No Laughing Matter

This is a story both personal and political. On May 31, the American Planning Association hosted a wonderful retirement party for my last day on the job as Manager of the Hazards Planning Center. I have spent much of the past quarter-century helping to make natural hazards an essential focus of the planner’s job. The reasons are scattered all over dozens of previous blog posts, so I won’t repeat them here. It was a great send-off.

The next day, June 1, I was at home beginning the task of establishing my own enterprises in writing and consulting, including what shortly will be significantly expanded attention to this blog. In the rush to ensure that the transition for the Center would be smooth, I maintained a busy schedule in May, and I am aware this blog was somewhat neglected. Sometimes there is only so much time, and the blog has until now been a spare time project. That is about to change.

I spent much of that Thursday morning downtown. My wife had a dental appointment, and I had some minor issues to attend to. We paid a pleasant visit to Chicago’s Riverwalk and returned home on the CTA Blue Line. As we ate lunch, I watched the news on CNN. It was announced that President Trump would be announcing his decision on U.S. participation in the Paris climate agreement. I waited to see what would happen.

By now, I am sure everyone knows that he announced U.S. withdrawal from the accord. I remember two distinct impressions from the occasion. The first was that I was certain that nearly everything he said was wrong, that he was twisting the truth, and that his reasoning was badly distorted. The second was that, the longer he talked, and he talked for a while, the angrier I became. The sheer moral and political blindness of his position infuriated me. It has taken me three days to decide to write about it because I like to apply a reasonably broad perspective to the issues I address here. In part, I had trouble with that because I had planned a busy agenda in the opening days of my new phase of life to reorganize my home office, inform key contacts of my new e-mail address, and take care of the new business that accompanies “retirement.” (I put it in quotes because, for me, it mostly means self-employment.)

Trump’s announcement on the first day I spent at home felt like a slap in the face. The title of this blog, “Home of the Brave,” is meant to assert some claim to moral courage on behalf of those who are willing to pay homage to the truth. Trump finally had succeeded in embarrassing me as an American citizen. In my view, one of America’s claims to greatness in the world has been its willingness to educate its citizens and embrace honest science, and suddenly I was watching our president embrace brazen ignorance. There has been a tendency in some political circles over the years to glorify ignorance, but that tendency has seldom found its way into the Oval Office.

We join two other nations in the entire world that have not endorsed the Paris agreement. It is not hard to understand the problem in Syria, a nation that is basically at this point one huge battleground with a highly dysfunctional government that is slaughtering thousands of its own citizens. It would seem that Syria might have other priorities than negotiating a climate agreement. As for Nicaragua, what most people do not know is that Nicaragua, which has an abundance of both geothermal resources (also known as volcanoes) and tropical sunshine for solar energy, refused to accept the agreement not because it opposes progress in addressing climate change, but because the accord did not go far enough. That makes the United States of America the only nation taking exception to the very idea of combating climate change.

Trump does this in spite of the fact that American researchers have been leaders in generating the science that has documented the problem. Scientists quickly declared that many of Trump’s “facts” were either bogus or exaggerations of data chosen with an extreme bias toward his point of view. Moreover, in statements by administration spokespersons like Press Secretary Sean Spicer or U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, no one was willing to answer explicitly reporters’ questions about what Trump truly believes about climate science. They talked around it, under it, behind it, and did all manner of verbal contortions to avoid simply saying whether Trump believes in the reality of climate change.

They prefer to stand behind the mistaken assumption that he is somehow protecting American jobs, but his views on this point are almost a half-century behind the times. Most coal jobs disappeared not because of climate regulations but because of automation that began nearly three generations ago. More recently, coal has been threatened economically by a surge of natural gas supplies as a result of fracking. One amazing aspect of this story, which includes the whole fight over pipelines, is that Republicans have tried very hard to have it both ways on the energy front. They have decried the decline of coal even as they themselves have supported fracking in a relentless bid to support all available options for developing American energy supplies. These various energy supplies compete with each other, and more natural gas at cheaper prices inevitably means less coal production and fewer coal jobs, a result that has little to do with environmental standards. It is called free enterprise. It is true that public policy tilts the scales in the energy industry, but public policy ought to do so with the future and the long-term best interest of the public in mind. In fact, a wiser administration might realize that now is an ideal time to begin to develop renewable energy sources in Appalachia to replace jobs that are unlikely ever to come back. Instead, politicians in places like Kentucky and West Virginia choose to play on fears and insecurity rather than offering a new economic vision that might actually improve the lives of workers. Unfortunately, this sort of political cynicism seems to be richly rewarded. That is the only explanation for a truly bizarre CNN interview by Jake Tapper with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) just ahead of Trump’s announcement. Setting up one straw man after another, Paul stated that the earth has undergone much more serious climate change than humans can cause. No one with a modicum of scientific education would not know that there have been wide swings in climate over geologic time (presuming you accept the theory of evolution), but they occurred over tens of thousands of years, not decades. Yes, we know about the Ice Age, Senator. It is not “alarmist” to note that climate change is occurring at a rate faster than nature has historically caused on its own.

