who has only recently acknowledged, as President, the reality of Russian interference in the U.S. elections through fake news and hacking of e-mails, among other activities intended to destabilize democracy, using a set of tactics they appear poised to repeat in other nations. Trump, who last year refused to admit such things were happening, and whose campaign is under investigation for possible collusion with Russia, now has the effrontery to tweet that then President Obama did “NOTHING about Russia after being notified by the CIA of meddling” and that Obama “didn’t ‘choke,’ he colluded or obstructed.” And somehow, although it was Hillary Clinton who was the target of Russian interference, Obama did this to help her.

Look—as a parent and grandparent, I know a dodge when I see one. What parent of multiple children has not heard in some form the “He did it too” defense as a means of deflecting blame? I almost have to wonder about the parenting skills of those mature voters who fail to recognize this game for what it is. It almost does not matter what Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or anyone else ever actually did or failed to do; the only real point is to deflect attention in order to avoid accepting responsibility. To the extent that we allow elected officials to play this game, we voters are essentially like ineffective, overindulgent parents who fail to call their children to account. I say this without regard to party or philosophy, even though I am targeting Trump as the current deflector extraordinaire. And I am focusing on Trump because, instead of taking the presidency seriously, he is elevating this ruse to dangerous new levels.

This requires serious linguistic deconstruction to grasp what is happening. Trump as a candidate denied and ignored Russian interference even as he sarcastically urged the Russians to hack some more. (Sean Spicer now says he was joking). How is this now the focus of alleged collusion and obstruction by Obama? If Obama is guilty of anything, in the eyes of most rational and experienced observers, it is perhaps of being too cautious to warn the public until October. And even then, when Obama or other administration officials mentioned it, they were greeted with jeers and skepticism by the Trump campaign. More importantly, note the misuse of the word “obstructed.” In the context of the current investigations being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, obstruction is a legal term that refers to efforts to impede the administration of justice. In the Trump context of the recent tweet, suddenly it refers to hesitancy or inaction at a time when officials were still trying to determine the proper course of action in response to an attack on the American electoral process that Trump was insisting was not even happening. In the absence of any criminal investigation at the time, how does official inaction, to whatever extent Obama’s reluctance to go public can be characterized as such, become obstruction? Obstruction of what? And how does one collude by failing to act more quickly against an identified enemy whom Trump does not even perceive as such?

If this were an isolated instance of such an assault upon the meaning of words, I might not be writing this essay. But any astute observer, including many worried Republicans, knows by now that this is a persistent pattern—the rule of Trump, not eethe exception. Words are turned inside out, stripped of all normal meaning, deprived of context. James Comey should worry about tapes, while the White House spends weeks refusing to acknowledge tapes exist before finally deciding to say they don’t, and now we are to believe this was merely a ploy to keep Comey honest. A ploy, that is, by a president who has yet to establish his own credibility with anyone but his core followers. The president who would protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security seems woefully unaware of the contents of the Republican health care legislation, gleefully tweeting that he wants a Senate bill with “heart,” even as it starts from a premise of depriving millions of Americans of accessible health insurance through a bill that whose content was secret until only a week ago. But who cares about details when you can spend your time bashing Obama? Why spoil the fun?

Buckle your seat belts. Barring impeachment or resignation, this steady erosion of the essential meaning of words in the English language will almost assuredly continue for at least another three and a half years. The upside is that, if our democracy and constitutional system can survive this trial, it can quite possibly survive nearly anything. Keep your BS detectors fully charged and operative.

 

Jim Schwab

The Ostrich Paradox

As an urban planner, my entry into the world of disasters has been through the twin portals of public policy and planning practice—how we frame the priorities of government and how we carry out the tasks of community planning. One thing I have learned from years of interaction with other types of professionals is that many other portals exist that provide insights into the nature and causes of disasters, how we define them, and how we prepare for and react to them. The behavioral sciences–including psychology, sociology, communications, and economics—have played a significant role in helping us understand some of these questions. They have helped me understand that what may seem like a straight line in public policy between a problem and a solution can be laden with land mines that are built into the evolution of the human brain. We are capable, as a species, of contemplating long-term consequences of our behaviors, but only when we have opportunities to gain some distance between our immediate needs and the problems we are considering. Very often, however, life forces us to react quickly and with inadequate forethought, and our brains reach for more instinctive reactions that our species learned over millennia, even those we inherited from other species from which we evolved.

