Jim Schwab, FAICP — Hazards Mitigation & Disaster Recovery Planner
My Career in Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery
- Read His Story
- What Is Hazards Planning?
- Skills Needed
- Career Surprises
- Trends in Hazards Planning
- Career Advice
- Education, Influences, and Tools
I have just retired from my position as the Manager of the Hazards Planning Center, a position I held since 2008. However, I have been involved in disaster-related issues since 1993, when I took charge of a new APA project for FEMA that resulted in the 1998 PAS Report, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction. From 1990 to 2008, I was senior research associate for APA.
It is interesting to me that I am now known primarily as an expert in hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. My original focus was environmental planning, and although I made land use and environment my concentration in the master's program at the University of Iowa in the early 1980s, the truth is that I cannot recall ever hearing the words "floodplain," "hazard," or "disaster" in a classroom in my entire graduate school training. It just was not part of the graduate planning curriculum at the time. Like most planners of my generation, I had to learn about these issues on the job.
As it happens, I earned two MAs simultaneously at Iowa, the other in Journalism. I did this because, first, I felt that I already had a high aptitude for writing and wanted to hone my skills, but second, because I felt effective communication was essential to a successful planning career.
Nothing in the last 32 years has changed that perspective, but much has reinforced it. I am glad I did what I did because it set the stage for much of what I have been able to accomplish in my career.
I began at APA in a position that allowed me to deploy those hybrid skills: I was hired as assistant editor of Planning magazine, with secondary responsibilities for copy editing Zoning News and the now defunct Land Use Law & Zoning Digest. I wrote feature articles, the "back of the book" short pieces for Planning, and other assignments. In time, however, I wanted to undertake direct planning.
The then-deputy director of APA offered to move me into the Research Department to forestall my leaving to work elsewhere. I undertook some environmental planning projects, and in due course Bill Klein, who had become the research director, offered me the opportunity to manage the FEMA post-disaster recovery planning project. That introduced me to the complex, fascinating relationship of urban planning and natural hazards. Nothing has been the same since then.
I should note that, in the meantime, I had also published two nonfiction books on rural and environmental issues, released in 1988 and 1994. These provided outstanding training in conceiving, designing, and executing major publishing projects that have had consequences throughout my career since then, even though it has been years since I had the chance to spend enough free time to repeat those accomplishments.
The desire to do more in that vein was a major impetus for my retirement on May 31. I had serious ideas for new undertakings of that nature but no idea how I could possibly do it while still managing the Hazards Planning Center.
Publication of the post-disaster report was a watershed for me. I managed it, and wrote most of it, but there were five other contributors whose perspectives enriched the report and fired my own enthusiasm for the subject matter. After it was released, it became a cornerstone of the growing subfield of hazards planning, which was itself growing in response to events that made clear the growing cost of natural disasters to the nation and the world. That led to a series of other projects and eventually to the creation of the Hazards Planning Center.
To be honest, there were repeated opportunities to move on from employment with APA, but the constant lure of new and challenging opportunities to develop this emerging subfield served as the magnet to keep me where I was.
Along the way, teaching opportunities emerged to supplement my APA career and soak up what little free time I thought I had. In the spring semesters of 2007 and 2009, I co-taught a course on hazards planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Since 2008, I have been teaching a similar course for the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa. I expect that to continue.
In time, we identified three priority areas for the Hazards Planning Center: hazard mitigation, disaster recovery, and climate change adaptation. We have done major work on the first two; right now HPC is deeply involved in NOAA-funded projects attempting to integrate climate into planning. I felt that I had brought the Center a long, long way from its beginnings, and it was a good time to move on.
What's involved in hazard mitigation planning, disaster recovery, environmental planning?
Hazard mitigation, in the minds of some, involves producing a local hazard mitigation plan for FEMA under the Disaster Mitigation Act, a means of securing eligibility for federal mitigation grants. We have always tried to stress that it is much more wholistic and comprehensive than that.
It is all the actions planned and undertaken by communities to reduce their risk and reduce the propensities for losses of life and property due to both natural and man-made hazards. As a result, the LHMP, a statutory innovation that passed Congress in 2000, is only one step.
Far more important is a complete view of the opportunities and challenges for the community through integrating hazard reduction priorities in all aspects of the local planning process, including the comprehensive plan, other plan making, plan implementation, and capital improvements planning. They all matter, and they all should be linked in a comprehensive approach to the problem.
This also means planners need to be familiar with the process of hazard identification, risk assessment, and the implementation of risk reduction opportunities. Ideally, they will also see how those opportunities mesh with opportunities to address other community goals such as environmental protection, quality of life, open space, even economic development.
