No Laughing Matter

This is a story both personal and political. On May 31, the American Planning Association hosted a wonderful retirement party for my last day on the job as Manager of the Hazards Planning Center. I have spent much of the past quarter-century helping to make natural hazards an essential focus of the planner’s job. The reasons are scattered all over dozens of previous blog posts, so I won’t repeat them here. It was a great send-off.

The next day, June 1, I was at home beginning the task of establishing my own enterprises in writing and consulting, including what shortly will be significantly expanded attention to this blog. In the rush to ensure that the transition for the Center would be smooth, I maintained a busy schedule in May, and I am aware this blog was somewhat neglected. Sometimes there is only so much time, and the blog has until now been a spare time project. That is about to change.

I spent much of that Thursday morning downtown. My wife had a dental appointment, and I had some minor issues to attend to. We paid a pleasant visit to Chicago’s Riverwalk and returned home on the CTA Blue Line. As we ate lunch, I watched the news on CNN. It was announced that President Trump would be announcing his decision on U.S. participation in the Paris climate agreement. I waited to see what would happen.

By now, I am sure everyone knows that he announced U.S. withdrawal from the accord. I remember two distinct impressions from the occasion. The first was that I was certain that nearly everything he said was wrong, that he was twisting the truth, and that his reasoning was badly distorted. The second was that, the longer he talked, and he talked for a while, the angrier I became. The sheer moral and political blindness of his position infuriated me. It has taken me three days to decide to write about it because I like to apply a reasonably broad perspective to the issues I address here. In part, I had trouble with that because I had planned a busy agenda in the opening days of my new phase of life to reorganize my home office, inform key contacts of my new e-mail address, and take care of the new business that accompanies “retirement.” (I put it in quotes because, for me, it mostly means self-employment.)

Trump’s announcement on the first day I spent at home felt like a slap in the face. The title of this blog, “Home of the Brave,” is meant to assert some claim to moral courage on behalf of those who are willing to pay homage to the truth. Trump finally had succeeded in embarrassing me as an American citizen. In my view, one of America’s claims to greatness in the world has been its willingness to educate its citizens and embrace honest science, and suddenly I was watching our president embrace brazen ignorance. There has been a tendency in some political circles over the years to glorify ignorance, but that tendency has seldom found its way into the Oval Office.

We join two other nations in the entire world that have not endorsed the Paris agreement. It is not hard to understand the problem in Syria, a nation that is basically at this point one huge battleground with a highly dysfunctional government that is slaughtering thousands of its own citizens. It would seem that Syria might have other priorities than negotiating a climate agreement. As for Nicaragua, what most people do not know is that Nicaragua, which has an abundance of both geothermal resources (also known as volcanoes) and tropical sunshine for solar energy, refused to accept the agreement not because it opposes progress in addressing climate change, but because the accord did not go far enough. That makes the United States of America the only nation taking exception to the very idea of combating climate change.

Trump does this in spite of the fact that American researchers have been leaders in generating the science that has documented the problem. Scientists quickly declared that many of Trump’s “facts” were either bogus or exaggerations of data chosen with an extreme bias toward his point of view. Moreover, in statements by administration spokespersons like Press Secretary Sean Spicer or U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, no one was willing to answer explicitly reporters’ questions about what Trump truly believes about climate science. They talked around it, under it, behind it, and did all manner of verbal contortions to avoid simply saying whether Trump believes in the reality of climate change.

They prefer to stand behind the mistaken assumption that he is somehow protecting American jobs, but his views on this point are almost a half-century behind the times. Most coal jobs disappeared not because of climate regulations but because of automation that began nearly three generations ago. More recently, coal has been threatened economically by a surge of natural gas supplies as a result of fracking. One amazing aspect of this story, which includes the whole fight over pipelines, is that Republicans have tried very hard to have it both ways on the energy front. They have decried the decline of coal even as they themselves have supported fracking in a relentless bid to support all available options for developing American energy supplies. These various energy supplies compete with each other, and more natural gas at cheaper prices inevitably means less coal production and fewer coal jobs, a result that has little to do with environmental standards. It is called free enterprise. It is true that public policy tilts the scales in the energy industry, but public policy ought to do so with the future and the long-term best interest of the public in mind. In fact, a wiser administration might realize that now is an ideal time to begin to develop renewable energy sources in Appalachia to replace jobs that are unlikely ever to come back. Instead, politicians in places like Kentucky and West Virginia choose to play on fears and insecurity rather than offering a new economic vision that might actually improve the lives of workers. Unfortunately, this sort of political cynicism seems to be richly rewarded. That is the only explanation for a truly bizarre CNN interview by Jake Tapper with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) just ahead of Trump’s announcement. Setting up one straw man after another, Paul stated that the earth has undergone much more serious climate change than humans can cause. No one with a modicum of scientific education would not know that there have been wide swings in climate over geologic time (presuming you accept the theory of evolution), but they occurred over tens of thousands of years, not decades. Yes, we know about the Ice Age, Senator. It is not “alarmist” to note that climate change is occurring at a rate faster than nature has historically caused on its own.

Trump’s supposed defense of American jobs collapses in the face of the economic evidence. Renewable energy is producing new jobs as fast or faster than any other sector of the U.S. economy, as noted by people like Jeff Nesbit, who has a bipartisan track record of research on the issue. Trump outrageously claimed that other nations were laughing at us for being taken advantage of in the accord. In fact, they have respected American leadership in this sector, and if they are laughing at anyone, it is surely Trump himself, although I suspect that many are spending more time pulling their hair out in frustration and dismay at the direction he is taking. They are also preparing to move ahead without U.S. involvement, a stance not unlike that being taken by California and other states and cities with a more progressive view of the world’s economic future. My impression was that Trump, in obsessing about our nation being a supposed laughingstock, is revealing personal insecurities for which the nation is paying a high price. What, Mr. President, is the source of this persistent insecurity? You are wealthy enough to afford psychological counseling if you need it. I admit that you tapped into a good deal of voter insecurity, but you are leading your base nowhere. Do us all a favor and find them a vision for the future, instead of a nightmare based on a flawed vision of the past.

