Experience is Inevitable – However, Learning is Optional

(OregonPEN frequently offers the writings and interviews of Chuck Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, a national membership organization dedicated to addressing the fundamental causes of the woes of our cities and towns, the Post-War suburban development model that cannibalizes the future for the whims of today.  Now that Puerto Rico — “Rich Port” — has been leveled and sent back several centuries, Chuck’s insights into the responses to Harvey are even more important. Below are two separate articles warning against repeating the mistakes in the name of recovery.)

After Hurricane Harvey, don’t empower the engineers. Please.

When I hear people talking about an event like Hurricane Harvey and how we were unprepared for it, that Houston filled wetlands and sprawled all over the countryside in a way that only magnified the flooding, I cringe. Not because these analyses are de-facto wrong (I’ve said they are right in a certain context, just not in the extreme event of Hurricane Harvey) but because they present a limited understanding, one that — if not corrected — I fear will prompt us to divert scarce energy and resources into activities that will be destructive.

I am immediately skeptical of the notion that more stormwater management and/or zoning regulations would have had any significant impact on the extent of the damage from Harvey. This reflective response certainly frames, if not clouds, my analysis of the situation. When it comes to both stormwater management and zoning regulations in these kind of extreme events, I am a skeptic in our ability to ever translate intentions into meaningful action, if that were even possible.

That’s my bias. In my defense, I’ll point out that it’s the 180-degree opposite bias I had twenty years ago. Back then I would have — like many of our readers — looked at a flood and asked, why can we not prevent that? I would have considered projects I have worked on and extrapolated them to the scale of the problem in front of me. My faith in the spirit of American ingenuity (and my own abilities) would have driven me to think that anything is possible and that if I were properly empowered and supported, I could prevent the next disaster and limit the needless suffering.

In reflection, my attitude towards my and my profession’s abilities was very much like that of Anikan Skywalker, the tragic hero of Star Wars in his pivotal transition to the dark side. I’m going to build a more powerful project than any engineer has ever dreamed of…..and I’m doing it to protect you. Don’t you see? We don’t have to fear congestion / flooding / ___(insert malady here)___ anymore. We can make things the way we want them to be. 

That may seem melodramatic in our context, but it’s not. Citizen Jane, the documentary that pits Jane Jacobs against the evil Robert Moses did a real service in humanizing Moses. In much the same way (although with less fandom controversy) that the Star Wars prequels gave the evil of Darth Vader a sympathetic back story, Citizen Jane told how Robert Moses was an advocate for parks and fountains and art and beauty and all the things we’d like to associate with a city that Jane Jacobs would have loved. It was only later, when given the power and the mandate, that he began to do things that today we look at as destructive.

Do we doubt that Robert Moses truly believed he was working for the greater good? Did he go to the dark side or did he just believe strongly that what he was doing was the right thing, all other considerations being lesser?

Now I’m not suggesting that engineers and planners are the equivalent of Darth Vader or Robert Moses, but Star Wars and Citizen Jane both highlight a character flaw that engineers, planners and many of us charged with shaping the world around us hold in common: a lack of humility.

This problem looks like a big nail. Thank goodness I have this huge hammer and can solve it for you. Just give me the money and get out of my way.

There are three real world ramifications of the lack of humility that come into play with Hurricane Harvey.

1. Flooding is not the real problem that needs solving.

I think it is very seductive to look at Houston’s flooding as a simple engineering and planning problem. Let’s just build a bunch of stormwater management systems and increase our development regulations and we’ll handle this. Again, when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

A levee breaks during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. (Source: FEMA)

A levee breaks during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. (Source: FEMA)

So, did the people of Houston’s past not also think like this? Were the stormwater reservoirs sold as half-measures when they were built? Were the pipes they laid and the retention areas they constructed simply a false front or did they really believe them adequate?

Did the people of New Orleans not do this? Were their dikes that failed not constructed in anticipation of the largest storm they felt reasonable?

What happened?

Without a sense of history and a proper sense of humility, we just assume that the people of the past were ignorant fools, that those in the intervening years were greedy and selfish, simply unwilling to do the proper things to ensure their own security. Somehow we are different in our enlightenment. Maybe at last society will heed our expert warnings.

