Flood of Events in Just Two Weeks

Life can produce very sudden turns of events. The turmoil and destruction dished out by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma may have been predictable in the abstract, that is, events that could occur at some point someday, but that means little when the day arrives that a hurricane is bearing down on your shores.

More than three months ago, I retired from the American Planning Association to move into a combination of activities I had tailored to my own skills and interests, which I have previously announced and discussed. Over the summer, I began setting the stage for introducing these new enterprises, but my wife and I also took time for a long-awaited excursion to Norway to celebrate this new phase of our lives. I began to share that story in August with blogs about our journey.

Meanwhile, I began work on the creation of Jim Schwab Consulting LLC, my solo planning practice. Just two weeks ago, with the help of a web designer, Luke Renn, I unveiled a business website that is a companion to this one. You can find it at the link above. But when we began to construct the site in mid-August, I had no idea what would ensue. By the time we had completed the new website, Harvey was making landfall on the Texas coast and dumping unimaginable amounts of rain in the Houston metropolitan area, and then on Port Arthur and Beaumont, Texas.

As Harvey was losing steam and moving inland, Irma, initially a Category 5 hurricane, devastated the small island of Barbuda, the smaller part of the tiny Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda. Officials estimate that 95 percent of the island’s buildings were damaged or destroyed, and residents have been evacuated to the larger island of Antigua, partly in advance of an anticipated second attack by Hurricane Jose, following in Irma’s wake, that mercifully did not come to pass. That would have been bad enough, but the storm also badly rocked St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, sideswiped Puerto Rico and the northern coast of Cuba, and finally passed through the Florida Keys, demolishing much of the community there, and sped up the western coast of Florida through places like Naples and Tampa. Irma was so huge that its waves and winds also buffeted numerous coastal communities in eastern Florida, no doubt shaking many people in Miami Beach to their core.

I will soon complete the tour of Norway on this blog, but it seemed more important to offer some insights, in some small way, into what is happening and will be needed in the recovery in Texas. Irma has been too large an event for me yet to absorb its totality and even begin to understand how I can possibly enhance what people know from the daily news barrage that has accompanied it. I am sure emergency management personnel at all levels are already weary but patriotically staffing their posts.

Planners like me must prepare for the much longer endurance test known as long-term recovery planning. While it is far too easy to say what, if any, role I may be asked to play in this drama, there have been conversations. Recovery, unlike emergency response, will take months to unfold. I will do my best to share what I learn. It is important because long-term recovery provides the opportunity to hash out major questions of the future and the resilience of the surviving communities. It has always been possible to learn from experience and to improve so that we lose fewer lives, suffer fewer losses, and rebound more quickly in future disasters. But possible is not certain. It is up to all of us to decide that we will rebuild with a resilient future in mind.

Jim Schwab

Map of Irma as of 9/12/17 from NOAA website.

Hurricane Harvey Interview on CBC

For those who have been reading the posts I have recently done since Hurricane Harvey made landfall, I thought it might be of interest to see this video clip of an interview I did with Canadian Broadcasting Corp. two days ago: https://youtu.be/UFslrKPd04s 

Jim Schwab

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

Initial Observations on Harvey

Map from National Weather Service. http://www.weather.gov/akq/Harvey

For the people of the Texas Gulf Coast, the rain and winds of Hurricane Harvey are just the beginning of a long journey. The storm will last a few days. The recovery will last years.

Destruction in the Bolivar Peninsula after Hurricane Ike in 2008

I am not there, so I can only surmise, based on the news coverage I have seen, the full extent of the damage and suffering that people are enduring in Corpus Christi, Houston, Galveston, and hundreds of other communities in a wide arc that has fallen under the impact of this storm. I do not even expect that people there will read this, certainly not right now. Nonetheless, it may be worthwhile to offer some insights to people elsewhere. I have never lived or worked in Texas, but I have been there numerous times and visited Louisiana more often than I can remember. I saw first-hand the devastation wrought in the Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston after Hurricane Ike. I have worked with people in Texas, including those at the Texas A&M Hazards Reduction and Recovery Center, over many years. They have educated me greatly on the vulnerabilities of their state.