Scene from New Orleans in November 2005 after Hurricane Katrina

So let me circle back to what so offended me personally about being confronted with this public policy disaster on my first day after leaving APA. Little more than a decade ago, following Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami, with many years of planning experience behind me in the disaster arena, I realized that my position at APA afforded me a truly rare opportunity to shape planning history by refocusing the profession’s attention on the numerous ways in which planners could use their skills and positions in local and state government, consulting firms, and academia, among other possibilities, to design communities in ways that would save lives and reduce property damage. I was determined to devote the remainder of my career to helping make that happen, with the help of numerous experts and veteran planners who shared my vision of those opportunities. Uniquely, however, I was in a position to shape the agenda of the American Planning Association on behalf of its nearly 40,000 members to provide the resources, research, and training those planners would need to attack the problem.

By 2007, we had persuaded the Federal Emergency Management Agency, still reeling from perceptions of ineptitude in the response to Hurricane Katrina and other events, to underwrite a study of how planners could better incorporate hazard mitigation as a priority throughout the local planning process. The result, Hazard Mitigation: Incorporating Best Practices into Planning, has had a growing impact on community planning since its release in 2010. It had been truly heartbreaking to see communities so poorly prepared for natural disasters that more than 1,800 Americans lost their lives in Mississippi and Louisiana as a result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We could do something to change that. FEMA has since then incorporated this concept of integration into a variety of guidance, and so has the State of Colorado. Things are changing.

Scene on the New Jersey shore after Hurricane Sandy, February 2013

We also in 2010 persuaded FEMA to underwrite another project that would rewrite our 1998 guidance on planning for post-disaster recovery, and the result in late 2014 was not only another Planning Advisory Service Report, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation, but a substantial collection of online resources to supplement that report. Among the key recommendations for communities was the idea of planning ahead of disasters for major policy decisions that would govern the post-disaster recovery planning process so as to expedite wise decision making. That project has also proven highly influential.

Throughout this all, the growing impact of climate change was making itself evident. This is not just a matter of jobs. It is a matter of whether our President believes in making his own nation, his own citizens, safe in the face of natural disasters that, in many cases, can be made worse by climate change. This is not just a matter of sea level rise increasing the impact of storm surges produced by tropical storms. It is also a matter of increased susceptibility to prolonged drought in many parts of the U.S., and increased susceptibility to wildfire, as well as more extreme high-precipitation events that can exacerbate urban and riverine flooding. That is why APA and the Association of State Floodplain Managers, in a Regional Coastal Resilience grant project supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is working with pilot communities on both the East Coast and the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes do not experience rising sea levels, but they do experience fluctuating lake levels and greater weather extremes that can raise the costs of natural disasters in coming decades.

All that brings us back to the President’s admittedly alliterative statement that he was putting Pittsburgh ahead of Paris. That’s a nice sound bite, but it makes no sense. For one thing, Pittsburgh voters no longer look to coal and steel mills to secure their economic future. For the past 30 years, Pittsburgh has moved ahead with a new economic vision based on industries of the future. Almost surely, that was the reason Hillary Clinton won 75 percent of the vote in Pittsburgh last year, although Trump won Pennsylvania by a narrow margin, racking up most of his victory in rural areas. Pittsburgh’s economic growth model may not be perfect (what big city is?), but it is better than most. And it certainly is not tied to President Trump’s retreat from progress on climate change.

Nowhere in the administration message did I hear any acknowledgment of the job growth that is tied to our leadership on climate change, and the opportunities that may be sacrificed to the President’s flawed analysis of who is supposedly laughing at us. Technological and scientific leadership have been the lifeblood of America’s prosperity. We are now retreating from that prospect at what may be a high cost in the future unless we turn this ship around again. Nowhere did I hear any acknowledgment of the cost to communities in lost life and property safety as a result of ignoring warnings about the impacts of climate change.

On one level, the priorities for which I have worked for the last 25 years may not matter much in terms of my resentment at seeing so much of this work seemingly undone on the day after my retirement from APA. Trump also may ultimately have far less impact on the subject than he intends. But on another level, I was just one more contributor to a great push by millions of Americans toward that safer, more prosperous future that remains possible despite this grand presidential blunder. Maybe the Nicaraguans, who are not part of the Paris accord, are right—we should do far more, not less. But we certainly should not be following the lead of President Trump. He has dramatically gotten it all wrong, and we must all say so as forcefully as we can.

 

Jim Schwab

Climate Resilience on the High Plains

For those who think only in terms of the politics of red and blue states, the conference I attended March 30-31 in Lincoln, Nebraska, may seem like a paradox, if not an oxymoron. It is neither. It is a matter of looking beyond labels to facts and common sense, and ultimately toward solutions to shared problems. The problem with climate change is that the subject has been politicized into federal policy paralysis. But the scope for local and even state action is wider than it seems.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Public Policy Center with support from the High Plains Regional Climate Center (HPRCC) sponsored the conference on “Utilizing Climate Science to Inform Local Planning and Enhance Resilience.” I spoke first on the opening panel. The sponsors have been working with communities across Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. Planners, floodplain managers, and civil engineers from eleven municipalities in those states participated, along with UNL staff, climatologists, the Nebraska emergency manager, and myself.