I think a more difficult challenge — the real problem — goes beyond the engineering or planning and gets into human nature. It’s very plausible to me that the dikes in New Orleans were built to handle the worst event anyone could remember, plus a little more. Then complacency set in. Not only were there always more urgent things to do than maintenance, but having *solved* the problem we no longer needed to worry about it. Go ahead and build there, we’ve got you covered. What’s one more? And one more?

We’ve written here about the Oroville Dam and our seemingly-genetic predisposition to de-prioritize maintenance (see “A Dam Mess“). We’ve also written a number of times about risk compensation, how making things safer and more protected only prompts us to extend the risks we are willing to take (see “Texting in Your Risk Gap” and “More on Risk Compensation“).

Much like traffic congestion is a complex problem that cannot be solved by building more lanes, neither can flooding be solved by simply constructing more elaborate, complicated and violent stormwater management and regulatory systems. To think otherwise leaves out the human element. It also puts more people at greater risk.

2. Flooding is not the whole problem that needs solving.

While I have a hard time understanding it, there might be some good reasons why someone chooses to buy a house in a floodplain. Perhaps they got a good deal, don’t plan to stay there long, believe it won’t happen to them. Lots of these decisions that look terrible in retrospect can be easily rationalized along the way.

What’s more difficult to understand is how a bank can make a loan on such a house. How can you get a mortgage in a flood prone area without flood insurance?

Well, answer this one: Why does your pension fund own mortgage backed securities containing homes in flood zones without flood insurance?

Or how about this one: Why does the Federal Reserve swap U.S. Treasuries for mortgages when those treasuries are highly rated and secure but some of the mortgages are in flood prone areas without flood insurance?

“There is a chain of soft corruption shielding people from the feedback that should come with their decisions, from the way we structure and sell mortgages to the entire system of moving risk from private balance sheets to the public sector.”

There is a chain of soft corruption shielding people from the feedback that should come with their decisions, from the way we structure and sell mortgages to the entire system of moving risk from private balance sheets to the public sector. In a world where banks and insurance companies were expected to experience losses, even failures, when they got things wrong, flood insurance would be both mandatory and cost-prohibitive for most people in these kind of flood prone areas.

Are we really going to subsidize flood insurance at the national level and then turn around and spend tens of billions — maybe more — constructing stormwater management and mitigation systems to protect these same homes? If we insist that the problem here is a lack of engineering and planning, that is exactly how we’re going to respond.

The actual damage from the flooding in Houston is more about flood insurance, mortgage regulations and bank bailouts than it is about engineering or planning. Failure to grasp that only ensures that future disasters will be greater than those in the past.

3. Flooding is not the only problem that needs solving.

After 9/11, the only problem we needed to solve was terrorism. We spent trillions — insane sums of money — ensuring that no terrorist action would ever happen again. In a civilized nation where people must be protected, how could we do anything less? We’ve fought (and are still fighting) wars around the world, armed our local police with military weaponry, created a domestic spying apparatus that would make the Stasi blush, established a theatrical production at each airport and major public building where we pretend to screen people and, after all is said and done, I can still carry the same exact weapon that the hijackers used on 9/11 (a box cutter) onto a plane.

Source: US. Dept. of Homeland Security

Source: US. Dept. of Homeland Security

A commonly asked question we like to debate is: Are we any safer? The history of terrorism tactics and the repeated inability of governments to stop terrorist acts using brute force suggests we are not, but whether or not you agree, that debate keeps us from a more important set of questions:

  • Are we more prosperous as a result of this focus?
  • Was this the best way to spend our resources?
  • What things have we not done, what actions have we not taken, because we focused on solving that one problem?
  • What are we incapable of doing now because we’ve committed to a certain approach, one that we culturally can’t back down from?

I was in New Orleans a few years after Katrina and got a tour of the billions of dollars worth of flood prevention and mitigation systems that were built miles away from where anyone lived or would ever live. To me, this was the ultimate case of asking the engineers and planners to solve a one-dimensional problem. See nail, apply hammer.