Trump’s supposed defense of American jobs collapses in the face of the economic evidence. Renewable energy is producing new jobs as fast or faster than any other sector of the U.S. economy, as noted by people like Jeff Nesbit, who has a bipartisan track record of research on the issue. Trump outrageously claimed that other nations were laughing at us for being taken advantage of in the accord. In fact, they have respected American leadership in this sector, and if they are laughing at anyone, it is surely Trump himself, although I suspect that many are spending more time pulling their hair out in frustration and dismay at the direction he is taking. They are also preparing to move ahead without U.S. involvement, a stance not unlike that being taken by California and other states and cities with a more progressive view of the world’s economic future. My impression was that Trump, in obsessing about our nation being a supposed laughingstock, is revealing personal insecurities for which the nation is paying a high price. What, Mr. President, is the source of this persistent insecurity? You are wealthy enough to afford psychological counseling if you need it. I admit that you tapped into a good deal of voter insecurity, but you are leading your base nowhere. Do us all a favor and find them a vision for the future, instead of a nightmare based on a flawed vision of the past.

Scene from New Orleans in November 2005 after Hurricane Katrina

So let me circle back to what so offended me personally about being confronted with this public policy disaster on my first day after leaving APA. Little more than a decade ago, following Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami, with many years of planning experience behind me in the disaster arena, I realized that my position at APA afforded me a truly rare opportunity to shape planning history by refocusing the profession’s attention on the numerous ways in which planners could use their skills and positions in local and state government, consulting firms, and academia, among other possibilities, to design communities in ways that would save lives and reduce property damage. I was determined to devote the remainder of my career to helping make that happen, with the help of numerous experts and veteran planners who shared my vision of those opportunities. Uniquely, however, I was in a position to shape the agenda of the American Planning Association on behalf of its nearly 40,000 members to provide the resources, research, and training those planners would need to attack the problem.

By 2007, we had persuaded the Federal Emergency Management Agency, still reeling from perceptions of ineptitude in the response to Hurricane Katrina and other events, to underwrite a study of how planners could better incorporate hazard mitigation as a priority throughout the local planning process. The result, Hazard Mitigation: Incorporating Best Practices into Planning, has had a growing impact on community planning since its release in 2010. It had been truly heartbreaking to see communities so poorly prepared for natural disasters that more than 1,800 Americans lost their lives in Mississippi and Louisiana as a result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We could do something to change that. FEMA has since then incorporated this concept of integration into a variety of guidance, and so has the State of Colorado. Things are changing.

Scene on the New Jersey shore after Hurricane Sandy, February 2013

We also in 2010 persuaded FEMA to underwrite another project that would rewrite our 1998 guidance on planning for post-disaster recovery, and the result in late 2014 was not only another Planning Advisory Service Report, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation, but a substantial collection of online resources to supplement that report. Among the key recommendations for communities was the idea of planning ahead of disasters for major policy decisions that would govern the post-disaster recovery planning process so as to expedite wise decision making. That project has also proven highly influential.

Throughout this all, the growing impact of climate change was making itself evident. This is not just a matter of jobs. It is a matter of whether our President believes in making his own nation, his own citizens, safe in the face of natural disasters that, in many cases, can be made worse by climate change. This is not just a matter of sea level rise increasing the impact of storm surges produced by tropical storms. It is also a matter of increased susceptibility to prolonged drought in many parts of the U.S., and increased susceptibility to wildfire, as well as more extreme high-precipitation events that can exacerbate urban and riverine flooding. That is why APA and the Association of State Floodplain Managers, in a Regional Coastal Resilience grant project supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is working with pilot communities on both the East Coast and the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes do not experience rising sea levels, but they do experience fluctuating lake levels and greater weather extremes that can raise the costs of natural disasters in coming decades.

