Comparing Disaster Recovery Around the World

There was a time not long ago, in human history, when a faraway nation could experience a wrenching natural disaster that most of the rest of us would not know about for months, or even years, afterwards. The idea that anyone else should or could help the stricken cities or nations recover would have seemed foreign, if not utterly impractical. Help from the U.S. federal government for San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake was minimal and slow to arrive. American involvement in an earthquake at the time in China would have seemed preposterous and quixotic.

2002 planning meeting in Bhuj following the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. Photo by B.R. Balachandran, Environmental Planning Collaborative, Ahmedabad, obtained from Robert Olshansky.

Modern transportation and communications have changed all that, and as we became more instantly aware of hurricanes in Florida, earthquakes in Japan, and volcanoes in the Philippines, we began to realize that there were ways to help—and much to learn. Governments became more aware of a responsibility to assist with planning for long-term recovery, and the field of urban planning, which for decades saw natural hazards as outside its purview, by the 1980s began to undertake systematic studies of how to make recovery more effective. As disasters became more expensive in light of widespread urbanization in recent decades, the stakes have risen dramatically. Researchers and practitioners over the past 40 or 50 years have exchanged data and ideas at major international and national conferences, and national and local policies on post-disaster recovery have evolved rapidly. One can now find a substantial literature on the topic.

One recent and noteworthy entry into this literature is After Great Disasters: An In-Depth Analysis of How Six Countries Managed Community Recovery (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2017; 380 pp.). The authors, Laurie A. Johnson and Robert B. Olshansky, are both highly experienced in the international arena and, I will add, good colleagues of mine in this field. Johnson is an independent consultant based in northern California with past ties to various firms engaged in hazards work. She was a major contributor to Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation (2014), a project I led at the American Planning Association. Olshansky is a professor and head of the department of urban planning at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. The two previously co-authored Clear as Mud (Planners Press, 2010), a book that chronicled recovery planning in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

They have worked in the countries whose disasters they describe in the book: India, Japan, China, New Zealand, Indonesia, and the U.S. These are, of course, vastly different nations in wealth, geography, size, and circumstance, and the question that the authors confront is devilishly simple: Are there lessons from these nations’ experiences in managing long-term community recovery that are transferable? What, pray tell, does flood recovery in Iowa have in common with tsunami recovery in Indonesia or earthquake recovery in India?

My own international experiences have largely been different from those they describe: I have been involved in the Dominican Republic (after Hurricane Georges), Sri Lanka (after the 2004 tsunami), Taiwan, and New Zealand, under varying circumstances, and that very question has grown in my own mind over time. Those experiences have also provided background for assessing the lessons that Johnson and Olshansky derive from the countries they study. I think they do a very solid job of assembling data, shaping the narratives, and drawing useful conclusions from their case studies. At the same time, they make clear what is unique in each country, and where nuances and differences in national frameworks for disaster policy shed light on larger issues.

One fact that is clear from this book is that those national policies are anything but static. Every nation they study is learning from each major disaster and implementing changes over time. Except for New Zealand, these six are large nations with events occurring frequently enough that many of the lessons multiply and reinforce each other. It is equally clear that political history has a major influence on how these nations organize disaster recovery and how it evolves. Teasing out the lessons that are generally transferable is thus devilishly simple. They emerge only after researchers immerse themselves in the details and compare them closely.

For instance, India, like the United States, has a federal system of government. Both nations thus tend to push down to state governments a number of responsibilities that more centralized China and Japan might reserve at the national level. Prior to the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, a state in India’s northwest, India had only a very small disaster management division within its Ministry of Agriculture, a location within the national bureaucracy that itself speaks volumes about how India once perceived the nature of most disasters.

It is worth noting, however, that the U.S. did not consolidate its own disaster relief and recovery functions within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) until 1979, when the agency was created under President Jimmy Carter. The U.S. did not have any federal statutory framework for systematic disaster response until 1950, and created the National Flood Insurance Program in 1968. As the authors explain, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, then completely reshaped the administrative landscape of American disaster management as Congress reacted to those events by creating the Department of Homeland Security and placing FEMA under its umbrella.

The fact that India was at most a generation behind in assuming greater responsibility at the national level should not be surprising in light of its development, but rapid urbanization has also forced reassessment of many issues of federal ministerial structure. India is also a nation that, because of its relative poverty, has relied much more on international assistance, even as it has steadily expanded its home-grown expertise on natural hazards and urban planning.

A sewer line is laid in the old city of Bhuj in Gujarat, India, in 2004. Photo by B.R. Balachandran, Environmental Planning Collaborative, Ahmedabad. Reprinted from the book with permission from authors.

Two weeks after the 2001 earthquake, the state established the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority, led by the chief minister. Like state and national agencies in every other country studied, GSDMA experimented at times, made mistakes and enjoyed successes, and helped rebuild homes and infrastructure. There is no perfect way to recover from disaster, and there are always disappointments. For housing reconstruction, Gujarat, the authors report, employed both an owner-driven plan and a public-private partnership plan. The owner-driven approach had no precedent in India on such a large scale; the earthquake had flattened almost 6,500 buildings and killed 7,000 people. This fact alone illustrates one highly transferable lesson from international experience—that disaster recovery provides a compelling laboratory for such innovation, providing that authorities are prepared to accept the prospect of some measure of failure and to learn from it. A more positive way of making that same point is the “silver lining” theory, which sees disaster recovery as a unique opportunity to advance positive change in a “teachable moment.”

Such lessons take shape in very different cauldrons, however. New Zealand, for instance, which suffered the 2010-2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, the major city of the South Island, has a smaller population than any Indian state or most states in the U.S. The nation is also comparatively prosperous. With only 4.7 million people in an area about 70 percent the size of California, New Zealand has no need to decentralize most government functions, except for rural districts and municipalities. The national government thus found it easy to take control of some recovery functions from the city, and there was no intermediary authority. China, with the world’s largest population, tends to concentrate power but nonetheless also finds some decentralization of recovery functions a practical necessity. In the U.S., however, such power sharing is integral to the system and enshrined in the Constitution. These issues of central authority versus state or provincial and local autonomy tend to set the terms within which the experiments in recovery operate. Moreover, as the chapter on Indonesia following the  2004 tsunami through subsequent lesser disasters illustrates, disaster management institutions are evolving rapidly in developing nations as well as in those with more developed economies such as the U.S. and Japan.

So, what can we learn? This book provides a wealth of detail in its case studies, but the authors note that a key leader of Indonesian recovery efforts stated to them his belief that there are no general lessons to learn because “all disasters are unique.” It is certainly true that each event has its own special context and contours, but that simply makes drawing lessons more challenging, not impossible. The authors conclude with seven recommendations.

The first is to “enhance existing structures and systems to promote information flow and collaboration.” Often it makes sense to retain new agencies or programs because they serve more purposes than simply advancing disaster recovery. Second, the authors emphasize the need for data management, transparency, and accountability. The availability of information is crucial for citizens and stakeholders to make good decisions as they rebuild.