And they solved it, or at least we think they did. New Orleans has not been tested since Katrina and, statistically, is unlikely to be tested again until we’ve long become complacent again about flooding there. Think there will be any pressure in the coming days to divert New Orleans maintenance money to Houston or Florida? Who is going to stand up and oppose that? Yet Katrina is still raw in our minds; what kind of anguish will we experience over a budget cut to maintenance two decades from now?

The last time I was in New Orleans (2012) large parts of the city were abandoned and had not recovered. The population is down and, tragically if you value the unique Cajun culture, has been dramatically altered demographically. If our flood mitigation efforts had been more focused, could we have invested more in an actual recovery? Could we have built greater resiliency in a way that improved the lives of people instead of simply providing them with pipes, concrete and steel over an enormous area they will now struggle to maintain?

Organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers are salivating at the opportunity for Congress to summon the experts to Houston with billions of dollars and a one-dimensional set of solutions. The city of Houston was financially on the brink before Harvey. They had way too many roads, streets, sidewalks, pipes and ditches for their tax base to sustain, let alone create wealth for paying pensions and other obligations. If our solution to this tragedy is to give them even more infrastructure, we have failed.

Many of you are angry — to put it mildly — that I’ve called Hurricane Harvey an extreme event, one that transcends our ability to plan for or mitigate through better engineering and more aggressive planning regulations. I respect your feedback and, while I still believe in everything I’ve written on the subject, I’ve taken extra time to examine my biases. I acknowledge that I’m definitely skeptical of, and hostile towards, those who would narrowly define this event as a nail only to empower — intentionally or not — destructive people to deploy a very large hammer. I see a broader set of forces at play and much more at stake.

“Many people are so confident they not only understand what happened in Houston but have a clear sense of what now needs to be done. I find these people dangerous.”

Many people are so confident they not only understand what happened in Houston but have a clear sense of what now needs to be done. I find these people dangerous. I also find that a lot of people speaking on this subject have little real knowledge of what it would take to do accomplish what they claim they want to see happen. I’ve found myself questioning the sincerity and motives of experts that I think should know better and I’ve found myself annoyed with a long list of non-experts who, nonetheless, have expert opinions they (rightly) feel empowered to share, often in a rather derogatory and pompous manner.

I’m not proud of my immediate internal reactions to this. I’ve found myself counting to ten — sometimes a hundred — more often than normal. I don’t need (or want) any more fatherly/motherly emails written so as to help this wayward child you believe is suffering a momentary lapse in judgement. If Strong Towns to you is a movement about deploying more planners and engineers to implement a top/down strategy for doing more of what we are doing today, only marginally better, you might want to dig a little deeper.

I’ve gotten out my old hydrology books and, in my next article, I’m planning to show you just what it would take to manage a rainfall event on the scale of Harvey for a typical residential parcel. You might be surprised.

The Real Lesson of Hurricane Harvey
— Strong Towns


We’ve documented here and on our social media feeds our belief that more zoning and regulation would not have changed the devastation from Hurricane Harvey in any meaningful way (“Piling on Houston” and “Houston isn’t flooded becuase of its land use planning“). Even still, many of you are insistent that there is a valuable lesson to learn here, that the “wild west” attitude of Houston/Texas is dangerous and, if karma is to have any meaning, there must be consequences. Specifically, Houston needs proper zoning that would, at a minimum, keep all new construction out of floodplain areas, require additional stormwater management and reduce the amount of impervious surfaces.

We agree there is a lesson to learn here, but that’s not it—not in this instance. Here’s a thoughtful and credible piece of feedback we received last week challenging our assertions:

I’m a flood modeler, and I will tell you straight up that pretty standard modern landscape planning standards absolutely would have prevented some (by no means all, or perhaps even most) of the misery in Houston. But this is when people are paying attention, and it makes all the sense in the world to say we can and must do better. Climate change science informs us that these seemingly improbable, outlier events are becoming more common and likely. Throwing up our hands and saying nothing at all would have ever made this better is basically negligence when something similar happens again and nothing was done to mitigate because “no one plans for outliers.”

No one plans for outliers

Later this week I plan to outline what it would take to accommodate a Hurricane Harvey level of event (hint: it’s ridiculous) but for now, let’s hone in on the notion of what an outlier is because, contrary to the assertion of many, we can plan for outliers. We just don’t plan for outliers the same way we plan for routine or even rare events.