All that brings us back to the President’s admittedly alliterative statement that he was putting Pittsburgh ahead of Paris. That’s a nice sound bite, but it makes no sense. For one thing, Pittsburgh voters no longer look to coal and steel mills to secure their economic future. For the past 30 years, Pittsburgh has moved ahead with a new economic vision based on industries of the future. Almost surely, that was the reason Hillary Clinton won 75 percent of the vote in Pittsburgh last year, although Trump won Pennsylvania by a narrow margin, racking up most of his victory in rural areas. Pittsburgh’s economic growth model may not be perfect (what big city is?), but it is better than most. And it certainly is not tied to President Trump’s retreat from progress on climate change.

Nowhere in the administration message did I hear any acknowledgment of the job growth that is tied to our leadership on climate change, and the opportunities that may be sacrificed to the President’s flawed analysis of who is supposedly laughing at us. Technological and scientific leadership have been the lifeblood of America’s prosperity. We are now retreating from that prospect at what may be a high cost in the future unless we turn this ship around again. Nowhere did I hear any acknowledgment of the cost to communities in lost life and property safety as a result of ignoring warnings about the impacts of climate change.

On one level, the priorities for which I have worked for the last 25 years may not matter much in terms of my resentment at seeing so much of this work seemingly undone on the day after my retirement from APA. Trump also may ultimately have far less impact on the subject than he intends. But on another level, I was just one more contributor to a great push by millions of Americans toward that safer, more prosperous future that remains possible despite this grand presidential blunder. Maybe the Nicaraguans, who are not part of the Paris accord, are right—we should do far more, not less. But we certainly should not be following the lead of President Trump. He has dramatically gotten it all wrong, and we must all say so as forcefully as we can.


Jim Schwab

Drifting into Disaster

Scene from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

Scene from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

Across the United States of America, about one in five people live under the rules and structures of some sort of private association that governs common property interests. These can be condominium associations, homeowners associations, or similar entities that are somehow responsible for levying fees and maintaining communal property. To degrees they often may not realize, the residents are thus controlled and constrained by the decisions these associations make, which often may concern themselves with details that a local government would not even consider, such as the color of aluminum siding, allowable holiday decorations, and other matters with minor impacts on the quality of life. Many homeowners associations are established by developers at the time they get permits to create a new subdivision. In some states, local governments are happy to offload responsibility for infrastructure maintenance, such as private roads, onto these associations while coveting the property taxes they will still pay.

The implications of all this were brought to my attention in the past week or two by Chad Berginnis, the executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM). He has been working with me on material for a future report we plan to publish at the American Planning Association on subdivision design as it relates to areas with flood hazards. The issue that concerned him as he wrote a chapter on subdivision standards for local governments, which have the primary responsibility for permitting new development, is how well these private owner associations can sustain over time the financial responsibilities for infrastructure designed to protect their properties from disaster, most notably but not exclusively, flooding.

Among the items that have come to my attention is a paper by two California attorneys, Tyler P. Berding and Steven S. Weil, disturbingly titled, “Disaster! No Reserves. No Insurance. What’s Left if a Natural Disaster Destroys a Community Association?” They begin with a cautionary tale about the Bethel Island Municipal Improvement District, actually a California special district, not a homeowners association. Its mission is to maintain and improve the levees that surround the Sacramento Delta island of 2,500 residents, where the interior is seven to 15 feet below sea level. To say that their survival depends on well-maintained levees is no exaggeration. Moreover, in that part of California, the levees are subject to collapse from earthquake shaking as well as from overtopping in a flood. I have some idea of their peril because four years ago, a representative of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) took me on a six-hour guided tour of the levee system in the delta area, plying me with a number of the background studies by DWR of the overall situation. There are hundreds of such islands throughout the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, many used for agriculture, and some developed. In their 2012 article, produced about the time of that tour, Berding and Weil note, “But the district is broke.” Voters “soundly” rejected a 2010 parcel tax measure to fund improvements, and much of the district staff was laid off. The levees were deteriorating, to some extent “suffering damage by beavers and rodents.”

It is disturbingly easy for homeowners association or other private association board members to take their eyes off the ball of maintaining adequate reserves and resources to address dangers that seem less than imminent, and even to forget why they are responsible for collecting assessments in the first place. And it is even easier for residents who must approve some of those assessments to lack meaningful knowledge of the consequences of either depleting or failing to maintain adequate reserves for unfortunate natural events like floods, earthquakes, or other disasters. Once they begin sliding down that slippery slope of amnesia and unawareness, it is not long before they have put a good deal of common and individual property at risk. The few who may be aware of the long-term consequences often may lack the ability to make their case to less concerned neighbors.

