Building a Culture of Preparedness at the Annual Natural Hazards Workshop

“We don’t need to sacrifice the quality of our scholarship to have an impact, to make a change.” That quote, from University of Maryland Assistant Professor of Planning, Dr. Marccus Hendricks, sums up the take-home message from this year’s Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop: change isn’t easy, but it’s possible, and it’s up to us as researchers to help make it happen.

The Hazards Workshop is an annual convening, hosted by the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, of emergency management, disaster recovery, and hazard planning experts from around the world. The gathering provides an opportunity for knowledge exchange and networking between academics, practitioners, students, and government officials to help facilitate the development of new, innovative collaborations and make possible the sort of change Dr. Hendricks was getting at.

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Colorado’s front-range region was an excellent conference location because of the beautiful scenery and the opportunities to learn about the innovative local recovery work being done following the devastating 2013 floods.

This summer, in its 44th year, the theme of the workshop was convergence. Convergence may just sound like a new buzzword for interdisciplinarity, but, as keynote speaker Marcia McNutt of the National Academy of Sciences described, convergence is much more. It’s about people joining forces to respond to pressing and enduring social problems. It’s about researchers going beyond the confines of academia to work, not just IN, but WITH, the communities affected by those problems. Just as the problems convergence aims to solve are among the most enduring and complex society faces, the process of convergence is about building enduring, complex relationships across disciplines, communities, and time.

In line with the workshop’s theme, one of the ongoing discussions throughout the week was the idea of building a culture of preparedness in how society plans for and responds to disasters. That conversation kicked off in the first morning’s plenary, where David Maurstad, the Chief Executive of the National Flood Insurance Program discussed the recent FEMA strategic plan update. In its new plan, FEMA seeks to “change the paradigm” in terms of how the nation responds to disasters. The overarching goals of the update include readying the nation for catastrophic disasters and reducing the complexity of FEMA’s bureaucracy. The underlying objective, though, is to emphasize mitigation over response and recovery. Within that objective are a series of actions: close the insurance gap (FEMA aims to double the proportion of the population covered by 2022), help build individual resilience and preparedness, better learn as an organization from past disasters, and incentivize mitigation investments to reduce risk.

Dr. Gavin Smith, a professor of Landscape Architecture at North Carolina State, stepped up to offer a slight critique of Maurstad’s framing. What we need, according to Smith, is not a change in paradigm, but rather a new way of using the tools we already have. Smith pointed to society’s reliance on subsidized flood insurance and post-disaster aid. “Unless we fundamentally change these programs,” Smith argued, “we’re never going to build a culture of preparedness.” Rather, we need improved accountability within the programs that exist and better integration of land use planning tools into emergency management, climate adaptation, and hazard mitigation efforts.

The next panelist, Atyia Martin of All Aces, Inc. offered a more people-focused perspective on the issue. Dr. Martin, an adjunct professor at Northeastern, Boston’s first Climate Resilience Officer, and founder of All Aces, a social consulting enterprise, aimed to “connect the dots between resilience and racial equity.” Her work, as she described, is about centering disaster recovery and hazard planning not on places or buildings, but on people, specifically those that already “suffer most in day to day life.” Martin encouraged attendees to expand their notion of resilience from having the capacity to cope with the way the world is, to having the “power to transform or shift the world to be closer to what it should be.”

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The final plenary session focused on equitable disaster recovery. Equity was an underlying theme in every conversation throughout the conference.

The final panelist was Larry Siegler, Director of Food Safety at Waffle House. Any hesitation that Siegler may have been out of place on the panel was quickly dispelled when he began discussing Waffle House’s ground-breaking, people-oriented approach to disaster recovery. Siegler discussed how Waffle House flew 200 employees to the Carolinas in response to Hurricane Florence. To keep their stores open –  in turn, providing affected communities with air conditioning, electrical outlets, and a warm meal and their staff with a regular paycheck – Waffle House had their regular local staff serving food alongside Vice Presidents from the corporate office. According to Siegler, “from a business point of view, it’s not a good choice… but from a people point of view, it’s the only choice.” It was an inspiring model for companies seeking to put their money with their mouths are when it comes to corporate responsibility in the face of a disaster.

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An all Colorado-based panel discussed the unique local challenges to water management and what resilience means in a multi-hazard environment.

An important discussion that emerged out of this conversation of building a culture of preparedness was the issue of alignment, both between different sectors and different levels of government. Roger Pulwarty, a senior scientist at NOAA summed it up best: “[Change] comes from all levels, but it’s about how you align those levels.” Alignment, he argued, is central to developing agility and adaptability in all planning efforts. David Bennetts of Denver’s Urban Drainage and Flood Control District reiterated that point, discussing how they’ve “evolved” their approach in response to the rapid growth of the Denver metropolitan area. Central to that evolution has been a concerted effort to align their water management efforts with other local planning efforts and develop new partnerships within the city, stretching the district’s traditional role as a regulator.

Later, California State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson and Mayor Jill Techel from the City of Napa discussed how they aligned their responsibilities and resources as elected officials with the existing emergency management framework when responding to the devastating 2017 wildfire season. In a discussion about gender-based vulnerabilities to disasters, Shaila Shahid of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development encouraged her audience to consider how to align disaster management with ongoing international development and gender-equity efforts. And later, Andrew Rumbach of the University of Colorado Denver, led a discussion on how to align land use and hazard mitigation planning. He presented the Planning for Hazards project, an online portal that provides land use planning tools and technical guidance for Colorado communities. Speaking with two local planners who were involved in the project, Rumbach spoke of the necessarily symbiotic relationship between the state and local governments in hazard mitigation.

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Karen Berchtold, Senior Planner of the City of Manitou Springs in Colorado, discusses her city’s implementation of the Planning for Hazards tool.

The final theme that saturated every conversation throughout the conference was the question of how to build effective, lasting community collaborations. Dr. Marccus Hendricks framed the issue as moving away from the traditional idea of “capacity building” and, instead, thinking about “community capacity EXCHANGE.” Backed up by a team from Texas A&M presenting their innovative Texas Target Communities program, Dr. Hendricks encouraged the audience to think about the communities in which they work not just as “under-resourced” but also “overstudied,” discussing the long, harmful history of extractive social science research that has occurred in some communities. Dr. John Cooper of A&M, presenting with leaders of the Houston environmental justice movement, provided five tips for building the sort of collaborations the Texas Target Communities program is known for: 1) allow the grassroots groups to identify the problem, 2) co-public/co-present research, 3) engage in GENUINE relationship building, 4) provide expert resources in times of need, and 5) unapologetically and explicitly name environmental injustices in research. 

In their own way, every panelist encouraged the audience to think about how to make their own research more actionable, relevant, and community-oriented. At the same time, everyone in the workshop recognized the barriers to doing that sort of work, starting with an academic culture that prioritizes peer-reviewed literature over community-based work in the tenure-review process. But, if one learned anything from the workshop this year, it’s that convergence may be the best way to begin breaking down such barriers to, as Dr. Hendricks implored, make a real change.

About the Author: Leah Campbell is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of City and Regional Planning, where she focuses on integrating equity and resilience into climate adaptation to address urban flooding. Prior to UNC, she worked in the environmental nonprofit sector in California advocating for progressive water quality and coastal resilience policies. She holds a B.S. in Geophysics and Environmental Science from Yale University.

Featured Image: The campus of CU Boulder, the host of the annual workshop, made an excellent spot for an evening barbeque for all attendees on the second night of the event.