A village meeting discusses details of the post-tsunami resettlement in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, India, in 2008. Photo by Divya Chandresekhar, obtained from Robert Olshansky.

The third point is to “plan and act simultaneously.” The paradox here is that reconstruction can never happen fast enough, yet it is important at times to slow the process down in order to inject some thoughtful deliberation into the process. In short, planners and public officials must learn to work efficiently with limited time to make things happen. In some settings, that may necessitate at least some decentralized decision making to prevent bottlenecks. It becomes essential to learn on the run because not learning can be extremely detrimental.

It is also critical both to budget for the costs of communicating and planning, because these functions are critical to success, and to increase capacity in local governments to make recovery decisions. Effective communication aids empowerment, but so does the ability to hire adequate staff with adequate training. Pushing some of that power and capacity down to individual citizens also expedites decision making. That requires sharing information.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami dramatically affected shoreline communities in Tamil Nadu, India, but fishing families were often reluctant to relocate. Photo by Robert Olshansky (from the book).

The authors also suggest avoiding “permanent relocation of residents and communities, except in rare instances, and then only with full participation of residents.” The risk of forced relocation is greater in more authoritarian and highly centralized systems like that in China, while the U.S. heavily relies on voluntary relocation, and total community relocation remains a rarity. But the consequences of such relocation can be devastating unless the community has bought into the idea and clearly understands how it will benefit—presuming it actually will.

Finally, the authors, again picking up on the theme of time compression after disasters, say, “Reconstruct quickly, but do not be hasty.” Exactly when undue speed becomes haste is, of course, very much a matter of judgment, and good judgment often relies on experience, all of which strongly suggests the value of pre-planning for disasters in order to create the opportunity to evaluate options beforehand and train staff for the eventuality. It might be added that expanding the literature available to them that will expand their familiarity with the issues before disaster strikes is also valuable. This book, in its own way, helps advance that mission.

Jim Schwab

The Ostrich Paradox

As an urban planner, my entry into the world of disasters has been through the twin portals of public policy and planning practice—how we frame the priorities of government and how we carry out the tasks of community planning. One thing I have learned from years of interaction with other types of professionals is that many other portals exist that provide insights into the nature and causes of disasters, how we define them, and how we prepare for and react to them. The behavioral sciences–including psychology, sociology, communications, and economics—have played a significant role in helping us understand some of these questions. They have helped me understand that what may seem like a straight line in public policy between a problem and a solution can be laden with land mines that are built into the evolution of the human brain. We are capable, as a species, of contemplating long-term consequences of our behaviors, but only when we have opportunities to gain some distance between our immediate needs and the problems we are considering. Very often, however, life forces us to react quickly and with inadequate forethought, and our brains reach for more instinctive reactions that our species learned over millennia, even those we inherited from other species from which we evolved.

And so there is the proverbial ostrich, putting its head in the sand, supposedly to avoid seeing any painful realities. The authors of a new book, The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters, published by Wharton Digital Press, note near the outset that, despite the widely accepted stereotype of ostriches, they are “astute escape artists” who use speed to compensate for their inability to fly. They suggest humans become more like ostriches, not less, by recognizing our own limitations and consciously seeking to address them. But first, we need to know what those shortcomings are and why, because of them, humans routinely fail to anticipate and prepare for disasters.

They start by reviewing a concept of the human brain discussed at length by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, several years ago—that of the two systems that allow us to do precisely what Kahneman’s title suggested. System 1 operates more rapidly with learned and instinctive responses to everyday situations, such as slowing down or swerving to avoid car crashes, or stepping away from snakes. The reactions are quick reflexes that are often entirely unconscious. System 2, which could never respond to the multitude of routine stimuli fast enough to allow us to cope or survive, instead helps us focus and reflect, sometimes allowing us to train our minds to react differently but also, importantly, to gain perspective on issues facing us. Planning, for instance, is largely an intellectual activity in which we process information, mull it over, and try to anticipate how future conditions may affect our community and its ability to achieve stated goals. It also takes time and does not allow us to react to immediate threats, for example, a bolting horse or the sound of gunfire. When we hear the gunfire, we don’t contemplate what it is; we duck or run for cover.

With the respective limitations of those two systems in mind, Robert Meyer, a professor of marketing, and Howard Kunreuther, professor of decision sciences and public policy, both at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, outline what they describe as the six biases of human beings in dealing with low-probability, high-consequence events “for which we have little stored knowledge.” In other words, we developed fast reactions to a car swerving into our path because we have acquired a good deal of “stored knowledge” from past driving experience. But how often do we experience a tornado? Even people in states like Kansas or Oklahoma, who may hear about such events often enough, may not have enough direct experience with them to know how best to prepare. For events like Hurricane Katrina, which Gulf Coast residents may directly experience once in a lifetime, the stored knowledge is limited indeed. The will to think about such events without having been prodded to do so by prior experience is even more limited. And so, disaster becomes not only a function of natural events, but of the human resistance to considering their possibility.

So, what are those six biases? First, myopia, the tendency to focus on the short term and more likely events at the expense of more significant, long-term dangers. Second, amnesia, the willingness to turn off or ignore more distant memories that may inform our awareness of potential hazards. Third, optimism, or the will to believe that everything will turn out all right. Fourth, the inertia bias, which could also be described as our innate reluctance to disrupt the status quo. Fifth, the simplification bias, the highly understandable difficulty we face in coming to terms with more complex situations. And finally, the herding bias, otherwise known to most people as the tendency to follow the crowd, even though our reflective minds may tell us that the crowd may be dead wrong.

Now, to be honest, I am already engaging in a simplification bias by summarizing the core thesis of an entire book in one paragraph, as I just did. But I am very much aware, as a writer, of what I have done, with the explicit aim of spurring readers to explore the more detailed explanations the book offers. Even if you do not, however, there may be net gains in awareness just by exposing you to the concept that such biases exist. Let me complicate matters just a little by repeating the authors’ assertion that these biases are not all bad, just as they are not all good. What matters is our awareness that these biases exist and that they are a shared legacy of our humanity. None of us can operate without them, but at the same time, our System 2 brains are designed to help us overcome the limitations they embody.

And thus, Meyer and Kunreuther urge us all to be more like ostriches, “not less.” The ostrich compensates for its physical limitations—the inability to fly—with speedy retreats from danger. Humans, with advanced intellectual skills, can do far more. In thinking about risk, the authors suggest, we can “develop policies that take into consideration our inherent cognitive limitations.”

That is, I must say, an intriguing thought—one that deserves more than a reflexive reaction. Think about it.

