Hurricane Irene: Examining Resilience in Vermont

Earlier this year, the American Planning Association’s Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division, in cooperation with Texas A&M University, sponsored a student paper contest for students in urban planning programs across the country. The papers would need to deal with some aspect of natural hazards and planning. The contest involved a $2,500 prize and presentation of the award at APA’s National Planning Conference, which just occurred in New York City May 6-9. The award was announced at a joint reception of the hazard division and APA’s Sustainable Communities Division on May 8. As might be expected, numerous papers were submitted by students in graduate planning schools across the U.S..

To my surprise and great pleasure, the winner of this first-ever contest was one of my own students from a course I teach at the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Emily Seiple, of Mahomet, Illinois, was in my Fall 2016 class, “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery.” She was one of three students who sought my endorsement to submit their papers, but there were undoubtedly dozens of others, if not hundreds, from other schools. I have not inquired as to the total submitted.


Courtesy of NOAA, National Weather Service

Emily’s paper is very deserving of the recognition she has now received. In her paper, written as an assignment for my class, she expertly dissected the dynamics of a challenging recovery situation for the town of Waterbury, Vermont, following Hurricane Irene in the fall of 2011. Many readers may recall seeing television footage of glutted streams rushing downhill from the mountains, inundating one Vermont community after another. The flood itself was but the prelude, however, for then followed the arduous work of organizing recovery committees, managing recovery funds, working with state and federal agencies, and finding and implementing the silver lining in an otherwise bleak situation. Resilience involves a community’s ability both to respond well to such challenges and to build back better and stronger. Emily examined that story with a remarkably clear and perceptive eye to both details and the big picture, as you will learn by reading her paper, linked here. I present it because I believe her recpaper will allow blog readers to gain a greater understanding of the many nuances involved in disaster recovery planning, which has never been a simple subject.

I took the extra step, during the APA National Planning Conference, of arranging to videotape an interview with Emily Seiple about her paper, with the help of Michael Johnson of the APA staff. It may be two or three weeks before that video is posted, but you will ultimately be able to find it on the APA website, at We will also arrange to post the paper on that site. I invite reader comments on both the paper and its subject matter.

Finally, I apologize to my readers for the relative shortage of postings in recent weeks. The final months of my tenure at APA, leading to my working independently as a writer, consultant, and speaker as of June 1, have been surprisingly hectic, and I want to be sure that I leave the APA Hazards Planning Center in good hands and in excellent shape. That has taken priority, but the end is near, after which I hope to give this blog considerably closer attention well into the future.


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

Did We Learn from Sandy?

Two years ago, in June 2013, I participated in a day-long meeting in New York hosted by the Regional Plan Association (RPA) and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, helping explore the coastal policy implications of Hurricane Sandy. These two organizations were hardly the only ones pursuing such questions, but they were certainly among the most prominent. RPA has been a long-time presence in the New York Metro area, and the Lincoln Institute is a highly reputed research organization located at Harvard University. Both clearly had a stake in the region’s recovery from the Superstorm, and together they had access to some of the best planning minds familiar with disaster issues.

Last year, in part as a result of that and other research sessions and forums, the Lincoln Institute produced Lessons from Sandy: Federal Policies to Build Climate-Resilient Coastal Regions. Though many of their prescriptions will look familiar to those who have followed the trajectory of post-Sandy redevelopment, this report is both worth reading and very readable. It concentrates on issues of disaster relief, insurance and flood risk management, and urban infrastructure. Its recommendations are clear and strong, starting with a series of specific ideas for addressing future climate impacts during the recovery and rebuilding process, talking about how to make programs such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance Program, which funds the rebuilding of public infrastructure, more flexible in this regard, improving the coordination of planning before and after disasters, and development of new financing and insurance mechanisms to support investments in mitigation and resilience. It also discusses realigning federal programs to reduce risk and restore the health of coastal resources, and better data sharing to aid decision making.


Jim Schwab

Resources for Planners to Address Hazards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jim Schwab

Bounce Forward? But, of Course!

In recent years, there has been growing interest in and activity around the concept of resilience. For many people long involved in trying to make the world’s communities safer from disasters, the interest has been heartwarming. The underlying idea is that a community should be better positioned to “bounce back” from a disaster, recovering more efficiently and quickly. A major natural disaster—tornado, hurricane, earthquake—need not be a death sentence or leave a community flat on its back for years. There are numerous ways in which we can do better. We can prepare better, mitigate better, plan better—but to what end?