Disaster recovery involves rebuilding after an event has already occurred that has disrupted the life of the community. With natural disasters, this can include floods, storms, seismic events, and wildfires, among other possibilities, but human-caused disasters also occur — industrial accidents and explosions, transportation accidents, and, of course, criminal and terrorist acts.
The demands of recovery depend on the level of physical destruction, loss of life, economic disruption, etc. Because the planner's job is to help shape options for the community and to help shape consensus around those options, it has become increasingly important to see that there is a role ahead of disasters for communities to do pre-planning for disaster recovery to identify policy options and organize recovery operations so as to expedite the process when the day comes that nature or some other event strikes and necessitates a recovery plan.
Planners should not wait for doomsday to think about these issues.
That includes, by the way, taking account of the probable impacts of climate change as a normal part of the planning process. There is a great deal more valuable scientific information in this respect now than there was even a decade ago.
Environmental planning takes in a much broader swath of activity that does not depend on the existence of many of the hazards that are the focus of emergency management or hazards planning, per se. In its broadest essence, it is really about the quality of the human relationships with nature and the interaction of the built environment with the natural environment, including the preservation of nature in areas where the built environment has not yet intruded significantly. I say "significantly" because these days it can easily be argued that the impacts of climate change are effectively universal, leaving few if any aspects of the natural world untouched, but there are still many that are unbuilt.
On a less theoretical and more workaday level, these issues can include wetland and habitat preservation, brownfield redevelopment, green infrastructure, and many other areas of environmental concern that intersect with land use planning. It is important to understand the relationships between these issues and the prosperity and quality of life that people seek from good planning.
What basic skills are important to develop and which do you recommend that might be overlooked?
I have already mentioned my own emphasis on communication skills. I cannot overemphasize the value of good communication skills because our jobs as planners involves both learning from others and sharing the best information we can acquire that affects the plans we are developing and the people they are meant to benefit.
It is critical also to realize that personality plays a part in the success of such communication, which cannot be overbearing. We have to recognize that we are public servants and adopt a customer service attitude that governs how we relate to the people in the communities for which we are working, no matter whether that is in a public service, consulting, or other capacity.
How has your degree in journalism been helpful in your career?
The most obvious and dominant factor has simply been in providing top-notch communication skills that allow me to write well and get the message out. But the flip side is understanding how journalists think and how they produce news. That has allowed me to be an effective messenger for APA and the profession by knowing how to explain planning issues to reporters in plain English.
Particularly with regard to hazards, some of those issues can be complex and highly technical. In those instances such skills become even more important — knowing how to digest the public policy essence from reams of data and explain what really matters. This skill is also important even in writing for other planners, who may not share your specialty but need to understand what matters.
What has been the best surprise in your career?
The recognition associated with my involvement in hazards planning. The whole nation discovered the significance and depth of the relationship of planning and hazards during and after Hurricane Katrina. Nothing has been the same since then.
The other surprise was the degree of opportunity for travel that my work has afforded, including invitations for international work and speaking in places like the Dominican Republic, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Venice, Italy. It has been quite an adventure, and I have learned a great deal in the process.
What changes / influences do you see and how you think they will impact planning?
The biggest single factor affecting my career has been the dramatic growth of interest among planners in addressing disaster-related and climate-related issues.
At the 2015 Natural Hazards Workshop, in the opening plenary I presented graphically the growth in attendance at related National Planning Conference sessions, in planning school courses, and other data showing this increase. The attendance rose about 4,000 percent between a dearth of interest in 1995 and a tidal wave of interest at the 2015 Seattle NPC.
I don't see this slackening at all in the future. With a rising new generation of planners who have often had academic training in these subjects, I think it is likely to be, and should be, a permanent feature of the planning profession for the rest of the century.
Included in this interest is a growing level of attention to issues of sustainability and resilience, which, by the way, are not synonymous. We dealt with the relationship between them in the last chapter of PAS 576, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation. The two concepts can be complementary, but planners should try to understand the distinction.
How has your perception of planning changed since you first entered the field? What has this taught you and what advice can you share?
I have noticed a growing level of attention to issues of public engagement, which is essential to gain buy-in, understanding, and avoid the backlash that sometimes overwhelms initiatives around social equity, climate change, environmental protection, and other issues that drive the social conscience of the planning community. These issues often are not simple and require patient dialogue. It is also important to understand that the public dialogue can also inform the planning initiatives and make them more productive and sustainable.
What do you recommend a new planner do to gain experience?
Don't look for easy jobs. Look for challenges. Look to work at least a little bit outside your comfort zone to see what works and how you can expand your skill set. Most importantly, experiment with new opportunities until you find your passion.
Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?
