Life after Tornadoes

Despite the impression many people may have from watching the news, most disasters do not result in a presidential disaster declaration, and the federal government is not always involved in response and recovery. Many smaller disasters, however, result in a state declaration issued by the governor. The threshold for determining whether federal assistance is justified differs by state, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency assuming larger states are capable of handling larger events. Major or catastrophic disasters like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria invariably trigger federal assistance, but it may matter whether a tornado occurs in Texas or Delaware. It also matters greatly how much damage it produces. In any event, assessing the toll that nature has inflicted is never simple business.

The remains of a home destroyed by the tornado.

On April 29 of this year, seven tornadoes rampaged across rural Van Zandt County, east of Dallas, Texas, and parts of some neighboring counties. One of those was an EF-3; another was an EF-4. The scale runs from EF-0, a relatively minor twister, to the very rare but extremely dangerous EF-5. Such a monster struck Greensburg, Kansas, ten years ago, causing enormous damage and nearly wiping the small city off the face of the earth. Fortunately for Van Zandt County, the tornadoes struck mostly in rural areas outside Canton, the county seat. Nonetheless, four people died, and dozens were injured. The state issued a disaster declaration.

Vicki McAlister, Van Zandt County’s public health emergency preparedness coordinator, noted at a disaster recovery workshop in Canton on October 26 that a triage center was established at Canton High School within a half-hour, and that almost immediately “between 35 and 40 ambulances were on the scene.” The triage center, however, had no electricity because of extensive damage to power lines from the tornadoes, which damaged or destroyed about 200 homes in the area, and killed between 250 and 300 cattle. Within two hours, two task forces were conducting search and rescue along every mile of the 35-mile storm path. The county shut down air traffic around the path in order to focus on the effort. McAlister noted that they were soon “swamped by the media,” for whom they set up briefings on a regular basis. It is critical in such situations to keep the public informed through accurate news of the events that follow the disaster.

Student interns join me (left), Melissa Oden (to my right), and Texas APA chapter administrator Mike McAnelly (far right) for lunch in Canton the day before the workshop.

The workshop was the result of a collaboration between the Texas Public Health Association and the Texas chapter of the American Planning Association (APA), joint recipients of a $70,000 sub-grant from APA’s Planning and Community Health Center in Washington, D.C., operating under a much larger multi-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control for a program called Plan4Health, designed to foster collaboration between urban planning and public health professionals. The unique feature in this case is its focus on post-disaster recovery public health needs, but It is the third Plan4Health project between the two Texas organizations.

I attended the workshop as the invited keynote, but I played another role as well: I facilitated a group exercise in which those attending broke into five groups, each of which spent time summarizing on an easel sheet where they saw their efforts now, and where they would like to be. Each group reported back to the whole, and those reports became part of the record of the workshop itself. After that, I spoke over lunch.

Debris from the April 29 tornadoes.

What was interesting to me, however, especially after listening to Russell Hopkins, the leader of the county’s Long-Term Recovery Group, a body empaneled to handle claims of those suffering losses or injuries from the storm, was how he felt that the county would have been better off having created such a group before any disaster had hit, and how those from neighboring counties echoed that sentiment by indicating they would like to take that step before enduring the ordeal facing Van Zandt. His group was activated in mid-May, and he felt they could have saved weeks of valuable time in advancing recovery in the community if they had been established before the disaster. From my own research and experience, it is clear Hopkins is entirely on the right track, yet few communities think about such contingencies until disaster strikes. Hopkins is also director of Public Health Emergency Preparedness for the Northeast Texas Public Health District.

Much of what TPHA and Texas APA learn from this project will be compiled in a tool kit designed to assist rural communities with recovery planning. Rural communities often face different challenges in disasters from urban areas because local government is small, staff and resources are limited, and training is sometimes less available. The workshop aimed to help shrink that gap. The two sponsoring organizations marshaled important academic resources to advance this mission, including the help of faculty and graduate student interns from the public health program at University of North Texas (UNT), in Fort Worth, and the planning school at the University of Texas campus at Arlington. Six of them were helping to manage the workshop, led by Melissa Oden, a public health professor at UNT and a recent president of TPHA. Also involved was the Northeast Texas Public Health District, based in Tyler. It is expected that the tool kit will become available online early next year.

Ultimately, in my opinion, what matters most in these situations is the peer-to-peer learning between local professionals and recovery volunteers. The latter group had already donated about 20,000 hours of help since April. Some came from outside the area, as often happens, but many were local. These people also help to raise money. Hopkins noted that the recovery effort had raised about $530,000, which was being used to help people rebuild, many of whom had lost a great deal, if not everything. A little more than half were either uninsured or underinsured, according to McAlister. There can be many reasons for this, including poverty and poor health, which can easily lead to financial stress.

I had noted that rural areas and small towns can have advantages in recovery because of greater social cohesion, but it is also easy to wear out a limited pool of civic volunteers. Hopkins noted that he was “not sure” the members of the Long-Term Recovery Group “knew what they were getting into.” While pointing out the need to make sure claims for assistance are legitimate and that the group was “doing the most good for the most people,” he added that, “We’re frustrating our citizens and ourselves because of the slowness of our work.” The committee spent “long hours wordsmithing” its mission statement to ensure flexibility in responding to people’s needs and was finally ready to distribute money in late June. That circumstance led to his observation that a previously appointed, standing recovery group could have put assistance in motion much sooner. This point surfaced repeatedly when we heard from attendees from neighboring counties. Hopkins’s observation did not go unnoticed. I tried to reinforce it in my lunch presentation by directing people to a Model Recovery Ordinance APA had developed nearly two decades ago, and updated and refined more recently, to help communities accomplish precisely this objective. I suspect that my suggestions did not go unnoticed, either.