 

Jim Schwab

Protect What We’ve Gained in Flood Loss Reduction

Flood damage on Staten Island from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Flood damage on Staten Island from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

One of the ongoing, perhaps permanent, struggles in public policy in a democracy like ours involves finding a balance between enabling private sector opportunities and protecting both the public interest and the public purse. Depending on their philosophies and perspectives, people will naturally draw those lines in different places on different issues. But sometimes it is perfectly clear when the public interest is about to suffer a hit. Currently, one of those possibilities involves the fate of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

On April 28, the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 2901, a bill that seeks to make it easier for private companies to write private flood insurance policies that can take the place of those provided by the NFIP. The NFIP was created under the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968 to provide insurance that was then largely unavailable on the private market, but it also set in motion the creation of a federal regulatory program that has established standards for floodplain management in more than 22,000 communities nationwide. Many of those communities, particularly smaller ones, have no other meaningful land-use regulations, unlike bigger cities and suburbs and communities in states that mandate planning, which typically have comprehensive plans, zoning ordinances, and subdivision regulations. The reason is that federal flood insurance is made available only in communities that have adopted the minimum standards of the NFIP, which seek to achieve flood loss reduction, thus reducing the damages from flooding and the resultant payouts under flood policies.

It makes perfect sense. There is no good reason for the federal government to insure properties against flood losses without making some attempt to minimize those losses through sensible land-use measures. Private casualty insurers certainly make attempts within their means to reduce losses from other types of accidents and disasters. Why not the federal government?

There is nothing inherently wrong with expanding opportunities for private flood insurance coverage. But there are serious issues with HR 2901, and the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), an organization with which I work closely as manager of the Hazards Planning Center at the American Planning Association (APA), has mounted an alert among its members to urge U.S. Senators to take time to examine the bill closely before taking any action this fall. It has also addressed the issue earlier in testimony before the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. The Senate is in recess until September 6. ASFPM would ideally prefer that Congress defer action until next year, when the NFIP is due for reauthorization in any case, in order to consider the unintended consequences of the House bill in line with the larger objectives of the NFIP. APA is in support of the ASFPM effort in this regard.

The NFIP has evolved for nearly half a century with numerous revisions and reforms over time. Like any such program, it has needed to evolve in response to new lessons and changing circumstances. Some of the most significant lessons of the past came from the 1993 Midwest floods, which spawned reforms a year later. Among numerous changes that year was modification of policies to include Increased Cost of Compliance, which allows policies to pay for building improvements in response to higher local building standards, for example, by requiring elevation of buildings above the Base Flood Elevation, which is basically the height of the 100-year, or one percent chance annual flood, as mapped on the NFIP’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps. It is in the public interest to facilitate the capacity of communities to upgrade such codes over time as new lessons are learned, and to make it financially feasible for policy owners to comply with those new standards when rebuilding after a flood.

To be sure, these maps have never been perfect indicators of flood risk, though they are getting better with current digitization initiatives. Still, only about 1.2 million miles of shoreline and riverfront have been mapped, while more than 2/3 of the miles of the nation’s waterways are not. Most of the latter are small creeks and streams outside developed areas, which clearly have always been the priority. But it also means that development can occur in less developed areas without requirements to meet standards that only apply to mapped floodplains—unless a local jurisdiction is proactive enough to require developers to map such areas before new subdivisions or other development can be considered. Mostly, that is not the case.

So what is at issue with HR 2901? For one thing, NFIP policies include a policy fee that helps underwrite the cost of all this mapping, including updates and corrections over time. It is an ongoing process in part because floodplains are not static geographic entities. They expand or contract with the impact of our development practices, which affect the amount of impervious surface in urbanized areas, which affect how stormwater and other runoff is absorbed into the ground or directed downstream. Further, according the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), about 40 percent of flood-related losses occur outside mapped floodplains. Why? Because not all floodplains are adequately mapped or as yet mapped at all, and because flooding can occur outside and beyond the 100-year floodplain, and often does.  We have Certified Floodplain Managers these days because this is, in fact, a complex and technical subject.

The problem with not including policy fees in the private policies is that the burden of financing this public good of mapping floodplains and maintaining a mountain of data about flood hazards falls to those NFIP policyholders who are paying for it, or to the American taxpayer when Congress allocates money directly for the purpose. The fee also supports flood hazard reduction efforts under FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance program. That creates an inequity in favor of private flood insurance. But that is not all. Although federal financial regulators have had authority to establish policies concerning what provisions in a private policy would make them acceptable as an alternative to an NFIP policy, they have not acted. FEMA legal advisors, for whatever reason, decided in 2013 they did not have the authority to issue guidance. So the House bill assigned this responsibility to state insurance commissioners while prescribing that lenders and federal bank regulators “shall accept” the standards laid out by the states. It would be small surprise to anyone knowledgeable in this field to discover that state regulation in most cases is likely to be minimal and limited. The only required equivalency in the House bill will deal with the coverage amount, which may result in much smaller private premiums with high deductibles that may be superficially attractive—until homeowners with large deductibles find they lack the resources to rebuild and just walk away, quite possibly leaving communities and the federal government holding the bag for addressing the problems of neighborhoods with spotty redevelopment and blighted properties.

All of this, at the very least, deserves some serious debate before the Senate accepts the House version, but proponents have been seeking to fast-track the Senate bill (S 1679) under a process known as Unanimous Consent. However, if enough Senators hear enough complaints, fast-track may become a less attractive option. And, as noted earlier, there are good reasons to delay this discussion and take it up as part of the NFIP reauthorization next year, so that both Senators and the public can begin to understand the full implications of what has been proposed.

In no way would this be a death knell for private flood insurance. One problem the bill deals with in two useful paragraphs is to allow the private policies to be considered “portable” for the purpose of maintaining an unbroken record of coverage for a property if the owner switches between public and private insurance. That has not been the case but is not hard to fix. ASFPM notes that there has been a doubling in the last couple of years of companies offering private insurance. In other words, the expansion of private flood insurance is already happening. There is no reason to create a whole class of private policies that are not truly equivalent to those of the NFIP and, in the process, undermine the public goods produced by the NFIP and quite likely, increase the number of property owners seeking disaster assistance after discovering they are inadequately covered.

Flood insurance policy has already entered a volatile period that began with the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, passed just a few months before Hurricane Sandy. While trying to place older, subsidized policies on a path to actuarially justifiable rates, it triggered a political backlash when rates began to soar after the impact of Hurricane Sandy. By 2014, Congress somewhat reversed course but has left unresolved a number of issues concerning how previously subsidized policyholders could afford their now escalating premiums as Congress sought to reconcile affordability with a desire to place the NFIP on a fiscally sound footing. It is a thorny issue at best, and we surely have not heard the end of it.  The simple fact is that large numbers of older, poorly protected properties in or near floodplains are likely to continue to generate flood losses into the future.

We already have a flood insurance program that is $23 billion in debt to the U.S. Treasury because of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, which overrode assumptions that the NFIP would largely insure garden-variety disasters. Next year’s reauthorization could sensibly forgive this debt in order to begin to place the NFIP back on a fiscally sound footing, but not with the approaches in HR 2901. We need to strengthen, not weaken, a system that at least drives toward stronger floodplain management and flood mitigation. We need to get this train moving again in the right direction. Congress needs generally to be more productive than it has been in recent years, but it also needs to put more thought into this particular issue and act in less haste. The alternative is to continue to generate a long train of unintended consequences and later ask what happened and why.

