Author Archives: James A. Bacon

Virginia Supreme Court Blunder

vt_massacre2by David S. Cariens, Jr.

Whatever our politics — Democrat, Republican, Tea Party, Green Party — we share a common expectation that our courts will treat us fairly. When a court renders a major decision based on false information — especially when that court is the Virginia Supreme Court — it should disturb everyone.

It is unusual for a state Supreme Court, or the United States Supreme Court, for that matter, to overturn a jury verdict. But on October 31, 2013, the Virginia Supreme Court did just that: It overturned a jury verdict in the Pryde and Peterson lawsuit against Virginia Tech holding the school liable for not warning the campus on April 16, 2007, after a double homicide had taken place at West Ambler Johnston Hall. About two hours after that incident, Seung-Hui Cho killed another 30 people and wounded 17 before killing himself.

Justice Cleo E. Powell who wrote the unanimous decision, stated that “under the facts of this case, there was no duty for the Commonwealth to warn students about the potential for criminal acts by third parties.” She then got one of the most critical facts wrong—who was in charge of the investigation that day following the initial shooting at West Ambler Johnson Hall.

Powell wrote that the Blacksburg Police Department was in charge: “Although officers from the Virginia Tech Police Department were the first on the scene, the Blacksburg Police Department led the investigation.” In fact, Chief Wendell Flinchum of the Virginia Tech Police Department was in charge. If Blacksburg Chief Kimberly Crannis had been, there would have been no duty to warn because she did not have that authority. Chief Flinchum did have the authority to warn and lockdown.

To cite Crannis as the person in charge is not only a major blunder in the historical record, but sets a precedent that incorrect facts central to a major decision are acceptable. Five times, people testified under oath that it was Chief Flinchum and not Blacksburg’s Chief Crannis. Having gone through more than five volumes of trial testimony, I can find no reference to Chief Crannis being in charge.

The identity of who was in charge is important because Virginia Tech had in place all the means necessary to warn and lockdown the campus on April 16, 2007. Over two and one half hours elapsed between the double homicide and the mass murder in Norris Hall. So, more than a year after the Supreme Court ruling, the question persists, why didn’t the university issue a warning?

Eight months earlier, the Virginia Tech administration had set a standard for warning the university community. In the fall of 2006, a prisoner in the Blacksburg jail, William Morva, escaped and killed two people. There was no indication that Morva was on or near the campus, yet Virginia Tech warned and locked the campus down.

But on April 16, 2007, there was a double murder in the middle of the campus. Thirteen bloody foot prints led from the crime scene to an exit stairwell; there were spent bullet shells on the floor but no weapon. The school issued no warning even though it was obvious the killer was on the loose. Had a lockdown of the campus been implemented, lives would have been saved. The administrative failure allowed two students to go to their French class where they were among the first of the 30 students and teachers killed in Norris Hall.

The Virginia Supreme Court declined to hold anyone accountable for anyone else’s actions in the Virginia Tech massacre. The Court is entitled to its opinions, but not its own facts.

David S. Cariens, Jr., a retired CIA intelligence analyst, is author of “Virginia Tech: Make Sure It Doesn’t Get Out.” He publishes the “A Question of Accountability” blog. Continue reading

Big Data and Power to the People

school_gradesby James A. Bacon

In the previous post, John Butcher brought to light some incredibly important data long secreted in the Virginia Department of Education — Student Growth Percentile (SGP) scores. There are two aspects to this story. First, the data will bring unprecedented accountability to Virginia schools and school divisions. Second, it is a cautionary tale of how the educational establishment resists transparency that makes that accountability possible.

Brian Davison, who works in business intelligence and software management, had two children in the Loudoun County public school system when he filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2014 to obtain the score. The Loudoun County school superintendent rejected the request, but Davison won in a lawsuit filed against the Virginia Department of Education in Richmond Circuit Court.

