A Placemaking Journal

A Hurricane Response Lesson: Disrupt the cycle of futility

Those of us who spent extended time in coastal Mississippi and Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 are watching the weather and reading the news with a serious case of Groundhog Day. It’s rescue-recriminate-rebuild-repeat. Over and over again.

I’m writing this as longer range impacts of Hurricane Harvey in Texas are just beginning to sink in and as another monster hurricane, Irma, has blown out of the Atlantic, into the Caribbean and is headed toward South Florida. We’re going to be grappling with competing narratives about disaster response and resilience for a while. Two suggestions:

First, those of us engaged in community and regional planning should keep in mind the core caution in last week’s post by my PlaceMakers partner, Hazel Borys:

No amount of comprehensive planning or zoning reform can prepare a city for the sort of flood Houston is currently experiencing. An expected 50” of rain in a few days makes this an event that no place in the world is likely to sustain without massive personal and economic impacts.

That goes for what Irma has in store for people and property in its path, as well.

Obviously, better understanding of regional vulnerabilities and stronger commitments to mitigation strategies should be goals for planning in general. But in most places, zoning codes, comp plans and other policy tools flunk less dramatic stress tests than a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. We’d be blind to our own disappointments if we judged others against higher standards. Everybody has work to do.

My other suggestion: Let’s pick our battles. Beginning with recognizing the unhelpful aspects of the Groundhog experience and focusing on when and how to insert response strategies — including planning strategies — that show greater promise of making things at least a little better for those in the path of disaster.

Photo credit: Business Insider.

Photo credit: Business Insider.

The Rinse Cycle

Over the last few days, a lot of the news coming out of the Texas storm zone represents the second stage in the rinse-repeat cycle of disaster response: a celebration of the indomitable spirit of those who call the place home. My favorite example so far is this post from the “Bitter Southerner.” The headline is all you need: “Woe is Houston? Ah, Hell No.”

Going all in for hope, hope invested in the triumph of the individual and in the brotherhood of man, is understandable, growing as it does out of the horror of stage one, when those on the ground and those of us watching from a distance are assaulted by the reality of the disaster. What can possibly rescue these people and these places from what just happened and from the future we fear for them? Hey, maybe plain folks like us, neighbors and about-to-be heroes who travel hundreds of miles with kayaks and bass boats to save people they don’t know from the flood waters. This is Texas, America, humankind at its best, no?

In disaster recovery time, that sense of relief lasts about two minutes. That’s because building beneath the stage two celebration of everyday heroes is the stage three inevitability of hero fatigue. The first responders, the ad hoc volunteers as well as the pros, are soon overwhelmed by the scale of demands — the logistics of organizing and managing shelter, transportation, food, medical care and clean-up. Exhaustion sets in. Fear of chaos looms. Images of neighbors helping neighbors are replaced by weary property owners sitting on porches with shotguns in their laps. It’s everybody for themselves.

Where’s the cavalry? 

Don’t we pay our taxes so we’re protected from times like these?

Let’s duck the temptation of bludgeoning ourselves with the irony, blaming a government a lot of us don’t trust for failing to demonstrate our mistrust is misplaced. Consider instead the enormity of what’s required. Because of the time lapse between recognizing the scale of desperation and the cobbling together of aid delivery at that scale, stage three unfolds on a battleground. Communities at odds with regional and state government agencies. State governments fighting the feds. Property owners battling with insurance companies and with government at all levels. Everyone’s desperate for help.

The entities with the most resources are the government agencies headquartered in the nation’s capital. Some have missions to deal with precisely these kinds of emergencies. And they are managed by people just as determined as those in the storm zone to come to the rescue. But they’re also brutally disciplined by the fear of being judged irresponsible when it comes to prudently managing their resources. They are paralyzed, at least temporarily, by accountability. Which requires lots of conference calls, org charts, layers of oversight and documentation of every conversation and every process.

While all that amounts to a barrier to relief, it’s also a requirement of the environment in which agencies operate. The standards for prudent management of tax payer money depend pretty much on the whims of those who control agency budgets and who have the power to interrogate agency heads on television. That would be Congress. And I don’t think I’m being overly cynical in suggesting that even in the best of times — this not being one — members of Congress tend not to be good at timely collaboration, but spectacularly good at exposing missteps by people who aren’t them. As folks who keep their jobs by pissing off as few voters as possible, they’re also good at reading a room. And as the room expands from the storm zone to a broader geography of concern, then to general outrage, members find a way to take credit for putting aside provincialism and partisanship to send the help that counts most — money.