And so there is the proverbial ostrich, putting its head in the sand, supposedly to avoid seeing any painful realities. The authors of a new book, The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters, published by Wharton Digital Press, note near the outset that, despite the widely accepted stereotype of ostriches, they are “astute escape artists” who use speed to compensate for their inability to fly. They suggest humans become more like ostriches, not less, by recognizing our own limitations and consciously seeking to address them. But first, we need to know what those shortcomings are and why, because of them, humans routinely fail to anticipate and prepare for disasters.

They start by reviewing a concept of the human brain discussed at length by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, several years ago—that of the two systems that allow us to do precisely what Kahneman’s title suggested. System 1 operates more rapidly with learned and instinctive responses to everyday situations, such as slowing down or swerving to avoid car crashes, or stepping away from snakes. The reactions are quick reflexes that are often entirely unconscious. System 2, which could never respond to the multitude of routine stimuli fast enough to allow us to cope or survive, instead helps us focus and reflect, sometimes allowing us to train our minds to react differently but also, importantly, to gain perspective on issues facing us. Planning, for instance, is largely an intellectual activity in which we process information, mull it over, and try to anticipate how future conditions may affect our community and its ability to achieve stated goals. It also takes time and does not allow us to react to immediate threats, for example, a bolting horse or the sound of gunfire. When we hear the gunfire, we don’t contemplate what it is; we duck or run for cover.

With the respective limitations of those two systems in mind, Robert Meyer, a professor of marketing, and Howard Kunreuther, professor of decision sciences and public policy, both at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, outline what they describe as the six biases of human beings in dealing with low-probability, high-consequence events “for which we have little stored knowledge.” In other words, we developed fast reactions to a car swerving into our path because we have acquired a good deal of “stored knowledge” from past driving experience. But how often do we experience a tornado? Even people in states like Kansas or Oklahoma, who may hear about such events often enough, may not have enough direct experience with them to know how best to prepare. For events like Hurricane Katrina, which Gulf Coast residents may directly experience once in a lifetime, the stored knowledge is limited indeed. The will to think about such events without having been prodded to do so by prior experience is even more limited. And so, disaster becomes not only a function of natural events, but of the human resistance to considering their possibility.

So, what are those six biases? First, myopia, the tendency to focus on the short term and more likely events at the expense of more significant, long-term dangers. Second, amnesia, the willingness to turn off or ignore more distant memories that may inform our awareness of potential hazards. Third, optimism, or the will to believe that everything will turn out all right. Fourth, the inertia bias, which could also be described as our innate reluctance to disrupt the status quo. Fifth, the simplification bias, the highly understandable difficulty we face in coming to terms with more complex situations. And finally, the herding bias, otherwise known to most people as the tendency to follow the crowd, even though our reflective minds may tell us that the crowd may be dead wrong.

Now, to be honest, I am already engaging in a simplification bias by summarizing the core thesis of an entire book in one paragraph, as I just did. But I am very much aware, as a writer, of what I have done, with the explicit aim of spurring readers to explore the more detailed explanations the book offers. Even if you do not, however, there may be net gains in awareness just by exposing you to the concept that such biases exist. Let me complicate matters just a little by repeating the authors’ assertion that these biases are not all bad, just as they are not all good. What matters is our awareness that these biases exist and that they are a shared legacy of our humanity. None of us can operate without them, but at the same time, our System 2 brains are designed to help us overcome the limitations they embody.