Some resilience advocates are almost scared by the current interest. After all, look at what happened to the concept of sustainability, subjected by now to years of corporate whitewash and a relentless watering down of the essential message, as originally framed, that we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them with the same opportunities to enjoy prosperity by reducing our ecological footprint, taking better care of the earth’s resources. Sustainability by its very nature ought to be challenging, yet too many things are too easily labeled sustainable, and the word loses its moral authority in the process.

Could the message of resilience be watered down in the same way?

For a long time, federal and state policies with regard to disaster assistance focused on supporting no more than the replacement of what existed before disaster struck. We’ll help you build back, but we won’t help you build a Cadillac. As federal policy, particularly within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), increasingly emphasized hazard mitigation in order to minimize losses in future disasters, however, the idea behind such thinking became increasingly suspect. If you could make a community more resistant to future disasters, if you could reduce that community’s future reliance on outside assistance in managing recovery, why would you not want to make that investment? In the 1993 Midwest floods, in particular, the use of federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program money to buy out flood-prone properties and create public open space in floodplains at least meant removing some development from harm’s way. That opened the door to even more forward thinking. Some relocated communities, like Valmeyer, Illinois, went much farther and adopted green building codes. The “green rebuild” of Greensburg, Kansas, after its 2007 tornado built on this idea.

DSCF1844Indeed, is there really anything wrong with leaving a community better off than it was before? By the time the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force issued its report in 2013, this bridge appears to have been crossed. The task force answer was clearly that we want very much to rebuild communities that would be more resilient in the face of future disasters. Ideally, that would not mean that such communities would merely regain their pre-disaster status quo more quickly, although that seems to have been the goal for more than a few communities after Sandy. The bigger vision just never materialized. At the same time, however, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been seeking ways, most recently through the National Disaster Resilience Competition, to encourage states and communities to think about improvements that, in particular, instill greater resilience among their most vulnerable populations.

The question won’t go away, and fortunately, there are plenty of people, particularly within the growing community of climate change adaptation professionals, who remain engaged. This is a very good thing because, in the face of phenomena like climate change and sea level rise, hazard mitigation faces the prospect of running hard merely to stay in place, a la Alice in Wonderland. Elevate homes, retreat from the seashore, and you find in another generation that you have gained little or nothing because average temperatures are rising and the sea is following you to higher ground. This is precisely why the latest guidance from FEMA on hazard mitigation assistance insists that states and communities must begin to account for climate change in the hazard mitigation plans that qualify them for federal grants. There is little sense in spending federal money to mitigate the same problem repeatedly when you can do it once with more foresight.

At the risk of oversimplifying the underlying questions, which can and do fill volumes of scholarly and professional analysis these days, I lay this out as the background for introducing a remarkable new document unleashed into this debate by The Kresge Foundation. Bounce Forward, a strategy paper from Island Press and the foundation, which funded the project, raises the question of what constitutes “urban resilience in the era of climate change.” At the outset, it confronts the fear I cited at the beginning of this blog post—that of losing the essential poignancy of the message of resilience. It states:

But the transformative potential of resilience is far from assured. There are several potential pitfalls. Notably, if resilience is conceived simply as “bouncing back” from disaster, it could prove harmful, by reinforcing systems that compound the risks our cities face. More insidiously, the concept of resilience could be co-opted by opponents of meaningful reform. And if efforts to build resilience do not also mitigate climate change, they will be of limited use.

I sense an echo here. For some years, at the American Planning Association and some allied organizations, we have talked of “building back better” as the real goal of disaster recovery. (See Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation.)* But resilience is about much more than effective recovery from disasters. It is also about positioning a community’s human and institutional resources to respond to all manner of setbacks, whether stemming from chronic decline and social pressures, or from the impact of nature on the built environment, to deal more creatively with those problems so as to evolve a society that can help its least advantaged sectors in responding to those threats and to become more prosperous and confident. A commitment to social justice must be inherent in the formula. A society that imposes unfair environmental burdens upon, and denies opportunities to, its most economically challenged elements cannot be resilient in any meaningful way. Such a society is merely perpetuating its vulnerabilities. A community is only as strong as its weakest link. In an “era of rapid change,” the Kresge report says, in effect, that weakest link is getting weaker, inequalities are growing and will be magnified by the impacts of climate change, and the concept of resilience means nothing or worse if it does not address these issues.

The aim of Bounce Forward is to create a framework for doing so. Stronger social cohesion and more inclusive community decision making are among the ingredients essential to this transformation. What’s more, as such reports go, this one is a very good read.