With all due humility, therefore, but also with experience from other disasters over the past quarter-century, I offer some observations that may enhance what readers of this blog may learn from the news.

Photo from NOAA. The NOAA/NASA Suomi NPP satellite captured this infrared image of Hurricane Harvey just prior to making landfall along the Texas coast on August 25, 2017 at 18:55 UTC. NOAA’s National Hurricane Center has clocked Harvey’s maximum sustained winds at 110 miles per hour with higher gusts. Infrared images like this one can help meteorologists identify the areas of the greatest intensity within large storm systems, such as the areas with the most intense convection, known as overshooting cloud tops (dark orange), surrounding the eye and along the outer bands. https://www.nnvl.noaa.gov/MediaDetail2.php?MediaID=2086&MediaTypeID=1

First, this is apparently a somewhat unusual storm system. It approached the coast just northeast of Corpus Christi as a Category 4 hurricane, although it is now downgraded to a tropical storm. That does not make it less dangerous. The Saffir-Simpson scale that is used to rate hurricane strength deals only with wind speeds. Winds are certainly important, especially when they reach the 130 mile-per-hour range that was the peak for this event. Winds have, from all the visual evidence on the various news outlets I have watched, wreaked tremendous havoc along the coast, tearing apart buildings and overturning trailers and other vehicles. Moreover, hurricanes often spawn tornadoes, and some of the intermittent damage—that is, buildings ripped apart near others largely intact—suggests that this has occurred. In other words, if the more diffuse hurricane winds don’t get you, the tornado just might. It is no laughing matter. It is a wonder the death toll remains relatively low, although we almost surely don’t know the full tally just yet.

One specific impact that always accompanies coastal storms of this magnitude is storm surge, the waters pushed landward by the winds that in this case ranged from six  to twelve feet. These can do considerable damage in low-lying areas along the coast and may also exacerbate coastal erosion.

What makes the storm somewhat unusual also makes it dangerous even after being downgraded to a tropical storm. The storm system appears to have stalled a bit on Sunday and may even be backing out into the gulf for another landfall. At least two very serious consequences can flow from this. One is that the stagnant storm front will dump immense amounts of rain over consecutive days. The projected precipitation totals, even larger than what has fallen so far, mount up, so that projections for many communities range as high as 50 inches. Keep in mind that 30 inches is ample rainfall for an entire year in many parts of the country, and almost no city in the United States is prepared to absorb even half that amount in just a few days. The average yearly rainfall in Houston is just shy of 50 inches.

Moreover, as the storm moves back out over the Gulf of Mexico, it may regain strength that storms typically lose as they make landfall. Tropical storms draw their strength from the warmth of the water over which they pass until they make landfall, after which wind speeds begin to die down. The water of the Gulf right now is in the mid- to high 80s Fahrenheit, reportedly a full two to three degrees above average. That is the source of the strength of Harvey. Regaining any strength from the warm Gulf waters is not a good omen for the Texas coast, and as the storm moves slowly northeast, more of this will affect Houston than was originally the case. That is why we are seeing such intense scenes of flooding in Houston: The storm began with enormous amounts of moisture and has moved along the coast at a snail’s pace, at times just a mile an hour. As the week progresses, however, the storm is projected to move northeast over Louisiana and Arkansas, weakening along the way.

Of course, those warm waters raise questions about the influence of global warming, a topic that does not always receive a warm reception in Texas political circles. It is impossible to say that a specific storm like Harvey would not have happened but for climate change. It is also possible to say very credibly that warmer waters make stronger storms possible. Warmer waters can reflect seasonal and yearly variations, but over time they can also reflect climatic trends. For now, let’s leave it at that. People will have plenty of time later to debate this topic. In due course, as recovery proceeds, it should become a topic of reasonable, informed public discourse.