And thus, Meyer and Kunreuther urge us all to be more like ostriches, “not less.” The ostrich compensates for its physical limitations—the inability to fly—with speedy retreats from danger. Humans, with advanced intellectual skills, can do far more. In thinking about risk, the authors suggest, we can “develop policies that take into consideration our inherent cognitive limitations.”

That is, I must say, an intriguing thought—one that deserves more than a reflexive reaction. Think about it.

 

Jim Schwab

New York City, Water, and Resilience

I was never a New York native, but I did not feel entirely alien, either, when I returned for the first of four visits to the area in January 2013, following Superstorm Sandy. My father lived in Queens most of his life and left only when my mother, who was from Cleveland, insisted on moving. New York City was not to her liking, and she wanted to go home. But my paternal grandparents remained on Long Island until they died in the 1960s, and we often visited. I was born in Bayshore Hospital, one of seven that were evacuated during the storm. My father had told me about living through the “Long Island Express,” the famous 1938 hurricane that also swamped much of New England. I was not a total stranger. I was certainly aware of many of the cultural traits that make New Yorkers famous (or infamous), though I think some consist more of popular stereotype than reality. But there is a certain toughness that comes from living in the Big Apple, even if it’s different from the toughness I have learned from my eventual attachment to Chicago, the alleged “City of Big Shoulders.”

Hence, despite all the vulnerabilities connected with a city of eight million people that is nearly surrounded by water, I instinctively understood the connection of the city with the concept of resilience. The city has withstood more than Sandy—this was the site of the worst 9/11 attacks, after all—and responds well to challenges. There are no feet of clay; the foundation of Manhattan is bedrock. But any map of the city makes clear that every borough but the Bronx is an island, and even that is a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides.

What brought me to New York after Sandy was a decision by the American Planning Association to assist our New York Metro and New Jersey chapters in preparing their members and communities for the arduous task of post-disaster recovery. To be honest, ours was a contribution more of solidarity and expertise than of resources, which had to come from the massive allocations of federal funds used or distributed by federal agencies, led mostly by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). What mattered to our members was our presence, our ideas, and the time we spent preparing and delivering a series of training workshops in April 2013 on planning for post-disaster recovery. It is fair to say that, as manager of APA’s Hazards Planning Center and the ringleader of that training effort, Sandy recovery dominated my life for the first half of 2013. And this is all context for my observations in reviewing a relatively new book from Island Press, Prospects for Resilience: Insights from New York City’s Jamaica Bay, edited by Eric W. Sanderson, William D. Solecki, John R. Waldman, and Adam S. Parris. Contributors include biologists, geographers, and engineers, among others with a wide range of expertise that contributes to the book’s comprehensive approach. its utility is clearly greater for professional practitioners in planning, civil engineering, public administration, and allied fields, as well as for academic researchers, than for purely casual readers.

Map from Gateway National Park, National Park Service, website. https://www.nps.gov/gate/planyourvisit/map_jbu.htm

The book focuses specifically on Jamaica Bay, although New York City matters greatly as the municipal government making critical decisions that affect the bay’s resilience. Jamaica Bay, however, is an interesting case study of the intersection of geographic, ecological, industrial, and urban planning factors in both weakening and enhancing the overall resilience of a highly stressed water body and the urban neighborhoods that line its shores. The book’s most noteworthy feature is not any one approach to the subject of resilience for Jamaica Bay, but the way in which it seeks to cross disciplinary lines to undertake a thorough analysis of the prospects for building resilience in an area like Jamaica Bay. Researchers there may have much to share with those examining other ecologically challenged urban water bodies across the nation.

It is important to understand the geographic context of Jamaica Bay, an area familiar to most people (including many New Yorkers) primarily as the scenery below the airplane as it makes its descent into John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). The airport, in fact, has a significant impact on Jamaica Bay because it sits at the eastern end of the bay in Queens, the linchpin between the rest of Long Island and the Rockaways, a long, densely populated peninsula that stretches west from JFK and forms the southern boundary of the bay. That, in turn, means that the Rockaways, home to 180,000 people, is extremely vulnerable in a major storm like

Fire devastated Breezy Point during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Cleanup lasted for months. Photos courtesy of James Rausse.