Gosh. I feel so blessed with the way things have turned out that I am reluctant to peel back the onion. I am sure there are things I could have done much better, many of them in fact, but the important thing I would stress is that it is far more valuable to learn from mistakes and up your game than to spend time on regrets, which is less productive.
There was a quote in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 that stuck with me from college days. An old man is advising Montag in his new role as saboteur of the fire department, helping Montag become a rebel within a book-burning society. At one point he says:
"Listen. Easy now," said the old man gently. "I know, I know. You're afraid of making mistakes. Don't be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people's faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you'll never learn. Now, pick up your feet, into the firehouse with you! We're twins, we're not alone any more, we're not separated out in different parlours, with no contact between. If you need help when Beatty pries at you, I'll be sitting right here in your eardrum making notes!"
Now, to be honest, when I think about what I could have done differently, my thoughts go back beyond my planning career. I think about what led up to it.
I don't discuss this much because it's not all that interesting, but right after college I enrolled in night law school. I did this while maintaining a day job. I came in with great LSAT scores, but it turned into a mediocre experience because I never found a passion for law. It was interesting, to be sure, and I appreciate what I learned, but I think I did it simply because it seemed like the thing to do for a Political Science graduate, which ultimately is not much of a motivation.
After a short string of business jobs in Cleveland, I moved to Iowa, where I finally discovered planning as an option, but I've always wondered, why didn't I figure this out sooner?
But even Moses had to wander in the wilderness for a few years before finding the promised land, so who am I to complain?
What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of?
There are three PAS Reports that I think really laid the foundation for hazards planning within the overall profession of urban planning:
I was extra proud of the fact that, in that project, we took an approach beyond just producing a PAS Report and created a legacy of online resources that I hope will be maintained. Without denigrating the value of any of the other publications, I think those three really planted the flag.
Getting APA involved as a Digital Coast partner with NOAA, and eventually establishing a successful funding relationship with NOAA that is supporting our current climate-related projects, was another powerful milestone that I think has paid ongoing dividends.
Finally, I believe the very creation of the Hazards Planning Center has served, at least for the foreseeable future, to memorialize and institutionalize APA's commitment to these issues. It says APA understands that these basic life and safety issues are fundamental to good planning and sustainable communities.
My BA is in Political Science and came from Cleveland State University in 1973. It laid an essential foundation for understanding our political system, but at the time my grasp of urban planning as a profession was marginal. I returned to graduate school in 1982 and proceeded to earn two MAs, in Journalism and Urban and Regional Planning, finishing in 1985.
First Planning Job
Right here at APA. Curiously, I was in Omaha when I applied because my wife was from Nebraska, and we got married right after I finished my course work at Iowa, but the job market out there at the time was pretty shaky. I expanded my geographic range and quickly found opportunity in Chicago instead, so we moved.
Here I'd like to pay tribute to two people at the University of Iowa when I entered planning school. One was Michael Sheehan, now a lawyer in Oregon, who had a remarkable response when I told him one day, before applying, about my disappointing interview in the political science department at Iowa about the PhD program, in which I was told that my practical experience in politics, for example, lobbying in Des Moines, was of little value compared to studies of lobbying. Knowing my activist history in Iowa, he encouraged me to apply to the planning master's program, and said, "We love people like you!" He was emphasizing the practical side, and he needed to say no more.
The other person was John Fuller, still a professor teaching transportation in the Iowa planning school. He saw my application and scores and whatever else and immediately hired me as a graduate research assistant. More importantly, he has stayed in touch for 35 years, always encouraging, and was instrumental in 2008 in persuading Chuck Connerly, then the incoming director of the planning school, to hire me as an adjunct lecturer to teach a course on disaster planning. This was in the wake of the 2008 floods out there, and his timing in making this move was exquisite.
More Influential People
I'd like to take time here to credit the influence and, in many cases, friendship of people who were at work in the hazards field early and helped shape my perceptions of what was important.
These include Ken Topping, now retired in California, who helped with all three of the major reports I cited above; Laurie Johnson, also in California, who played a huge role in the later PAS Report on disaster recovery; Lincoln Walther and Michele Steinberg, who both relentlessly focused my attention on wildfire issues; Cecelia Rosenberg, Terry Baker, and Kathy Smith, among others at FEMA, who worked patiently with APA to help shape an APA-FEMA partnership over the years; and in more recent years, the whole Digital Coast staff at NOAA, which has played a major part in connecting APA with other partners and NOAA itself.
Finally, also in recent years, I'd like to credit Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, and his staff for helping forge an increasingly productive and valuable alliance between our two organizations that has led repeatedly to successful grant proposals.
At this point, I feel a little guilty at cutting this off, but the next step would be literally to empty my digital Rolodex and go on for pages. I know that is not feasible, but there are tons of other people I value as contributors to my career.