Life after Tornadoes

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

The remains of a home destroyed by the tornado.

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

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

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

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

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

Debris from the April 29 tornadoes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Schwab

The Next Generation of Disaster Recovery Guidance

It is always an honor to be able to lead an effort that advances the state of practice with regard to a subject as critical to the nation, and the world, as planning for post-disaster recovery. As readers will have noted from this blog and website, for the last four years or so I was in that position as both the manager of the APA Hazards Planning Center and project manager for Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation, a project that has included the production of an APA Planning Advisory Service Report (No. 576) of the same name. We wish to acknowledge the support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency through an agreement with APA, which made the project possible. I personally wish to thank the members of the project team who contributed to the report and the project overall, who are noted in the acknowledgments page of the report. Particularly, these include my co-authors: Laurie A. Johnson, Kenneth C. Topping, Allison Boyd, and J. Barry Hokanson.

The report came off the press at the end of last year, and became available online last week on the APA website. With it have come some other resources we were able to create:

  • A model pre-event recovery ordinance to help communities guide the recovery process
  • A new resource list of federal programs for assistance with local disaster recovery needs
  • Still to come, a series of briefing papers on subtopics of disaster recovery (stay tuned)

The purpose of this posting is simply to link interested readers to these resources, which include a free PDF download of the 200-page report, which we believe will set the standard in coming years for best practices in the arena of preparing communities beforehand for potential disasters and for planning afterwards for effective recovery. Please use the link above to access all of these resources.


Jim Schwab

Trees in the Disaster Recovery Equation

For the last two or three years, if not longer, I have been engaged in an ongoing discussion with people from the U.S. Forest Service and the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) about the role of trees in post-disaster recovery. Phillip Rodbell, an urban and community forestry program manager with the Forest Service’s Northeast office in Philadelphia, has been particularly diligent in pursuing the question of how we can better protect trees in urban areas from storms and other major disasters as well as how to reduce the loss of trees in the process of removing debris after disasters. Too often, in the absence of qualified arborists or other forestry professionals, the existing incentives for debris removal cause more, rather than fewer, trees to be cut down and hauled away than is truly necessary. The question is how to change that.

The fact that some trees, sometimes many trees, do in fact get blown down in storms, crushing cars and occasionally people, snapping utility lines, and blocking roads, fosters the false perception in some minds that trees are inevitably hazards in themselves. In fact, inadequate maintenance of the urban forest, including inadequate attention to those trees that really do pose hazards, creates problems that can be prevented with better municipal tree pruning cycles and pre-planning for more appropriate vegetative debris removal after big storms. However, local resources, including professional expertise, can be overwhelmed in a more catastrophic disaster such as a severe tornado or hurricane. The sheer number of trees blown down by Hurricane Katrina, for instance, was staggering, well into the millions.

Phil and I ultimately decided that, if the Forest Service could provide a modicum of money to help sponsor what we decided to call a scoping session, and if ISA and the American Planning Association (APA) could contribute more modestly to support the project, we could perhaps bring together a team of subject matter experts, representatives of relevant local, state, and federal agencies, and people from interested nonprofit associations, and we could foster a meaningful discussion of how to address this problem. In the process, we might help save federal, state, and local governments millions of dollars annually in avoidable debris removal costs.

This spring, we succeeded in bringing that package together and initiating a contract between the Forest Service and APA. The result was a two-day discussion held June 16-17 in APA’s Washington, D.C., offices, involving more than two dozen people, mostly in-person, but with a handful joining by conference call from remote locations in New York and Mississippi. A summary of that discussion, and the issues it addressed, is now available on the APA website, along with a bibliography of resources on the topic, and a series of briefing papers prepared by the invited experts. I invite my readers to check it out. To learn more, click here.


Jim Schwab

Close Enough to Get Your Attention


This was a day that got me thinking about how we react to disasters. I’ve certainly had the opportunity to work on other people’s disasters, not so much in the direct sense of being involved daily for months on end, but at least in supplying training on recovery, advice on plans, and the other types of bits and pieces of aid that a researcher or consultant is often able to provide. And I’ve studied other people’s disasters in great detail in order to distill the selective wisdom that finds its way into reports and articles and presentations that share the knowledge thus accrued. But there is always some sense of distance, even when one knows personally some people who live and work in the communities affected, or who were directly affected themselves.