The publication of raw SOL scores never resulted in much accountability. SOL numbers are so heavily influenced by the socio-economic status of students (accounting for about 55% to 60% of the variability between schools) that school administrators could plausibly argue that they aren’t responsible for low scores — the economic disadvantage of their student body is. SGP scores get around that excuse by comparing the progress of students, regardless of socio-economic status. In effect, it measures education value added.

As Butcher’s post clearly shows, some school systems out-perform the norm by wide margins, while others under-perform. An analysis of individual schools probably would show the same thing, as would an analysis of individual teachers.

There are many idiosyncratic reasons why a particular student might lag or surge ahead in his or her performance in a given year, so one has to be extremely careful drawing conclusions from small numbers. That makes the data somewhat problematic for assessing the performance of teachers, especially young teachers who have taught only a year or two. However, after enough years, a teacher should have taught enough students that statistically valid conclusions can be drawn about his or her effectiveness. Another issue: Data should be anonymized in order to protect the privacy of school students.

In very rough numbers, schools teachers, principals and administrators account for roughly 40% to 45% of the variability in student performance. No one expects them to perform miracles, but there is little doubt that they can do better. A critical step is identifying which teachers are consistently doing well and which ones are doing badly in order to incentivize the good ones to stay and the bad ones to leave. Another step is identifying which principals are doing a good job, like Tina McCay at Goochland Elementary School (mentioned here). Finally, voters need data to judge the performance of senior school division administrators and school board members.

I’m doubt the story will end here. There will be endless haggling over how to interpret the numbers — and that’s how it should be. But be not mistaken: This is a game changer. Citizens and parents now have a tool of unprecedented power to cut through the dodging and weaving, the hedging and prevaricating, to hold educators accountable. Now let’s go out and use it!

SGPs: Bringing Accountability to School Systems

by John Butcher

For much too long, the principal measures of educational quality were inputs: budgets, teacher salaries, class sizes, pupil/teacher ratios, and the like.  Grades did not compare from school to school or even class to class. Specialized tests such as the SAT reached only limited numbers of students and, in the SAT case, measured intelligence rather than achievement.

This situation was disrupted in 2002 by the No Child Left Behind Act, which conditioned Title I federal support on statewide testing.  Whatever their other strengths and weaknesses — see, e.g., the Wikipedia discussion — the resulting testing schemes gave us measures of outputs.

The scores, however, were strongly dependent on the economic status of the students being tested.  For example, on Virginia’s 2014 English Reading SOL tests, a 10% increase in the division count of economically disadvantaged students was associated with a 3.4% decrease in the division average pass rate.

butcher1

(Click for more legible image.)

The Federales figured this out and, beginning in 2011, required states to develop a growth measure with data for reading/language arts and mathematics in the tested grades. Virginia settled on the Student Growth Percentile, the “SGP.”

Stated briefly, the SGP compares the progress (year-to-year score change) of each student with the other students in the state who had similar prior scores.  That progress then is expressed as a percentile ranking.  Thus, a student with a 60 SGP had a score increase better than 60% of the students with the same “prior achievement.”

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has a page of discussion with further links here.  A 2011 PowerPoint from VDOE’s Director of Research and Strategic Planning has a very clear discussion.

butcher2

(Click for more legible image.)

The advantage of the SGP is that it compares students with peers as to achievement.  Thus, students with low SOL’s (and, likely, low family wealth) are compared with students in similar circumstances.  The Virginia reading data demonstrate how this produces data that are largely independent of economic disadvantage.

Note here the weak correlation (11% R2, vs. 57% for the SOL chart above) and the weaker effect of economic disadvantage (14% SGP decrease compared to a 38% decrease in the SOL).

Data elsewhere show an even weaker relationship between SGP and economic disadvantage: Continue reading

The Center-City Job Resurgence

job_shift

by James A. Bacon

After decades of losing jobs to the metropolitan periphery, the nation’s downtown employment centers have been recording faster job growth since the recession than areas located further from the city center, according to a new report, “Surging Center Job Growth,” by Joe Cortright, president and principal economist of Impresa, a consulting firm specializing in regional economic analysis.