There has been a lot of talk about repeated flooding events in Houston. The notion is, we see this over and over and Harvey is simply another in a long list. The first part of that reaction is true — Houston has seen a lot of flooding — but the second part is not. The website FiveThirtyEight.com has the best graphic on just how much of an outlier Harvey is (I’m jealous; I wish we had that kind of research and graphics capability). Scroll down to the third chart and you’ll see a plot of events by inches of rainfall. Harvey is alone in the upper right corner. No other event comes close.

The two recent Houston events that many people yelled at me about were the Memorial Day Flood of 2015 (11 inches) and the Tax Day Flood of 2016 (7.75 inches). FiveThirtyEight suggests Harvey dropped 52 inches of rain on Houston.

There is an assumption — and I think it is debatable at the margins, but that debate is not real important for this conversation — that rainfall amounts follow a normal distribution. In other words, we can plot of the number of events of different intensity levels and there will be far more routine events (trace levels of rain, 1/4 inch of rain, etc…) than outlier events (2 inches, 4 inches, etc…). The more intense the rainfall, the less frequent the events become. Such a distribution would look like this.


Let me be explicit here and repeat something I’ve said multiple times over the past week: If we’re discussing frequently occurring or even rare events, I think the people being critical of Houston for not having good stormwater management have a valid point. If you buy a home with a 30-year mortgage and that home is in the 100-year floodplain, assuming that designation is accurate (it’s likely underestimating your risk), you have a 25% chance of being flooded before your home is paid off. That’s the simple math of taking a 1% risk every year for three decades in a row. Those are not odds I like, and I find it rather insane that Houston would facilitate people to build — and that the federal government would then offer insurance — within such an area.

With Harvey, we’re not talking about that. The people in the 100-year floodplain flooded. So did everyone else. Harvey was, in my chart above, an Extreme Event. It was off the charts. Not absolutely unpredictible, but not something that can reasonably be anticipated and planned for. Not something we’ll build a cultural consensus around mobilizing resources.

If we took the most progressive set of planners and public officials and transplanted them in Houston a generation ago and instructed them to do what it took to properly manage stormwater, all of their mitigation systems would have been overwhelmed in the first few hours of Harvey and then everything would have flooded just as it did.

I realize many of you don’t care about this nuance. As the commentor said, “This is when people are paying attention, and it makes all the sense in the world to say we can and must do better.” To quote Rahm Emanuel from his days as President Obama’s chief of staff, never let a crisis go to waste. Let’s use this extreme event to mobilize action so Houston — and cities tempted to emulate them — cleans up their act and won’t suffer in the more-frequent rare events.

If that’s your political stance, fine. Whatever. But if you’re here at Strong Towns attempting to understand the world a little better, that kind of simple, linear thinking is not good enough.

Complex Systems during Extreme Events

Cities are complex, adaptive systems. That means a city emerges from a collection of interacting objects, each of which experience their own feedback, are free to adapt their strategies based on their experiences and are influenced by their environment. Such systems have unique characteristics. They often function in ways that are seemingly predictable, until they don’t. Complex systems also respond to extreme events in fascinating ways.

As an analogy, I’d like to focus on a complex, adaptive system we are all familiar with: the human body. Under normal circumstances, our bodies are a collection of interacting objects — white blood cells, bacteria, protiens and hormones to name a few — that operate in mostly predictible ways. I’ve been diagnosed with hypothyroidism, a condition where my thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormones. It causes my body to want to store fat and sleep as if I were trying to hibernate. A small pill each day replaces those lost hormones and tricks my body into working fine. It’s genius and I’m intensely grateful to the brilliant people who figured this out.

Dr. Scott Somers describes the steps that occur when the body is injured.

Sometimes, however, the human body experiences an extreme event. Once I fell while climbing rocks and another time I was in a serious car crash. Both times I experienced a variation of the body’s response, an involuntary set of reactions evolved over tens of thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands — of years. In retrospect, it’s an astounding feat.

First, the body goes into shock. It’s a preservation mechanism to keep blood flowing to critical places at the expense of the less critical. If you’ve experienced this, there’s also often a shot of adrenaline. I imagine an early version of a sapien attacked be a predator, fighting it off and then fleeing madly only to collapse into a coma as the body shut down to preserve vital functions. That pre-human survived, which is why you have a chance to survive a brush with death today.