My job was to provide a national perspective on the subject from a national professional organization, representing the Hazards Planning Center at the American Planning Association. I talked about two projects we are conducting with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “Building Coastal Resilience through Capital Improvements Planning” and “Incorporating Local Climate Science to Help Communities Plan for Climate Extremes.” I made light of the fact that there was not a single coastal community among the four states of the region, but I added that the lessons from the first project are still relevant because every community plans for capital improvements, which generally constitute the biggest investments they make in their future. Capital improvements cover long-term expenditures for transportation and waste and wastewater infrastructure as well as other facilities potentially affected by climate change. In the Midwest and High Plains, instead of sea level rise, communities are watching a rise in the number and severity of extreme events on both ends of the precipitation curve—in other words, both prolonged drought and more intense rainfall. Drought taxes water supply while heavy rainstorms tax local capacity to manage stormwater. Both may require costly improvements to address vulnerabilities.

This park is part of the new urban amenity created for Lincoln residents.

I simply set the stage, however, for an increasingly deep dive over two days into the realities facing the communities represented at the workshop. Such input was an essential point of the conference. Different professionals speak differently about the problem; if planners or local elected officials are to interpret climate data in a way that makes sense politically and makes for better local policy, it is important for, say, climate scientists to understand how their data are being understood. There must also be effective information conduits to the general public, which is often confused by overly technical presentations. Moreover, what matters most is not the same for every group of listeners.

Glenn Johnson explains some of the planning of Antelope Valley.

Some of the challenges, as well as the successes, were clear from presentations by two speakers who followed me to talk about the situation in Lincoln. Glenn Johnson is retired from the Lower South Platte Natural Resources District. Steve Owen is with the city’s Public Works and Utilities Department and spoke about the challenges related to water supply and quality, as well as flooding. At the end of the conference, we spent three hours touring Lincoln’s Antelope Valley project, an interesting combination of using a weir (small dam) and landscaping tools to create adequate water storage to reduce flooding in the downtown area. This had the interesting impact of removing some land from the floodplain and sparking redevelopment in what are now some of Lincoln’s most up-and-coming neighborhoods. At the same time, the project through creative urban

Now you know what a weir looks like (if you didn’t already). Photo courtesy of UNL.

design has allowed the city to create new urban park space and trails that enhance the urban experience for residents. Responding to climate and flooding challenges need not subtract from a city’s overall prospects; it can help enhance its attractiveness to both citizens and developers. The result is that good planning has helped make Lincoln a more interesting city than it might otherwise have been. That is a message worth considering amid all the political hubbub over climate change. We can create opportunity, but we must also embrace the reality. My guess is that this is why the other ten cities were present.

Jim Schwab

Make Community Planning Great Again

The American Planning Association (APA), the organization that employs me as the manager of its Hazards Planning Center, made me proud last week. It took a rare step: It announced its opposition to President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal.

It is not that APA has never taken a position on a budgetary issue before, or never DSC00244spoken for or against new or existing programs or regulatory regimes. In representing nearly 37,000 members of the planning community in the United States, most of whom work as professional planners in local or regional government, APA has a responsibility to promote the best ways in which planning can help create healthy, prosperous, more resilient communities and has long done so. It’s just that seldom has a new administration in the White House produced a budget document that so obviously undercuts that mission. APA would be doing a serious disservice to its members by not speaking up on behalf of their core values, which aim at creating a high quality of life in communities of lasting value. That quest leads APA to embrace diversity, educational quality, environmental protection, and economic opportunity. Making all that happen, of course, is a very complex task and the reason that young planners are now largely emerging from graduate programs with complex skill sets that include the use of geographic information systems, demographic and statistical knowledge, public finance, and, increasingly, awareness of the environmental and hazard reduction needs of the communities they will serve. They understand what their communities need and what makes them prosper.

The Fiscal Year 2018 White House budget proposal, somewhat ironically titled America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, is in essential ways very short-sighted about just what will sustain America’s communities and make them great. Making America great seems in this document to center on a military buildup and resources to pursue illegal immigrants while eliminating resources for planning and community development. The proposal would eliminate funding for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, the HOME Investment Partnerships program, and the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. It also eliminates the Low-Income Heating Energy Assistance Program, which was created under President Ronald Reagan, as well as the Department of Energy’s weatherization assistance program.

It also eliminates the Appalachian Regional Commission, which supports job training in the very areas where Trump irresponsibly promised to restore mining jobs. There is no doubt that hard-hit areas like West Virginia and eastern Kentucky are in serious need of economic development support. Trump’s promise, however, was hollow and reflected a lack of study of the real issues because environmental regulation, which the budget proposal also targets, is not the primary reason for the loss of mining jobs. The mines of a century ago were dangerous places supported by heavy manual labor, but automation reduced many of those jobs long before environmental protection became a factor. Competition from cheap natural gas, a byproduct of the hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) revolution in that industry, has further weakened the coal industry.

No rollback of clean air or climate programs will change all that. What is clearly needed is a shift in the focus of education and job training programs, and in the focus of economic development, to move the entire region in new directions. To come to terms with the complexity of the region’s socioeconomic challenges, I would suggest that the President read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which deals compassionately but firmly with the deterioration of the social fabric in Appalachian communities. If anything, it will take a beefed up Appalachian Regional Commission and similar efforts to help turn things around for these folks who placed so much faith in Trump’s largely empty promises.

The March 9 issue of USA Today carried a poignant example of the realities that must be faced in producing economic opportunity in the region. The headline story, “West Virginia Won’t Forget,” highlights the problem of uncompleted highways in an area where a lack of modern transportation access impedes growth, focusing specifically on McDowell County, one of the nation’s most impoverished areas. It is hard for outsiders to grasp the realities. In the Midwest, if one route is closed, there are often parallel routes crossing largely flat or rolling land that maintain access between communities. In much of West Virginia, narrow mountain passes pose serious obstacles when roads no longer meet modern needs. It is the difference between the life and death of struggling communities, with those left behind often mired in desperate poverty. When I see a budget and programs from any White House that address these questions, I will know that someone wants to make Appalachia great again.