Other factors are at work as well. The sheer extent of flooding reflects the inexorable fact that the ground in any area has limited capacity to absorb rain. The hydrological cycle allows much rain under normal circumstances to drain into the ground, depending on the types of soil present in any given location. Sand absorbs very well but does not provide a very solid building foundation. Clay provides a better foundation but does not absorb water as quickly. Soil types matter, therefore, but in urban areas we have complicated matters greatly with large quantities of impervious surface that absorb little or no water by design. Impervious surface includes buildings (with the limited exception of green roofs), paved surfaces like roads, parking lots, and driveways, and other structural impediments to the movement and absorption of water. Houston is a very large metropolitan area with the fourth-largest population among major cities in the U.S. Although it is making strides, it is also far from the greenest city in America. Like most major cities, the percentage of impervious surface varies widely, depending on density levels in specific neighborhoods and corridors. Flooding is also influenced by the quality of the drainage systems; Houston is challenged in this respect by low-lying, flat terrain. It is criss-crossed with numerous bayous and canals that provide paths for the movement of water but also have serious limits to the water they can absorb before spilling over onto streets and highways. Those water-filled streets are the main obstacle to evacuation for those who stayed behind. There comes a point where people are better off remaining in place than trying to move, which is why Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner chose not to recommend evacuation.

Some dangers of mass evacuation for 6.5 million people are self-evident: clogged highways that are rapidly filling with water, producing death traps for people in stranded vehicles. Pedestrians cannot see steep drop-offs in elevation as they wade through high waters and can trip and drown. In Houston, the bayous may also contain alligators, water moccasins, and other wildlife hazards that are more easily avoided in dry weather. Moreover, the sheer volume of water can produce eddies and swirls that catch people off guard, and not everyone will be strong enough to regain their footing. Finally, flood water is always dirty water, sometimes just plain filthy, posing a potentially serious threat to public health.

All that said, many other major cities suffer from similar problems. I can think of no city that is prepared for the sheer volume of water currently falling along the Texas coast.

The Texas Gulf Coast communities, therefore, will emerge from this storm with a widespread pattern of both wind- and flood-related damage that will vary significantly from one area to the next, but collectively the costs will probably skyrocket into tens of billions of dollars. It is impossible to know the full costs just yet, but this will almost surely rank as one of the most expensive disasters in U.S. history. The recovery will take years of planning and implementation. If done well, it will involve a great deal of reassessment of patterns of development along the Gulf Coast and of the quality and importance of building codes. Social equity considerations will demand a new examination of the location and quality of low-income housing and the adequacy of affordable housing. Development regulations have seldom been politically popular in Texas, a state that still has never empowered counties to enact zoning codes. Some coastal communities may also wish to look more closely at the prospect of undergrounding utility lines to protect them from hurricane winds.

Events can push public attitudes in new directions. Part of that may depend on new lines of thought gaining traction in the discussion of rebuilding after the disaster. That may require some degree of courageous political leadership. Some very significant changes occurred in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, including consolidation of levee district management, adoption of a statewide building code, and a charter amendment in New Orleans that gave a new master plan more control over development regulations. We should not make perverse assumptions about outcomes, just as we also should not be naïve about the obstacles. But in my time at the helm of the Hazards Planning Center of the American Planning Association, we certainly worked hard to create a thorough blueprint for those willing to advocate better planning in response to major and catastrophic disasters, and I assume APA remains prepared to further that discussion and provide technical assistance where it can.

There will also be plenty of help available from the federal government, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other agencies. We can only hope that Congress will sidestep much of its partisan bickering to ensure rapid allocation of the necessary resources. And we can hope that those resources and personnel are managed well to advance the recovery process, which is complicated and daunting.

One encouraging factor in the response has been the emergence of both willing volunteers and the effective use of social media to expedite search and rescue operations. The number of boats driven by volunteers rescuing people from rooftops and the interiors of flooded homes reminded me of the so-called Cajun Navy that operated throughout New Orleans in the desperate days that followed Hurricane Katrina. Disasters have a fortunate tendency in most cases to bring out the best in people, but we are also at a point in history where our new technologies facilitate the ability of willing heroes to find the people who most need help. Even the elderly and disabled are largely capable of dialing 911, or tweeting, or posting photos of their situation on Facebook, sharing their location, and pleading for help—and then finding their guardian angel at the front door with a motor boat. That is a huge advance from only a decade ago because it enables the willing volunteers to become effective heroes. If those civic and humanitarian instincts carry over into the slower grind of recovery, perhaps a stronger, more resilient Gulf Coast can yet rise from the mud, the grime, and the shattered buildings we see now.