This issue is one of concern in the field of urban planning because new subdivisions, in particular, often arise at the edge of metropolitan areas in unincorporated county lands or small towns, where governance capacity may be limited and resistance to government regulation particularly high. The result is that oversight is weakest, and the desire for new development highest, precisely where the need for that oversight may be greatest. In regulatory terms, it is the theory of the weakest link. One of our motives for the new report (underwritten by the Federal Emergency Management Agency) is to help shore up those weak links with stronger guidance about sound practices in reviewing plans for new subdivisions. Berding and Weil were serving a similar purpose, at least in the California context, by describing sound practices for community associations, particularly in sustaining adequate reserves for contingencies such as disasters.

But finances are only part of the problem. Sometimes, the leadership of such associations can become so focused on issues like aesthetics and conformity that they lose sight of larger issues like public safety. In the past, the National Fire Protection Association, which supports the Firewise Communities initiative, has trained its attention on the question of covenants that run counter to public safety, for example, by inhibiting well-researched methods for containing wildfire threats. Many of these techniques involve either landscaping or building design, yet some associations have rules limiting tree trimming or landscaping that would aid in wildfire mitigation. In Safer from the Start, NFPA’s 2009 study of the issues involved in building and maintaining “firewise-friendly developments,” a sidebar notes that the state of Colorado’s recently passed “Colorado Common Interest Ownership Act,” among other measures, basically invalidated a number of types of association covenants and restrictions that inhibited defensible space around private dwellings in order to advance wildfire safety statewide. In effect, the state was saying, with regard to rules that made wildfire safety more difficult to enforce, “enough.” At the same time, the publication overall provided a significant amount of sound advice about best practices in wildfire protection in rural subdivisions and new developments.

That seven-year-old NFPA advice recently got a new boost from an interesting direction: Green Builder Media just recently issued its own e-brochure, “Design with Fire in Mind: Three Steps to a Safer New Home,” in cooperation with NFPA. Green Builder Media has more of a direct avenue to influence those developers who want to build safe, resilient, energy-efficient communities.

The fact that these resources have continued to materialize on a regular basis over the past decade or two indicates, to me, that the subject of good design and homeowner association responsibility is not going away any time soon. It is the job of planners, floodplain managers, and local and state officials to ensure that those responsibilities remain on their radar screens and are taken seriously. One-fifth of the American population depends to a significant degree on the quality of their oversight.


Jim Schwab

The Past and Future of Disaster Research and Practice

Interdisciplinary disaster studies are still relatively new, compared to long-standing fields like geology or even psychology. I spent last week (July 19-23) in Broomfield, Colorado, first at the Natural Hazards Workshop, sponsored by the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Center, and then at the one-day add-on conference of the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association (NHMA). The International Research Committee on Disasters Researchers Meeting took place at the same time as the NHMA gathering. The main event marked the 40th year of the Natural Hazards Workshop, launched in 1976, with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), by the Natural Hazards Center’s renowned founder, Gilbert F. White, who virtually pioneered studies of flooding in the 1930s as a geographer who served in the New Deal under President Franklin Roosevelt, later taught at the University of Chicago, and finally found his home in Boulder, where he died in 2006 at age 94. You can read a full biography of White, a true scientific pioneer, in Robert E. Hinshaw’s Living with Nature’s Extremes, published shortly after White’s death.

To mark this milestone, current NHC director Kathleen Tierney invited several of us to join a panel for the opening plenary on July 20 to discuss both retrospective and prospective views of disaster research and practice within four disciplines. I spoke about urban planning; Howard Kunreuther spoke by video on economics; Tricia Wachtendorf of the University of Delaware on sociology; and Ken Mitchell of Rutgers University on geography. In the end, of course, we all use and benefit from each other’s insights, so it was intriguing to hear the comparisons in how our fields have approached problems of hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. The forum was moderated by long-time NSF program director Dennis Wenger, who previously served at Texas A&M University, where he was Founding Director and Senior Scholar of the Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center.

Wenger himself had a story to tell before introducing his panel, one involving more than 800 projects funded by NSF for more than $200 million over the years his program, Infrastructure Systems Management and Extreme Events, has been in place to fund research on hazards. It has not always had that name; as Wenger humorously noted, however, its four name changes over some four decades is “not bad for NSF.” The ballroom of 500 disaster practitioners and researchers from multiple disciplines contained more than a few people whose research has benefited from those NSF grants, which have moved the field forward in numerous and remarkable ways.

The American Planning Association taped the opening plenary and has made it available on its multimedia Recovery News blog at The blog post includes the PowerPoint accompanying my presentation.