Whether or not the body goes into a coma, multiple systems start to kick into a different gear. Metabolism changes. The immune system goes into overdrive. Parts of the body are cheated of normal support so that aid and repairs can be given to injured parts. It’s truly remarkable.

Historian and author Rebecca Solnit is the author of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in DisasterIn listening to the book, it was hard for me not to connect how humans (an evolved species) interact with each other in our cities (our evolved habitat) during times of crisis. As presented in a New York Times review of the book:

“What is this feeling that crops up during so many disasters?” Ms. Solnit asks. She describes it as “an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive,” worth studying because it provides “an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility.” Our response to disaster gives us nothing less than “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.” Her overarching thesis can probably be boiled down to this sentence: “The recovery of this purpose and closeness without crisis or pressure” — without disaster, that is — “is the great contemporary task of being human.”

Lesson for a Strong Town

You are more likely to survive a traumatic event if you are healthy, not sick. You are most likely to survive it if you are not so young that you’re still developing or not so old that you’re experiencing decline. You increase your odds if you eat well, exercise and don’t live with a lot of stress. In other words, the complex adaptive system that is your body is most likely to carry you through an extreme event the closer to optimal condition you are. You’ll get through alive, recover more quickly and then return closer to normal the stronger you are going in.

Of course, by definition, we never know when that extreme event will be. We can’t stop aging, but there are a lot of things we can do to help our bodies be stronger and healthier throughout our lives. The great thing is, even if we don’t experience that extreme event, the things we do to be stronger and healthier help us in many other ways. There is little downside and lots of upside to healthy living.

This is why it’s not good enough to let a myopic reaction to Hurricane Harvey obsessing with stormwater management and regulation dominate our discourse. No reasonable amount of that activity would have mattered for this extreme event, but Houston is a really fragile place. Before this latest disaster, I had the chance to speak with a number of public and private officials, on and off the record, and got a real sense of the impending fiscal disaster that is Houston’s city budget. There was no way they were ever going to have the money to fix all the roads, streets, sidewalks, pipes, pumps, etc… that they were obligated to take care of with the tax base they had. This was a pending catastrophe for the people and businesses that depend on those systems. Now that hundreds of billions of that tax base has been destroyed, the desperation is going to ratchet up considerably.

And that is before factoring in pension obligations, staffing levels, current service levels and debt service, all of which depend on aggressive growth from a fragile — now impaired — tax base just to stay even.

It’s not clear to me how Houston will respond to this trauma. Maybe the city will get a lot of federal aid (although the numbers I’ve seen have underwhelmed), but most of the loss is actually in the private sector. Much of that private loss is uninsured. Maybe this will provide a pretext for Houston to do some community triage and shift their public investments from the unproductive outskirts to their more productive downtown and core neighborhoods. Maybe the reduced emphasis on regulation and taxation will be a driver of the economy and allow them to adapt in novel ways. I’m not predicting Houston’s demise, but the poor financial health of their city government has given them little margin for error.

For extreme events, we can’t measure risk, but we can measure fragility. Cities that want to protect themselves from extreme events need to become less fragile. They need to adopt a Strong Towns approach.

Later this week I’m going to examine the myopia of the planning profession, “flood modelers” and policy wonks and the psychology that drives them to learn the wrong lessons from events like Harvey. I’m also going to look at what it would take to design a stormwater system for an extreme event like Harvey (it’s insane). I’d also like to take a deeper look at complex versus complicated systems (in Nassim Taleb language: the difference between a cat and a washing machine) as a prelude to examining what a policy approach based on stormwater management will look like (see: New Orleans post-Katrina) as well as the tradeoffs involved (funding ditches, not schools). We should also examine how we can use antifragility during frequent events to improve our robustness to extreme events.

Finally, because I was told a number of times how irresponsible I was to not obsess about climate change, we’re going to take some lessons from Fooled by Randomness and hopefully find a way to explain rare/extreme events without making everyone ticked off.

(Both articles above republished with kind permission of the author and Strong Towns.)