Resilience in Utah

Amid all the necessary attention to current disasters, small community conferences across the country are steadily training and educating local government staff, emergency volunteers, and local stakeholders in hazard-related issues to become more resilient. Because hazards vary widely with geography and climate, the specific focus of these meetings varies widely as well. The quiet but important fact is that they are happening, and people are learning. This is one particularly salient reason why, in my new post-APA career, I have made myself available as a public speaker. These conferences provide an excellent opportunity to feel the pulse of America regarding hazard mitigation and disaster recovery.

All is far from perfect, as one might expect, but the progress can be encouraging. My latest presentation was on December 6 in Salt Lake City, at the Resilient Salt Lake County Conference in the Salt Palace Convention Center. About 240 people had registered, I was told, for this one-day event.

While, for many people outside Utah, the word “Mormon” comes to mind quickly in connection with the state, one important fact to know is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) is itself active in encouraging members, congregations, and communities to become more resilient and aware of the disaster threats around them. One interesting feature of the conference was that it focused as much on individual attitudes and resilience as it did on community planning. Given my background, I tend to focus on the latter as a public speaker, but I do not underestimate the value of personal emotions and outlook in handling stressful situations. In fact, for me, the most valuable takeaways from my visit dealt with those issues, even though many people attending may have felt the opposite after listening to me. Sometimes, the issue is simply what you need to learn at a given moment. But communities are composed of individuals, and whole-community resilience depends on the sum of its parts.

My own after-lunch presentation certainly started with a personal element, as I walked people through what I called “an emotional journey” through Sri Lanka and New Orleans in 2005, and events beyond, to regain a human perspective on why our community-level planning for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery remains important. I then highlighted many of the tools we had developed during my tenure at the American Planning Association to advance such planning, and concluded with a primer on the most practical aspects of adaptation for climate change. But I want to focus instead on what others said that I found important.

Utah’s Threatscape

First, I might note that a presentation early in the day by Matt Beaudry, from the Utah Division of Emergency Management, provided an effective handle on the state’s approach to resilience, which seems to involve a serious effort to take a holistic approach. Beaudry used the term “threatscape,” not one I have heard much before, to talk about the comprehensive array of hazards facing Utah communities. This threatscape, he noted, is “evolving daily,’ and that we are “planning daily for things unimaginable 10 or 20 years ago.” Most of these new threats are not natural but involve the critical infrastructure we have built in our communities and include cybercrime as well as active violence such as vehicle rammings.

Nonetheless, the natural hazards remain. Utah has fault zones and is subject to seismic disturbances, but are communities prepared for earthquakes? It is easy enough to understand when the wildfire season starts, but earthquakes provide no warning. The best preparation is seismically resistant construction, but what about older buildings? Beaudry discussed numerous acronym-laden state programs to address these needs, many of which can be found on the Utah Department of Public Safety website, but one was refreshingly non-acronymic and easy to understand—“Fix the Bricks,” a Salt Lake City program offering grants for seismic retrofitting of older buildings.

Utah has also experienced floods, wildfires, and landslides. Beaudry noted that catastrophic disruptions to water supplies threaten life itself. Hospitals cannot stay open without water. What happens when that lifeline is cut off?

Michael Barrett, resilience program manager for Salt Lake County Emergency Services, followed up by noting that Salt Lake County wants “to ensure that all plans include resilience.”

The ComeBACK Formula

The last morning speaker, Sandra Millers Younger, whom I had never met before this trip, provided the most powerful perspective of the day on individual resilience. Her story began from personal experience, which is not surprising, nor is the fact that she converted that personal experience into a book, The Fire Outside My Window. That fire, the largest in modern California history and known as the Cedar Fire, consumed 280,000 acres near San Diego in 2003.

It also destroyed the house she and her husband had built on a hill they called Terra Nova, which, she says, afforded lofty views “all the way to Mexico.” I must confess that I might have hesitated to build in that location, but what matters for her story is what happened after she awoke to see fire outside, “grabbed our pets and belongings,” including many of her photographer husband’s images, and jammed everything into an Acura Coupe. They headed downhill along a steep route, lost visibility amid the smoke, and feared going off the road and over a cliff until a bobcat leaped in front of her headlights. She followed the bobcat into the smoke to safety. But twelve neighbors died. It was Younger’s struggle with the aftermath that ultimately yielded her story and her approach, which she now calls the ComeBACK formula. At the core of that approach is a quote she uses from Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who wrote a highly regarded book, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he writes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

That underlay the simple statement that, confronted with crisis or disaster, we can choose to be victims or survivors. Younger noted that a current subset of psychological research deals with “post-traumatic growth,” ways in which we grow our personal resilience as a result of our experience with disaster. This is not to gainsay the reality of post-traumatic stress, which has gained far more attention, but to acknowledge that we do have choices about the ways in which we respond. To give reality to her approach, Younger stepped the audience through an exercise, pairing up at their tables to share answers to questions based on her approach.