Jim Schwab

Interview with Boulder, Colorado, Mayor

This is one of those short posts that takes you to a different blog, but one for which I have direct responsibilities–the Recovery News blog at the American Planning Association website. We posted last Friday a video interview with Matthew Appelbaum, the mayor of Boulder, Colorado, exploring the lessons the city learned from the floods that afflicted the city in September 2013. Appelbaum discusses the road to recovery, the unique circumstances of the flood, and the fact that “resilience is the watchword.” I hope you enjoy listening. Click here.

Jim Schwab

One Thing Leads to Another

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Schwab

Food at the Riverside: Review

Restaurants can and often do feature curious logos, and one would expect no less from any independent restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, but an image of an upward-pointing fork with a upside-down goat sitting on top? Well, let’s just accept that. I didn’t see any goat on the menu anyway, just . . . .

Never judge a restaurant by its entrance. :)

Never judge a restaurant by its entrance. 🙂

goat cheese, unless I am missing something, which I doubt, although buffalo does make an appearance. This is the new West, after all.

And I can always appreciate an entrepreneurial sense of humor. I am a strong believer that a healthy sense of humor extends our life span, and I certainly hope to extend mine with a positive attitude and a disposition toward laughter as good medicine.

In a state where the sign inside “Food at the Riverside,” pointing to a separate downstairs facility, welcomed the now legal “Colorado Cannabis Industry Meetup” that evening, I might note that my own personal disposition is that humor and laughter beat drugs as a source of spiritual and psychological nourishment. But people will find solace where they will, and while I do not personally find any use for marijuana, I certainly favor decriminalization and taxation over wasting money and human resources on jail time for such activities. Our society has better things to do, just as it had better things to do than Prohibition nearly a century ago.


But that is all apart from my comments on Food at the Riverside, a small restaurant nestled alongside—and mercifully above—the sometimes mercurial Boulder Creek, as it ripples downstream after spilling out of the nearby Rocky Mountains. It is part of a larger complex known simply as The Riverside that includes an outdoor café and facilities for private events, in a building that began its existence long ago as a candy store.

I was part of an unexpected, reservationless group of 14 customers, all attendees of the 3rd International Conference on Urban Disaster Reduction at the nearby Hotel Boulderado. The hotel, by the way, is a wonderfully historic building that dates to Colorado’s nineteenth century and features a look that bridges the years between. It has its challenges, if you want all the modern conveniences of a newly built hotel. The elevator requires the operation of a hotel staffer, but you can ascend and descend five stories of stairs, as I did for three days, and get some aerobic exercise while moving around. In a state with more physical fitness per capita than perhaps any other in the U.S., and one of the lowest obesity rates, this is perhaps not a bad thing, although it is not necessarily the best for people with physical disabilities.

Despite our large group’s unexpected arrival early in the evening, Food at the Riverside quickly made accommodations. An adjacent room hosted a blues band for the evening, but we were able to hear each other and enjoy our conversation, and the evening was nice enough to allow the open window to filter the burbling sound of the creek below. In fact, at one point, that sound was loud enough to cause some of us to wonder if it was raining outside, but it was not.

Our delegation included only three Americans, the rest being from Taiwan and Japan. The size of our group allowed us to combine our orders in certain categories for discounted prices. The menu allows you to choose three items from salads, cold plates, warm plates, or grilled plates for discounts; the salads were all in high single digits, with three for $19; the grilled plates, the most expensive, still were only $10 to $12, or all three for $27. The latter options included duck breast (with butternut squash, granny smith apple, hazelnuts, and tarragon butter), lamb rib (spiced with cardamom brown sugar, plus pear, pomegranate, pistachio, arugula, and gryree), and New York strip steak (with whipped potatoes, grilled asparagus, and horseradish demi). I chose the last of the three, and I must say it was succulent and well prepared, and capped off an evening that began with a quality wine and beer list.

The salads were also all excellent; my choice was arugula, augmented with pears, Maytag blue cheese, toasted walnuts, and red wine vinaigrette. But others featuring romaine hearts, spinach, and golden beets were also available. They were all well worth their modest price.


I should also note that the manager, as we left, hastened to hand me the breakfast and lunch menu as well once he learned of my blog, and it does look interesting, featuring omelets, benedicts, paninis, and quiches, in addition to more classic fare. I may well be tempted to try either meal on a subsequent visit to Boulder, which for me is almost inevitable, given the local presence of the Natural Hazards Center.

When I do, if the season is appropriate, it may be nice to try the outdoor seating above the creek, where one can watch the joggers, bicyclists, and strollers, as well as the water, pass by. I can think of worse ways to spend a summer evening, especially if another band is playing inside.


