Remedial Reading: an August 2017 Pew Charitable Trust report on the flooding threat to U.S. Public Schools

In mid-November, the AMS and its Policy Program ran a two-day workshop on the 2017 hurricane season and its implications for U.S. hazards policy. One of the collateral benefits of any such undertaking is that participants share prior work and the rest of us get to catch up on our remedial reading. Here’s a great example: it turns out that in August 2017, Pew Charitable Trust put out a report entitled Flooding Threatens Public Schools Across the Country: Infrastructure analysis evaluates county-level flood risk.

If you’re on top of things, you’ve probably been aware of this report all along. But if you’re like me, you missed it. A quick review…

The Report’s key findings:

  • The risk of school flooding is distributed widely across the United States. The Atlantic Coast, Gulf Coast, Mississippi River corridor, and southwestern Arizona have the highest composite flood risk scores.
  • Schools in both inland and coastal counties have high composite flood risk scores. Those in coastal counties with the highest composite flood risk scores are Monroe County, Florida; Hyde County, North Carolina; Cameron Parish, Louisiana; Poquoson City, Virginia; and Tyrrell County, North Carolina. The inland counties are Alexander County, Illinois; Maricopa County, Arizona; Crittenden and Mississippi counties in Arkansas; and Tunica County, Mississippi.
  • The 100 counties with the highest composite flood risk scores include 6,444 schools that serve nearly 4 million students.
  • 2,247 schools (out of 96,659 public schools) are located in areas subject to flooding that has a 1 percent chance of being equaled or exceeded in any year. The South Atlantic region has the highest proportion of schools located in a flood zone.
  • Even when a school is not located in a flood zone, students who attend it often live within areas of flood risk. Of more than 5,000 schools, half or more of the ZIP code is located in a designated 1 percent annual chance flood zone.

And recommendations:

  • Modernize maps: Location is central to understanding and planning for flood risks. While FEMA flood maps do not portray all areas that could flood, they offer an important starting point for assessing risk and local decision-makers rely on the expertise of federal agencies for such information. FEMA must work with states and communities to ensure that they have up-to-date flood maps, and Congress should provide adequate funding for this purpose.
  • Leverage federal assistance: Federal agencies, including FEMA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Army Corps of Engineers, should continue to provide local decision-makers with the technical know-how to help them better understand flood risks for their schools.
  • Develop pre-disaster plans for schools: The federal government requires communities and states that seek federal funding to proactively develop hazard mitigation plans. These should incorporate strategies for siting, upgrading, and managing facilities to reduce future risk. In addition, requirements for flood insurance should be enforced to protect federal investments.
  • Rebuild smarter with federal dollars: When communities leverage federal funds to rebuild or repair damaged infrastructure, these investments must account for future risk. Where feasible, they should consider relocating schools out of flood-prone areas.

What a welcome bit of analysis! The report (worth a careful read in its entirety) offers insightful analysis and clear, realistic recommendations that merit the broadest exposure and adoption by the thousands of school districts across the United States.

That’s all good news. But we know from related experience that compelling analysis, by itself, is not enough. To translate insight into the needed follow-through requires additional steps, and can’t be accomplished overnight. That reality raises a follow-on question: what might be done long-term, in a sustained way, to foster uptake of the report’s recommendations, school district by school district?

A broad range of options comes to mind. You undoubtedly have your own good ideas. (Please share!) In the meantime, here’s one: buttressing of K-12 public education should help. One candidate step along those lines? Where needed, add the earth sciences to mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology as a legally-mandated element of state-level public-school science curricula. Another? Create an environmental studies analog to social studies. The latter integrates study of the social sciences, humanities, and history. By analogy, environmental studies could blend study of the earth sciences with understanding of coupled natural-human systems. Such a juxtaposition would equip the next generation with the substantive content and critical thinking skills they’ll need throughout their adult lives to make decisions – with respect to natural resource issues including food, water, and energy; building resilience to hazards; and environmental protection.

A closing vignette. In the early 1980’s, well before any United Nations formulation of millennial or sustainable development goals, the world came tantalizingly close to adopting just such an approach. Back then, Frank Press, a seismologist who been a science adviser to four presidents and who was at the time the president of the National Academy of Sciences, set into motion a process of thought and planning that ultimately would establish a United Nations International Decade on Natural Disaster Reduction, which would run from 1990-1999. To shop this idea around the UN in the late 1980’s, Press first used an NAS report drafted as Confronting Natural Disasters: An International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction and later modified as Reducing Disasters’ Toll: the United States Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.

What’s not so well known is that these reports were actually Frank’s second try at developing a marketing document. He had earlier tasked a group under the leadership of Gilbert Fowler White (a towering figure not just in the United States but worldwide in this field) to produce a plan. White and his group came up with the goal of making every school and schoolchild worldwide safe in the face of natural hazards.

Sound familiar? The idea was magical! A simple articulation, easily grasped and remembered. Finite, focused. And beyond debate – who could quarrel with the idea of making schoolkids safe? But more importantly, on closer examination, the simple goal implied a wider challenge: building the resilience of the fuller communities where all those school children lived. How could kids be safe if their parents were at risk? If the roads home and to hospitals, etc. weren’t resilient with respect to earthquakes, flooding, and more? If other critical infrastructure was compromised by such hazards? The concept was brilliant.

Unfortunately, in the event, this formulation failed to win over Frank Press, who took the trouble to establish a second committee (and delay a couple of years) in order to go in another direction. The world’s peoples missed the opportunity to see where this step, so pregnant with emergent consequences, might have led.

Not too late to give it another try.

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2 Responses to Remedial Reading: an August 2017 Pew Charitable Trust report on the flooding threat to U.S. Public Schools

  1. Neil Stuart says:

    Based on many reports I have seen recently, one of the legislative priorities of our leaders in Washington D.C. for 2018 is “infrastructure”. We as a science community should make plans and be ready to work with our leaders in Washington D.C. if asked to define what types of improvements in infrastructure are needed to increase resiliency to natural hazards. Most think of infrastructure as transportation-related but grants to local communities are also a considerable segment of infrastructure budgets, which could be directed toward school safety, flood plain management and other initiatives. 2018 could provide an important opportunity to help establish the policy and resources that will result in the most benefit for those most vulnerable to natural hazards for many years to come. Great message as always, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


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