Notes from the 2013 International Hazard Mitigation Practitioners Symposium

One appealing and substantively important feature of the annual Hazards Research and Applications Workshops is the co-mingling of researchers and practitioners. That co-mingling leads to what social scientists in the crowd like to call co-production of knowledge. The three days’ juxtaposition of research conjectures of what might be possible and practitioners’ articulation of what actually works is heady stuff.

At each meeting’s conclusion, however, the two communities separate (while remaining in the same hotel) and hold another day and a half of rump sessions by themselves. The younger of these two parallel sessions is that devoted to practice. It’s put on by the all-volunteer Natural Hazards Mitigation Association (NHMA) and it owes its very existence over the past five years to the passion and commitment of its entire board but especially to the unflagging hard work of its president Ed Thomas and its executive director Alessandra Jerolleman. In this short time they have helped experts from a diverse range of fields come to see themselves as a community of practice, and they have become a respected voice in Washington and across the country on mitigation. Their annual meetings have been interesting from the start but are growing more so. In a few hundred words it’s impossible to capture fully the ground covered, but here’s a bit of the flavor to whet your appetite. [You can find the fuller agenda here.] Let’s start with the theme and purpose for this year’s meeting:

The theme of the 2013 International Hazard Mitigation Practitioners Symposium is “From Grassroots to Global: Reducing Disaster Losses through Mitigation and Adaptation.” This year’s theme is designed to provide insight into innovative best practices for mitigation. As such, the program sessions and training workshops will focus on fresh insights, broad visions, and inclusive management techniques that are fundamentally changing communities at home and abroad in terms of long-term resilience to embedded hazards such as climate change.

Grassroots mitigation means mitigating at the community level. Inherent in that is a need to increase participation or involve the “whole community.” Toward that end, the 2013 Symposium will include discussion of:

 participatory and broad-based approaches to mitigation;

 useful lessons learned at the individual and community levels;

 creative collaboration ideas that integrate bottom-up and top down-approaches to mitigation; and

 effective mitigation management techniques.

While mitigation begins at the local level, we can encourage shifts in focus and attitudes by learning from global success stories. Encouraging changes in practices locally requires education, awareness, and commitment, which is optimal when practices are globally accepted and inspired through effective and rational engagement.

Through the 2013 Symposium, the Natural Hazards Mitigation Association hopes to build on the momentum of mitigation through collaboration and networking. By sharing mitigation success stories, participants have the opportunity to learn from each other as well as from some of the nation’s brightest and best mitigation subject matter experts. Collectively we will work through difficult issues such as increasing risk awareness, adapting to environmental uncertainty during challenging economic times, and mobilizing a constituency for sustainable recovery that does not simply reconstruct but actually reduces future risk.

For the first plenary, the organizers chose an unusual approach. They invited speakers from the closing plenary of the fuller hazards workshop just concluded to reconvene and continue their discussion:

Plenary 1: Identifying and Overcoming Impediments to Hazard Mitigation and Climate Adaptation

Session Description: This session will continue—and expand—the conversation started as part of the closing panel at the 38th Annual Hazards Research and Applications Workshop.

Moderator: Edward A. Thomas, NHMA Speakers:

  Debra Ballen, Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety

  Bob Gough, Intertribal Council on Utility Policy

  Glenn Pomeroy, California Earthquake Authority

  David Ropeik, Harvard University

This particular panel will consider the central question of: Why has our society not been more successful in implementing safer, more sustainable development and redevelopment in the aftermath of disaster? This session is designed to (1) help participants understand why, despite the work of dedicated individuals and organizations and the investment of billions of dollars spent on hazards mitigation, nevertheless foreseeable hazard events continue to result in horrible disasters and suffering; and (2) present suggested paths towards building a safer, more just, and more sustainable society with less misery and suffering.

Debra Ballen described work at the Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) Research Center. At considerable expense, IBHS has created a unique national facility for destructive testing of structures to show the value of mitigation measures (hurricane straps, fireproofing, and more). Want to see film clips of homes and commercial structures destroyed by high winds, fire, and hail under controlled conditions? Your search is over.

Bob Gough gave an overview but then zeroed in on straw-bale housing and its contributions to badly-need housing stock for America’s indigenous people as well as its contributions to hazard mitigation.

Glenn Pomeroy described California’s efforts to help homeowners obtain affordable earthquake insurance, and made a case for the federal government to issue catastrophe bonds to reduce their reinsurance costs (some have argued that such government intervention is problematic).

David Ropeik contributed his inimitable perspective on the reasons for our reaction (and inaction) to risk. You can find more in his 2010 book How Risky is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.

This NHMA approach enabled the speakers to did a little deeper into their respective topics, but equally importantly, gave the audience a chance to engage in more Q&A than the earlier session had allowed.

Another plenary followed the next morning:

Plenary 3: Mitigation and Adaptation in the Aftermath of “Superstorms” Such as Sandy and the 2013 Midwest Tornadoes

 Margaret Davidson, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

 David Miller, Federal Emergency Management Agency

 Megan O’Grady, Independent Scholar

 James Schwab, American Planning Association

 Matt Sitkowski, The Weather Channel

Session Description: This session will focus on long-term recovery in the aftermath of “Superstorms” such as Sandy and the 2013 Midwest tornadoes, with a particular emphasis on the implications of this recovery process at the local, state, and national levels. The session will address questions concerning leadership and decision-making in the recovery and what has, and has not, been done to “build back better” in terms of reducing the potential for future losses and adapting to climate change. The opening of this session will involve a presentation on catastrophic disasters past, present, and future. With the stage set, the discussion will shift and focus on long-term recovery at the local level with particular emphasis on the implications of how long-term recovery is affected by states and the federal government. Questions concerning leadership, decision making, and communication in recovery, obstacles that inhibit resiliency in the rebuilding process, and what has, and has not been done to promote building back stronger in order to achieve reduction in future losses and adapting to climate change will be addressed.

Margaret Davidson drew on her unique ability to communicate and inspire to suggest that we look beyond the different labels for so-called green infrastructure (also “ecosystem services,” “natural defenses”) and embrace the common underlying ideas. She drew attention to a new Rockefeller Foundation “100 resilient cities centennial challenge.” Then she provided a challenge of her own. Noting each of us in the room was an expert in something, she urged us to broaden our dialogs and expand our circles of trust.

David Miller brought a narrative from Sandy. Getting best-available floodplain data, requiring elevation certificates, relying on the formation and use and abuse of debris piles to support insurance claims, cautious disbursement of insurance monies and requiring lenders to cosign checks, and other measures were combining to stall rebuilding and recovery. He argued for considering long-term efforts to build resiliency and short-term recovery efforts holistically. The examples were reminiscent of observations from hazards workshops in years past to the effect that local communities need to devise recovery plans prior to disasters, rather than inventing ad-hoc approaches  in the emotion of the post-disaster environment.

Megan O’Grady compared New York State and New York City climate-change adaptation plans. Jim Schwab talked about the link between broader American Planning Association efforts and hazard mitigation in particular. Matt Sitkowski reviewed The Weather Channel’s ongoing efforts to bring the hazard-mitigation science and engineering behind hazardous weather stories to viewers.

There’s much more. Much more. You can find some material on the NHMA web site, but if you’re that interested (and you should be!), maybe you might build this meeting into your schedule for 2014. That workshop looks to be even better.

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