Flood of Events in Just Two Weeks

Life can produce very sudden turns of events. The turmoil and destruction dished out by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma may have been predictable in the abstract, that is, events that could occur at some point someday, but that means little when the day arrives that a hurricane is bearing down on your shores.

More than three months ago, I retired from the American Planning Association to move into a combination of activities I had tailored to my own skills and interests, which I have previously announced and discussed. Over the summer, I began setting the stage for introducing these new enterprises, but my wife and I also took time for a long-awaited excursion to Norway to celebrate this new phase of our lives. I began to share that story in August with blogs about our journey.

Meanwhile, I began work on the creation of Jim Schwab Consulting LLC, my solo planning practice. Just two weeks ago, with the help of a web designer, Luke Renn, I unveiled a business website that is a companion to this one. You can find it at the link above. But when we began to construct the site in mid-August, I had no idea what would ensue. By the time we had completed the new website, Harvey was making landfall on the Texas coast and dumping unimaginable amounts of rain in the Houston metropolitan area, and then on Port Arthur and Beaumont, Texas.

As Harvey was losing steam and moving inland, Irma, initially a Category 5 hurricane, devastated the small island of Barbuda, the smaller part of the tiny Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda. Officials estimate that 95 percent of the island’s buildings were damaged or destroyed, and residents have been evacuated to the larger island of Antigua, partly in advance of an anticipated second attack by Hurricane Jose, following in Irma’s wake, that mercifully did not come to pass. That would have been bad enough, but the storm also badly rocked St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, sideswiped Puerto Rico and the northern coast of Cuba, and finally passed through the Florida Keys, demolishing much of the community there, and sped up the western coast of Florida through places like Naples and Tampa. Irma was so huge that its waves and winds also buffeted numerous coastal communities in eastern Florida, no doubt shaking many people in Miami Beach to their core.

I will soon complete the tour of Norway on this blog, but it seemed more important to offer some insights, in some small way, into what is happening and will be needed in the recovery in Texas. Irma has been too large an event for me yet to absorb its totality and even begin to understand how I can possibly enhance what people know from the daily news barrage that has accompanied it. I am sure emergency management personnel at all levels are already weary but patriotically staffing their posts.

Planners like me must prepare for the much longer endurance test known as long-term recovery planning. While it is far too easy to say what, if any, role I may be asked to play in this drama, there have been conversations. Recovery, unlike emergency response, will take months to unfold. I will do my best to share what I learn. It is important because long-term recovery provides the opportunity to hash out major questions of the future and the resilience of the surviving communities. It has always been possible to learn from experience and to improve so that we lose fewer lives, suffer fewer losses, and rebound more quickly in future disasters. But possible is not certain. It is up to all of us to decide that we will rebuild with a resilient future in mind.

Jim Schwab

Map of Irma as of 9/12/17 from NOAA website.

Don’t Say Those Words!

Now suppose I go to Florida but decide never to utter the word “mosquitos.” Will that make the little buggers go away?

Or suppose I refuse to say “cockroaches.” Does that mean they would never infest my apartment or condo?

Finally, let us imagine that, on my trip to Florida, I never say the word “sunburn”? Would that make it possible for me to sit on the beach all day, unprotected, without suffering the consequences?

If those propositions sound absurd, then consider the moronic dictum of Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who apparently has decreed that state employees are not to use the words “climate change.” Presto. Problem solved! Climate change ceases to exist, all the science to the contrary be damned (for instance, the most recent National Climate Assessment).

The state of Florida, however, has a long and impressive history of dealing effectively and forthrightly with issues related to hazards. Not perfect, by any means, but far more impressive than most neighboring states. Florida provided significant guidance to its communities on planning for hazard mitigation, and then subsequently for developing plans for post-disaster recovery. It is the only state that enacted a requirement for coastal jurisdictions to develop such plans before disasters, called Post-Disaster Redevelopment Plans (PDRP), although Gov. Scott rescinded the mandate. Even so, the state still has encouraged local jurisdictions to adopt such plans. And before Scott became governor, the Florida Department of Community Affairs (now the Department of Economic Opportunity) produced guidance on the preparation of PDRPs. In addition, Florida issued an addendum to the PDRP guidance to address the threat of sea-level rise resulting from climate change.

Simply put, Florida has been much more proactive than most other states because Florida faces much bigger problems with coastal storms and flooding because of its peninsular geography. What the state has done has not only made a difference, but in many cases provided a model for others. In our new report from the American Planning Association on post-disaster recovery planning, we have cited it extensively, as has the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in other guidance. But now the forward movement seems to have been slammed into reverse gear.

This is a shame, in part because, in my experience, Florida has enjoyed the ability in recent decades to attract high-quality public servants in the fields of environmental quality, urban planning, and emergency management. I have known many of these people, and they were top-notch under both Democratic and Republican administrations. One of them, Craig Fugate, is now leading FEMA. There is a problem, however, with retaining such people: You have to provide a rewarding work environment in which you are honoring, not insulting, the intelligence they bring to their jobs. Once you cross that line with measures such as the censorship of terms like “climate change,” the most likely result over time is a brain drain. Smart people have other places to go and better options for their careers than to be told what to think and what they can say. On the other hand, if, as has been alleged about much of the far right, the real goal is to cripple effective government and make it appear more incompetent than it needs to be in order to support an agenda that advocates a reduced government role, you may wish to foment the frustration with government that may result. I suspect, however, that the majority of American taxpayers, like me, would rather get the best public servants their taxes can buy, and one way to do that is to respect their insights into the problems they are trying to help us all solve. Scott’s response instead is to dismiss the issue from the public agenda.

The problem with trying to do that, especially in a dynamic state like Florida, is that he cannot hope to control the public debate in this way. He does not, for instance, control what can be said by officials in local government, including environmental engineers, planners, emergency managers, coastal resource managers, and others who must face problems like sea-level rise whether or not state employees are allowed to use certain words. Nor will it stop university personnel, including a wide variety of scientists, from discussing the issue. In fact, some, like David Hastings, a marine science professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, are describing the tactic as “Orwellian,” according to World Environment News. Sara Gutterman, of GreenBuilder, referred to it as “North Korean style censorship.” Even Newsmax notes, “The Florida policy is reminiscent of a 2012 law passed by lawmakers in North Carolina that prohibits the state from basing coastal policies on scientific predictions regarding sea level rise.” The article goes on to note that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is charged with trying to combat the impacts of a problem that it is no longer allowed to name.

Enough local officials have been concerned about climate change in some parts of Florida to form a four-county Southeast Florida Climate Change Compact in which they have agreed to pool resources and jointly tackle the issues posed to several of the state’s most vulnerable counties. Those concerns extend naturally to the impacts of hurricanes, whose destructive impact can be magnified over time by eroding shorelines and rising seas. Having heard county executives and others from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, in particular, discuss these issues, there is no way that I can foresee their backing down, in the face of the real land-use and coastal protection dilemmas they face, from confronting the reality of climate change. But they clearly must do it without state support, although for now at least they certainly can expect moral and tactical support from the federal government.

We can only hope that this wave of unreality in states like North Carolina and Florida is ultimately short-lived. The science is far too advanced for this silliness to continue, no matter how much political red meat it provides in certain circles. The only way to create resilient communities is to openly confront, debate, and discuss the truth, and that cannot be accomplished by banning words from public discussion, a tactic worthy of certain dictatorial regimes where democracy is less well developed than it should be in the world’s most powerful nation. Some policies, in fact, deserve to be treated with scorn precisely because they undercut the robust public discussion that supports both resilience and democratic government. This is one of them.

Jim Schwab