Step Forward on Water Hazards Resilience

Satellite photo of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway. Image from NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (CC BY-SA 2.0).

It is time to make America resilient. The trends have been moving us in the wrong direction for a long time, but we know how to reverse them.

Planners — and elected officials — have to embrace the science that will inform us best on how to achieve that goal, and we have to develop the political will to decide that public safety in the face of natural hazards is central both to fiscal prudence and the kind of nation we want to be. America will not become great by being short-sighted.

Damage from natural disasters is taking an increasing toll on our society and our economy. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), currently the target for serious budget cuts by the Trump administration, operates the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), a vital national resource center for data. It has long tracked the number and costs of the nation’s weather and climate-related disasters, and the conclusion is unavoidable: The number of billion-dollar disasters is growing and getting worse.

APA’s Hazards Planning Center has long studied and highlighted best planning practices for addressing the vulnerabilities that lead to such disaster losses. However, the uptake into community planning systems varies, and it is often a long process challenged by resource shortages.

In recognition of Water Week, I offer the following recommendations to Congress for ways in which federal partners and planners can work together to create stronger, more resilient communities:

Maintain funding levels

Maintaining the necessary funding support for agencies like NOAA is critical for providing us with the baseline information the nation needs to track data. It’s only through the ongoing coordination, maintence, and strengthening of national data resources that federal partners will truly be able to support local planning efforts. More data — not less — is the key to creating hazards policy that prepares communities for the future.

Translate science into good public policy

It is important to find new and better ways to translate science into good public policy. This is one of the objectives for NOAA’s Regional Coastal Resilience program — just one of the many important grants in danger of being defunded in FY 2018.

Support America’s coastal communities by ensuring that they benefit from projects directing the nation’s scientific and technical ingenuity to solve problems related to coastal hazards. The price tag is a tiny fraction of what the nation spent on recovery from Hurricane Sandy. The program is clearly a wise investment in our coastal future.

Reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program

The National Flood Insurance Program expires this year. Reauthorization must include continued support for the flood mapping program so communities have essential baseline information on the parameters of their flooding challenges.

Municipalities and counties need accurate and current flood mapping and data in order to make more informed judgments on both how and where to build. Only then will the nation begin to dial back the volume of annual flood damages.

Pass the Digital Coast Act

Passing the Digital Coast Act means authorizing and enabling NOAA to provide the suite of tools, data, and resources under the Digital Coast program that have proved useful to local planners, coastal resource managers, public works departments, and water agencies in better managing coastal zones and the natural systems that keep them healthy.

Through the Digital Coast Partnership, APA has been a strong advocate for formalizing NOAA’s Digital Coast project through legislation and providing adequate federal appropriations for robust funding.

This legislation already has bipartisan support because the program shows government at its best in providing cost-effective support to scientifically informed public policy and decision making.

As APA Past President Carol Rhea, FAICP, has noted, “This legislation will directly improve local disaster response and hazard mitigation planning. This bill will help local communities minimize potential loss of life and damage to infrastructure, private property, and conservation areas. The Digital Coast Act is an important step for effective coastal management.”

Continue funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created partly in response to the sorry condition of the Great Lakes and major tributaries like the Cuyahoga and Maumee Rivers. We have come a long way since then. The lakes and rivers are healthier, and the communities around them are, too. Yet the administration’s budget would zero out such programs despite their megaregional and even international impacts.

Recognize the progress we have made and renew America’s commitment to further improve these major bodies of water. Support coastal resilience along the Great Lakes.

These are not dramatic requests. Mostly, they recognize the slow but steady progress — and the persistent creativity — that has resulted from past commitments. They are, however, critical to successful water policy and to our national future as a resilient nation.

Jim Schwab

This post is reprinted from the APA Blog with permission from the American Planning Association, for which it was produced.

All’s Well at Burwell’s

Chad Berginnis shares a story during the roast. To his right is Nicole LeBouef, new Deputy Assistant Administrator for NOAA for the National Ocean Service. Photo by Susan Fox.

Chad Berginnis shares a story during the roast. To his right is Nicole LeBouef, new Deputy Assistant Administrator for NOAA for the National Ocean Service. Photo by Susan Fox.

Warmth is a concept with many dimensions. In the realm of physics, it is a relative measure of temperature. In reference to weather, perhaps the most common subject of human conversation, it is a measure of the kinetic energy of the atmosphere around us, which is constantly changing. Mark Twain has been erroneously quoted as saying, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” His friend Charles Dudley Warner sort of said it, but no mind. On Tuesday, February 7, in Charleston, South Carolina, no one around me had any complaints. We were perfectly happy with the kinetic energy of the atmosphere of the day, which brought the city to a very comfortable 75° F. No rain, just a mild breeze. Let it be. (You can accurately take that quote from the Beatles.) Two days later, I would have to return to Chicago, where it was 18° F. when I stepped off the airplane.

