Recovery in North Carolina One Year Later

Amid the whirlwind of disasters this fall—three major hurricanes hitting the U.S., earthquakes and another hurricane hitting Mexico, wildfires in northern California—it is easy to forget that people hit by other disasters as recently as a year ago are still laboring toward long-term community recovery from the damages those events left behind. One of those places is North Carolina, which suffered flooding in several small communities in its eastern Coastal Plain from Hurricane Matthew. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), of necessity, may shift its energy and resources to new places, but the communities and states trying to recover cannot escape the realities of rebuilding their own futures.

I was in North Carolina just two weeks ago for the annual conference of the North Carolina chapter of the American Planning Association, in Greenville. This city of about 90,000 is just an hour west of the Outer Banks, depending on which roads are open. (Hurricane Maria was kicking up waves as it moved north out in the Atlantic Ocean while I was there.) Much of the surrounding area consists of farm country and small towns nestled in river valleys subject to flooding in major storms including tropical storms and hurricanes. In the 1990s, the area was visited by Hurricanes Floyd and Fran, both of which left their marks. I had hoped to travel the towns affected by Matthew with a colleague, but it did not work out. But I did listen to a keynote presentation by Gavin Smith, a research professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill and director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence, located at UNC. I was there because I had been invited to speak at two sessions, one on September 26 on community resilience and another the next day on flood hazards and subdivision design.

Smith has worked with the North Carolina Department of Emergency Management on recovery planning in the past, and as a consultant following Hurricane Katrina, led recovery in Mississippi under Gov. Haley Barbour. He later returned to North Carolina to join the UNC faculty, but clearly is an experienced hand in this field. He has also written extensively on disaster recovery, including an Island Press book, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: A Review of the United States Disaster Assistance Framework.

What Smith served up was a primer in planning for climate change and disaster recovery with a side order of North Carolina case studies. I don’t say that to be cute, but because I have discussed at length the issues associated with the former, so here, I will concentrate on the latter. I will note first, however, that he highlighted some issues connected with disaster recovery that are worth considering:

  • Disasters tend to bring to the forefront of community planning existing conditions that may have been less obvious beforehand, but which are not new.
  • Disaster involves opportunity, a unique situation in which good planning can effect positive change. Because planners are generally interested in advancing equity, this is important, as developers are often dictating growth even when it negatively affects some economically marginalized people in the community.
  • This post-disaster environment provides an opportunity to engage in alternative dispute resolution, with planners using negotiation to help resolve difficult issues.
  • The reality of disaster recovery is time compression, the need to move quickly even though better planning may demand stepping back and investing more time in deliberation before making decisions. We can alleviate some of that pressure by developing plans for recovery before disaster strikes.

That is, in a way, all background to the simple fact that one role for planning is to help change the rules governing recovery through serious engagement between local officials, who generally better understand local needs, and those at state and federal levels of government, who generally control more of the resources needed for successful recovery. In other words, planners need to help solve the disconnect between means and understanding. Communities that passively await rescue by higher levels of government without undertaking the task of owning their own recovery may well face consequences in the misallocation of the resources provided.

The Hurricane Matthew Disaster Recovery and Resilience Initiative (HMDRRI) has specifically worked with eight communities in eastern North Carolina under the auspices of the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory. Smith is the project director. It began with a research period that ran from February through June of this year. The project included intake interviews with people in the affected areas who were willing to pursue buyouts of their properties, which would then be maintained in perpetual open space under rules of FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, and discussed with them where they were willing to relocate. The program developed housing prototypes for affordable homes in the $90,000 range that would allow buyers to stay in their communities without remaining in the floodplain. One major question was whether they could endure as a community after such relocation, which is affected by area geography and topography and the ability to identify and develop suitable alternatives. It should also be noted that eastern North Carolina has been through much of this before. Following Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the state undertook buyouts of more than 5,000 homes and assisted in elevating another 1,000.

Camp shelter in Windsor, NC, one of the communities assisted by HMDRRI. Photo by Gavin Smith

The HMDRRI research product is a 580-page report that outlines project objectives and documents economic, housing, and other conditions in both the region and the communities specifically targeted by the project: Kinston, Fair Bluff, Windsor, Princeville, Lumberton, and Seven Springs. This documentation is critical to an accurate assessment of the challenges facing the region. For instance, the standard determinant of housing affordability is the ability to limit spending on housing to 30 percent of income. People in lower-income brackets often struggle to find such housing, and often it requires subsidies or some sort of intervention in the housing market. Within the coastal counties studied, however, the reasons for shortages of affordable housing can vary widely, as can its quality. The resilience of affordable housing in an area subject to coastal storms and flooding is important, yet the abundance of mobile and modular housing in the region offers little resilience in the face of disaster, and septic systems associated with much modular housing often make those homes even more susceptible to flooding. Thus, solutions must address both resilience and affordability to provide some semblance of social equity in disaster recovery.

The intriguing model offered by HMDRRI, however, is the systematic engagement of the academic community in what is simultaneously a practical learning experience for students and faculty, an opportunity for introducing the skills of practicing design professionals to the area, and a direct connection to state and federal officials, for instance, by allowing student and faculty teams to work in the FEMA Joint Field Office (JFO) and thus access data that might not otherwise be readily available. This included interaction with FEMA’s Community Planning and Capacity Building team, part of the larger federal Disaster Recovery Framework. The report, more readable than its length might suggest, includes a substantial section called Home Place that helps facilitate the transfer of design practices to the community level to empower better local recovery planning.

An example of this occurred in Princeville, which Smith described as the oldest African-American community founded by freed slaves. In August, HMDRRI hosted a five-day charrette with visiting architects, three-quarters of them African-American, who worked directly with the community on land-use and design solutions for relocating homes from the floodplain to a higher, 52-acre site still within the city limits. Helping the community to understand and come to terms with the land-use changes resulting from the recovery from Hurricane Matthew is critical to long-term success. The verdict is necessarily still pending in this case, but it may provide a solid case study for future efforts elsewhere. Smith also noted one other important aspect of the charrette experience: Participants were asked to check in daily to document the time they spent. Creative people that they were, the initial reaction was some resentment at being subjected to this bureaucratic procedure until it was explained that documenting their contribution of time was essential to showing a local match for federal funds supporting the project. Approximately 100 people were credentialed for the purpose. At that point, they complied enthusiastically because they understood the purpose as something more than mere bookkeeping. They were helping the community marshal badly needed resources.

It is worth noting that the report recommends that the North Carolina Governor’s Office form a standing committee to provide recommendations for policy, programming, and funding strategies for development of adequate housing in eastern North Carolina. The report also notes interest from Texas and Rice University in the model for state/academic collaboration that HMDRRI offers. This is part of the silver lining of disasters: the emergence and dissemination of positive and innovative solutions to common problems.

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