Jim Schwab

Engaging Preparedness for Drought

NASA-generated groundwater drought map from the NIDIS website (https://www.drought.gov).

NASA-generated groundwater drought map from the NIDIS website (https://www.drought.gov).

Drought has historically been the disaster that fails to focus our attention on its consequences until it is too late to take effective action. While other disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and most floods have a quick onset that signals trouble, and a clear end point that signals that it is time to recover and rebuild, drought has been that slow-onset event that sneaks up on whole regions and grinds on for months and years, leaving people exhausted, frustrated, and feeling powerless. Our species and life itself depend on water for survival.

Over time, our nation has responded to most types of disasters both with an overall framework for response, centered on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and with resources for specific types of disasters with operations like the National Hurricane Center. It took longer for drought to win the attention of Congress, but in 2006, Congress passed the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) Act, creating an interagency entity with that name, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NIDIS was reauthorized in 2014. Its headquarters are in Boulder, Colorado.

For the last five years, I have been involved in various ways with NIDIS and the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC), an academic institute affiliated with the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. To date, the major byproduct of that collaboration has been the publication by the American Planning Association (APA) of a Planning Advisory Service (PAS) Report, Planning and Drought, released in early 2014. Both NIDIS and NDMC have helped make that report widely available among professionals and public officials engaged in preparing communities for drought. The need to engage community planners in this enterprise has been clear. Much of the Midwest was affected by drought in 2012, at the very time we were researching the report. Texas suffered from prolonged drought within the last few years, and California has yet to fully recover from a multi-year drought that drained many of its reservoirs. And while drought may seem less dangerous than violent weather or seismic disturbances, the fact is that, in the last five years alone, four drought episodes each exceeding $1 billion in damages have collectively caused nearly $50 billion in adverse economic consequences. The need to craft effective water conservation measures and to account adequately for water consumption needs in reviewing proposed development has become obvious. We need to create communities that are more resilient in the face of drought conditions.

A subgroup of the NIDIS EPC Working Group discusses ongoing and future efforts during the Lincoln meeting.

Part of the NIDIS EPC Working Group discusses ongoing and future efforts during the Lincoln meeting.

Over the past decade, NIDIS has elaborated its mission in a number of directions including this need to engage communities in preparing for drought. It was this mission that brought me to Lincoln at the end of April for the NIDIS Engaging Preparedness Communities (EPC) Working Group. This group works to bring together the advice and expertise of numerous organizations involved in drought, including not only APA, NOAA, and NDMC, but state agencies like the Colorado Water Conservation Board, tribal organizations such as the Indigenous Waters Network, and academic experts in fields like agriculture and climatology. Over ten years since the creation of NIDIS, this and other working groups have made considerable strides toward better understanding the impact of drought on communities and regions and increasing public access to information and predictions about drought in order to give them a better basis for decision making in confronting the problem. NIDIS has conducted a number of training webinars, established online portals for databases and case studies, and otherwise tried to demystify what causes drought and how states and communities can deal with it. Our job for two days in Lincoln was simply to push the ball farther uphill and to help coordinate outreach and resources, especially for communication, to make the whole program more effective over the next few years.

Much of that progress is captured in the NIDIS Progress Report, issued in January of this year. More importantly, this progress and the need to build further national capabilities to address drought resilience, captured the attention of the White House. On March 21, the White House issued a Presidential Memorandum signed by President Obama, which institutionalized the National Drought Resilience Partnership, which issued an accompanying Federal Action Plan for long-term drought resilience. This plan enhances the existing muscle of NIDIS by laying out a series of six national drought resilience goals: 1) data collection and integration; 2) communicating drought risk to critical infrastructure; 3) drought planning and capacity building; 4) coordination of federal drought activity; 5) market-based approaches for infrastructure and efficiency; and 6) innovative water use, efficiency, and technology.

Drought clearly is a complex topic in both scientific and community planning terms, one that requires the kind of coordination this plan describes in order to alleviate the economic burden on affected states and regions. With the growing impacts of climate change in coming decades, this issue can only become more challenging. We have a long way to go, and many small communities lack the analytical and technical capacities they will need. Federal and state disaster policy should be all about building capacity and channeling help where it is needed most. The institutional willingness of the federal government to at least acknowledge this need and organize to address it is certainly encouraging.