Like many other English words, warmth takes on many metaphorical and emotional connotations derived from its physical qualities. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” President Harry Truman used to say, and he was not referring to room temperature in the White House. Conversely, there is the warmth of positive human relationships, just as there is a chill in the air when they are not going well.

That evening, at a downtown Charleston restaurant, Burwell’s, I experienced that warmth at a group dinner organized by some National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) staff for those members of the NOAA Digital Coast Partnership who were attending the Coastal GeoTools Conference. The partnership consists of both NOAA, through its National Ocean Service, and eight national nonprofit organizations, including the American Planning Association, which I represented along with a colleague, Joseph DeAngelis, a research associate for the Hazards Planning Center. The conference was hosted for NOAA by the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM).

Susan Fox, NOAA point of contact for APA in the Digital Coast Partnership, presents a gift before the roast. Photo by Miki Schmidt.

Susan Fox, NOAA point of contact for APA in the Digital Coast Partnership, presents a gift before the roast. Photo by Miki Schmidt.

But enough of the organizational details. Shortly after all our carloads arrived at Burwell’s, and our party of 24 was led upstairs by the wait staff, it became apparent that something special was afoot. Miki Schmidt, Division Chief for Coastal Geospatial Services at NOAA, attempted to get people’s attention by clinking empty glasses. It wasn’t working, so I decided to use my booming voice to say, “Miki wants your attention.” That worked. Then he announced, to my surprise, that they wanted to honor my upcoming retirement with a few gifts, among which were a framed certificate of appreciation from the U.S. Department of Commerce for my service in supporting Digital Coast and a framed photograph of those who had attended the last full meeting of the partnership in Rhode Island in September 2016, signed by many of the attendees. The warmth of the professional and personal relationships built with colleagues since APA joined the partnership in 2010 became readily apparent to me in this unexpected moment.

Allison Hardin poses with the wolf; David Hart observes (September 2011). Photo by Melissa Ladd.

Allison Hardin poses with the wolf; David Hart observes (September 2011). Photo by Melissa Ladd.

Then we sat down, and the “roast” began. More than once, as Miki seemed ready to turn the floor over to me for the final word, someone new would pop up to offer stories both fun and serious. Yes, it was true that I had once, wearing a moveable wolf mask, climbed through the open window of a park shelter in Madison, Wisconsin, during an evening reception for a partnership meeting hosted by ASFPM, asking the whereabouts of “them three little pigs.” Undaunted by the momentary confusion my entrance engendered, Allison Hardin, a planner from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, insisted on posing for a photograph with the wolf, who politely obliged. I was known (though not alone) in trying to provide such moments to enliven the more relaxing moments of partnership gatherings. When my “final word” finally came, I shared not only some enhancements of the recollected moments, but my own plans beyond APA, which I discussed in a recent blog post, “The Fine Art of Stepping Down.”

Still, the Digital Coast Partnership was also built through a great deal of hard work, which was also celebrated. The representatives of the groups involved worked hard over the past decade to build the partnership, which is now celebrating its tenth year. Meetings sometimes involved long discussions of how we could better collaborate, and we now often partner on important proposals and projects in which our complementary strengths facilitate important progress in achieving Digital Coast’s mission. NOAA established Digital Coast to advance the use of geospatial technology by coastal communities to improve and enhance coastal planning and resource management. Much of this consists of a substantial and growing of free, online tools and resources for mapping and visualization purposes. The partnership consists of the user communities that can help vet Digital Coast products and assist in their dissemination. But the operative Digital Coast slogan has been “More than just data.” It is the human dimension that matters, and the science and technology have been means to an end, which is enabling the achievement of noble coastal community goals such as environmental protection, hazard mitigation, economic sustainability, and climate resilience.

And so—I suppose it was appropriate that the organizers of the dinner chose to bring us to Burwell’s Stonefire Grill, which generates its own warmth through its comfort menu of steaks and seafood. Though it certainly can be pricey like any steakhouse (most steak entrees are between $30 and $40), the food is outstanding. Personally, I indulged in the lobster bisque for starters. It offered some of the deepest, most flavorful spoonfuls of joy of any bisque I have had in a long time. Alan, our waiter, was not lying at all when he told me it was great. On the subject of warmth, let me add that the wait staff of Alan, Mat, and Will were very patient and careful in tending to this large crowd, as was bartender Jo Jo Chandler. I did not meet the owner, John Thomas, but he is to be commended for both the staff and the cuisine. The Wagyu flat iron steak that I ordered was tender and delicious. I also indulged in a side order of Brussels sprouts, which I love but which require some attentive preparation to succeed. These were great in part because they were prepared in combination with caramelized onions. Others around me

Miki to the right of me in the upstairs dining room at Burwell's.