Jim Schwab

*I wish to note that, at the invitation of The Kresge Foundation, I have participated over the past year as a member of its Project Advisory Committee for a study of community resilience being prepared by Stratus Consultants, which is still being completed. I also represented APA at a Kresge Foundation symposium on resilience at the Garrison Institute, held last June in Garrison, NY. Because of our common agendas, APA has had an active interest in supporting the Kresge initiatives on this subject.

Living in an Integrated World

Little more than a week ago (October 28-29), I was participating in a conference in Broomfield, Colorado, north of Denver, sponsored by the Association of State Floodplain Managers, a national organization of 16,000 members dedicated to better floodplain management in the U.S. The conference was the Sixth Triennial Flood Mitigation and Floodproofing Workshop. Along with Julie Baxter, a former staff member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Region VIII office in Denver, who recently left to join the new consulting firm, Risk Prepared, as a planner, I presented a mini-workshop on “Mitigation Planning Integration with Comprehensive Planning.”

Julie Baxter's opening slide, borrowing a cartoon from the Natural Hazards Observer

Julie Baxter’s opening slide, borrowing a cartoon from the Natural Hazards Observer

The first thing I am aware of is the need to explain what that actually means. It sounds like technical jargon, right? Or at least like a typical Germanic-language habit of stacking up nouns atop each other, most of which actually function as modifiers for the words that follow. Which is to say that technical English tends to use nouns as adjectives, but the end result sounds like gobbledygook. I know.

So here’s the story for those not already immersed in disaster lingo: In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Disaster Mitigation Act. Troubled by the rising costs of post-disaster rebuilding, Congress wanted to make states and communities more accountable for how they used federal disaster assistance. The law, in essence, stated that, henceforth, states and communities would receive no federal grants for hazard mitigation projects unless those states and communities had prepared a plan that won FEMA approval for meeting the standards of the statute (and FEMA’s implementing regulations) and was subsequently approved by the governing body, for example, a city council. Fourteen years later, FEMA can count the law a substantial success in that it has induced more than 20,000 local jurisdictions to prepare or adopt such plans. (Communities can choose to participate in a multijurisdictional plan instead of preparing one that is uniquely their own.)

That sounds wonderful, but there has been a problem, and it is only slowly going away. FEMA’s middle initials, after all, are “Emergency Management,” and the agency’s innate tendency is to stovepipe its programs through the state level with its equivalent agencies—state-level emergency management agencies or departments. They, in turn, work with their local partners. All of that is wonderful with regard to disaster response, which defines the core programs of emergency management—evacuation, search and rescue, restoring utility services, etc. Hazard mitigation, however, deals with permanent or long-term ways of reducing the probabilities of a community suffering loss of lives and property in disasters. Much hazard mitigation necessarily implicates issues of land-use planning and regulatory controls, such as zoning and subdivision regulations, which are largely the expertise of urban planners. The issue is both how and where we build. Success in this realm depends heavily on getting urban planners and emergency managers to collaborate, but often it has not happened. The emergency managers prepare the local hazard mitigation plan to comply with DMA, and the planners are either uninterested or on the outside of the process, looking in.  None of that expedites the efficient implementation of cost-effective hazard mitigation measures in our communities, and the losses from natural disasters continue to mount, while development in hazardous areas is not always questioned in a timely or effective manner.

The solution is to bake hazard mitigation into all aspects of the local planning process, from visioning and goal setting through comprehensive planning and on to financing and implementing the plan’s vision with regard to creating a more disaster-resilient community (presuming such a vision exists within the plan). One solution is to make the local hazard mitigation plan required by DMA for funding eligibility either part of, referenced by, or an element in, the local comprehensive plan that guides development in the community. That was, in effect, the underlying vision of a Planning Advisory Service Report we produced (and I edited and co-authored) at the American Planning Association in 2010.

In Broomfield on October 28, I took the matter one step further. I strongly suggested it was now time not only to include hazard mitigation in the local comprehensive plan, but some type of pre-event planning for post-disaster recovery as well. I announced that APA in December is due to release our newest effort, funded by FEMA like the hazard mitigation study, titled Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation, a complete overhaul of an earlier study we produced in 1998, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction. There are certain things we can do before we know what specific kind of disaster will strike our communities, and when, I told the assembled planners, and some things that must await knowledge of a specific pattern of damage resulting from a disaster. Those we can address beforehand, in order to give our communities a leg up in kick-starting their recovery, are the organization of a recovery management structure and certain policy goals guiding the recovery effort. With those two key points already settled, a community can regain crucial weeks and months that might otherwise be wasted after a disaster in establishing an effective strategy for planning and implementing recovery. In fact, as part of the new report, APA just released our new Model Recovery Ordinance, prepared by Kenneth C. Topping, a veteran California planner who, among other experience, was once the planning director for the city of Los Angeles. He has worked on and studied this question for a number of years and developed incomparable expertise. I have enjoyed working with him for the past two decades.