 

Jim Schwab

 

Armed and Dangerous on Campus

 

Frederick Steiner; photo provided by University of Texas

Frederick Steiner; photo provided by University of Texas

Many of us, in making major life decisions, experience both a pull from one direction and a push from another. We may feel conflicted, or we may feel that circumstances have combined to make the decision easy. I don’t know how much Frederick Steiner, the dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas, felt pulled or pushed, but he is leaving Austin for his alma mater, a school that awarded him three degrees, the University of Pennsylvania. Steiner, known to friends as “Fritz,” certainly has reason to feel good about returning to his home state after many years elsewhere. As part of full disclosure for this article, I will state also that I have known him for more than a quarter-century as a fellow planning professional for whom I have high respect, and regard him as a friend. Steiner will take his new position as dean of the School of Design in Philadelphia as of July 1. His statement of resignation drew considerable attention from the press.

I also know that political events in Texas have conspired to drive him into the arms of his alma mater. Fritz does not like the new law in Texas, passed last year, which as of August 1 will allow individuals to carry a concealed firearm on a state university campus, including inside buildings, with some exceptions. He has said so in announcing his resignation, but I also interviewed him by telephone yesterday in order to gain more insight into his perspective on the matter.

The very first fact that Fritz pointed out to me was that the new law takes effect on the 50th anniversary of the Whitman tower shootings at the Austin campus. On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, a former Marine who, it turned out, was suffering from a brain tumor, climbed the University of Texas tower with a toolbox full of weapons and began shooting innocent victims with a rifle, killing 16 and injuring 30. Ultimately, police officers stormed the tower and ended up killing Whitman in order to stop the shooting. That irony makes one wonder if the Texas legislature and governor are truly oblivious to such perverse symbolism or just did not care. Fritz pointed out that the university’s police department opposed the new law and remains opposed.

In any event, it is important to know that Steiner is not really an anti-gun activist; he feels guns have a place, but it is not just any place and that place is certainly not a public university. “I grew up around guns used for hunting,” he told me. “I was a Boy Scout. In summer camp, we had a live shooting range. That experience taught me to respect guns and know they had an appropriate place. Safety was not to be taken lightly. But I respect people who hunt.”

What Steiner wanted to make clear in his resignation, however, was that “a college campus has no place for guns except for first responders and law enforcement.” His explanation is worth considering. He oversees a program in which students work on architecture and planning studio projects. Their hard work can be stressful, and some projects do not succeed. Critiquing such projects can be tense and emotional for students and faculty alike, Steiner notes, adding that “defending your dissertation or taking an exam can be stressful. The prospect of someone carrying a weapon in such situations is troubling. Do faculty members censor themselves if they know someone has a weapon?”

Such implicit infringement on the First Amendment rights of faculty and staff to speak freely to each other raises a larger set of questions in his mind. Gun advocates, he says, “ignore the part of the Second Amendment about a well-regulated militia,” which ought to indicate that the right to bear arms is not without limitations. In fact, says Steiner, it is wrong to read any part of the Bill of Rights in isolation from all the other rights embodied therein because they all affect each other. “In the Ninth Amendment, you can’t use any amendment to disparage the rights of others,” he notes. “The Tenth Amendment, which planners know well, makes clear that states can legislate for the public health, safety, and welfare.” In short, there is an intended balance among all these rights that “makes it more puzzling why we are implementing this notion of allowing concealed carry on campus.” I would add similar observations, for example, with regard to the First Amendment. Despite its clear language about not impeding freedom of religion, that freedom has never been interpreted as so limitless as to authorize polygamy, nor has the freedom of speech been interpreted to allow one, in the classic example from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, to “shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” Every right is bounded by concerns about the greater well-being of the public. So why should we entertain an absolutist interpretation as applied to the Second Amendment?