Miki to the right of me in the upstairs dining room at Burwell’s. Photo by Susan Fox.

enjoyed the seafood offerings, including oysters and scallops, and I heard no complaints and considerable praise. I can assure readers that, if you visit Charleston, Burwell’s is worth a visit for one of your evening outings. It also features a warm and casual atmosphere and a good downstairs bar, from which that amber beer in my hand originated, courtesy of Chad Berginnis, the executive director of ASFPM. I wasn’t sure, when we first arrived, why he offered to buy. Now I suspect he was in on the “roast” plan all along. Thanks, I say, to all of my friends at Digital Coast. My actual retirement from APA may have been almost four months away, but they knew this might be the last chance to do it before that day came. I hope they do the same for others when the time comes.

Jim Schwab


Digital Coast: A Model for Progress

In an era of congressional gridlock, with so little productive activity coming out of Washington that many people have begun to wonder if federal government is good for anything, the best models often work quietly in the shadows—and they may not even work primarily out of Washington. They work around the country, in the hinterlands, and along the coasts. They may even have odd names like Digital Coast, suggesting the marriage of digital technology with environmental and coastal planning needs. This is the story, in my own idiosyncratic fashion, of one such model.

Just last week, I spent three days in Milwaukee at a meeting of the Digital Coast Partnership, which is affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Digital Coast is a program of NOAA’s Coastal Services Center (CSC), based in Charleston, South Carolina. CSC is in the process of merging with the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM), in order to form a single coastal operation within NOAA. OCRM has been responsible for administering the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA), a piece of legislation passed in 1972 that supports a cooperative approach to better coastal resource management between the states and the federal government. But all this may be more bureaucracy than most people want to know, so let’s cut to the chase.

Overburdened local governments and regional planning agencies in coastal areas often do not have all the resources they may need to do a thorough job of planning intelligently for the future of the nation’s coastline. Under the CZMA, that coastline includes all areas along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes, including estuaries and bays like the Chesapeake Bay. In addition to tens of thousands of miles of coast, this area also is home to 39 percent of the U.S. population and many of our largest cities, including Boston, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, and Honolulu. In all, some 30 states and five territories are included in the Coastal Zone Management Program.

Managing coastal resources is a delicate balancing act that includes planning for many environmentally sensitive areas, economic powerhouses and attractive tourist destinations, and major ports that drive trillions of dollars in economic activity. It requires advanced planning tools, knowledge of both economics and environmental science, and an understanding of the demographics of these areas, which can be very diverse. Many of our coastal cities like New York have been historic points of entry for many of the immigrants who have subsequently built so much of the modern United States.

Providing a modest suite of online tools and resources to make that job just a little easier at the local level is the job of Digital Coast. But now I am going to dive into the truly interesting part of this whole story—the emergence of the partnership.

Early in 2010, I was approached by representatives of NOAA on behalf of the Digital Coast program to gauge the interest of the American Planning Association in joining what was then a group of five national organizations that comprised the Digital Coast Partnership. These were the original team that had been assembled to help NOAA assess the usefulness of the resources it was creating and to reach deeply into the user communities for those resources to spread the word that this online resource existed. Those five organizations were The Nature Conservancy, National States Geographic Information Council, Coastal States Organization, Association of State Floodplain Managers, and National Association of Counties. Within the first year, they determined that something was missing—contact with urban planners. So they decided to invite us to join them. By July 2010, we signed an agreement to do exactly that, and we have never looked back. At the same time, as Nicholas J. (“Miki”) Schmidt, CSC’s Division Chief for Coastal Geospatial Services, likes to say, they could not be happier that APA joined.

What is the point of this partnership? It is long past the point in American history where a federal agency can afford to develop a new resource for local government without having some means to determine whether what they think will be useful actually is what is most useful to practitioners. Collaboration is more the order of the day. Find the people who will have to make best use of the tools, resources, and data you want to create, and ask whether what you have in mind is as useful as it could be, or even useful at all. If those user groups can vet your product and tell you seriously that, with perhaps this change or that tweak, what you are considering developing would be beneficial to local officials, planners, and resource managers, then go for it. If not, rethink it. In the end, what emerges is a highly productive symbiotic relationship in which those who must make better coastal planning and resource management happen at a local and regional level have a voice in the kinds of tools, data, and resources that may make their jobs easier.