Jim Schwab

Resilience in the Rockies

Our visiting delegation arrives in Lyons on the slightly chilly afternoon of October 1.

Our visiting delegation arrives in Lyons on the slightly chilly afternoon of October 1.

Back on July 28, I told the story in “The Fatal Attraction” of a gourmet restaurant in Gold Hill, Colorado, that somehow produced great food with the help of a fantastically dedicated staff in a small town nestled in the mountains. I also noted that the surrounding communities had suffered both wildfires in the past and torrential floods in September 2013, from which they are still recovering.  I recounted a few details of some presentations by the mayors of both Boulder and Lyons, and their city manager and town administrator, during the annual Natural Hazards Workshop in nearby Broomfield, Colorado.

Victoria Simonsen explains the flood maps at the visitor center in downtown Lyons.

Victoria Simonsen explains the flood maps at the visitor center in downtown Lyons.

I had the opportunity just last week to spend three days in Boulder at the Third International Conference on Urban Disaster Reduction (ICUDR), which attracted sponsoring delegations from Taiwan, Japan, and New Zealand, and other attendees from nations like Algeria. I will discuss later some of what transpired at the conference, but here I wish to note that the conference provided the opportunity to join a field tour to Lyons, where we were joined by Mayor John O’Brien and Town Administrator Victoria Simonsen, both of whom seem to personify resilience in their approach to rebuilding a town that, at the height of the flood, was divided by the rampaging water into six islands and saw a 400-foot gouge cut through the heart of the town. We were joined on the bus by Professor Andrew Rumbach of the University of Colorado-Denver College of Architecture and Planning, whose students have been assisting the town with plan development; details and the plan itself are available at their website,

This aerial photo on the wall of the visitor center shows the damage inflicted by the flood on a major local bridge.

This aerial photo on the wall of the visitor center shows the damage inflicted by the flood on a major local bridge.

It is less my intent here to reiterate the flood statistics that were shared (for those see the box below), but to provide a photographic rendering of the condition of Lyons one year later, after thousands of hours of volunteer and paid work have been expended to restore homes, utility services, and some semblance of normal life to a town that was on the verge of destruction just a year ago. The town also received some planning

The St. Vrain watershed under more normal conditions during our visit.

The St. Vrain watershed under more normal conditions during our visit.

assistance from the American Planning Association through the pro bono visit of an APA Community Planning Assistance Team earlier this year. One thing that is very clear is that the town’s leadership is very gracious about acknowledging the extent of such outside help. Without it, Lyons would most likely never have mustered the resources to stage its comeback.

During the flood, water overtopped this bridge in the Confluence neighborhood.

During the flood, water overtopped this bridge in the Confluence neighborhood.








Lyons: The Numbers

  • Normal stream flow: 120 to 200 cubic feet per second (cfs)
  • Stream flow at height of flood: 30,000 cfs
  • Streams involved: North and South St. Vrain Creek, which meet to form confluence in Lyons
  • Size of gash cut through center of town by flood waters: 400 feet
  • Deaths: 1
  • People evacuated: ~2,000
  • Population of Lyons: 2,035
  • Homes damaged: 211
  • Homes substantially damaged: 84
  • Trees lost in flood: ~10,000

Jim Schwab

Views of damage in Lyons’s Confluence neighborhood, so called because it is near where the North and South St. Vrain Creeks merge:












Here lie the remains of a mobile home caught in the swirling waters of the deluge.

Here lie the remains of a mobile home caught in the swirling waters of the deluge.

The Fatal Attraction

At first, it looks like something straight out of the Old West, and perhaps it is. The Gold Hill Inn is now 52 years old, which plants its origins in the 1960s, but the building was originally the dining hall for the adjacent but now closed Bluebird Lodge, built in 1873. The Gold Hill Inn, actually a restaurant, was built in 1926. In either case, Colorado was a decidedly different place back then. The historic district that remains carries forward the heritage of the old frontier.

The shuttered Bluebird Lodge, next to the Gold Hill Inn.

The shuttered Bluebird Lodge, next to the Gold Hill Inn.

What is remarkable is finding a restaurant of such gourmet and fine dining predilections, for the Gold Hill Inn is no typical small town diner. It boasts some of the finest menus in Colorado, but I will return to all that later. What I want to discuss first is the journey to this lofty establishment, whose website says it is open from May through December. Sitting high in the mountains above 8,000 feet, one reasonable explanation might be that cold and snow discourage the journey at other times of the year. But I am guessing, as a Midwesterner accustomed to cold but not to the altitude, and I could be wrong. Maybe they just like to take a break for four months.