I say that in the context of a much larger question that also seems to drive much of the Trump budget. You must read the budget blueprint in its entirety, with an eye to questions of community and coastal resilience and climate change, to absorb fully the fact that the Trump administration is at war with any efforts to recognize the realities of climate change or facilitate climate change adaptation. The proposal zeroes out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s coastal mapping and resilience grant programs. I will grant in full disclosure that APA, in partnership with the Association of State Floodplain Managers, is the recipient of a Regional Coastal Resilience Grant. For good reason: Our three-year project works with pilot communities in Georgia and Ohio to test and implement means of incorporating the best climate science into planning for local capital improvements. Communities invest billions of dollars yearly in transportation and environmental infrastructure and related improvements, and in coastal areas, ensuring that those investments account for resilience in the face of future climate conditions will save far more money for this nation than the $705,00 investment (plus a 50% match from ASFPM and APA) that NOAA is making in the project. The problem is that you have to respect the voluminous climatological science that has demonstrated that the climate is changing and that a serious long-term problem exists. And it is not just the focus of our singular project that matters. Today’s Chicago Tribune contains an Associated Press article about the race by scientists to halt the death of coral reefs due to ocean warming. The article notes that the world has lost half of its coral reefs in the last 30 years and that those reefs produce some of the oxygen we breathe.

The damage on climate change, however, does not stop with the NOAA budget. The Trump budget also zeroes out U.S. contributions to international programs to address climate change and undermines existing U.S. commitments to international climate agreements.

There is also a failure to take seriously the role of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which would suffer a 31% budget reduction and the loss of 3,200 jobs. Among the programs to be axed is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, ostensibly on grounds that, like the Chesapeake Bay programs, it is a regional and not a national priority and therefore undeserving of federal support. That ignores the fact that four of the five lakes are international waters shared with Canada. It also ignores the history of the agency and its 1970 creation under President Richard Nixon, largely as a result of the serious water pollution problems experienced at the time.

IMG_0256Younger readers may not even be aware of some of this. But I grew up before the EPA existed; I was a college student environmental activist when this came about. When I was in junior high school several years earlier, our class took a field trip aboard the Good Time cruise, which escorted people down the Cuyahoga River to the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland. The river was such an unspeakable industrial cesspool that one classmate asked the tour guide what would happen if someone fell overboard into the river. Matter-of-factly, the guide responded, “They would probably get pneumonia and die.” We have come a long way, and for those of us who understand what a difference the EPA has made, there is no turning back. I am sure that White House staffers would say that is not the point, but to me it is.

I am sure that, as with other agencies, one can find duplicative programs to eliminate, and ways to tweak the budget for greater efficiencies. That should be a goal of any administration. But in the broad sweep of the damage this budget proposes, I find it impossible to discern that motive in the butcher cuts the White House embraces. It is time to contact your Senators and U.S. Representatives. Ultimately, the budget is up to Congress, which must decide whether the new priorities make sense. My personal opinion is that they are short-sighted and ill-informed.

 

Jim Schwab

Natural Solutions for Natural Hazards

Boulder Creek, Boulder, Colorado

Boulder Creek, Boulder, Colorado

It has taken a long while in our modern society for the notion to take hold that some of the best solutions to reduce the impact of natural hazards can be found in nature itself. Perhaps it is the high cost of continuing to use highly engineered solutions to protect development that has often been sited unwisely in the first place that has finally gotten our attention. Particularly after Hurricane Sandy, however, the notion of using green infrastructure as part of the hazard mitigation strategy for post-disaster recovery began to gain traction; green infrastructure was highlighted in the federal Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy. These approaches are also known as natural or nature-based designs. They involve understanding the role natural systems play in reducing damages and in using that knowledge to deploy such solutions as part of an intelligent game plan for improving community resilience.

But where should community planners and local officials get reliable information on the best and most proven strategies for implementing green infrastructure solutions?

About a year and a half ago, researchers from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) approached me about involving the American Planning Association (APA) Hazards Planning Center in a project they were undertaking with support from the Kresge Foundation to prepare such information in the form of a green infrastructure siting guide. In the end, they also involved the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), the National Association of Counties (NACo), the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Boston-based design firm Sasaki Associates to assist with this effort. Over the past year or more, we have all met regularly to discuss what needed to be done and our progress in making it happen. We produced case studies, strategy briefs, and other material to populate the project’s web-based resources.

Bioswale in a subdivision development in Boulder County, Colorado.

Bioswale in a subdivision development in Boulder County, Colorado.

Last month, after all that teamwork, TNC unveiled its new website for the project, called Naturally Resilient Communities. For those interested in knowing how trees, living shorelines, dunes, coastal marshes, and oyster reefs, among other types of natural infrastructure, can help mitigate natural hazards like coastal storms and urban flooding, the website provides a serious and interactive introduction to the subject matter, backed up by numerous resources.

What is especially valuable about the website design is that it allows users multiple avenues into the specific types of information they need. Not all natural infrastructure solutions are born equal. Some are more appropriate in certain settings than others. Some work best in inland river valleys, some along coastlines, and others in mountains or high plains. Some coastal solutions work well in the rocky coastlines of California or Oregon, while others work better along Atlantic or Gulf Coast shorelines. Applying such solutions is largely a matter of learning what works best in a specific natural environment in the face of specific hazards—riverine flooding, hurricanes, thunderstorms, or other threats that communities face. It is critical to adapt the solution to the problem.