Jim Schwab

Symbolic Journey

Sylvia Vargas and Ben Carlisle present FAICP medallion and certificate in Phoenix.

Sylvia Vargas and Ben Carlisle present FAICP medallion and certificate in Phoenix. Photo by Joe Szurszewski; copyright by American Planning Association.

Sometimes we find ourselves on a journey whose significance is bigger than the meaning for our own lives alone. In fact, if we are lucky, we come to realize that we can make at least some part of our lives much bigger than ourselves. Two weeks ago, while in Phoenix, being inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), one of the highest honors in the profession of urban planning, it became very apparent to me that I was not accepting this honor just for myself. I was also doing it for hundreds of other planners, if not thousands, who have incorporated disaster recovery and hazard mitigation priorities into their careers as essential parts of the ethical duty of planners to help promote public safety. Collectively, our work saves lives, reduces property damage, and reduces many of the negative impacts of human activities on the planetary environment.

Before I go farther in discussing those impacts, let me provide some context for the majority of readers who are not professional planners. AICP is a designation currently held by at least 15,000 professionals who have taken a certification exam, eligibility for which is based on a combination of education and experience. Most common these days as a starting point is a Master’s degree in urban planning, but there are other entry points, and there are undergraduate degrees in planning as well. AICP members, who are also members of the American Planning Association (APA), which has about 38,000 members, must maintain their status through a minimum of 32 hours of continuing education every two years, including 1.5 hours each of legal and ethical training. Only after a minimum of 15 years in AICP are planners eligible for consideration, through a rigorous review of their accomplishments and biography, for acceptance as fellows (FAICP). Only about 500 people have ever been inducted as fellows, including 61 in this year’s biennial ceremony, the largest group to date. I had the honor of being included in the class of 2016.

The very formal ceremony introduces each new fellow individually in alphabetical order while a member of the AICP review committee reads a 100-word summary of his or her achievements, during which the fellow receives a pin, a bemedaled ribbon, and certificate. Mine described my work as “pivotal” in incorporating natural hazards into the routine work of urban planners. That pivotal work is the point of my discussion that follows.

I did not start my work in urban planning with any focus on disasters, except perhaps the industrial variety. I did have an intense focus 30 years ago on environmental planning and wrote about issues like farmland preservation, Superfund, waste disposal, and other aspects of environmental protection. My first two books focused, in order, on the farm credit crisis of the 1980s and the environmental justice movement, the latter published by Sierra Club Books. I have joked in recent years, sometimes in public presentations, that even with that environmental focus in my academic training at the University of Iowa in urban and regional planning, I don’t recall ever hearing the words “flood,” “hazard,” or “disaster” once in all my classes. But I did hear about wetlands, air quality, water quality, and similar concerns. Frankly, in the early 1980s, natural hazards were simply not on the radar screen as a primary professional concern for any but a mere handful of planners. Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) came into being only in 1979, and these issues were seen largely as the purview of emergency managers. There certainly was no significant subdiscipline within planning devoted to hazards.

It was 1992 when Bill Klein, then the research director for APA, asked me to take over project management for an upcoming cooperative agreement with FEMA to examine planning for post-disaster recovery. As a preliminary step to this work, he sent me on a trip to south Florida for the APA Florida Chapter conference in October 1992 in Miami following Hurricane Andrew. Two aspects of that trip made a lasting impression. First was the keynote delivered by Bob Sheets, then the director of the National Hurricane Center. At one point, he showed a slide on the huge screen at the front end of the ballroom. It was an aerial photo of damage on two sides of a highway, with one side showing only modest damage and the other massive damage with roofs torn off and homes destroyed. There was no differential in wind patterns, he said, that could explain such differences at such small distances. The only plausible explanation, he insisted, lay in differences in the quality of enforcement of building codes. Florida then had stricter building codes than the rest of the nation for wind resistance, but they only mattered if code enforcement was consistent. Here, it was clear to me, was a problem directly related to development regulations. The second involved a field trip aboard several buses for interested planners to south Dade County. At one point I saw that the roof of a shopping center had been peeled off by the winds. It nearly took my breath away. Then our buses got caught in a traffic jam at the end of the afternoon. The cause was a long line of trucks hauling storm debris to landfills. This was already two months after Andrew.

Under the agreement, we didn’t start work on the project until October 1, 1993. In the meantime, floods had swept the Upper Midwest, making parts or all of nine states presidential disaster declaration zones. I decided to jump the gun on our start date and visit Iowa while it still was under water. Local planning departments in Iowa City and Des Moines cooperated in showing me their cities and sharing what had happened. It turned out that I was undertaking this project, in which I engaged several veteran planners to help write case studies and other material, at the beginning of America’s first big decade of disasters. (The next was even bigger.) In 1994, the Northridge earthquake struck the Los Angeles area. In 1996, Hurricane Fran struck North Carolina, followed by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. In the meantime, not only had our report, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction, been published in 1998, but so was another report of which I was the sole author: Planning and Zoning for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Floyd left much of eastern North Carolina, liberally sprinkled with poultry and hog feedlots as a result of regulatory exemptions, devastated, with hundreds of thousands of animal carcasses floating downstream. Eventually, they were burned in mobile incinerators introduced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Suddenly, it became apparent to me that the environmental concerns aroused by such operations and the impacts of natural disasters were thoroughly intermingled. Bad public policy was exacerbating the impact of disasters like hurricanes and floods.

At this point, I need to make clear how low the level of engagement was back then between professional planners and disaster issues. In 1995, the APA National Planning Conference, which in recent years has typically attracted about 5,000 registrants, included two sessions related to disasters, at which the total attendance was 73 people. Disasters were anything but the topic du jour. Yet the events of that decade made clear, at least to me, that something had to change in that regard.

What I did not anticipate, based on past experience, was how quickly that would happen. For one thing, the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) Report grew on people and became a classic in the planning field. By 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, APA published a new edition, and FEMA made boxes of them readily available in the Gulf Coast, with planners like Stephen Villavaso, then the president of APA’s Louisiana chapter, voluntarily driving through stricken towns and passing out copies to local officials. In the meantime, I had worked on several other hazard-related projects addressing planning for landslides and wildfires and providing training on local hazard mitigation planning, among other efforts. After the APA conference in New Orleans in 2001, a group formed and continued to meet over dinner at every subsequent conference that billed itself as the “Disaster Planners Dinner,” an event that has become the subject of some legends among its veterans. The growing contingent of planners taking hazards seriously as a focus of their professional responsibilities was growing quickly and steadily.

Hurricane Katrina, more than any other event, added a powerful new element to the public discussion. It made crystal clear to the national news media that planning mattered in relation to disasters, and because of that perception, they called APA. Paul Farmer, then the CEO and executive director, and I shared those calls, and I logged no fewer than 40 major interviews in the two months following the event in late August 2005. I stressed that disasters involve the collision of the built environment with utterly natural events, and the resulting damage is not an “act of God” but the outcome of human decisions on what we build, where we build it, and how we build it. Planners have the responsibility to explain the consequences of those choices to communities and their elected officials during the development process, and those choices sometimes have huge social justice impacts. Katrina cost more than 1,800 lives on the Gulf Coast, most of them involving the poor and the physically disadvantaged. Better planning thus became a moral imperative. Making that perception stick produced a sea change in public understanding of the high stakes involved.