None of this should surprise anyone, even outside the field of disaster preparedness, who has thought more broadly about the need for more integrated approaches to managing the problems of business and government in the modern world. The old ways of compartmentalizing and bureaucratizing our responses to social and business problems is still with us, of course, but it is a dying breed. The path to creative solutions and business and community resilience lies with those who can think about and pursue integrated, collaborative solutions.


Jim Schwab

Resilience in the Rockies

Our visiting delegation arrives in Lyons on the slightly chilly afternoon of October 1.

Our visiting delegation arrives in Lyons on the slightly chilly afternoon of October 1.

Back on July 28, I told the story in “The Fatal Attraction” of a gourmet restaurant in Gold Hill, Colorado, that somehow produced great food with the help of a fantastically dedicated staff in a small town nestled in the mountains. I also noted that the surrounding communities had suffered both wildfires in the past and torrential floods in September 2013, from which they are still recovering.  I recounted a few details of some presentations by the mayors of both Boulder and Lyons, and their city manager and town administrator, during the annual Natural Hazards Workshop in nearby Broomfield, Colorado.

Victoria Simonsen explains the flood maps at the visitor center in downtown Lyons.

Victoria Simonsen explains the flood maps at the visitor center in downtown Lyons.

I had the opportunity just last week to spend three days in Boulder at the Third International Conference on Urban Disaster Reduction (ICUDR), which attracted sponsoring delegations from Taiwan, Japan, and New Zealand, and other attendees from nations like Algeria. I will discuss later some of what transpired at the conference, but here I wish to note that the conference provided the opportunity to join a field tour to Lyons, where we were joined by Mayor John O’Brien and Town Administrator Victoria Simonsen, both of whom seem to personify resilience in their approach to rebuilding a town that, at the height of the flood, was divided by the rampaging water into six islands and saw a 400-foot gouge cut through the heart of the town. We were joined on the bus by Professor Andrew Rumbach of the University of Colorado-Denver College of Architecture and Planning, whose students have been assisting the town with plan development; details and the plan itself are available at their website,

This aerial photo on the wall of the visitor center shows the damage inflicted by the flood on a major local bridge.

This aerial photo on the wall of the visitor center shows the damage inflicted by the flood on a major local bridge.

It is less my intent here to reiterate the flood statistics that were shared (for those see the box below), but to provide a photographic rendering of the condition of Lyons one year later, after thousands of hours of volunteer and paid work have been expended to restore homes, utility services, and some semblance of normal life to a town that was on the verge of destruction just a year ago. The town also received some planning

The St. Vrain watershed under more normal conditions during our visit.

The St. Vrain watershed under more normal conditions during our visit.

assistance from the American Planning Association through the pro bono visit of an APA Community Planning Assistance Team earlier this year. One thing that is very clear is that the town’s leadership is very gracious about acknowledging the extent of such outside help. Without it, Lyons would most likely never have mustered the resources to stage its comeback.

During the flood, water overtopped this bridge in the Confluence neighborhood.

During the flood, water overtopped this bridge in the Confluence neighborhood.








Lyons: The Numbers

  • Normal stream flow: 120 to 200 cubic feet per second (cfs)
  • Stream flow at height of flood: 30,000 cfs
  • Streams involved: North and South St. Vrain Creek, which meet to form confluence in Lyons
  • Size of gash cut through center of town by flood waters: 400 feet
  • Deaths: 1
  • People evacuated: ~2,000
  • Population of Lyons: 2,035
  • Homes damaged: 211
  • Homes substantially damaged: 84
  • Trees lost in flood: ~10,000

Jim Schwab

Views of damage in Lyons’s Confluence neighborhood, so called because it is near where the North and South St. Vrain Creeks merge:












Here lie the remains of a mobile home caught in the swirling waters of the deluge.

Here lie the remains of a mobile home caught in the swirling waters of the deluge.

A Dose of Good Judgment

It is easy enough to be cynical about government, especially about its response in a crisis. Millions of Americans express such cynicism on a regular basis, if not daily. It takes a bit more fortitude to look honestly at some of the daunting challenges government must face in events like Hurricane Sandy and to conclude that some things actually get done well, and to conclude that leadership is sometimes successful. It takes a certain depth of judgment to conclude that some of that successful leadership can emerge from moments of governmental self-criticism, examining in some depth what works well and what does not, then drawing conclusions about what steps would solve the problems uncovered.