Accordingly, the website, largely the work of Sasaki Associates with vetting from the other project partners, allows users to approach the information by deciding which strategies they wish to investigate or which part of the United States is relevant. They can also look at considerations such as cost, the geographic scale of the solution (neighborhood, municipal, regional), and the type of community in question. These are precisely the frames of reference familiar to most urban planners and civil engineers who are most likely to be involved in implementing natural infrastructure projects. The emphasis throughout is on the practical, not the ideal or the ideological. A particular approach either works or does not work, but it does so in very specific settings, such as a neighborhood in a city along one of the Great Lakes or in the Southwestern desert. Context is the central question.

This memorial to Gilbert White, the pioneer of modern floodplain management, marks the high point of flooding along Boulder Creek.

This memorial to Gilbert White, the pioneer of modern floodplain management, marks the high point of flooding along Boulder Creek.

Establishing context is why the project put considerable emphasis on case studies, which cover a variety of communities around the nation. Specify, for example, Rocky Mountain West as a region and riverine flooding as a problem, and the site gives you a case study from Boulder, Colorado, that examines the alternatives considered and solutions adopted for flooding along Boulder Creek and discusses the involvement of the city and the Denver-based Urban Drainage and Flood Control District to implement a stream restoration master plan. One can also find case studies from Florida, Ohio, and numerous other locations. One can also, however, explore sections of the website devoted to additional resources and funding

sources to support green infrastructure projects. These allow the user to connect to other websites and some PDFs for additional information.

Go explore. I admit to taking pride in our involvement in this effort. It is, I think, a welcome resource and great learning tool for planners, engineers, local officials, and the interested public.

 

Jim Schwab

All’s Well at Burwell’s

Chad Berginnis shares a story during the roast. To his right is Nicole LeBouef, new Deputy Assistant Administrator for NOAA for the National Ocean Service. Photo by Susan Fox.

Chad Berginnis shares a story during the roast. To his right is Nicole LeBouef, new Deputy Assistant Administrator for NOAA for the National Ocean Service. Photo by Susan Fox.

Warmth is a concept with many dimensions. In the realm of physics, it is a relative measure of temperature. In reference to weather, perhaps the most common subject of human conversation, it is a measure of the kinetic energy of the atmosphere around us, which is constantly changing. Mark Twain has been erroneously quoted as saying, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” His friend Charles Dudley Warner sort of said it, but no mind. On Tuesday, February 7, in Charleston, South Carolina, no one around me had any complaints. We were perfectly happy with the kinetic energy of the atmosphere of the day, which brought the city to a very comfortable 75° F. No rain, just a mild breeze. Let it be. (You can accurately take that quote from the Beatles.) Two days later, I would have to return to Chicago, where it was 18° F. when I stepped off the airplane.

Like many other English words, warmth takes on many metaphorical and emotional connotations derived from its physical qualities. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” President Harry Truman used to say, and he was not referring to room temperature in the White House. Conversely, there is the warmth of positive human relationships, just as there is a chill in the air when they are not going well.

That evening, at a downtown Charleston restaurant, Burwell’s, I experienced that warmth at a group dinner organized by some National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) staff for those members of the NOAA Digital Coast Partnership who were attending the Coastal GeoTools Conference. The partnership consists of both NOAA, through its National Ocean Service, and eight national nonprofit organizations, including the American Planning Association, which I represented along with a colleague, Joseph DeAngelis, a research associate for the Hazards Planning Center. The conference was hosted for NOAA by the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM).

Susan Fox, NOAA point of contact for APA in the Digital Coast Partnership, presents a gift before the roast. Photo by Miki Schmidt.

Susan Fox, NOAA point of contact for APA in the Digital Coast Partnership, presents a gift before the roast. Photo by Miki Schmidt.

But enough of the organizational details. Shortly after all our carloads arrived at Burwell’s, and our party of 24 was led upstairs by the wait staff, it became apparent that something special was afoot. Miki Schmidt, Division Chief for Coastal Geospatial Services at NOAA, attempted to get people’s attention by clinking empty glasses. It wasn’t working, so I decided to use my booming voice to say, “Miki wants your attention.” That worked. Then he announced, to my surprise, that they wanted to honor my upcoming retirement with a few gifts, among which were a framed certificate of appreciation from the U.S. Department of Commerce for my service in supporting Digital Coast and a framed photograph of those who had attended the last full meeting of the partnership in Rhode Island in September 2016, signed by many of the attendees. The warmth of the professional and personal relationships built with colleagues since APA joined the partnership in 2010 became readily apparent to me in this unexpected moment.

Allison Hardin poses with the wolf; David Hart observes (September 2011). Photo by Melissa Ladd.

Allison Hardin poses with the wolf; David Hart observes (September 2011). Photo by Melissa Ladd.

Then we sat down, and the “roast” began. More than once, as Miki seemed ready to turn the floor over to me for the final word, someone new would pop up to offer stories both fun and serious. Yes, it was true that I had once, wearing a moveable wolf mask, climbed through the open window of a park shelter in Madison, Wisconsin, during an evening reception for a partnership meeting hosted by ASFPM, asking the whereabouts of “them three little pigs.” Undaunted by the momentary confusion my entrance engendered, Allison Hardin, a planner from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, insisted on posing for a photograph with the wolf, who politely obliged. I was known (though not alone) in trying to provide such moments to enliven the more relaxing moments of partnership gatherings. When my “final word” finally came, I shared not only some enhancements of the recollected moments, but my own plans beyond APA, which I discussed in a recent blog post, “The Fine Art of Stepping Down.”

