The People Affected by Harvey

A few days ago, in my last post, I wrote that Hurricane Harvey would last a few days, but the recovery would last years. However agonizingly long Harvey appears to be taking to inflict its misery on the Texas Gulf Coast, and now parts of southern Louisiana, it will go away. And then the real marathon will begin. People will have to face the necessity of reconstruction, both as individuals and as whole communities.

In writing about this now, I am crediting readers with a longer attention span than seems to be assumed of most Americans on social media today. I truly hope, however, that the news media does not forget about Harvey or the Gulf Coast as the recovery process grinds on over coming months and years. Certainly, most residents of the Texas coast will have little choice but to bear with the process, and ideally, they will participate. Recovery needs to be as participatory as possible to succeed fully.

FEMA teams managing the distribution of water, and meals for hundreds of semi-trucks at an incident Support Base in Seguin, Texas. Photo by Dominick Del Vecchio – Aug 29, 2017 (from FEMA website) 

It will not always be a pretty picture. The news media in recent days have been full of photographic and video evidence of the best aspects of humanity—people in boats rescuing neighbors and strangers alike, public safety personnel risking personal safety as they save people from flooded homes and transport them to shelters, and other heroic acts away from cameras and too numerous to count. People from other states and nations will contribute to disaster-related charities to help people they have never known and may never meet. Politics and race and religion will all take a back seat to saving lives and reducing suffering. For just a brief moment in history, we can stop shouting at each other long enough to care for each other and be proud of one another.

Several years ago, Rebecca Solnit produced an intriguing book, A Paradise Built in Hell, that explored many of the positive community-building relationships that emerge when people are challenged by adverse circumstances such as major natural disasters. It is a journalistic journey through the informal alliances and communities created by people under what seemingly are the worst possible conditions, but which challenge our humanity and force us to consider how we value those around us. It is an optimistic book that forces readers to rethink what it means to live through a disaster. I have always hoped that it would spark similar efforts among academic researchers, particularly in the social sciences, to study this phenomenon more closely. I think that is happening to some extent, but perhaps not nearly enough.

The Texas Gulf Coast communities stricken by Harvey will need as much of that spirit as they can muster to produce successful long-term recovery. Recovery takes years because, while no one wants to delay rebuilding unnecessarily, hasty rebuilding that fails to consider the failure points that allowed destruction to occur is even more undesirable. Under considerable time pressures, which researchers Robert Olshansky and Laurie Johnson, both wonderful friends of mine, have notably referred to as the problem of “time compression” in disaster recovery, planners and local and state officials will need to meet with constituents, hear their concerns, explain both the obstacles and opportunities involved in reconstruction, and ideally, inform the public process to help lead to a better outcome. During this time, minor and modest repairs may go forward while the bigger decisions, like where to buy out damaged properties, how to rebuild infrastructure and to what new standards, and how to produce a stronger, more resilient community to handle future disasters may need to undergo vigorous debate.

I point this out because, inevitably, and despite Solnit’s rosy scenarios in the context of community building, tempers will rise and people will need to iron out significant differences and widely varying perceptions of the causes of, and solutions to, the damage that occurred. There will surely be some debate about Houston’s sprawling development patterns and relative lack of development controls. There may be debates about strengthening building or zoning codes or, in Houston, the absence of zoning. If there is any echo of Hurricane Sandy, there may be discussion of a greater role for green infrastructure in mitigating hazards, though that alone would have made only modest difference in the flooding from Harvey, but it might have helped.

More importantly, people will have undergone trauma that will make them deeply and justifiably emotional about the disruption of their lives. They will bring that trauma, and a need to vent and share their fears and anger, to public meetings. Public officials will need to exhibit patience because, as Christine Butterfield, another good friend who served as community development director in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, during and after the 2008 floods, has noted, those public gatherings will be therapeutic. People may cry, they may yell, they may accuse. Most of all, they need to know that someone else wants to hear and share their pain. They want to know that someone cares. Once most have achieved that comfort level, they may be ready to move forward and discuss options for recovery. But first, community leaders must build trust.

Some people may never trust, and the rest of the community may need to move on. Life is not perfect. Human beings are not perfect. Recovery cannot wait forever, but it must demonstrate compassion and a commitment to social equity.

In a few weeks, the entire process will begin, and people will decide what role they want to play. Leaders will arise in unexpected places. Just last week, my students at the University of Iowa School or Urban and Regional Planning, during a field trip with which I launch my course on “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery” every year, heard from United Methodist pastor Clint Twedt-Ball, a co-founder and executive director of Matthew 25, a community organization that arose from almost nothing after the 2008 floods in Cedar Rapids to help rebuild 25 blocks of downtrodden neighborhoods in the city, raising money but also making tough decisions about what would work and what would not. Nine years later, his organization is still working to make a difference. Before 2008, Clint would confess, he knew next to nothing about floods or community development. My guess is that now he could nearly write a book. Who knew?