The Gold Hill Inn awaits. From the left, my friends Barry Hokanson, of Greyslake, Illinois, and Ed Thomas, of Boston.

The Gold Hill Inn awaits. From the left, my friends Barry Hokanson, of Greyslake, Illinois, and Ed Thomas, of Boston.

On the evening of June 22, I was in the company of three other gentlemen, all attending the annual Natural Hazards Workshop in Broomfield, Colorado, who were already familiar with the Gold Hill Inn and had made plans to visit one of their favorite restaurants. Well—two of them were. Ed Thomas, president of the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association, also a land-use attorney and former FEMA employee from Boston, had talked to me a month before about the Gold Hill Inn, and Jim Murphy, a planner working with URS Corporation, knew the way because of prior work on hazard mitigation in the area. The journey was worth every bit as much, in professional education, as the restaurant itself was in oral gratification and nutrition, so I will offer that story first.

One never follows a straight path up into the Rockies. Everything is a long and winding road that clings to the sides of cliffs and creeks, and Jim, the driver, chose his path to let us see the impacts of the September 2013 floods along Four Mile Creek, which descends precipitously from the mountain ridges. We also saw the impacts of prior wildfires. Some of those wildfires were severe enough to char the soils beneath the forests, producing a phenomenon known as hydrophobic soils, which accelerate and exacerbate flash flooding because they are incapable of absorbing the rainfall when a storm hits. That forces the water to rush downstream as if it were simply pouring off a concrete pavement. One of the many functions of healthier soils, especially if covered with healthy tree canopy, is to delay the movement of that rainfall and absorb it into the ground, eventually recharging groundwater. Hydrophobic soils lose that function and contribute to the resulting flood disaster.

Up close, Four Mile Creek tumbling through the mountains.

Up close, Four Mile Creek tumbling through the mountains.

Last fall, Colorado suffered what amounted to a mountain monsoon that dumped nearly 18 inches of rain in parts of the mountains north of Boulder, producing record flooding in many of the communities along the creek path and below the mountains. In flatter areas, flooded rivers can move at frightening speeds, but never approaching those of mountain streams whose descent can sometimes be measured in thousands of feet over just a relatively few miles, particularly along the Front Range in Colorado.

Hillsides denuded of forest by wildfires become more vulnerable to stormwater runoff, exacerbating downstream flooding.

Hillsides denuded of forest by wildfires become more vulnerable to stormwater runoff, exacerbating downstream flooding.

But you don’t have to be at the bottom of the mountain to get the worst of it. Many people in Colorado have chosen home sites that amount to what I like to call the “fatal attraction.” I define such locations as alluring sites that often have stunning views, provide proximity to wildlife for those who treasure their communion with nature, but which also suffer from often dangerous exposures to natural hazards like wildfires and flooding. The fatal attraction is not limited to the Rocky Mountains, or even to the mountains, but plays out in seaside resorts in New Jersey and North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and in many other challenging choices all over the world. We humans are emotional as well as rational creatures, and we often choose places to live based on their tug on our hearts and eyeballs while ignoring the possible long-term consequences of living in locations exposed to hurricanes, floods, wildfires, volcanoes, and whatever else you can name.

And, in truth, those choices are not always as clear-cut as some would suggest. All hazards are ultimately matters of probabilities, how often something happens over what period of time, and of the magnitude of a likely event, and there is no place where those probabilities are zero. They may be zero for a particular hazard, but not for every possible hazard. In early July, lightning in a thunderstorm zapped our living room television and garage door opener. I live in Chicago. I may not be in a floodplain, but things happen. And as some of us like to say, it is not just where you build, but how you build. Yet few of us can afford to build a fortress, and most of us might not like the result if we did.

That said, there can be no doubt that those who choose to live on the side of the mountain can expect swift retribution from nature on occasion, and last fall nature doled it out in abundance. At the Natural Hazards Workshop, which assembles about 400 experts from numerous disciplines every year to discuss these very questions, we heard from local officials and scientists precisely what happened last September.