Still, the Digital Coast Partnership was also built through a great deal of hard work, which was also celebrated. The representatives of the groups involved worked hard over the past decade to build the partnership, which is now celebrating its tenth year. Meetings sometimes involved long discussions of how we could better collaborate, and we now often partner on important proposals and projects in which our complementary strengths facilitate important progress in achieving Digital Coast’s mission. NOAA established Digital Coast to advance the use of geospatial technology by coastal communities to improve and enhance coastal planning and resource management. Much of this consists of a substantial and growing of free, online tools and resources for mapping and visualization purposes. The partnership consists of the user communities that can help vet Digital Coast products and assist in their dissemination. But the operative Digital Coast slogan has been “More than just data.” It is the human dimension that matters, and the science and technology have been means to an end, which is enabling the achievement of noble coastal community goals such as environmental protection, hazard mitigation, economic sustainability, and climate resilience.

And so—I suppose it was appropriate that the organizers of the dinner chose to bring us to Burwell’s Stonefire Grill, which generates its own warmth through its comfort menu of steaks and seafood. Though it certainly can be pricey like any steakhouse (most steak entrees are between $30 and $40), the food is outstanding. Personally, I indulged in the lobster bisque for starters. It offered some of the deepest, most flavorful spoonfuls of joy of any bisque I have had in a long time. Alan, our waiter, was not lying at all when he told me it was great. On the subject of warmth, let me add that the wait staff of Alan, Mat, and Will were very patient and careful in tending to this large crowd, as was bartender Jo Jo Chandler. I did not meet the owner, John Thomas, but he is to be commended for both the staff and the cuisine. The Wagyu flat iron steak that I ordered was tender and delicious. I also indulged in a side order of Brussels sprouts, which I love but which require some attentive preparation to succeed. These were great in part because they were prepared in combination with caramelized onions. Others around me

Miki to the right of me in the upstairs dining room at Burwell's.

Miki to the right of me in the upstairs dining room at Burwell’s. Photo by Susan Fox.

enjoyed the seafood offerings, including oysters and scallops, and I heard no complaints and considerable praise. I can assure readers that, if you visit Charleston, Burwell’s is worth a visit for one of your evening outings. It also features a warm and casual atmosphere and a good downstairs bar, from which that amber beer in my hand originated, courtesy of Chad Berginnis, the executive director of ASFPM. I wasn’t sure, when we first arrived, why he offered to buy. Now I suspect he was in on the “roast” plan all along. Thanks, I say, to all of my friends at Digital Coast. My actual retirement from APA may have been almost four months away, but they knew this might be the last chance to do it before that day came. I hope they do the same for others when the time comes.

Jim Schwab

 

The Fine Art of Stepping Down

“The cemeteries are full of indispensable people,” or variations thereof, is a quotation that has been attributed to many, including the late French President Charles de Gaulle, but according to Quote Investigator, actually belongs to an American writer Elbert Hubbard in 1907, using the phrase, “people the world cannot do without” and the word “graveyards.” But QI notes numerous sources over the years, many of which may well have borrowed from or built upon the other. The point is clear: None of us lives forever, and the world finds a way to move on without us. We can make an impact, but so can others. And we can come to terms with those facts long before we arrive at the cemetery.

Although it was not made public until January 9, I decided a few months ago that it was time to leave my post at the American Planning Association as manager of the Hazards Planning Center. There are two other such centers at APA—Green Communities, and Planning and Community Health—each of which has had at least three different managers since the National Centers for Planning were established in 2008 as a means of making clear APA’s commitment to certain leading-edge topics in planning. I have so far been the only manager for Hazards.  More importantly, I built that center’s portfolio atop an existing legacy of work in the field of planning for hazards dating back to 1993, when I agreed to manage a project funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that led to publication of the landmark report, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction. I did not at first foresee the ways in which that effort would forever alter the arc of my career in urban planning. Looking back, there was nothing inevitable about it. While I was http://www.statenislandusa.com/heavily involved until then in environmental planning, almost none of it involved disasters. Once I sank my teeth deeply into the subject matter, however, there was no letting go. The Blues Brothers would have said that I was on a mission from God. Increasingly, I became aware of the high stakes for our society in properly planning our communities to cope with natural hazards.

One of the special pleasures of my position was the opportunity every summer to attend the Natural Hazards Conference in Colorado. Here, along with my wife, Jean, and daughter, Anna, in 2007, are some visitors from Taiwan whom I had met during a conference there the year before.

One of the special pleasures of my position was the opportunity every summer to attend the Natural Hazards Conference in Colorado. Here, along with my wife, Jean, and daughter, Anna, in 2007, are some visitors from Taiwan whom I had met during a conference there the year before.

That quarter-century tenure in the driver’s seat of APA’s initiatives regarding disaster policy and practice made me, in some people’s minds at least, almost inseparable from the position I now hold. Perhaps in part because I was comfortable in working with the news media, I became the public face of APA in the realm of hazards planning. That may have been amplified to some extent by the fact that, until last year, the only APA employees working directly under me on a regular basis were interns, most of whom were graduate planning students. It’s not that I was a one-man show. I enlisted staff within the research department for specific projects with assigned hours. Given the expertise needed in this area, and my own willingness to listen to and learn from the best, most experienced people available, it was generally productive to contract with those people on a consulting basis or through partnerships with other organizations. Because APA is a professional organization with a membership of almost 40,000, those resources were readily available. I could marshal expertise far greater than any we could have hired for most of those years. Last year, however, we came to terms with growth and added research associate Joseph DeAngelis, who joined us after leaving the New York City Planning Department, where he had worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery on Staten Island. He has become a great asset to the organization.

His ability to span the transition to a new manager was one of several preconditions I had in mind over the last two or three years in contemplating my retirement from APA. More important, but a factor in adding him to our staff, was that I wanted to leave my successor with a center that was in good shape. This meant having projects underway, and funded by agreements with sponsors beyond the immediate few months after my departure. By late last year, we had won project grants from FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that will all end between July and December in 2018. That gives my successor, whoever he or she may be, more than adequate opportunity to complete those ongoing projects, maintain APA’s credibility in the realm of hazards, and explore new options and opportunities that will sustain the legacy that is already in place. I understand that people like me sometimes move quickly to another organization, firm, or government agency because a huge opportunity opens on short notice. With retirement, however, there is no need for such haste. We can take time to plan well.