As logical as all that sounds, the case for this model becomes even more compelling in the context of climate change. Our evolving climate, driven by the relentless addition of greenhouse gases from modern transportation, industry, and agriculture, among other, lesser sources, has greatly complicated long-term prediction models, particularly as they affect the modeling of future natural hazards such as flooding, drought, heat waves, and coastal storms. Unfortunately, at the same time, NOAA, as the governmental entity providing or funding much of the science of climate change, has had a target on its back in some of the oversight committees in Congress, especially those now chaired by skeptics of climate change. Some of these members of Congress seem virtually impervious to the mountains of evidence produced both domestically and internationally, to the nearly unanimous consensus behind the theory of climate change among climate scientists, and to the many reports that have supported climate concerns. We live in a strange universe in which science itself has become suspect among some in the halls of Congress, even as the need for scientific insights into complex planetary processes becomes more profound, and the long-term economic consequences of any missteps become ever more frightening. Several recent reports (e.g., Risky Business) and books suggest that we are playing Russian roulette with the world’s economic future.

But again, I digress. I am trying to focus on the value of Digital Coast and the partnership that supports it.

So back to Milwaukee. Our three days there were the latest iteration of a series of twice-yearly meetings of the partners and their NOAA compatriots in an ongoing quest to advance the program and enhance its value, something the partnership has been doing for more than five years now. In the past year, we added two new organizations that have embraced the partnership with enthusiasm: Urban Land Institute, and the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association (NERRA). The latter may sound like a mouthful; it is a relatively small organization, but it is important. Its members constitute the staff of a nationwide network of national estuarine research reserves, where services are provided to monitor and learn the value of coastal and tidal estuaries, to provide educational and environmental services, and to help us all learn what a biologically rich system these estuaries provide if properly cared for. The coast is an intricate fabric of ecosystems. NERRA members help us understand its essential value.

The first of our three days in Milwaukee was devoted to a rather intriguing experiment by ASFPM, which hosted a No Adverse Impact seminar for the Great Lakes, held at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus. ASFPM has been leading the development of a Great Lakes Coastal Resilience Planning Guide, to which APA contributed through research support and outreach. This one-day seminar, attended by about 50 people, allowed practitioners who were not directly allied with Digital Coast to mix with the representatives of partner organizations. It also let the partners learn how Digital Coast concepts and tools might be more useful to their members and constituents. I spoke at this seminar in the morning, offering a comparison of two Great Lakes coastal counties and their varying governance systems in an effort to assess their progress toward achieving resilient coastal communities. I also fed into a later presentation about a new “no build” ordinance in St. Joseph, Michigan, requiring that new development in a beachfront residential area be set back far enough to account for the inevitable rise and fall of lake levels and to prevent the rush to build closer to the shore during periods when the lake had retreated.

That question ties directly to one of the major differences between the Great Lakes and oceanic coasts, where sea level rise is the dominant long-term concern. Increased weather variability in the Great Lakes region, as a result of climate change, is likely only to exacerbate long-term oscillations in lake levels, not to raise water levels. Periods of drought and increased temperatures may accelerate evaporation of Great Lakes waters, with considerable variation among the lakes, while heavy precipitation may add to lake levels, and extreme outcomes like the past winter’s polar vortex may extend ice cover and raise lake levels. It is a complex picture. Climate change entails mostly warming most of the time, but with serious variations from the norm on many other occasions. If there is one thing we can count on, it is increased volatility. But that all makes regulating coastal development on the Great Lakes very tricky business because many public officials and much of the public share relatively short memories and short-term perspectives on the associated hazards. We all need a greater tolerance for complexity if we are to understand the problems that lie ahead.

With the seminar behind us, the two-day meeting (August 20-21) involved our usual packed agenda of discussions among more than 20 representatives of NOAA and the partner organizations. We discussed the improvements in the Digital Coast website, how we were going to fund future operations, how we could collaborate on future projects, and how all the work would get done. The NOAA personnel appear to have had wonderful training in collaborative leadership, in ensuring that every partner’s input is valued, and in translating the resulting information into better governmental resources to aid the practitioners who need to make crucial local decisions about coastal development, environmental protection, the protection of jobs that depend on a healthy coast, and other vital subjects. That rubs off on the partners, and the result is a rather seamless web of ideas, contributions, testing, and feedback that serves to enrich what Digital Coast has to offer. This includes tools to visualize impacts of sea level rise, coastal habitat conservation, and the economic value of coastal activities such as commercial fishing, recreation, shipping, and tourism.

So go ahead; click on Digital Coast to visit the website and test-drive the tools, data, and resources and find out why we use the slogan, “More than just data.” Oh, and did I say “we”? Yes. It’s not just another federal program. It is a federal program that wants to hear from you and actually values input and feedback. Digital Coast has taught me a great deal. It has given me reasons to be hopeful about new collaborative models for providing federal services to the public.


Jim Schwab