Robert Henson, a meteorologist at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, noted that Boulder’s worst flooding was along small waterways and that the city received the equivalent of more than half of a year’s rain in one week. But there were problems with accurate measurements because some rain gauges were too close to buildings or under trees, others accidentally spilled, and others overflowed because the rain exceeded their capacity. Henson outlined some common misconceptions about such storms, including the idea that our climate is stationary. It is not. It is constantly changing, and today it is changing faster because of the impact of human activities that inject greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Getting agreement on the latter point is not a problem in Boulder, according to Mayor Matthew Appelbaum. He noted that a survey showed 99 percent agreement among local residents that climate change is real. That somewhat simplifies the task of getting consensus on the needed measures to mitigate against future disasters, but Boulder also benefits from some far-sighted policies of the past, although most were not specifically undertaken with such issues in mind. But over time, the city has created a wide swath of protected reserves with a lot of open space. It has used that open space to create recreational and physical activity benefits for residents by building bicycle and hiking paths along Boulder Creek, notably, but other smaller creeks as well. Thus, the public gets positive amenities in addition to flood mitigation. Much of that open space plan has prevented development in the more hazardous areas of Boulder and prevented unsightly mountainside development. But, according to City Administrator Jane Brautigan, that open space was not acquired in a day, or even a year, but over decades. Boulder’s high-hazard property acquisition program dedicates about a half million dollars every year to acquiring such properties and demolishing the homes. Boulder also reserves 10 percent of its budget for emergencies. It turns out this famously liberal town is fiscally conservative in confronting its vulnerabilities.

What Boulder did not expect was the damage from rising water tables as a result of the sheer quantity of rain, which flooded basements, an outcome that had not been considered possible—until it happened. The flood knocked out one of Boulder’s two water treatment plants, according to Appelbaum. Sewers that normally run 12 million gallons of water per day were running 50 million gallons daily for three weeks straight. Brautigan invited researchers seeking data on rainfall and groundwater to visit Boulder.

But suppose you are merely a town of 2,000, rather than the 100,000-plus residents of Boulder? Even massive reserves relative to your annual budget may not be enough in a case like that of Lyons, about 15 miles north of Boulder, but much smaller and considerably more vulnerable. Lyons sits at the confluence of the North and South St. Vrain Creeks. Every one of its citizens was forced to evacuate, and every one of its businesses closed, almost all of them independently owned.

Victoria Simonsen, the town administrator, noted that this town with a $1 million annual budget had $4.4 million in reserves, which still are nowhere near enough in the face of $50 million in damages. Outside assistance has been essential. The normal creek flow is 1,200 cubic feet per second (cfs); the storm produced a flood flow of 26,000 cfs, ripping a 400-foot gash through the center of town that runs three to 18 feet deep. The severe storm tore apart the water distribution system, pulled gas and electric lines out of the ground, and destroyed communications. Effectively, the community became a series of six islands surrounded by water, isolated from the outside world for 36 hours before the National Guard could arrive with high-water vehicles capable of entering the scene and evacuating those who remained. Miraculously, perhaps, only one person died.

There is a great deal of work to be done in Lyons, and some other towns like it, as a result of last year’s flood. Simonsen provided a laundry list of actions spread across the short-, mid-, and long-term recovery that lies ahead. But the town has help. Oskar Blues, a home-grown brewery, set up a nonprofit foundation to raise money, Oskar Blues CAN’d Aid, named after the company’s famous canned microbrew designed for mountain climbers who cannot afford to carry bottled beer in their sacks. Plans are underway to restart businesses, replace lost housing, and restore parks, open space, and trails. The summer festivals that attracted people in the past will go on, albeit with some adjustments. One has to admire such the sense of community that is on exhibit in places like Lyons.

That brings us back to the Gold Hill Inn. Unique entertainment and eating establishments, and the small town feel that they produce, are what keep many of these small Colorado towns alive today. The Gold Hill Inn serves special food in order to attract the special people who find their way up mountain roads to try the unique cuisine. The menu changes from day to day, so it is posted on the blackboard. You can get the three-course meal for about $25, as I recall, or the six-course for $35, and though it seemed indulgent, we all opted for six. I can personally attest that the Ukrainian borscht, flavored with bacon, made a fabulous side dish and was far better than anything like it I can recall. The ono salad was a treat, but the entrée I ordered, the roast pork cooked in apricot sauce, was a dream. All that is before we get to the dessert (a truly unique apple pie in my case that I cannot recall how to describe if I ever figured out how to do so in the first place), followed by cheeses that ultimately seemed decadent after everything that preceded them. The service was both outstanding and enthusiastic, and it was explained that the staff works as a team and responds to its clientele as a team. No want or concern among customers went unanswered. It is clear they want you to love the place and come back.

And that is because, for all its challenges, the people in these small towns seem to love the place themselves. There are, after all, many reasons not to be there. They focus on the reasons that make the place special.


Jim Schwab