That leads to another precondition in which I can say that I am greatly aided by the management philosophy of APA’s current executive director, James Drinan. He believes that, when possible, we should seek a managerial replacement who can join APA in the last two or three weeks of the tenure of their predecessor. This allows the opportunity for the outgoing person to share how things are done or even answer questions about how they might be done better or differently. I recognize, for one thing, that my own package of skills is unique and unlikely to be replicated. That is fine because someone new may well be much stronger in some other areas than I ever was. And if so, I am happy for them. It is a fool’s errand to seek replacement by a clone. Ultimately, the hiring choice will belong to APA’s research director, David Rouse, but my input on what credentials and experience are most useful is likely to have an impact. We hope to see resumes from some high-quality candidates in coming weeks.

So what is next for me as of June 1? I look forward to an opportunity to explore some new options that simply have not been feasible until now. Elsewhere on this website, I describe my intended work on some future book projects, most immediately focusing on the 1993 and 2008 Midwest floods, but there are other ideas waiting in the wings. APA would like to use my consulting services as needed to aid the transition beyond my retirement, and I have agreed, but there are and may be some other offers. I will certainly continue teaching at the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning, at least as long as they wish to continue that relationship, which has been very fruitful. And it should surprise no one if people find me on the speaking circuit from time to time. In fact, I may be much freer to accept such invitations if I am not managing a research program for APA. Finally, I shall have considerably greater free time to devote to this blog. In less than four years, its following has grown from virtually nothing to more than 14,000 subscribers as of this week. It has been a great pleasure to share what I learn through that forum.

The opportunity to spend part of an afternoon just reading a book on a 606 Trail bench beckons.

The opportunity to spend part of an afternoon just reading a book on a 606 Trail bench beckons.

But those are all activities that somehow involve work. I may well involve myself in some volunteer activities with APA divisions and its Illinois chapter, the Society of Midland Authors, and other outlets that I may discover. That too sometimes sounds like work, so let me try harder. I have written about the wonderful 606 Trail near my home; I expect to walk and bicycle there and in nearby Humboldt Park. I may well take a great novel to one of the trail’s benches (or to my front patio) and read in the middle of the day. My wife and I may travel, both as we choose and as we are invited. Anyone reading this blog must already know that I love to get around. Despite all its flaws, the world remains a fascinating place, and I want to explore it while I can. I may never get a gig (or want one) like that of Anthony Bourdain, but I will see enough. And, yes, like him, I love to explore different cuisines—in part so that, as an amateur gourmet chef with new time on his hands, I can try them out for guests at home or elsewhere. Like I said, the world is a fascinating place. Explore it while you can.

Jim Schwab

Connecting Hazard Science and Planning Down Under

Much of New Zealand is a land of striking natural beauty riddled with natural hazards.

Much of New Zealand is a land of striking natural beauty riddled with natural hazards.

Nearly nine years ago, when I was invited to accept a three-week visiting fellowship in New Zealand with the Centre for Advanced Engineering in New Zealand (CAENZ) at the University of Canterbury, people began to ask me why the New Zealanders were so interested in me or the work of our Hazards Planning Center at the American Planning Association. My response was to ask another question: “Have you seen Lord of the Rings?”

The overwhelming majority of inquirers would say yes, and I would follow up by asking whether they were aware that the entire trilogy was filmed in New Zealand. Most were, though not all. “Look at the landscape in those films,” I would say, adding that “it ought to come to you” after doing so. Later, I wrote an article for Planning, APA’s monthly magazine, about the experience, titling it “A Landscape of Hazards.” New Zealand almost literally has it all: earthquake faults, active volcanoes, coastal storms, landslides, flash floods, and even occasional wildfires. One day, back in the states, I even learned that a small tornado had struck in Auckland. There were very good reasons CAENZ spent enough money to bring me there to consult on national hazards policy and land use.

Damage following a coastal storm on the North Island in August 2008.

Damage following a coastal storm on the North Island in August 2008.

One serious consequence of the visit, which included my doing seven lectures and seminars around the country during that time, was that I established a number of valuable and lasting professional relationships, some of which are occasionally rekindled by meeting Kiwi researchers at conferences in the U.S. since then. One was a young researcher, Wendy Saunders, at GNS Science, who recently sent me a copy of a new report she co-authored for this crown research center, released in November. “The Role of Science in Land Use Planning: Exploring the Challenges and Opportunities to Improve Practice” made me realize that a common problem in U.S. planning, the introduction of scientific information related to natural hazards, is not much different halfway around the world, even under a rather different planning framework than ours.

Indeed, one other benefit of the trip was that, not only did they learn from me about the complexities and idiosyncrasies of land-use planning in the United States, but I learned a great deal about their system as well, and it broadened my perspective on how planning is practiced around the world. Things are somewhat simpler in this small nation of 4.2 million people on two islands that together are somewhat smaller than California. That led to an interesting comment from one gentleman to another in the front row of a modest crowd at the Christchurch regional council following one of my presentations. “We’re about the size of a small state over there,” he mused. Yes, I thought, we are two sovereign nations, but vastly different in size, with systems calibrated to very different needs as a result.

In the New Zealand context, the result is a system, based on 1989 reforms, in which there is no “state” layer of government between the national government in Wellington and local government at the municipal level. Under the nation’s Resource Management Act, however, a series of regional councils does provide oversight of environmental policy and reviews local decisions for compliance. Those regions are basically based on watershed boundaries, which may seem like nirvana to some bioregionalists in the U.S., but they entail their own political challenges. No system is perfect.