Sandy. The Rockaways suffered some of the worst damages from the storm, including a fire that tore through Breezy Point, destroying 130 homes. Because of its isolation at the end of the peninsula, and the storm surge that inundated it, it was impossible for fire trucks to respond to the conflagration. For those curious about the origins of a fire in the midst of a flood or hurricane, it is worth remembering that a surge of salt water can easily corrode and short out electrical wires, triggering sparks. Much of New York’s subway system, well designed to pump out normal stormwater, was shut down during Sandy for the same reason.

What makes Jamaica Bay matter enough to devote nearly 300 pages to the subject? It is a great laboratory for resilience. The dense urban development that surrounds the bay stresses the natural ecosystems of the bay, whose biological composition has changed radically over time. The late 19th century witnessed the growth of a viable fishing industry, including oyster harvests, but pollution from sewage disposal and industry brought that to a sudden halt by the 1920s. The same factors reduced the bay’s recreational potential as well. Only in the last few years have there been efforts to restore the oyster beds, but like most such efforts, they will require ongoing research and attention to succeed.

Just as importantly, human communities need to become more resilient as part of a larger social-ecological system because the city is not about to disappear. There simply will be no return to pre-urban conditions. Urban stormwater drainage, sewage disposal, industrial activity, and transportation all have impacts that good urban planning must mitigate or prevent in trying to maintain a healthy urban relationship with the natural environment. Serious scientific inquiry may provide some answers. Greater levels of awareness and connectedness by area residents to the marine environment can also help, but that has often not been the case. An entire chapter explores neighborhood and community perspectives on resilience around Jamaica Bay. Few seasoned urban experts and planners will be surprised to learn that New York generally, and the Jamaica Bay watershed, feature remarkably diverse neighborhoods in terms of density, ethnicity and race, and income level, all of which influence those perspectives and influence community goals. New York is also a remarkably complex city in which residents of some areas in Queens can feel isolated from the center city in Manhattan, but may also feel more secure in their isolation. It is noteworthy that some areas at the western end of the peninsula were heavily populated by public safety personnel. All this influences people’s perspectives on proximity to, and connection with, the waterfront and public understanding of the relationship between human settlement and the ecological health of the bay, which is not always straightforward in any event. People can exert both positive and negative influences on that relationship. The good news is that the authors found that Sandy and the recovery process that followed had some useful impact on the perceptions that underlie those actions.

Given all that complexity, it will also be small surprise that the resilience of Jamaica Bay and its surrounding development is affected by a complex network of overlapping jurisdictional responsibilities that are sometimes in conflict. In addition to the city and its boroughs, a variety of federal and state agencies with varying agendas and authorities, including the New York-New Jersey Port Authority (responsible for airports including JFK), the National Park Service (Gateway National Park), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (climate and coastal zones), overlay the influence of numerous private organizations and academic institutions. Add the flood mitigation and post-disaster recovery responsibilities of FEMA, and one is suddenly confronted with a multicolored collage that for some people can become bewildering.

The case of NOAA is interesting in that climate change is likely to affect the frequency of extreme weather events, which may further test the resilience of an already dynamic social-ecological system. As a scientific agency with significant meteorological and climatological expertise, NOAA has contributed to the array of modeling tools helping to analyze resilience in Jamaica Bay, although academic and other institutions have added to that toolbox. What is important ultimately is to bring together the various strands of research in cooperative efforts for integrative management. The good news, well described toward the end of this book, is that such cooperative efforts have produced the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay for that purpose, with participation by decision makers from local, state, and federal agencies to help resolve those conflicting missions and adopt a comprehensive systems approach to the challenges facing the area. Let us hope that those decision makers, and the public officials controlling their resources, have the wisdom to maintain hard-won progress. As is true of many other areas in the U.S., those responsible for the health of Jamaica Bay have much work to do. The rest of us have much to learn from what they are doing and a stake in that progress.

 

Jim Schwab