Younger’s five points in the ComeBACK Formula are straightforward enough, but not always easy for people to internalize:

  1. Come to a place of gratitude.
  2. Be patient; believe you can.
  3. Accept help; be tough enough to ask.
  4. Choose your story.
  5. Keep moving forward.

I found it interesting that a female speaker and counselor would use the phrase, “be tough enough to ask,” in reference to accepting help from others. As a man, I wonder how many men would even think of framing the question of accepting help in those terms; yet it feels instinctively true. Asking for help, especially when you are a professional helper, means having the courage to expose your own vulnerability, but also your willingness to learn and grow by doing so. As she notes, it is “hard to call 911 when you are 911.” On the other hand, it is hard to be a hero without understanding what it means to be rescued. To become a better giver, learn how to receive.

The Extreme Example

All this may well have set the stage for the closing keynote, 93-year-old Edgar Harrell, a World War II Marine Corps veteran who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis on July 30, 1945, as it was returning to the Philippines from Guam. A lurking Japanese submarine had spotted the ship and launched six torpedoes, two of which struck and literally cut the vessel in half.

Unbeknownst to its crew, the ship had delivered to Tinian Island the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima a few days later. Most of the crew, 880 men, perished while a shrinking contingent that included Harrell, then 21, struggled in tropical seas for five days to survive without food and drinkable water. Finally, a U.S. airplane spotted them, and a seaplane rescue was underway. Here was an example in which the only route to survival was to accept help because no one would have lived otherwise. Harrell lived and retold his story in Out of the Depths.

Younger had earlier noted that she met a man who had lost only his garage in the wildfire, yet was bitter about the outcome, while others who had lost relatives or suffered grievous burns had far more positive attitudes about the future. When any of us think we have seen the worst, it is these stories that remind us of the truth of Victor Frankl’s observation. We do indeed choose how to respond.

Jim Schwab

Life after Tornadoes

Despite the impression many people may have from watching the news, most disasters do not result in a presidential disaster declaration, and the federal government is not always involved in response and recovery. Many smaller disasters, however, result in a state declaration issued by the governor. The threshold for determining whether federal assistance is justified differs by state, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency assuming larger states are capable of handling larger events. Major or catastrophic disasters like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria invariably trigger federal assistance, but it may matter whether a tornado occurs in Texas or Delaware. It also matters greatly how much damage it produces. In any event, assessing the toll that nature has inflicted is never simple business.

The remains of a home destroyed by the tornado.

On April 29 of this year, seven tornadoes rampaged across rural Van Zandt County, east of Dallas, Texas, and parts of some neighboring counties. One of those was an EF-3; another was an EF-4. The scale runs from EF-0, a relatively minor twister, to the very rare but extremely dangerous EF-5. Such a monster struck Greensburg, Kansas, ten years ago, causing enormous damage and nearly wiping the small city off the face of the earth. Fortunately for Van Zandt County, the tornadoes struck mostly in rural areas outside Canton, the county seat. Nonetheless, four people died, and dozens were injured. The state issued a disaster declaration.

Vicki McAlister, Van Zandt County’s public health emergency preparedness coordinator, noted at a disaster recovery workshop in Canton on October 26 that a triage center was established at Canton High School within a half-hour, and that almost immediately “between 35 and 40 ambulances were on the scene.” The triage center, however, had no electricity because of extensive damage to power lines from the tornadoes, which damaged or destroyed about 200 homes in the area, and killed between 250 and 300 cattle. Within two hours, two task forces were conducting search and rescue along every mile of the 35-mile storm path. The county shut down air traffic around the path in order to focus on the effort. McAlister noted that they were soon “swamped by the media,” for whom they set up briefings on a regular basis. It is critical in such situations to keep the public informed through accurate news of the events that follow the disaster.

Student interns join me (left), Melissa Oden (to my right), and Texas APA chapter administrator Mike McAnelly (far right) for lunch in Canton the day before the workshop.

The workshop was the result of a collaboration between the Texas Public Health Association and the Texas chapter of the American Planning Association (APA), joint recipients of a $70,000 sub-grant from APA’s Planning and Community Health Center in Washington, D.C., operating under a much larger multi-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control for a program called Plan4Health, designed to foster collaboration between urban planning and public health professionals. The unique feature in this case is its focus on post-disaster recovery public health needs, but It is the third Plan4Health project between the two Texas organizations.