The challenge the GNS Science report addresses, in fact, is that of properly introducing natural hazards science into land-use policy at the local level, which is not an easy task even in New Zealand, where such hazards seem abundant and omnipresent. The report includes a case study of GNS’s own experience in intervening in a plan change in Hutt City, near Wellington on the North Island, where a major earthquake fault straddles and affects much urban development. The problem of how to introduce issues like climate and hazard mitigation into the planning process is one we have pondered repeatedly at the Hazards Planning Center at APA, precisely because that is our mission. As the GNS report notes, while local planners may complain that science is often presented In ways that lack translation into a local context, with no straightforward means of resolving conflicts between experts, scientists nonetheless “are often frustrated by the lack of uptake of their science in land use planning decisions.” Maybe Kiwis and Yankees, at least in this respect, have far more in common than we realize.

Inevitably, because there are no simple solutions that fit all cases, the report concludes that incorporating natural hazards science in land-use decision making is a “complex process influenced by numerous social levers and networks.” In the Hutt City case, economic development was paramount, but natural hazards took their place on the stage in part as a result of GNS Science’s intervention, a lesson to scientific researchers that it is important for them to find their voice even if local elected officials and policy makers may not absorb all the subtleties of scientific conclusions. It is not always a matter of scientists being poor communicators. Sometimes public officials must be better listeners. Scientists must be willing to learn more about the planning process, but planners must learn more about the nuances of scientific assessments. Public safety with regard to natural hazards risks is not a matter of stopping all development, but of using scientific knowledge wisely to make development better. We must all become better at reaching across disciplinary boundaries to reduce misunderstanding and misinformation and to receive information vital to making better decisions. The importance of this became very clear to me less than three years after my visit, when Christchurch, the home of CAENZ, was shaken by significant earthquakes from which the city is still recovering.

 

Jim Schwab

Tools for Stronger Communities

dscf2307What makes a community stronger and more resilient in the face of severe weather threats and disasters? Clearly, preparation, awareness of existing and potential problems, and a willingness to confront harsh realities and solve problems are among the answers. Can we bottle any of that for those communities still trying to find the keys to resilience? Perhaps not, but we can share many of the success stories some communities have produced and hope that the knowledge is disseminated.

One agency with which I have worked at the federal level that seems to understand the value of partnerships with nongovernmental organizations, both business and nonprofit, in achieving this dissemination of critical knowledge is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). At the American Planning Association (APA), we have worked with them through the Digital Coast Partnership, advancing the use of geospatial technology to improve coastal planning and coastal resource management, but also on water and climate issues. I personally participated on behalf of APA in a cooperative effort to assist NOAA in creating its Climate Resilience Toolkit, which aims to give communities and private sector stakeholders some of the tools and information they need to address issues of resilience in the face of climate change and extreme weather events.

More recently, I was very pleased to be part of an effort to add to the toolkit a Built Environment topic, or sub-toolkit. The Built Environment section aims to show that, “Cities and towns are vulnerable to sea level rise, heavy downpours, and extreme heat. Cooperative efforts of local government agencies and the private sector can promote adaptation by integrating physical resilience, social resilience, and nature-based solutions.”

A team of us, composed of people from federal agencies, academia, and national organizations, labored for months in contributing specific topics and material to the toolkit to ensure that it covered the most essential points and provided the most useful references to additional sources of information. I am especially happy to have recently completed the Planning and Land Use topic, after it survived the routine vetting by colleagues to ensure accuracy and effective message delivery. It was the last piece added, but I was very happy to put my own small stamp on the overall toolkit site.

The site is not intended to answer all questions; no site can. It is a window into the key issues, with additional resources, and a chance to reach those busy public officials and decision makers who do not have time to read entire tomes on issues like disaster recovery or transit resilience. It is more like a series of briefing papers for those looking for cogent ideas to address some of the most chronic, stress-inducing challenges community leaders face. The Built Environment is one of eleven major sections of the overall toolkit, each of which has a series of topics. For example, a section on Coasts includes several major topic areas such as sea level rise, coastal erosion, and tsunami, each with its own explanation and resources. It is an easily navigated one-stop source of information. The Climate Resilience Toolkit also includes case studies and an index of related tools.

Rummage around. You may find yourself still rummaging an hour later.

It is possible to wonder, and I am sure a few people are wondering, what the fate of such sites will be in a new administration that is highly skeptical of climate change. I don’t know the answer to that, but NOAA has been with us as a federal scientific agency for a long time, and I suspect it has a long future ahead of us. The agency includes the National Weather Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and coastal management responsibilities. It is well-known as an employer of thousands of scientists, and its current administrator, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, is both a geologist and former astronaut. She, however, will soon be gone, and it remains to be seen who will take her place.

NOAA, like the U.S. Geological Survey, is primarily a scientific agency. The fact that its mission includes a focus on climate science should not be a detriment. It should be a badge of honor, and any new administration would serve itself well by finding out what its experts have to say and why. The nation has seen some wonderful returns on its investments in fostering such expertise, and it would be foolhardy to curtail it now. The value of NOAA goes further, however, as Sullivan’s leadership in recent years has spurred the agency to seek to bridge the gap between scientific information and public policy decision making, a direction that has allowed Sullivan and many in NOAA to seek partnerships with information conduits like APA, which can effectively reach professional audiences who can multiply the dissemination capabilities of agencies like NOAA. All parties win.

It is critical not only to generate scientific knowledge but to share it with the public in plain English forums that deliver key points. That achievement is why I recommend checking out the Climate Resilience Toolkit. I’m proud to have been part of the effort.

Jim Schwab

Can You Sue the Government for Climate Change Impacts?

The American Planning Association has just posted today this article I wrote for its APA blog: https://www.planning.org/blog/blogpost/9111027/.

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