If anything, other speakers throughout the afternoon continued to reinforce everything said earlier. My long-time friend and colleague David Gattis, formerly the planning director in Benbrook, a Dallas suburb, concluded the afternoon by discussing planning needs in post-disaster recovery. Gattis served just a few years ago as the chair of an APA task force that developed an APA policy guide on hazard mitigation. It built partly on work from the Hazards Planning Center, which I then managed, so we have collaborated a bit over time. He is now applying his expertise in Bastrop, a Texas community that, in recent years, has been afflicted by wildfires (2011), floods (2015), and other events, including impacts this year from Harvey. One issue he emphasized was that, “Short-term responses can have long-term recovery implications.” We do not want to put people back in harm’s way. It is less clear in the case of tornadoes exactly where that is because tornadoes are much more random events geographically than floods or wildfires, but there are lessons to learn, nonetheless, including improved building codes and ensuring access to safe rooms, either within a house or in a nearby community facility. It is particularly important to pay attention to such needs with disadvantaged populations, such as the elderly, children, or the disabled. There is almost always room for improvement if we are looking to build greater community resilience. That includes attention to climate change, even if there may be greater skepticism in some areas. I made my own point very simply regarding climate issues: We cannot solve a problem if we don’t talk about it.

But much of Texas, I believe, is talking about a variety of post-disaster issues, and many communities have sought assistance since Hurricane Harvey. A new normal of public debate may emerge from those discussions, and many of those communities may never be quite the same again. In time, they may be healthier and more resilient as a result.

Note: All photos above provided by TX APA and TPHA (thanks).

Jim Schwab

Seattle Hosts the Nation’s Planners

Housing in Seattle along the harbor All photos by Carolyn Torma

Housing in Seattle along the harbor
All photos by Carolyn Torma

It appears the American Planning Association may break all its attendance records at its annual National Planning Conference next month in Seattle. The last previous record of about 7,000 was also set in Seattle in 1999, so there must be something about the city that both supports and attracts urban planners and those interested in the subject. Perhaps it is the whole Pacific Northwest that sets a tone in favor of well-planned communities; Portland, Oregon, for example, has long been regarded as uniquely progressive in this regard. But Seattle and King County, which includes the city, have been no slouches in embracing forward-looking initiatives aimed at achieving sustainable, environmentally friendly communities. Former King County Executive Ron Sims, who led many of those efforts, will be speaking at the conference, as will Julián Castro, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Sims served with HUD as Deputy Secretary under Secretary Shaun Donovan before returning to Seattle to lead the Washington Health Benefit Exchange Board.

In planning for a plenary presentation at another conference in July, the Natural Hazards Workshop, as well as for an article assignment for Planning, the APA monthly magazine, later this year, I have been assembling data on some important changes in the interests of American planners over time as expressed in conference session attendance. I have been around long enough to recall APA conferences 20 years ago when it was difficult to muster significant attendance at sessions addressing issues connected with natural hazards and disaster recovery, and sessions addressing issues related to climate change did not exist. This year, in Seattle, APA will host an entire track of 18 sessions devoted to Planning and Climate Change, and my guess is that most of them will be well attended. And that is without counting other sessions addressing disasters without the climate change component as part of the subject matter. I will be participating in some of both, but speaking at one in the very first round on Saturday morning, April 18, on “Climate Change Projections and Community Planning.” The audience can expect a rather heady deep dive into the question of how best we can integrate data generated by the science of climate change into hazard mitigation and other community plans.

This is of no small significance to communities seeking federal hazard mitigation assistance (HMA) because the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s new FY 2015 guidance for its grant programs now includes a section now includes tools and resources for climate change and resiliency considerations. Moreover, a new presidential executive order makes inclusion of climate change factors a preferred method for assessing flood risk under the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, for which public comments are due by April 6. To encourage consideration of these factors, FEMA has incorporated sea level rise into its HMA cost-benefit analysis tool. This is a major step.

Climate change also has implications in planning for drought and urban heat emergencies, and I will serve also on a panel organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Program Office on “Coping with Heat and Drought,” which will include some valuable integration of the impacts of such challenges on public health. Elsewhere in the conference, my Washington-based APA colleague, Anna Ricklin, manager of APA’s Planning and Community Health Center, will be busy with sessions addressing the relationships of urban design and public health, such as fostering physically active communities, another vital frontier in the field of urban planning.

Vertical garden in Seattle

Vertical garden in Seattle

All of this makes an ecologically aware city like Seattle a fascinating laboratory in which to conduct mobile workshops and other conference events for knowledge-hungry attendees. At this point, I will commend fellow practitioners of my own professional for their intellectual acuity and curiosity. I have attended and spoken at many kinds of conferences over the years, but I have seen few at which the professionals involved show such enthusiasm for new knowledge. They attend the sessions, they ask questions with a passion, and otherwise demonstrate that they truly care about the work they perform in communities on a daily basis, whether as local, state, or federal government staff, or as consultants, land-use attorneys, or academic researchers. (The largest portion of APA members is and long has been employed in local government in some capacity.)

Let's see, the last time I visited the Pike Street Market, I came home with a gel ice-packed 7-lb. steelhead salmon, promptly consumed that weekend by family friends in a backyard cookout.

Let’s see, the last time I visited the Pike Street Market, I came home with a gel ice-packed 7-lb. steelhead salmon, promptly consumed that weekend by family friends in a backyard cookout.

For all the fascination with cutting-edge topics like climate change and public health, however, there will remain the traditional hard-core topics of modern urban planning such as zoning, economic development, transportation, and capital improvements programming, for these are the tools that must absorb and focus many of these emerging concerns into a means of addressing them through regulations, incentives, other public policies and better design practices. The overarching goal is to create livable and lasting, sustainable, resilient communities.

Jim Schwab