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.

Hurricane Harvey Interview on CBC

For those who have been reading the posts I have recently done since Hurricane Harvey made landfall, I thought it might be of interest to see this video clip of an interview I did with Canadian Broadcasting Corp. two days ago: https://youtu.be/UFslrKPd04s 

Jim Schwab

The People Affected by Harvey

A few days ago, in my last post, I wrote that Hurricane Harvey would last a few days, but the recovery would last years. However agonizingly long Harvey appears to be taking to inflict its misery on the Texas Gulf Coast, and now parts of southern Louisiana, it will go away. And then the real marathon will begin. People will have to face the necessity of reconstruction, both as individuals and as whole communities.

In writing about this now, I am crediting readers with a longer attention span than seems to be assumed of most Americans on social media today. I truly hope, however, that the news media does not forget about Harvey or the Gulf Coast as the recovery process grinds on over coming months and years. Certainly, most residents of the Texas coast will have little choice but to bear with the process, and ideally, they will participate. Recovery needs to be as participatory as possible to succeed fully.

FEMA teams managing the distribution of water, and meals for hundreds of semi-trucks at an incident Support Base in Seguin, Texas. Photo by Dominick Del Vecchio – Aug 29, 2017 (from FEMA website) 

It will not always be a pretty picture. The news media in recent days have been full of photographic and video evidence of the best aspects of humanity—people in boats rescuing neighbors and strangers alike, public safety personnel risking personal safety as they save people from flooded homes and transport them to shelters, and other heroic acts away from cameras and too numerous to count. People from other states and nations will contribute to disaster-related charities to help people they have never known and may never meet. Politics and race and religion will all take a back seat to saving lives and reducing suffering. For just a brief moment in history, we can stop shouting at each other long enough to care for each other and be proud of one another.

Several years ago, Rebecca Solnit produced an intriguing book, A Paradise Built in Hell, that explored many of the positive community-building relationships that emerge when people are challenged by adverse circumstances such as major natural disasters. It is a journalistic journey through the informal alliances and communities created by people under what seemingly are the worst possible conditions, but which challenge our humanity and force us to consider how we value those around us. It is an optimistic book that forces readers to rethink what it means to live through a disaster. I have always hoped that it would spark similar efforts among academic researchers, particularly in the social sciences, to study this phenomenon more closely. I think that is happening to some extent, but perhaps not nearly enough.

The Texas Gulf Coast communities stricken by Harvey will need as much of that spirit as they can muster to produce successful long-term recovery. Recovery takes years because, while no one wants to delay rebuilding unnecessarily, hasty rebuilding that fails to consider the failure points that allowed destruction to occur is even more undesirable. Under considerable time pressures, which researchers Robert Olshansky and Laurie Johnson, both wonderful friends of mine, have notably referred to as the problem of “time compression” in disaster recovery, planners and local and state officials will need to meet with constituents, hear their concerns, explain both the obstacles and opportunities involved in reconstruction, and ideally, inform the public process to help lead to a better outcome. During this time, minor and modest repairs may go forward while the bigger decisions, like where to buy out damaged properties, how to rebuild infrastructure and to what new standards, and how to produce a stronger, more resilient community to handle future disasters may need to undergo vigorous debate.

I point this out because, inevitably, and despite Solnit’s rosy scenarios in the context of community building, tempers will rise and people will need to iron out significant differences and widely varying perceptions of the causes of, and solutions to, the damage that occurred. There will surely be some debate about Houston’s sprawling development patterns and relative lack of development controls. There may be debates about strengthening building or zoning codes or, in Houston, the absence of zoning. If there is any echo of Hurricane Sandy, there may be discussion of a greater role for green infrastructure in mitigating hazards, though that alone would have made only modest difference in the flooding from Harvey, but it might have helped.

More importantly, people will have undergone trauma that will make them deeply and justifiably emotional about the disruption of their lives. They will bring that trauma, and a need to vent and share their fears and anger, to public meetings. Public officials will need to exhibit patience because, as Christine Butterfield, another good friend who served as community development director in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, during and after the 2008 floods, has noted, those public gatherings will be therapeutic. People may cry, they may yell, they may accuse. Most of all, they need to know that someone else wants to hear and share their pain. They want to know that someone cares. Once most have achieved that comfort level, they may be ready to move forward and discuss options for recovery. But first, community leaders must build trust.

Some people may never trust, and the rest of the community may need to move on. Life is not perfect. Human beings are not perfect. Recovery cannot wait forever, but it must demonstrate compassion and a commitment to social equity.

In a few weeks, the entire process will begin, and people will decide what role they want to play. Leaders will arise in unexpected places. Just last week, my students at the University of Iowa School or Urban and Regional Planning, during a field trip with which I launch my course on “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery” every year, heard from United Methodist pastor Clint Twedt-Ball, a co-founder and executive director of Matthew 25, a community organization that arose from almost nothing after the 2008 floods in Cedar Rapids to help rebuild 25 blocks of downtrodden neighborhoods in the city, raising money but also making tough decisions about what would work and what would not. Nine years later, his organization is still working to make a difference. Before 2008, Clint would confess, he knew next to nothing about floods or community development. My guess is that now he could nearly write a book. Who knew?