The window for change

The time it takes to align those stars is the most depressing period for those living in the rubble of a storm’s aftermath. For months after Katrina, we empathized with complaints like this from Gulf Coast communities: “For us, the storm never left. And nobody’s paying attention.”

What we came to understand is that this window, this low point of hope, might also be the best opportunity for consensus on a get-something-done agenda, for committing to strategies to avoid reenacting the social and economic misery of the present in the future.

In a rich country like ours, where even the slowest of slow-creeping bureaucracies can tap into the treasury (or national borrowing power) when enough pressure is applied, the purse strings eventually loosen. Billions flow. That’s stage 4. And when that phase begins, other things slow, stop and even go in reverse. When so many dollars are forced into recovery pipelines, lots of people jostle for places in the receiving line. Their priorities? Getting everything back to the way things were. Not so important to them: the less familiar and more inconvenient strategies for fixing stuff that helped make catastrophe so catastrophic.

So it’s on to stage five, which is mostly about leveraging federal dollars for rebuilding or allowing to be built much of the infrastructure, housing and commercial structures that was there before — too often in the same places that were considered too risky before and are just as vulnerable going forward. The table is set for the next Big One, which may or may not arrive in the lifetimes of those relieved to see the new normal reconfigured to look and feel pretty much like the old normal.

Until the cycle repeats.

The right time for the right tools

It’s important to realize that we’re stuck in these do-overs not because policymakers are idiots, or because they’re evil. They’re just like we are, focused on things right in front of them and heavily discounting the risks of potential calamity in some distant time and place. Theoretically, every day we postpone preparing for the worst adds to the costs of rescuing ourselves if the worst happens. But every day, every month, every year that passes without having to face a reckoning feels like a validation of doing  little or nothing. It’s both a sorry excuse for risk management and a baked-in feature that we used to call human nature.

So how to escape the rinse cycle?

First rule, back to Hazel Bory’s caution: No nagging.

No one suffering through the aftermath of an event that rattled their sense of security is in a mood to discuss how they screwed up planning. And there’s no point trying to get the attention of anyone who can do anything about future planning when all their energies are — and should be — devoted to getting people out of danger and into safe, if temporary, environments.

When the immediate emergency recedes, leaders not burned out by the experience might be up for a talk about better planning approaches. They might even be agreeable to considering the big ideas a lot of us like — restricting building in vulnerable areas, toughening building codes, enacting zoning that encourages density for more cost-effective storm water management and less private automobile dependence. But remember the lessons of the rinse cycle.

The stage for accommodating proposals for big changes in the status quo is a temporary moment in the recovery process. It’s made possible by uncertainty and more than a little desperation. When the money comes, the future begins to look more predictable and the past more recoverable. The temptation to accommodate those who’ve suffered the most and who only want to get back to normal will win out against proposals that appear to divert money from restoring homes and neighborhoods. If innovative, long-range proposals require design and construction phases that push out the demonstration of projects’ worthiness too far in the future, they’ll likely lose out to familiar-looking plans that can be realized quickly.

The places where I saw planning and implementation success after Katrina were mostly those that took bite-sized steps. They encouraged small components of big ideas, models that could rise out of the ground fast to demonstrate their utility and appeal and then could be replicated and scaled up when funding flowed.

Too often, wholesale zoning rewrites — even those that became ordinances — failed to deliver the growth-guiding, resilience-enabling goals we hoped for. Written and passed by bare-boned government departments and citizen committees in the throes of recovery, ordinances were amended or overturned when operations got back to business as usual. Again, policy success stories, like ambitious programs and projects, were mostly about enabling transitions from old ways to new ones. Zoning tweaks that increased options, but didn’t mandate requirements, created opportunities for modeling the sort of infill development and main street mixed uses sustainability advocates prefer without intimidating those even more committed to defending the status quo after losing it in the winds and the flood waters of Katrina.

Modest steps, to be sure. But maybe the best way to begin getting the “repeat” out of the “rinse-repeat” cycle.

Be safe.

Ben Brown

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