Cortright compared job growth between city centers (defined as within three miles of the center of a metropolitan region’s central business district) and outlying areas. During the go-go years of the 2000s-era real estate boom (2002-2007), the periphery enjoyed rapid job growth while city centers stagnated. Since the recession (2007-2011), city centers have gained jobs while the periphery has lost them.

Those  numbers represent a composite of 41 of the nation’s largest metropolitan regions for which Cortright could find comparable data. The national trend does not apply to all metropolitan regions. Indeed in two of Virginia’s largest metro areas — Hampton Roads and Richmond — the periphery continued to out-perform the city centers.

richmond_hr

What’s going on? The big-picture story is that the industry mix of the national economy is changing, and that shift increasingly favors central business districts.

In general, knowledge-oriented industries that require considerable face-to-face interaction are clustered in city centers, while goods producing and moving industries are more decentralized. Knowledge-oriented industries tend to use land much more intensively than goods producing and distribution centers.

The biggest construction declines occurred in the construction and manufacturing sectors, which tend to be located on the periphery. Those sectors have been slow to rebound during the recession, but if and when they do, Cortright said, the compositional disadvantage of the periphery might diminish. (By “compositional,” he means the advantage of disadvantage conferred by industry mix.) However, he argues that center cities will continue to enjoy generalized “competitive” advantage.

These factors — the growing preference of well-educated  young adults for urban living, the shift of companies to city centers to tap this labor pool, the growing pull of the “consumer city,” the growth of “eds and meds,” the continuing relative decline of manufacturing and distribution, and the waning of major investments in new highway infrastructure — all give us reason to believe that the shift toward city center growth is not a temporary anomaly.

A closer look at Virginia metros. How do we explain the departure of Hampton Roads and Richmond from the larger, national trend? Remember that the “national” trend is derived from composite numbers that include a lot of variability. The trend does not apply equally everywhere.

Hampton Roads is a special case because its economy is so dominated by military spending, and military employment is concentrated in military bases. The military makes its decisions where to grow and contract based on different factors than the civilian economy.

As for Richmond, my sense is that downtown living and employment has surged since 2011, the most recent years cited by Cortright. The competitive advantages of central business districts apply to the Richmond region as well, and we’ll see the proof in more recent numbers. Another possibility is that the three-mile definition of “center city” does not fit Richmond, one of the smaller metros surveyed. The economic vitality of central districts like Shockoe Bottom and Manchester may be offset by declining employment in the 2- to 3-mile band, which are really aging suburbs.

Using Big Data to Bolster Student Performance

Principal Tina McCay with students at Goochland Elementary.

Principal Tina McCay with students at Goochland Elementary.

At the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, 4th grade teachers at Goochland Elementary School were setting academic goals for their students, with an eye to their performance in the Standards of Learning (SOL) exams. With support from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and an innovative data system implemented in Goochland, the school had been provided historical data and predictive analysis of their new students’ standing. Teachers were alarmed to find that nine students were on a predicted trajectory to fail their reading SOLs.

In a 4th-grade class of 55 children, failure by nine students constituted an unacceptably high percentage.  “We refused to accept the outcome as inevitable,” said Principal Tina McCay. “The data gave us a peek into one possible future, but it also gave our team time to develop a strategy to reverse the trend and set our students on a solid path to achievement and success.”

Teachers decided that the targeted students would benefit most by the participation in small instructional groups. “As a result of the small groups, students who previously were crying from frustration suddenly became engaged and confident,” said teacher Krystle Demas. “It was exciting to witness. Just to see that spark in their eyes and a return of the excitement and passion for learning was so rewarding!”

The result: All nine students passed the SOL at the end of the school year. Said McCay, “This extraordinary success might never have happened without real time access to data at each step of the process.”

Over the past decade, the education data industry has churned out new tools for schools and teachers to analyze data and see trends that would have been overlooked in the past.  “Data can be used to help educators tailor curricula, identify at-risk students, customize classroom learning and improve their students’ college readiness,” said Bethann Canada, director of the Office of Educational Information Management at VDOE.

