Thursday, August 31, 2017

No Teddy Bears for Houston!

Sinclair's WBFF was very proud of its "Standing Strong for Texas" action and the assistance WBFF provided in getting two large trucks to drive piles and piles of donations from an area fire house to Texas; The TV station showed clothes, wheelchairs, bottled water and teddy bears filling several fire-house bays being stacked on pallets, sealed and loaded on tractor trailers. The anchor celebrated the logistics company, the fire volunteers and the folks providing the donations as symbols of what is right with humanity.

The problem: Emergency experts warn that these goods and the trucks which carry them are not only useless in the current situation near the Gulf coast, they can easily make things worse. There is no road space for the trucks to travel, no space to unload, no space to store the goods and no capacity to sort them or get them to victims. Not today and probably not for at least a week.

It is a laudable American instinct to be positive and come together in the face of adversity. Thus President Bush told the world that FEMA did a "heck of a job"  in the aftermath of Katrina  and the current office holder gushes about first responders and the resilience of Texans in general. A very understandable reflex. Indeed, there wouldn't be much wrong with this tendency of congratulating each other about what fine fellows we all really are, if it wasn't also a method of systematically smothering the larger truth which is much less benign: On almost all levels of government we are not only unprepared to deal with calamity but like lemmings we continue to rush along a path that makes disaster almost inevitable. The more colossal the failure of responsible agencies to truly face the possibility of catastrophic events and the failure of the American public in general of snapping out of a collective attitude of "it won't happen here", the higher the desire to avert our gaze from facing reality. This attitude sets in time and again, even after major catastrophes that have proven that calamity is not only possible but certain in some locations.
This is not to say that officials in Texas didn't act swiftly or prudently or that first responders didn't work selflessly and heroically day and night in spite of high risks for their own lives. The comment about the larger truth isn't about the disaster itself and the acts of human solidarity it triggers (except for those teddy bears) but about our societal failure of assessing risk in a rational manner and drawing consistent, long-term and sustainable consequences. For example preparing for the much more likely and devastating floods instead of the much less likely terrorist attacks. The country needs a smartly resilient Gulf Coast much more than a giant wall along the Rio Grande.

It is part of a healthy human instinct and part of self preserving human psychology to forget the bad stuff and focus on the good.
To respond urgently to an outsize risk before it has morphed into real-life threat is what’s odd. It requires hurdling over the dismaying normalcies of human psychology. (CityLab)
But it isn't part of good leadership to do so. It isn't good leadership to deny science and keep telling people that risks of extreme weather aren't increasing. It isn't good leadership to deny that as a people we don't have a supreme responsibility for treating nature with respect and prudence instead of relying entirely on technology or higher powers as the salvation. For the most part, technology has been disabled by hurricane Harvey. Technology alone won't rescue us from torrential rains, floods, earthquakes, forest fires and droughts. "We cannot pump our way to safety" writes Pulitzer Prize winner Jed Horne in a memorable piece in the Lens; just as we can't build our way out of congestion with more roadways.
A hundred years ago, when the New Orleans pumping system was considered an engineering marvel, it was the Dutch who came to us in search of guidance. Their version of Katrina was the horrific 1953 inundation that made water management a national purpose of existential urgency. They turned disaster into a much more trenchant learning experience than we have. (Jed Horne)
It isn't good leadership to use the buzzwords of resilience and sustainability and then resort to simply building back what failed in the last disaster.  But that is precisely what has been done after previous Houston floods, that is, in spite of many words to the contrary, what largely has been done in New Orleans after Katrina, along the Jersey Shore after Sandy and it is what happens after each large forest-fire out West. One of the few exceptions to this pattern seems to be the California earthquake code that has made the entire state really more prepared.

To bring this closer to home, in spite of all the resolutions to the contrary, re-build is the prevailing pattern for Ellicott City after last year's devastating flood. It is what we have done in Baltimore after the uprising in 2015, a catastrophe of another kind. It is what the nation has done after the last financial crisis, yet another calamity that was predictable and can still repeat again.

We frequently quote the insight that stupidity is to do the same over and over again and expect a different outcome, yet our actions are exactly that. The closer we are, the more we agree with recreating the status quo ante. Who seriously suggested to not rebuild Ellicott City? But will the County be willing to also do the hard part, de-paving the watershed, starting with their own government center?
“There are some people who had said maybe we shouldn’t rebuild. I don’t agree with that. I think this is such an important part of Howard County that we needed to rebuild, and we needed to help,” Kittleman
The CityLab article points to Holland as an example how a major catastrophe can very well trigger lasting and systemic change when it comes to flooding. Talking about the Dutch (or the Norwegians, the Swedes or the Fins), we can also pick renewable energy, transportation, health-care or land-development and see in each of those examples an entire people having embarked on a set of actions that point in the right direction. In each of those examples, these countries will be better off in a few years because they can reap the benefit of having turned around. By contrast, the US remains on an irresponsible and non sustainable course of practice in energy, transportation, health care and land development, with the new administration in Washington taking back whatever turn-around there may have been. We call this freedom and denounce the other path a socialism; those words won't help when disaster strikes.
Harvey's damage

As kids we all heard the fairy tales where someone gets ten wishes and winds up squandering them all. Parents and grandparent read us bedtime stories which taught us to consider long-term consequences instead of short-term satisfaction. Being one of the most church going nations in the world, many of us hear every Sunday about religious ethics in which the common good ranks higher than the individual interest and in which a higher force punishes those who are on the wrong path. In spite of all that, the "exceptional" US is most exceptional in the extent to which we act contrary to the morale and ethics we never cease to talk about.

Baltimore is in no way safe from hurricanes, floods or tropical downpours. Rising sea-levels will affect large parts of Maryland including this city even if 50" of rain are unlikely to hit here in the foreseeable future. The Atlantic is not (yet) as warm as the Gulf and the jet-stream is stronger here than in Texas. Unlike Houston we have zoning and Maryland has a few smart growth policies which protect  natural wetlands a bit better than regulation adverse Texas. Our governor doesn't outright deny climate change. But still, frequently we go one or two steps forward and then at least one back again. Our governor called an attempt to fund stormwater management a "rain tax" and converted transportation funds intended for transit towards more pavement. Maryland abandoned the term smart growth and has continued to sprawl, build preferably along the water's edge, regardless of who was on top in Annapolis. Really, even in "blue Maryland" we continue to live as if there weren't any consequences.

Sending teddy bears to Houston will not save us or them, just as teddy bears on lamp posts won't stem the murder flood in our city. It is time for a brutally honest reality check.  

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

CityLab: The Disasters we refuse to imagine
Bloomberg: Harvey Wasn’t Just Bad Weather. It Was Bad City Planning

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