I cannot say that what happened in northern Illinois today brought things all the way home to an intense personal experience with disaster. Not even close. The worst that happened to me is that I will fly to Washington, D.C., tomorrow after United Airlines canceled my flight this afternoon at the height of the storm. But there was the threat for a while. High winds and drenching rain dominated the skies outside, but I was always safely inside—except for the brief moment when I went outside to induce my wife and one daughter and her four-year-old son to come inside after they parked on the street in the rain. Our neurotic Springer Spaniel ran out after me when our grandson failed to hold on to him, then jumped inside the car onto the front seat to accompany my wife to the garage. He has panics in storms that make him do things like that, things that seem counterintuitive considering that he is afraid of storms. Inside the house, he shakes in fear and nestles alongside you for reassurance. Dogs are as strange and as irrational at times as people, which may be why they bond with us so well.


But for two hours—roughly the period during which the Bears/Ravens game was suspended on Chicago’s Channel 2 (CBS) because of the storm—I found myself watching the storm watch to get the latest. There was a tornado spotted in Wilmington, headed northeast at 55 miles per hour, and estimated times were posted for when it would possibly arrive in Chicago and Evanston if it continued its track. It never did. But later it was reported that there may have been as many as 10 tornadoes, though some sightings may have been multiple touchdowns of the same tornado. I still don’t know six or seven hours later how many there really were. I suppose I will find out in tomorrow morning’s newspaper, or some other way. But by 8 a.m., I shall be headed to O’Hare International Airport to catch the flight I did not catch today. In the midst of the commotion, my cell phone rang, and United told me in its automated way that my flight had been canceled. I called back to rebook to find the robot voice asking if I was calling about my Monday flight. That made me wonder whether they had automatically rebooked me, so I checked my e-mail. I had been checking the flight status online, repeatedly finding that everything was on time—until it no longer was. Now United e-mailed me to say that I was on a flight for 11:05 a.m., replacing my 4:05 p.m. today. I hung up and decided to leave well enough alone. I e-mailed two people from the Georgetown Climate Center in Washington, D.C., to indicate that I would not arrive on time for the Monday workshop to which I had been invited. The workshop was to explore the leveraging of federal post-disaster money to support climate change initiatives. Here we were, being attacked in the Chicago metropolitan area by tornadoes in November. Irony? Perhaps. At any rate, I indicated, “there is no arguing with Mother Nature.” I would not be at the workshop bright and early Monday morning, but would arrive in mid-afternoon, participating only at the tail end. There was nothing I could do about it.


But as the day wore on, I realized that those horrific scenes of devastation I had associated with more faraway places like Greensburg, Kansas, and Joplin, Missouri, were now just a drive down the highway in towns like Pekin, Washington, Frankfort, and Coal City, all somewhere in northern Illinois, some relatively close to Chicago. That no tornado, so far as I know, found its way into Chicago itself seems now more dumb luck than anything else. The storm path could easily have brought them here.


Still, it is close but not really at my doorstep. I see it on television, the houses burst into splinters, the trucks overturned, cars mangled, and whole neighborhoods denuded of tree cover. But outside my door, what I see is merely a very wet lawn. Maybe there are lots of loose tree branches I can no longer see in the dark. But if I want to assess storm damage personally, I will have to drive down the road about an hour or so. Not far away but far enough. And I won’t be able to do that, if I decide it is the least bit helpful anyway, until I get back from my trip to Washington, foreshortened from three days to two. In the meantime, the emergency managers, whose job is much more immediate in such circumstances than that of planners addressing long-term recovery, will be out there doing what they are trained to do. They will find bodies, if there are any, get medical aid for the injured, get the streets cleared, and assess the damages, with the help of building officials.


Still, I expect that we will have a lot to ponder in this region. Some people may be ennobled by the experience in ways they never expected. Three years ago, I read the excellent book by Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, about the ways in which neighbors often rise to the occasion to build camaraderie where it is least expected. And just this past week, while traveling to St. Louis, to speak at the Sustainable Disaster Recovery Conference sponsored by St. Louis University, I was reading a book by Rabbi Niles Goldstein, God at the Edge, in which he makes the argument that we tend to find the divine presence in moments of crisis, not when sitting on a mountaintop under blue skies. It would be nice if that happened for the towns I mentioned above. They will need all the help they can get, even when it comes from people who never knew before that they had the qualities of leadership. It has happened before. Just ask the folks in Greensburg or Joplin. I had the chance to do exactly that during the conference in St. Louis. And I am sure they are busy right now praying for people in various towns in Illinois. After all, they already know what comes next in restoring life to a blown-out town.

Jim Schwab