I want to make clear that Fritz Steiner’s concern about the concealed carry law is not unique within the academic community in Texas. UT Chancellor Bill McRaven, a former Navy SEAL involved in the operation that took out Osama Bin Laden, opposed the new law in a letter to the Texas legislature early last year, stating that the contemplated approach would do nothing to make college campuses in Texas safer, and in fact makes matters worse. McRaven is clearly neither unfamiliar with guns nor opposed to their responsible use. But he is concerned about the safety of his students. Moreover, faculty and student assemblies have expressed their own concerns. Steiner notes that the architecture faculty voted unanimously to express concern about the new law (although one person who was absent might have dissented). What makes it all more curious is that the law allows private universities to exempt themselves from its application, “even though they receive public subsidies.” Steiner questioned why, if this is such a good idea, it would apply only to state university campuses.

In the end, however, he wants to be honest about his own motivations. Both push and pull are at work here, and he found the prospect of returning to Pennsylvania “extremely attractive.” And, over the past two decades, state funding of public universities in the affluent state of Texas has declined from 50 percent to just 13 percent of their overall budgets while “lots of unfunded mandates” have taken effect. On balance, he ultimately decided it was time to go home.

 

Blogger’s note: Those following “Home of the Brave” have surely noticed that I am finally writing again after a hiatus of nearly three weeks. I suffer from the same limitations as other human beings, which include getting sick. The last week of January brought on a case of acute bronchitis, which took its own toll on my energy level, but I got prescriptions and began to mend, only to succumb to a gastrointestinal virus the following week that kept me at bay for several days. It stands to reason that I got well behind on the work associated with managing the APA Hazards Planning Center, where, among other things, I was busy hiring a new member of our research staff. By the time I recovered, I was on my way to Charleston, South Carolina, where I presented a new project at the NOAA Social Coast Forum. That following weekend, I mustered my last blog post before this, but I have spent most of my spare time since then catching up on the work associated with the Center’s expanding portfolio. This blog is a sideline venture for me, and it suffered from my exhaustion since mid-February. It should fare much better in coming weeks.

All that said, upon my return from Charleston, I received wonderful news that bucked my spirits after such prolonged illness. I was informed that I had been elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a development also noted on the home page of this website. FAICP status is a high honor in the planning profession, in fact a recognition of lifetime achievement, as explained in more detail by a notice on the University of Iowa’s School of Urban and Regional Planning (SURP) website. SURP has bragging rights because I am both an alumnus of their program and adjunct faculty. The induction ceremony is April 3 in Phoenix, where I will join 60 others in this year’s biennial class. I want to make clear that FAICP status bestows not only honor but obligation—to continue to help serve and advance the profession, something I already feel I am doing by teaching in Iowa City and by discussing public planning issues on this blog. I intend to sustain that obligation.

 

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

The High Cost of Indifference

As a young man from a blue-collar family, I partially worked my way through college during the summers at a chemical company near Cleveland that employed my father as a truck mechanic. If there is one thing I learned at the time, it was the value of safety and industrial hygiene. The first summer I was there, we college students were rotated through various departments to fill in for men on vacation. One produced cuprous chloride, where I learned that not keeping a gas mask on would quickly make you dead. Others produced chemicals that produced itches and rashes if you were not careful, and in one I fractured my left ankle when an antimony kiln tipped over. I could go on, but the point is simple: Safety matters.

That theme, however, does not yet seem to be official gospel in Texas. I don’t want to issue a blanket indictment here, because I know some state officials probably want things to be different, but they don’t seem to hold the reins of power. Those who do hold those reins prefer a state that boldly advertises its lack of regulations. They see them as impediments to attracting business. The fact that enlightened businesses have often supported environmental, safety, and public health reforms seems not to affect their point of view.

I am offering this perspective now because the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office in the past week released a long-awaited Firefighter Fatality Investigation, which it was legally required to produce, and issued a number of recommendations for improvements that could save lives in the future. The study was the result of the explosion in a fertilizer storage facility in West, Texas, on April 17, 2013.

Earlier this spring, I was asked to serve on an expert panel on planning and land use for the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), a federal agency created in 1999 to investigate chemical and hazards materials accidents. It was one of two panels organized for a hearing in West, Texas, on April 22, a little more than one year after the incident in which a fertilizer storage facility exploded, killing 15 people, two-thirds of them fire fighters. The explosive material was ammonium nitrate, which has a history of such accidents and was also the material used by Timothy McVeigh in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The CSB is still working on a report documenting its findings about the incident in West, and I do not wish to comment on or explore the issues that require more technical and scientific investigation to determine precisely what happened.