That afforded me considerable leverage to win funding for new projects with FEMA and other entities, most notably including the 2010 publication of Hazard Mitigation: Integrating Best Practices into Planning, a PAS Report that argued strongly for making hazard mitigation an essential element of all aspects of local planning practice, from visioning to comprehensive planning to policy implementation tools like zoning and subdivision regulations. Now the focus of a growing amount of federal and state guidance in this arena, that report was followed in 2014 with a massive update and revision of the post-disaster report, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation, which dissected the whole process of long-term community recovery from disasters and argued fervently for pre-disaster planning to set the stage for effective recovery and resilience after an event. Those efforts came under the umbrella of the Hazards Planning Center (HPC), created by APA in 2008 along with two other centers as part of the National Centers for Planning. I have been the manager since HPC’s inception, and I was happy. We had succeeded in institutionalizing within the profession what had once been treated as a marginal concern of planners.

Along the way, that dinner group grew, attracting dozens of attendees by the end of the decade, and becoming large enough and attracting enough petition signatures to become APA’s newest membership division in 2015, the Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division. They now meet as such during the APA conferences. They are no longer an informal group. They are official and at last count had at least 250 paid members. But the interest is far larger. Remember those numbers from the 1995 APA conference? In Seattle at the 2015 APA conference, almost 3,000 people attended 23 different sessions related to climate change and natural hazards. I was the opening speaker for the very first session in the climate track, and the room was full. There was an overflow crowd in the hall outside. Hazards and climate change adaptation had arrived as a primary concern of planners. A growing number of graduate schools of planning, including the University of Iowa, where I have been adjunct faculty since 2008, now include curricula on such topics.

This bar graph and the one below were developed last year for a presentation I did in July 2015 at the opening plenary of the 40th annual Natural Hazards Workshop, in Broomfield, Colorado.

This bar graph and the one below were developed last year for a presentation I did in July 2015 at the opening plenary of the 40th annual Natural Hazards Workshop, in Broomfield, Colorado.

Slide1

I want to state that, although I often had only one intern working with me at APA, I have never been a one-man show. On most of those projects, I involved colleagues outside the APA staff as expert contributors and invited many more to symposia to help define issues. Those APA sessions attract numerous speakers with all sorts of valuable experience and expertise to share. This is a movement, and I have simply been lucky to have the opportunity to drive the train within the APA framework as the head of the Center.

The night after the FAICP induction, at their division reception, members of the new APA division jokingly award me an "F" to go with my AICP. Alongside me is Barry Hokanson, HMDR chairman.

The night after the FAICP induction, at their division reception, members of the new APA division jokingly award me an “F” to go with my AICP. Alongside me is Barry Hokanson, HMDR chairman.

So let me take this story back to that moment two weeks ago when I walked on stage and accepted induction into FAICP. Before, during, and after that event, I received congratulations from many colleagues intensely interested in hazards planning, and I realized I was not simply accepting this honor for myself. My achievement was theirs too, and was literally impossible without them.

“You’ve gone from fringe to mainstream,” my colleague Jason Jordan told me the opening night of the Phoenix conference. He ought to know. Jason is the experienced governmental affairs director for APA and has a keen sense of the trends in planning and of government policy toward planning. But in order for his statement to be true, one important thing had to happen: Lots of other planners had to climb aboard that train for the journey. My success in winning this honor was symbolic for them, in that it served to validate the value of their commitment. I did not get there alone. A growing army of planners who care about public safety and community resilience helped make it happen, and I shall always be grateful—for them as well as for myself.

 

Jim Schwab

 

Katrina at 10

Eminent Domain for Who

All photos by Stephen D. Villavaso

For the first time since launching this blog,  I have invited a guest author, Stephen D. Villavaso, a New Orleans native, urban planner, and land-use attorney, to comment on today’s tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf Coast. I was heavily involved not only in the Shreveport conference he mentions below in October 2005, but also in the subsequent Louisiana Recovery and Rebuilding Conference in New Orleans the following month, and supplied Steve with the “boxes of books” to which he refers, which consisted of copies of APA’s 1998 report, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction, which he dutifully distributed to fellow professionals in the weeks that followed. I am happy to turn over this forum to Steve on this special occasion.

How Do We Set the Right Tone for an Anniversary, a Milestone….a Birthday??

by Stephen D. Villavaso, J.D., FAICP

Ten years seem like a long time to someone growing up, but not so long to mature elders watching and nurturing a new budding person. Some may even tire of the annual milestone review that seems to redundantly and almost imperceptibly move toward some unknown completion. Such may be the feelings people entertain as the ten-year milestone of the events centered on Hurricane Katrina arrives.

House for sale, tree for free.

House for sale, tree for free.

First, some myths need to be dissolved in favor of some clear starting points. Hurricane Katrina did “hit” on August 29, 2005. But more importantly, dozens – no, hundreds, possibly thousands –of events cascaded (and continue to cascade) from the moment of the so-called “hit.” Lives lost, homes destroyed, neighborhoods shattered, and cultures wrecked are but a few that should be marked in time and remembered. New beginnings, renewed faith, technology advancements, and new ideas and creativity should also be hallmarked and remembered. Remembered because “ten” is an important benchmark (a birthday?), some might say.

Katrina-fatigue was, and continues to be, discussed and experienced in many areas. In movies, songs, political speeches, product placement ads, and even in publishing, the Katrina-fatigue syndrome has caused many glazed eyes, bad reviews, and the occasional attack on the underlying motivations. Urban planners have not been immune to any of these phenomena surrounding Katrina. Within the first six hours of the “hit”, communications between planners at local, state, federal, and international levels exploded the airways.

LNW ground zeroTen years ago the “airways” were primitive as compared to the instant, high speed, always-connected cyberspace a mere decade later. To say that bandwidth was very restricted is a geeky way to say the phones just plain did not work very well. Flip phone texting was slow and unreliable, and most people did not even know how to do it. Land lines in the general vicinity of the hit (within 100 miles) were gone for the most part, and the few satellite phones in use almost never worked. The systems that did work were the existing professional and cultural networks that had been established prior to and nurtured since these events. Getting out of the impacted zone was a key step in linking communications out and then eventually back into the areas.