Watch Houston, and Rockport, and Corpus Christi, and all the other cities on the Texas Gulf Coast for both surprises and struggles, and mostly for deep human engagement in solving massive redevelopment problems the likes of which most of us will never have to confront. And be ready to cheer them on when good things happen. They are likely to need the encouragement from time to time.

Jim Schwab

Exploring The State of Resilience

How do states plan for resilience? On Thursday, September 22, the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) will host a webinar on state resilience plans through the Planning Information Exchange (PIE). This is the last in a two-year series led by the American Planning Association (APA), with which ASFPM has partnered, which is likely to be extended for two more years. The webinar is free as part of a

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

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

FEMA-sponsored project by the two organizations. I highly recommend registering for and listening to it if you have an hour for the purpose and are interested in resilience, a subject I have discussed before on this blog. Like other PIE webinars, it will also be recorded and archived on the APA website.

The subject of resilience has gained credence in recent years because it deals with the ways in which communities can prepare to rebound more quickly and efficiently from setbacks including natural disasters. The federal response to Hurricane Sandy highlighted the issue, but so have several other disasters in recent years. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development subsequently offered nearly $ billion in the National Disaster Resilience Competition for states and certain disaster-stricken eligible communities. Winners have been chosen and are already using the money for their proposed projects.

The operative question is what characteristics a community can cultivate that will help it better respond to such crises. But it is not just about communities. Some states in recent years have decided to take the lead in fostering resilient communities and in providing expertise to assist the process. The webinar will feature speakers from Colorado and New York.

Colorado got resilience religion, in a manner of speaking, after the September 2013 floods that affected numerous Front Range communities following a mountain monsoon rainstorm that dumped more than a foot of rain on many places. I have previously, for instance, discussed the recovery of the small town of Lyons, just below the mountains, which suffered devastating flooding. Lyons was not alone, however; it was simply one of the most extreme examples of the flooding that occurred.

Emboldened in its approach to hazard mitigation, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) in early 2015 issued a request for proposals to find a consulting firm to develop statewide guidance customized to Colorado communities on the integration of hazard mitigation into community planning processes. Colorado deals with an interesting assortment of major hazard threats—floods, landslides, tornadoes, wildfires, and avalanches, to name the most significant. Often, these combine in a cascading series of disasters in which one problem leads to another. Things can get complicated. DOLA later published that guidance online on the agency’s website. Much of the guidance is ultimately derived from an APA Planning Advisory Service Report, Hazard Mitigation: Integrating Best Practices into Planning. Although that report did not emphasize the concept of resilience, it did lay out a rationale and method for such integration that is the focus of a good deal of current guidance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Subsequently, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper adopted the new Colorado Resiliency Framework. At the same time, he created the Colorado Resiliency and Recovery Office, which provides guidance on community resilience and maintains a website for that purpose.

New York has also been pursuing resilience issues at the state level, inspired by the impacts of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Two years ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the Community Risk and Resiliency Act, which requires the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to use science-based projections for sea level rise, consider those and storm surge in facility permitting, siting, and funding, and provide model local laws and guidance for communities in managing climate risks. The state is now also in the process of developing a New York State Flood Risk Management Standard that mirrors the federal standard promulgated by the Obama administration last year.

Parts of the nation may be gun-shy about the subject of climate change, but Colorado and New York are major parts of a bandwagon of states that have decided to confront the issue and build a more resilient future. Rhode Island in 2014 adopted the Resilient Rhode Island Act, which establishes a scientific advisory board to examine and recommend standards for the state. The new law has strong civic support and a cheering section in Resilient Rhode Island, a group supporting the new legislation.

There will be other states following the lead of these three. With Colorado on board, it is also clear that resilience is not an issue solely facing coastal states because of sea level rise. Disaster threats to communities take many forms, and climate change has consequences for inland areas as well. Wiser state legislatures will be taking a long look at how to get ahead of the problem instead of merely reacting to it.

P.S.: For those interested in learning more about disaster recovery, especially if you are in a position to act on the information, I can also suggest a Friday, September 23, two-hour Recovery Planning Webinar sponsored by APA’s Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery Planning Division, for which I will be one of the presenters. The division is organizing this special webinar to benefit planners and community officials in disaster-stricken areas such as Louisiana who may need to know more about how to rebuild resilient communities. If interested, please note the following:

REGISTRATION   This webinar is also open to non-members of APA but first a Non-Member APA Account must be obtained (no cost) at:     https://www.planning.org/myapa/account/create/ All users must pre-register at:  https://www.planning.org/events/eventsingle/9111457/  Registrants will receive an email containing a user-specific login for the Adobe Connect webinar.

This FREE webinar will take place on Friday, September 23, 2016 from 11:00-1:00 p.m. EDT (10 am CDT; 9 am MDT; 8 am PDT).

 

Jim Schwab