Watch Houston, and Rockport, and Corpus Christi, and all the other cities on the Texas Gulf Coast for both surprises and struggles, and mostly for deep human engagement in solving massive redevelopment problems the likes of which most of us will never have to confront. And be ready to cheer them on when good things happen. They are likely to need the encouragement from time to time.

Jim Schwab

Initial Observations on Harvey

Map from National Weather Service. http://www.weather.gov/akq/Harvey

For the people of the Texas Gulf Coast, the rain and winds of Hurricane Harvey are just the beginning of a long journey. The storm will last a few days. The recovery will last years.

Destruction in the Bolivar Peninsula after Hurricane Ike in 2008

I am not there, so I can only surmise, based on the news coverage I have seen, the full extent of the damage and suffering that people are enduring in Corpus Christi, Houston, Galveston, and hundreds of other communities in a wide arc that has fallen under the impact of this storm. I do not even expect that people there will read this, certainly not right now. Nonetheless, it may be worthwhile to offer some insights to people elsewhere. I have never lived or worked in Texas, but I have been there numerous times and visited Louisiana more often than I can remember. I saw first-hand the devastation wrought in the Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston after Hurricane Ike. I have worked with people in Texas, including those at the Texas A&M Hazards Reduction and Recovery Center, over many years. They have educated me greatly on the vulnerabilities of their state.

With all due humility, therefore, but also with experience from other disasters over the past quarter-century, I offer some observations that may enhance what readers of this blog may learn from the news.

Photo from NOAA. The NOAA/NASA Suomi NPP satellite captured this infrared image of Hurricane Harvey just prior to making landfall along the Texas coast on August 25, 2017 at 18:55 UTC. NOAA’s National Hurricane Center has clocked Harvey’s maximum sustained winds at 110 miles per hour with higher gusts. Infrared images like this one can help meteorologists identify the areas of the greatest intensity within large storm systems, such as the areas with the most intense convection, known as overshooting cloud tops (dark orange), surrounding the eye and along the outer bands. https://www.nnvl.noaa.gov/MediaDetail2.php?MediaID=2086&MediaTypeID=1

First, this is apparently a somewhat unusual storm system. It approached the coast just northeast of Corpus Christi as a Category 4 hurricane, although it is now downgraded to a tropical storm. That does not make it less dangerous. The Saffir-Simpson scale that is used to rate hurricane strength deals only with wind speeds. Winds are certainly important, especially when they reach the 130 mile-per-hour range that was the peak for this event. Winds have, from all the visual evidence on the various news outlets I have watched, wreaked tremendous havoc along the coast, tearing apart buildings and overturning trailers and other vehicles. Moreover, hurricanes often spawn tornadoes, and some of the intermittent damage—that is, buildings ripped apart near others largely intact—suggests that this has occurred. In other words, if the more diffuse hurricane winds don’t get you, the tornado just might. It is no laughing matter. It is a wonder the death toll remains relatively low, although we almost surely don’t know the full tally just yet.

One specific impact that always accompanies coastal storms of this magnitude is storm surge, the waters pushed landward by the winds that in this case ranged from six  to twelve feet. These can do considerable damage in low-lying areas along the coast and may also exacerbate coastal erosion.

What makes the storm somewhat unusual also makes it dangerous even after being downgraded to a tropical storm. The storm system appears to have stalled a bit on Sunday and may even be backing out into the gulf for another landfall. At least two very serious consequences can flow from this. One is that the stagnant storm front will dump immense amounts of rain over consecutive days. The projected precipitation totals, even larger than what has fallen so far, mount up, so that projections for many communities range as high as 50 inches. Keep in mind that 30 inches is ample rainfall for an entire year in many parts of the country, and almost no city in the United States is prepared to absorb even half that amount in just a few days. The average yearly rainfall in Houston is just shy of 50 inches.

Moreover, as the storm moves back out over the Gulf of Mexico, it may regain strength that storms typically lose as they make landfall. Tropical storms draw their strength from the warmth of the water over which they pass until they make landfall, after which wind speeds begin to die down. The water of the Gulf right now is in the mid- to high 80s Fahrenheit, reportedly a full two to three degrees above average. That is the source of the strength of Harvey. Regaining any strength from the warm Gulf waters is not a good omen for the Texas coast, and as the storm moves slowly northeast, more of this will affect Houston than was originally the case. That is why we are seeing such intense scenes of flooding in Houston: The storm began with enormous amounts of moisture and has moved along the coast at a snail’s pace, at times just a mile an hour. As the week progresses, however, the storm is projected to move northeast over Louisiana and Arkansas, weakening along the way.