These exploded airways actually resulted in a sort of boundary of communication accessibility that existed around the most impacted areas. The mobilization of planning resources began in Shreveport, Louisiana, at the already scheduled October 2005 state conference of the Louisiana Chapter of the American Planning Association. This North Louisiana location was just far enough away from the impacted zone to allow for the dialogue and planning solutions to emerge.  Ironically, the conference was almost cancelled due to incredible logistic issues (i.e., air service limitations and infrastructure failures). These hurdles were overcome with two other significant forces that also served to overcome the psychological roadblocks: the dogged local perseverance to recover and the sincere national commitment to assist. Thus, within 72 hours of the impact of Katrina, national and state APA leaders made the decision to stay the course and convene the state conference on schedule, albeit with a new, urgent focus. So now another point of remembrance is this unique gathering of the best and brightest planning minds that converged in Shreveport to begin the dialogue of replanning neighborhoods, restarting communities, recharging regions, and reconnecting these levels with the rest of the state and even the nation. These events that emerged from the early days after the hit have rocketed the field of what was called “disaster recovery” into the robust science of resilience planning and implementation mandates that serves city planners and decision makers a mere decade later.

Subsequent hurricanes (i.e., Rita, Gustave, Ike, Sandy, and others); inland riverine flooding in Kansas, Colorado, and other basins; almost regular earthquakes (followed by tsunamis) along the western U.S. fault zones; and the now cyclical drought/fire/landslide scenarios have continuously added chapters, techniques, and new policy initiatives and solutions to the planners’ resilient recovery toolbox.

A ten-year milestone is an important mark in an event’s history if it can teach or continue to teach.  Teaching a community to be better prepared (to plan), of course, is fundamental, but for urban planners, the “teachable moment” never ends. The dozens of stories that should be documented on this anniversary will be told. These planning stories should be viewed through many lenses.  One key focal point is the role of the American Planning Association (APA). APA landed in Shreveport ten years ago with the best minds on the planet, boxes of books, some meager funding sources, and an undaunted spirit to “build belter communities.” That moment continues, the remembrance is important, and the story needs to be told and retold.

Stephen D. Villavaso is a New Orleans native whose family has lived in New Orleans for 300 years. For the past forty years Steve has worked as an urban planner/professor/attorney, spending the last ten (post-Katrina) years rebuilding his home, city and state, in that order. See his full bio.

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 http://blogs.planning.org/postdisaster/2015/07/28/what-next-the-past-and-future-of-disaster-practice-and-research/. The blog post includes the PowerPoint accompanying my presentation.

 

Jim Schwab

Resources for Planners to Address Hazards

Sri Lankans dedicate new housing built in 2005, after the Indian Ocean tsunami, in a Buddhist ceremony.

Sri Lankans dedicate new housing built in 2005, after the Indian Ocean tsunami, in a Buddhist ceremony.

One benefit of increased attention to hazards and climate change within the planning profession is a growing array of valuable literature that can benefit practicing planners and widen the scope of thinking on the subject among academics. This review of books published within the past year or so is intended to highlight some of this new literature and offer some comparisons on the focus and practical value the authors provide.

Because urban planning is ultimately about people and the built environment, it may make sense to start this survey with two books that examine the context within which risk happens. Kathleen Tierney, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado in Boulder and director of the Natural Hazards Center there, sets out in The Social Roots of Risk: Producing Disasters, Promoting Resilience (Stanford University Press, 2014) to reorient our thinking away from the idea that individual natural phenomena—earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, etc.—“cause” the death and destruction that we often associate with them. In fact, she says, the death and destruction, particularly in the modern world, is an artifact of the social decisions that produce and, equally important, distribute risk differentially among populations, often producing widely varying impacts. In the opening chapter, she states, “the organizing idea for this book is that disasters and their impacts are socially produced, and that the forces driving the production of disaster are embedded in the social order itself.”

By itself, the idea that disaster losses result from the collision of natural forces with the built environment should not surprise any planners with a modicum of intelligence. And the built environment is inevitably the result of both individual and community decisions. The devil of Tierney’s thesis lies in the details: paying attention not only to all the social, institutional, and political decisions that either enhance or mitigate risk but to how those decisions get made and for what reasons. It is clear that those impacts are anything but randomly distributed and that most are avoidable, yet the litany of losses marches on. Tierney notes that a great deal of professional attention in recent decades has focused on how people perceive risk, a legitimate area of inquiry, but not nearly as much has focused on the origins of risk and how it was socially constructed. There are reasons, after all, why a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti kills an estimated 300,000 (but who really knows?) yet only dozens at most in California, and why the 1,800 who died during Hurricane Katrina included overwhelmingly disproportionate numbers of the economically disadvantaged.

Most planners work in local or regional government, and they serve power structures that must make the decisions, even when they choose to do nothing, that affect these outcomes. In that sense, some of Tierney’s theories and conclusions may challenge our comfort zones because they imply (or state directly) a need to challenge power with regard to these issues. For precisely that reason, I recommend reading it. Most social progress results from stepping outside traditional comfort zones. For planners, it is also within our ethical and legal responsibilities to help protect public health, safety, and welfare.

Those who wish to examine more closely how differential risk affects more vulnerable subsections of community populations can follow up with a case in point provided by Michael R. Greenberg, professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers in New Jersey, where he had a front-row seat to observe Superstorm Sandy in 2012. As a baby boomer with aging parents, he says, the event inspired him to examine the issues such events pose for seniors. Protecting Seniors Against Environmental Disasters: From Hazards and Vulnerability to Prevention and Resilience (Routledge, 2014) closely dissects the vulnerabilities of the rising generation of seniors among baby boomers. It exposes the resulting collision of demographics with natural hazards and often inadequate public policy in considering the reduced resilience that may result. At the same time, he notes that many seniors in good mental and physical health can become assets in using their to help build the very resilience many communities will need in coming decades, if only their communities learn to focus these social resources to address and help solve such problems. My only regret after reading this thoughtful book is that the publisher chose to make it so expensive ($145 hardcover), but perhaps a library or electronic copy can make it more accessible.

Six authors, mostly at Texas A&M University (TAMU) have addressed the question of resilience head-on in Planning for Community Resilience: A Handbook for Reducing Vulnerability to Disasters (Island Press, 2014). Jamie Hicks Masterson, program director of Texas Target Communities (TAMU); Walter Gillis Peacock, professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning and director of the Hazards Reduction & Recovery Center (TAMU); Shannon S. Van Zandt, associate professor in the department and director of the Center for Housing and Urban Development (TAMU); Himanshu Grover, assistant professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Regional Planning at the University of Buffalo; Lori Feild Schwarz, comprehensive planning manager for the City of Plano, Texas (and formerly in Galveston); and John T. Cooper, Jr., associate professor of practice in the same department at TAMU, have combined somehow to produce an almost seamless document that lays out a very practical approach to understanding and developing resilience within communities. The book is littered with tables, checklists, and exercises to walk planners and city officials through the necessary analysis to grasp the impacts of everyday planning decisions in connection with natural hazards. The book tends to rely heavily on the Texas and Gulf Coast experiences of the authors, but as they note with a wry sense of humor, “We like to say that if you can plan in Texas, you can plan anywhere.” For the practicing planner, this may well be the most useful of the five books reviewed here.