I have just spent the last two weeks pouring over the entire 200-page length of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy, produced by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force since last winter and released on August 19. I would like to have blogged on this topic earlier, but I prefer on this site to be a bit more thorough in my reviews and not simply rush to judgment. I did use some material from the report in an August 20 presentation to the Chicago Metro Section of the American Planning Association, and have been seeking to wrap up work on the initial draft of our planned Planning Advisory Service Report on post-disaster recovery planning. But I wanted to be deliberate in reading the full report with its numerous recommendations, and I had plenty of distractions in the days following its release.

That said, on the Recovery News blog on the APA site, we did at least move to post quickly the link to the document without an extensive review. We thought it import ant to alert those readers to the document’s existence and provide easy access to a download. But here I want to comment a bit more on the underlying approach.

What impresses me most about the Rebuilding Strategy is the attempt to confront honestly the many dilemmas government faces in expediting recovery in the face of such a massive event. Although not at the level of Hurricane Katrina, the numbers are still staggering:

  • 200,000 small business closures due to damage or power outage
  • 72 direct fatalities caused by the storm, and 87 others indirectly connected to the storm
  • $1 billion in gas line repairs in New Jersey
  • Eight flooded tunnels, with average commute time doubled
  • Six hospitals closed by the storm
  • 650,000 homes damaged or destroyed

The litany of statistics could go on, but they are primarily associated with the fact that Sandy was the most urban-oriented natural disaster in a long time, perhaps ever, striking one of the most densely populated areas of the United States—New York and New Jersey. That, in turn, posed unique problems not always associated with hurricanes and floods, namely, that there was far less available land to which people in affected areas could be relocated because most of it was already highly developed. Amid all this, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was sending its new National Disaster Recovery Framework to the region on its maiden voyage, where it could work out all the kinks in a marvelous but still somewhat vague design for managing federal recovery assistance in a region containing one huge city, New York, with more planning and administrative resources than any other municipality in the nation, and a host of small townships and villages across Long Island and the New Jersey coast, many of which have only the most limited governmental capacity and require significant help from the state and federal government to begin to sort things out. This is not a recovery management challenge for the faint of heart.

The task force was the creation of President Obama, who appointed U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan as its chair, with a long list of other federal agencies involved. Part of its task was not only to oversee the entire redevelopment process among the many agencies involved, notably including FEMA, but to develop from the experience recommendations for improvements in future federal efforts of this type. That is the focus of my essay here because that is the focus of the report.

There are numerous recommendations, but I find very few with which I would take serious issue. The task force seems, in my view, to have undertaken a very common sense assessment of the most significant issues connected with recovery, and made sober, sensible recommendations in the vast majority of cases. The first group, which may cause heartburn among climate change deniers but undeniably looks to the future with a keen eye, concerns the need to incorporate sea level rise into future risk assessments. This is a necessity, and the report calls for the development and use of appropriate tools to make such assessments, including NOAA’s rollout earlier this year of a new sea level rise tool. It seems foolhardy to continue to build along vulnerable coastlines in ways that fail to anticipate higher storm surge associated with such climate change impacts. Fiscal conservatism would seem to suggest a more cautious approach, even in the face of the never-ending desire to build on the beach. Yes, I know, such development can be immediately lucrative for some local tax coffers and the associated developers, but there must at some point be some public interest asserted for not imposing upon taxpayers the obligation to bail out such development when the next superstorm threatens. It is important that we rebuild our coastal communities in a more resilient fashion. The report includes, as a matter of fact, some additional recommendations for establishing national infrastructure resilience guidelines. The Sandy supplemental expenditure authorized by Congress totaled more than $60 billion. It is important that we spend such vast sums of money wisely when we rebuild.

It is not possible here to detail all the recommendations made. It is the intent to facilitate connecting readers to the report itself for such detail. But I do want to state that the report covers far more than I have just suggested, including measures for effective and timely data sharing between the states and federal agencies, opportunities for enhancing green infrastructure as part of the recovery, green building standards, and a host of good management suggestions for rebuilding affordable housing and assisting in small business recovery, among other subjects treated at some length. It is not necessary for everyone to read the report in the same depth that I did, but I suggest at least glancing through it to get some knowledgeable impression of its breadth and depth and logic. There are a few things here and there that puzzle me, including a definition of hazard mitigation that seems considerably more limited than the one in use by FEMA. I have asked for an explanation of that but not heard back yet. But by and large, I do think it demonstrates that such a task force can take an honest measure of such a large crisis and actually produce ideas that fit the challenge and may very well move the nation forward in its ability to handle such crises in the future. That is no small achievement.


Jim Schwab