But there are issues about which I learned that I find troubling on the surface, even without the help of that ongoing investigation. For one, Texas law prohibits counties of fewer than 250,000 residents, unless they are adjacent to a county of 250,000 or more, from adopting a fire code. This is somewhat in line with the fact that Texas also has never bestowed zoning authority on its counties, rendering them powerless to influence land use outside incorporated municipalities (which have their own authority). This was one subject of inquiry by the board at the evening hearing, which lasted four hours, but even the state fire marshal, sitting just to my left on the same panel, could offer no explanation for the origins or rationale of that prohibition. He merely indicated at one point that obviously, as a fire marshal, he would rather not see such restrictions. Nonetheless, over the past year since the explosion, and despite ongoing investigation of such issues by the Dallas Morning-News, there is no sign of movement from Gov. Rick Perry’s office on changing the law. There are indications from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who apparently prefers a different approach. Good for him. And for St. Rep. Joe Pickett of El Paso, who chairs the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety, who also favors reexamining such issues.

The issue is not simply the usual question of unfunded (or even funded) state mandates. I have followed state planning legislation for years, and about half require local communities to prepare comprehensive plans (also known as master or general plans), to one degree or another, sometimes distinguishing on the basis of community size or some other factor. About ten of those, in one form or another, require communities to include in those plans an element addressing natural or other hazards. The rest of the states have permissive legislation, which grants local governments the authority to undertake planning and zoning without requiring it. It is easy enough to understand why some states are more reluctant than others to impose such a mandate, and similar distinctions between mandating and permitting apply to issues like building and fire codes. What is hard to justify, however, unless one believes in libertarianism run amok, is actually prohibiting such regulation at the local level or denying such authority. In fact, only Texas, to my knowledge, has in place the prohibitions I have described. And I simply do not understand why a state sees it in the public interest to bar counties, in this instance, from adopting safety codes with regard to fire prevention. Whose interests are served by this?

It turns out that McLennan County, where West is located, and whose county seat is Waco, does not have a fire code. Moreover, the fire fighters who died had not been trained in the handling of ammonium nitrate, a substance with a notorious history of unpredictable behavior. The hearing included discussion of the need for more and better research on that point, and for better understanding of this chemical’s behavior, in order to prevent future incidents like the explosion in West. All of that is wise and appropriate.

But there are things the state of Texas can fix now, if only it moved beyond its regulatory myopia to see the larger public safety issues that transcend the simplistic notion that regulation necessarily inhibits job creation. That is a dubious premise in any event, but it also begs the question of what price must be paid to create jobs when brave men like the volunteer fire fighters who responded to the blaze in West must pay the ultimate price just to satisfy such ideological predilections. And what jobs remain at West Fertilizer now? The event is a major setback to economic development in a small town like West, and it will take time to heal.

The Fire Marshal’s report includes some recommendations and conclusions that I find perfectly sensible. It notes, for one thing, that Texas has not adopted minimum training standards for volunteer fire departments. That alone would not be a bad place to start, along with the need for local fire codes. The report states, “The Texas Legislature should consider allowing all counties to adopt a fire code.” The report also notes the lack of a local plan to address hazardous materials, noting that standard procedure for residential or even most industrial incidents is inadequate for dealing with a facility like West Fertilizer.

Let me close by adding that West, judging from my admittedly brief visit, is a pleasant town that deserves better. I learned from a building sign next to the hearing site that West was the hometown of Scott Podsednik, an All-Star member of the 2005 Chicago White Sox team that won the World Series. It has an interesting Czech heritage that caused several people to urge me to visit the Czech Stop, a bakery just off northbound I-35 that sells what I now consider the best kolaches anywhere, as well as a very nice, engaging staff. And it has a mayor, Tommy Muska, who is banging on doors in Austin for answers to some of these urgent questions. I hope he and his town find some. At least then, the destruction of dozens of nearby homes, schools, and a nursing home will not have been in vain.

 

Jim Schwab