Two other books represent the rising level of interest among planners in addressing the impacts of climate change, a subject implicit, and sometimes explicitly expressed, in the three books noted above. One of these, Local Climate Action Planning (Island Press, 2012), by Michael R. Boswell, Adrienne I. Greve, and Tammy L. Seale, is actually three years old but still a very useful and well-informed primer for those planners and city officials undertaking to address climate change. The primary focus is actually not hazards but climate action plans, which focus on mitigating climate change by using public policy and planning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For climate change skeptics, it is worth noting that many of the resulting strategies have local environmental and economic benefits that add to the allure of effective climate action plans. While much of the book addresses techniques like inventorying local greenhouse gas emissions and developing reduction strategies, nonetheless, the authors devote one chapter to climate adaptation and outline means of assessing community sectors for vulnerability to climate change impacts.

Finally, Adapting to Climate Change: Lessons from Natural Hazards Planning (Springer, 2014), assembled from a variety of contributions by editors Bruce C. Glavovic, of New Zealand’s Massey University, and Gavin P. Smith, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, brings together the subjects of climate and natural hazards in a way that points to future successes in addressing the increased vulnerabilities associated with climate change. Unlike the other books, it is less a single narrative than an anthology using examples of climate change adaptation from around the world. It is unquestionably the most cosmopolitan and far-reaching of the five books in its aspirations for global relevance, using case studies from South Africa, Peru, New Zealand, and the South Pacific, among other locations, in addition to the United States. The two editors first met while working in different capacities along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina and have collaborated periodically ever since. Both have been anxious to explore and explain the critical roles of planning and governance in managing exposure to natural disasters, especially as “practitioners from diverse backgrounds  . . . are faced with the grand challenge of adapting to climate change. Planners who like to mine the experience of other cities and regions in case studies will find plenty to contemplate as they review the mixed international track record of community resilience in facing floods, coastal storms, and other weather-related phenomena influenced by a changing global climate with its wide-ranging variations in specific local settings. It may take a while to digest this substantial book, but it is probably well worth the effort.

 

Jim Schwab

Trees in the Disaster Recovery Equation

For the last two or three years, if not longer, I have been engaged in an ongoing discussion with people from the U.S. Forest Service and the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) about the role of trees in post-disaster recovery. Phillip Rodbell, an urban and community forestry program manager with the Forest Service’s Northeast office in Philadelphia, has been particularly diligent in pursuing the question of how we can better protect trees in urban areas from storms and other major disasters as well as how to reduce the loss of trees in the process of removing debris after disasters. Too often, in the absence of qualified arborists or other forestry professionals, the existing incentives for debris removal cause more, rather than fewer, trees to be cut down and hauled away than is truly necessary. The question is how to change that.

The fact that some trees, sometimes many trees, do in fact get blown down in storms, crushing cars and occasionally people, snapping utility lines, and blocking roads, fosters the false perception in some minds that trees are inevitably hazards in themselves. In fact, inadequate maintenance of the urban forest, including inadequate attention to those trees that really do pose hazards, creates problems that can be prevented with better municipal tree pruning cycles and pre-planning for more appropriate vegetative debris removal after big storms. However, local resources, including professional expertise, can be overwhelmed in a more catastrophic disaster such as a severe tornado or hurricane. The sheer number of trees blown down by Hurricane Katrina, for instance, was staggering, well into the millions.

Phil and I ultimately decided that, if the Forest Service could provide a modicum of money to help sponsor what we decided to call a scoping session, and if ISA and the American Planning Association (APA) could contribute more modestly to support the project, we could perhaps bring together a team of subject matter experts, representatives of relevant local, state, and federal agencies, and people from interested nonprofit associations, and we could foster a meaningful discussion of how to address this problem. In the process, we might help save federal, state, and local governments millions of dollars annually in avoidable debris removal costs.

This spring, we succeeded in bringing that package together and initiating a contract between the Forest Service and APA. The result was a two-day discussion held June 16-17 in APA’s Washington, D.C., offices, involving more than two dozen people, mostly in-person, but with a handful joining by conference call from remote locations in New York and Mississippi. A summary of that discussion, and the issues it addressed, is now available on the APA website, along with a bibliography of resources on the topic, and a series of briefing papers prepared by the invited experts. I invite my readers to check it out. To learn more, click here.

 

Jim Schwab

When You See the Face of God . . . .

Hurricane season is once again upon us. This blog entry is about six years old. I decided to post it in light of our continuing national encounter with disasters and our difficulties in coming to terms with some of their implications. It is a closing plenary speech I delivered at the Carless Evacuation Conference held at the University of New Orleans in February 2007. I hope readers find it of some value.

Scene from New Orleans in November 2005

 

Presentation at UNO Carless Evacuation Conference

I have a small surprise for Professor John Renne today. It’s called No PowerPoint. It’s something we used to do back in the Stone Age before the invention of the PC. I think these days some people regard this as the oratorical equivalent of riding a bicycle with no hands.

I chose to do this because it seems to me that evacuation is only partially a technical problem. It is primarily a cultural and social problem. I wanted to get away from diagrams and talk about concepts and motivations. I also come to this conference as one who has visited Louisiana more times than I can remember, and who more than a dozen years ago made the state the focus of his longest chapter in a book about the environmental justice movement.

One thing you need to know about me before listening to the rest of this talk is that I have a bad habit of engaging in the free association of ideas. It comes from never fulfilling my destiny as a creative writer because I didn’t have the courage of a New Orleans musician to just stick to my art regardless of whether I made any money or supported myself collecting spare change by performing on the street corner.

So you won’t be too surprised when I tell you that the invitation to speak here drove me to start reading a book that never mentions evacuation or New Orleans. It’s Jared Diamond’s new tome, Collapse, which has the interesting subtitle, How Communities Choose to Fail or Succeed. He lays out certain criteria for failure or success, which largely involve environmental conditions and choices they made in confronting them. But the last of his five main points concerns how societies choose to respond to their crises. In the past, denial was not always even conscious because societies lacked the scientific education or even the literacy to grasp what was happening and what problems they were creating. Today, we cannot generally claim that excuse. Yet interestingly, he begins by examining attitudes toward environmental challenges in Montana, where he has a second home, and where anti-government, anti-regulatory attitudes often preclude effective discussion of planning as a route to a solution. He notes that many people have moved into the wildland-urban interface, the area where forests and housing co-exist, yet they expect the Forest Service to protect them from wildfires and are quite willing to sue the Forest Service for not doing its job if their houses are burned to the ground. At one point, he says, “Unfortunately, by permitting unrestricted land use and thereby making possible an influx of new residents, Montanans’ long-standing and continuing opposition to government regulation is responsible for degradation of the beautiful natural environment and quality of life that they cherish.” Of course, Diamond could have been discussing a number of other similar situations all around the U.S.

An influx of new residents may not be the main problem in New Orleans, but there is much that is precious to preserve, much of which is embodied in its people, and not planning both to preserve the people and make the city more disaster-resilient brings the same result: collapse.