I attended the workshop as the invited keynote, but I played another role as well: I facilitated a group exercise in which those attending broke into five groups, each of which spent time summarizing on an easel sheet where they saw their efforts now, and where they would like to be. Each group reported back to the whole, and those reports became part of the record of the workshop itself. After that, I spoke over lunch.

Debris from the April 29 tornadoes.

What was interesting to me, however, especially after listening to Russell Hopkins, the leader of the county’s Long-Term Recovery Group, a body empaneled to handle claims of those suffering losses or injuries from the storm, was how he felt that the county would have been better off having created such a group before any disaster had hit, and how those from neighboring counties echoed that sentiment by indicating they would like to take that step before enduring the ordeal facing Van Zandt. His group was activated in mid-May, and he felt they could have saved weeks of valuable time in advancing recovery in the community if they had been established before the disaster. From my own research and experience, it is clear Hopkins is entirely on the right track, yet few communities think about such contingencies until disaster strikes. Hopkins is also director of Public Health Emergency Preparedness for the Northeast Texas Public Health District.

Much of what TPHA and Texas APA learn from this project will be compiled in a tool kit designed to assist rural communities with recovery planning. Rural communities often face different challenges in disasters from urban areas because local government is small, staff and resources are limited, and training is sometimes less available. The workshop aimed to help shrink that gap. The two sponsoring organizations marshaled important academic resources to advance this mission, including the help of faculty and graduate student interns from the public health program at University of North Texas (UNT), in Fort Worth, and the planning school at the University of Texas campus at Arlington. Six of them were helping to manage the workshop, led by Melissa Oden, a public health professor at UNT and a recent president of TPHA. Also involved was the Northeast Texas Public Health District, based in Tyler. It is expected that the tool kit will become available online early next year.

Ultimately, in my opinion, what matters most in these situations is the peer-to-peer learning between local professionals and recovery volunteers. The latter group had already donated about 20,000 hours of help since April. Some came from outside the area, as often happens, but many were local. These people also help to raise money. Hopkins noted that the recovery effort had raised about $530,000, which was being used to help people rebuild, many of whom had lost a great deal, if not everything. A little more than half were either uninsured or underinsured, according to McAlister. There can be many reasons for this, including poverty and poor health, which can easily lead to financial stress.

I had noted that rural areas and small towns can have advantages in recovery because of greater social cohesion, but it is also easy to wear out a limited pool of civic volunteers. Hopkins noted that he was “not sure” the members of the Long-Term Recovery Group “knew what they were getting into.” While pointing out the need to make sure claims for assistance are legitimate and that the group was “doing the most good for the most people,” he added that, “We’re frustrating our citizens and ourselves because of the slowness of our work.” The committee spent “long hours wordsmithing” its mission statement to ensure flexibility in responding to people’s needs and was finally ready to distribute money in late June. That circumstance led to his observation that a previously appointed, standing recovery group could have put assistance in motion much sooner. This point surfaced repeatedly when we heard from attendees from neighboring counties. Hopkins’s observation did not go unnoticed. I tried to reinforce it in my lunch presentation by directing people to a Model Recovery Ordinance APA had developed nearly two decades ago, and updated and refined more recently, to help communities accomplish precisely this objective. I suspect that my suggestions did not go unnoticed, either.

If anything, other speakers throughout the afternoon continued to reinforce everything said earlier. My long-time friend and colleague David Gattis, formerly the planning director in Benbrook, a Dallas suburb, concluded the afternoon by discussing planning needs in post-disaster recovery. Gattis served just a few years ago as the chair of an APA task force that developed an APA policy guide on hazard mitigation. It built partly on work from the Hazards Planning Center, which I then managed, so we have collaborated a bit over time. He is now applying his expertise in Bastrop, a Texas community that, in recent years, has been afflicted by wildfires (2011), floods (2015), and other events, including impacts this year from Harvey. One issue he emphasized was that, “Short-term responses can have long-term recovery implications.” We do not want to put people back in harm’s way. It is less clear in the case of tornadoes exactly where that is because tornadoes are much more random events geographically than floods or wildfires, but there are lessons to learn, nonetheless, including improved building codes and ensuring access to safe rooms, either within a house or in a nearby community facility. It is particularly important to pay attention to such needs with disadvantaged populations, such as the elderly, children, or the disabled. There is almost always room for improvement if we are looking to build greater community resilience. That includes attention to climate change, even if there may be greater skepticism in some areas. I made my own point very simply regarding climate issues: We cannot solve a problem if we don’t talk about it.

But much of Texas, I believe, is talking about a variety of post-disaster issues, and many communities have sought assistance since Hurricane Harvey. A new normal of public debate may emerge from those discussions, and many of those communities may never be quite the same again. In time, they may be healthier and more resilient as a result.

Note: All photos above provided by TX APA and TPHA (thanks).

Jim Schwab