Of course, those warm waters raise questions about the influence of global warming, a topic that does not always receive a warm reception in Texas political circles. It is impossible to say that a specific storm like Harvey would not have happened but for climate change. It is also possible to say very credibly that warmer waters make stronger storms possible. Warmer waters can reflect seasonal and yearly variations, but over time they can also reflect climatic trends. For now, let’s leave it at that. People will have plenty of time later to debate this topic. In due course, as recovery proceeds, it should become a topic of reasonable, informed public discourse.

Other factors are at work as well. The sheer extent of flooding reflects the inexorable fact that the ground in any area has limited capacity to absorb rain. The hydrological cycle allows much rain under normal circumstances to drain into the ground, depending on the types of soil present in any given location. Sand absorbs very well but does not provide a very solid building foundation. Clay provides a better foundation but does not absorb water as quickly. Soil types matter, therefore, but in urban areas we have complicated matters greatly with large quantities of impervious surface that absorb little or no water by design. Impervious surface includes buildings (with the limited exception of green roofs), paved surfaces like roads, parking lots, and driveways, and other structural impediments to the movement and absorption of water. Houston is a very large metropolitan area with the fourth-largest population among major cities in the U.S. Although it is making strides, it is also far from the greenest city in America. Like most major cities, the percentage of impervious surface varies widely, depending on density levels in specific neighborhoods and corridors. Flooding is also influenced by the quality of the drainage systems; Houston is challenged in this respect by low-lying, flat terrain. It is criss-crossed with numerous bayous and canals that provide paths for the movement of water but also have serious limits to the water they can absorb before spilling over onto streets and highways. Those water-filled streets are the main obstacle to evacuation for those who stayed behind. There comes a point where people are better off remaining in place than trying to move, which is why Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner chose not to recommend evacuation.

Some dangers of mass evacuation for 6.5 million people are self-evident: clogged highways that are rapidly filling with water, producing death traps for people in stranded vehicles. Pedestrians cannot see steep drop-offs in elevation as they wade through high waters and can trip and drown. In Houston, the bayous may also contain alligators, water moccasins, and other wildlife hazards that are more easily avoided in dry weather. Moreover, the sheer volume of water can produce eddies and swirls that catch people off guard, and not everyone will be strong enough to regain their footing. Finally, flood water is always dirty water, sometimes just plain filthy, posing a potentially serious threat to public health.

All that said, many other major cities suffer from similar problems. I can think of no city that is prepared for the sheer volume of water currently falling along the Texas coast.

The Texas Gulf Coast communities, therefore, will emerge from this storm with a widespread pattern of both wind- and flood-related damage that will vary significantly from one area to the next, but collectively the costs will probably skyrocket into tens of billions of dollars. It is impossible to know the full costs just yet, but this will almost surely rank as one of the most expensive disasters in U.S. history. The recovery will take years of planning and implementation. If done well, it will involve a great deal of reassessment of patterns of development along the Gulf Coast and of the quality and importance of building codes. Social equity considerations will demand a new examination of the location and quality of low-income housing and the adequacy of affordable housing. Development regulations have seldom been politically popular in Texas, a state that still has never empowered counties to enact zoning codes. Some coastal communities may also wish to look more closely at the prospect of undergrounding utility lines to protect them from hurricane winds.

Events can push public attitudes in new directions. Part of that may depend on new lines of thought gaining traction in the discussion of rebuilding after the disaster. That may require some degree of courageous political leadership. Some very significant changes occurred in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, including consolidation of levee district management, adoption of a statewide building code, and a charter amendment in New Orleans that gave a new master plan more control over development regulations. We should not make perverse assumptions about outcomes, just as we also should not be naïve about the obstacles. But in my time at the helm of the Hazards Planning Center of the American Planning Association, we certainly worked hard to create a thorough blueprint for those willing to advocate better planning in response to major and catastrophic disasters, and I assume APA remains prepared to further that discussion and provide technical assistance where it can.

There will also be plenty of help available from the federal government, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other agencies. We can only hope that Congress will sidestep much of its partisan bickering to ensure rapid allocation of the necessary resources. And we can hope that those resources and personnel are managed well to advance the recovery process, which is complicated and daunting.

One encouraging factor in the response has been the emergence of both willing volunteers and the effective use of social media to expedite search and rescue operations. The number of boats driven by volunteers rescuing people from rooftops and the interiors of flooded homes reminded me of the so-called Cajun Navy that operated throughout New Orleans in the desperate days that followed Hurricane Katrina. Disasters have a fortunate tendency in most cases to bring out the best in people, but we are also at a point in history where our new technologies facilitate the ability of willing heroes to find the people who most need help. Even the elderly and disabled are largely capable of dialing 911, or tweeting, or posting photos of their situation on Facebook, sharing their location, and pleading for help—and then finding their guardian angel at the front door with a motor boat. That is a huge advance from only a decade ago because it enables the willing volunteers to become effective heroes. If those civic and humanitarian instincts carry over into the slower grind of recovery, perhaps a stronger, more resilient Gulf Coast can yet rise from the mud, the grime, and the shattered buildings we see now.

Jim Schwab