The fact that he makes this point in a book called Collapse may be strong medicine for some people. Yet long ago, in the insurance business, I learned the slogan, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” And that seems to be part of what Diamond is saying. In the wake of Katrina, it is a very potent message that carries overtones concerning the very survival of a city with a unique and vital culture. It is also a city that is very conflicted about how to preserve itself.

Tradition is a wonderful thing. New Orleans has had a marvelous dose of it. It may be time to ask what elements of local culture, those that militate against planning in favor of “laissez le bon temps roullez,” need to undergo drastic metamorphosis or sacrifice in order that the rest of the organism may live. That city slogan is a perfect expression of a lifestyle, but what will preserve the lifestyle, short of effective, widely participatory planning?

This is not a question unique to New Orleans. If it were, Diamond would not have much material for his 525-page book. It is a powerful question that has absorbed a great deal of intellectual effort in communities large and small. Two decades ago, in an article for Planning magazine titled, “Small Towns, Big Dreams,” I explored the difficult choices facing several midwestern small towns faced with economic extinction. One was Babbitt, Minnesota, a victim of the closing of Minnesota iron mines. The mayor decided that his best resource was unemployed people, so he employed them in crafting plans and applications to qualify Babbitt as a Minnesota Star City, crafting a whole new future for itself. The key to success was that the plan involved the most unfortunate people in town–those who had lost their livelihoods. It was an interesting case of staring adversity in the face and defying communal death.

At the same time, faced with both natural and man-made crises, plenty of other communities reach some sort of day of judgment largely unprepared. Chicago, for example, is good at many things, but the city did a remarkably poor job of assisting its most vulnerable citizens during a heat wave in 1995, a situation documented by Eric Klinenberg in Heat Wave. More than 500 of our elderly, disabled, and isolated citizens died as a result. That is fully half the number that died in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina. What did we learn? For one thing, that we could and should use our social service networks proactively to identify our most vulnerable populations in order to reach out and assist before it is too late. We have mapping tools like GIS, public health systems that can be mobilized for phone calls and home visits during a heat emergency, and other options. What we learned yesterday from people like Linda Carter is that ample means exist to do all this, including disability registries and alert systems, but we need to marshal the political will to make these goals a priority.

What we need to avoid a collapse of social responsibility is a plan.

For areas potentially affected by severe storms and hurricanes, evacuation is a serious social responsibility. It is also recognized as a social responsibility in areas affected by wildfires, as is the need to devise means of allowing people to stay safely in their homes. At APA, we looked at both options in the latter instance in a report called Planning for Wildfires. Much of our ability to avoid the need for mass evacuations in wildfires revolves around controlling the pattern of development in the wildland-urban interface, creating defensible space around homes, creating building codes that reduce the combustibility of homes in the interface, and, for the day when evacuation is a necessity, at least devising multiple routes of access and egress to keep people from being trapped. Very little of that happens without some kind of planning. All of that is intended to reduce the likelihood of catastrophe, and then we start to talk about how to get people out when danger is imminent, including those who need some sort of help. But our first responsibility from a planning perspective is to reduce the likelihood of lives being placed in jeopardy and the likelihood of serious property damage.

The best way to achieve this is to be realistic about our choices in building our communities and to approach development with integrated thinking. We need to approach the whole planning process more holistically instead of stovepiping functions like emergency management, transit, land-use planning, and social services to special needs populations. Before they build, we need to ask about health care facilities how they will evacuate patients in an emergency, new subdivisions where the tornado shelter will be built, or how people will escape in a flash flood or a wildfire, or how they will survive an earthquake or a landslide. We need to ask how our communities can become more resilient.

To promote such thinking, we at APA over the last year have worked patiently with FEMA to reach agreement on producing a new best practices report, which we should be able to launch soon, on the integration of hazards into all forms of local plan making. The project will build on a portfolio of research and outreach stretching back 14 years to the onset of our work to produce Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction, which many of you no doubt have seen. This new project is the logical next step in pushing communities to be fully accountable for the opportunities they must seize to plan adequately to address their natural hazards. What it means is that we shall look at how communities can address hazards within the various elements of their comprehensive plan, including transportation, land use, housing, and economic development. We will look at how communities link hazard identification and risk assessment to their decisions on development, including small area planning for neighborhoods and functional plans like sewers and transit. It means thinking about and addressing natural hazards at any point in the process where they become relevant, and not just in emergency management plans. In too many communities, planners and emergency managers never talk to each other. It means that we figure out how to minimize the need for evacuation, and then ensure that the resources are there to facilitate it when it is necessary, including giving priority to evacuating those who lack personal transportation. And it means that we have an element that describes how the plan will be implemented.

Another piece of this integration is the avoidance of duplicate planning work. For instance, communities preparing hazard mitigation plans under the Disaster Mitigation Act ought to be able to use an existing hazards element in their comprehensive plan to meet the FEMA requirements, and making that work is precisely what FEMA staff whom I know want. But in too many communities, one plan is prepared by emergency managers, another by the city planners, and lots of people aren’t coordinating and talking to each other to make all these plans mesh.

This issue of plan integration may seem small, but it is actually central to the whole enterprise of making our communities and our transportation systems more disaster-resilient. Florida has led the way in this region by requiring its communities to prepare comprehensive plans and to include in them a natural hazards element. Florida has worked hard to integrate emergency management and planning. Florida was able to control much of the recovery process after its four hurricanes in 2004 not simply because they were less powerful storms than Katrina, but because it had a planning infrastructure in place statewide that could speak effectively for what Florida wanted even when much of the process involved massive federal assistance. Not many states are so well prepared to assert their own vision. Florida is far from perfect, but it is farther along the road toward intelligent disaster planning than almost any other state in the union. The important point is that Florida has found the political will to take this issue seriously. That sets the stage for taking seriously the efficient evacuation of its carless population.

I hope I have not insufficiently emphasized the degree to which evacuation planning, including carless evacuation, is a subset within a much larger issue of overcoming denial in order to plan effectively for future disasters. There is a moral imperative that needs a special spiritual appeal to help public officials and decision makers rise above racism, classism, sexism, nepotism, indifference, inertia, and corruption. The public needs a moral imperative for dealing with an issue that too often is swept under the rug. Let me suggest one, in a region that takes religion seriously, by augmenting a sermon in the gospel of Matthew in which Jesus describes the righteous asking the Lord when they had seen him naked, hungry, and in prison. I think that God can only smile if I propose the addition of one line in which the righteous also ask, “When did I see you stranded in the storm and offered you a ride?” Then the king will reply, ‘As you did this for the least of these, you did it also for me.’

Perhaps we can finally infuse into our communities and their elected leaders a desire to start planning as if every desperate face in a natural disaster is the face of God, but we must not wait until disaster strikes to activate that sentiment. By then, it may be too late. By then, we may be facing the imminent collapse of our cities and their social structures. We must incorporate this sense of urgency into numerous planning opportunities long before it is too late. We must not only think of people in this way in an emergency, but in our daily planning operations at all levels in order to reduce the need for last-minute heroics and instead, to the extent possible, take care of our special needs populations and the poor in a systematic and effective fashion.

 

Jim Schwab