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

Iowa Faces Its Fluid Future

It was just five years ago that Iowa was awash in flood water. Many people are familiar with the dire scenes from Cedar Rapids, where record floods forced the evacuation of 10 percent of the city’s residents on June 13, 2008, swamping the downtown and causing extensive damages. Plenty of other Iowa communities suffered as well, however. Cedar Falls, 90 miles north of Cedar Rapids along the same Cedar River, struggled to contain flood waters that overwhelmed its north side and almost overtook its downtown. To the southeast, Iowa City watched the Iowa River flood major University of Iowa buildings like Hancher Auditorium and the Iowa Memorial Union and learned, maybe, that the university had invested in too much real estate on the riverfront. Across the state, the rivers swelled and dozens of small towns coped with mud, pollution, and lost memories.

On Friday, May 31, I joined a panel on water management policy at “Five Years Out,” a one-day conference at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids that examined Iowa’s past and future with regard to these issues. As if on cue, nature responded by sending a line of thunderstorms to assault the area the day before, accentuating the moisture in soil that had already become a huge, wet sponge throughout the spring. The Dubuque St. entrance to downtown Iowa City from I-80, always a flash point because it closely parallels the Iowa River, was closed before the day was out. As Yogi Berra would have said, it seemed like déjà vu all over again. Fortunately, the sun triumphed on Friday, and Iowa got a reprieve. Summer could still be challenging.

What I found most revealing was the information shared by William Gutowski and Rick Cruse of Iowa State University. Gutowski teaches in the Department of Geological and Atmospheric Sciences and has been tracking data on Iowa’s changing climate for some time. He discussed the seeming contradiction of Iowa suffering both increased propensity for extreme precipitation events, leading to flooding, and increased propensity for drought. The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive or contradictory, however. Higher average temperatures lead to a situation in which the atmosphere is capable of containing higher amounts of moisture because warmer air can hold more moisture before being forced to dump its load. That also means that storms become worse when they do occur. Gutowski showed that average annual precipitation in Cedar Rapids had increased between 1890 and 2010 from 28 inches to 39 inches per year. If global warming pushes that trend even further, Cedar Rapids and the rest of Iowa can expect more extreme weather of both types over time. That means, in part, that the so-called 100-year flood event, or that flood having a repetitive one percent chance of occurring each year, may well become more frequent. The record-breaking flood of 2008 could well become more common. The only thing saving the city in the future is the fact that it has given the Cedar River “room to breathe,” as various speakers put it, through the city’s acquisition of more than 1,300 flooded parcels in the floodplain since 2008, thus removing a good deal of vulnerable housing from the prospect of future damage. Rick Cruse, an agronomist, accentuated Gutowski’s data with significant data on how land use and land cover affect water infiltration into the soils and water tables. Forcing increased runoff with vegetation or impervious surfaces that do not hold the water as well serves to increase our propensity for flooding. As it turns out, woodlands do the best job of absorbing rainwater, while ubiquitous Iowa crops like corn and soybeans have a more questionable track record. The result is that Iowa may need a serious debate about farming practices, including crop choices and rotations, in order to confront its flood threat adequately for the future. That will not be an easy debate because it affects serious economic interests in the state. Yet it may be the most important debate Iowa can have about its climate future.

The University of Iowa Public Policy Center, which presented the conference, will be posting the PowerPoint presentations and videotapes of the sessions on its website in coming days. For those the least bit serious about exploring the implications of these issues, I urge you to follow the link above and check it all out.

Jim Schwab