Building on Goochland’s success, VDOE is partnering with the state’s Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) with the goal of transforming itself from a static, one-way collector of data into a provider of support and service for data-driven decision making across the state.

In an elaborate consultation process, the data implementation team engaged more than 400 individuals across Virginia in focus group activities. Ninety-seven percent of Virginia’s school divisions took part. The end product was a strategy with two components: (1) Technology and Integration and (2) Professional Development and Division Support. Providing the data would not be enough. Educators needed to know what to do with it.

“It’s more than just having access to the data that’s important, it’s knowing what to do with it,” said Paul McGowan, vice president of consulting services at CIT. “Or, as some focus group participants explained, “Even if we’re able to run reports, a lot of teachers say, ‘now what?’ Many of us don’t know what to do with the data once we have it.”

Following up on the successful first phase of the project, the project team expects to roll out a similar capability statewide in the next year. Phase II is focusing on implementing the technology and integration solution and building a new Education Data Professional Development Center.

“We hope to attract, persuade and retain support for data use and to persuade all K-12 stakeholders to include data as an integral component of their work and educational plans and intervention strategies,” said Canada. “Generating a viable solution will take time and hard work, but will bring numerous dividends in the form of customized learning, stronger curricula, identifying and aiding at-risk students, and much more.”

(This is a condensed version of an article released by the Goochland Public Schools, Virginia Department of Education and the Center for Innovative Technology.)

Government Fragmentation and Economic Growth

fragmentation

by James A. Bacon

What are the secrets of successful metropolitan regions? According to conventional economic-development thinking here in Virginia, success hinges upon the ability to maintain a positive business climate, a concept that encompasses everything from tax rates to the tort system, the transportation network to the education level of the workforce. But a new publication by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “The Metropolitan Century,” identifies a critical variable rarely discussed in Virginia: the fragmentation of municipal governance.

Metropolitan regions characterized by higher levels of municipal fragmentation tend to experience lower economic growth rates than metros with less fragmentation, contends the OECD report, as seen in the chart above. Metropolitan regions run the gamut in the degree of fragmentation, from the United Kingdom with an average of 0.4 municipalities per 100,000 residents to the Czech Republic with an average of 2.43 per 100,000. All other things being equal, the report says, “For each doubling in the number of municipalities per 100,000 inhabitants within a metropolitan area, labour productivity in the metropolitan area decreases by 5-6%.”

(I would surmise that the number of municipalities in Virginia falls in the “moderately low” category. For example, the 1.7 million inhabitants of the Hampton Roads metropolitan area are governed by 16 jurisdictions, including two in North Carolina, or slightly less than 1.0 per 100,000 population.)

Fragmented government inhibits economic growth through its impact on transportation and land use, suggests the OECD report. The inability to plan regionally can result in “sub-optimal provision of transportation infrastructure” that falls short of its potential to provide the connectivity required by a productive, growing regional economy.

In the context of large urban agglomerations, land use planning and transport planning are often the fields where the need for co-ordination is greatest. … Housing and commercial developments need to be well connected to other parts of the urban agglomeration, and public transport in turn relies on a minimum population density to operate efficiently.

Integrating transport and land-use planning makes it easier to utilize value-capture tools for financing transportation infrastructure. “Public spending for infrastructure increases the price of adjacent land,” states the report. “Often, this price increase provides a publicly funded windfall profit to land owners or developers. Land-value capture tools aim at recapturing these windfalls from developers in order to (partially) fund the infrastructure investment.”

Echoing arguments that EM Risse made on this blog years ago, the OECD report observes that administrative borders in metropolitan areas have not evolved in concert with economic and social patterns.

While good governance structures are no guarantee for good policies, it is very difficult to design and implement good policies without them. … Administrative borders in metropolitan areas rarely correspond to these functional relations. Often, they are based on historical settlement patterns that no longer reflect human activities.

A few decades ago, there was a move in Virginia to consolidate cities and counties in order to achieve administrative efficiencies and economies of scale. There were some notable successes — Virginia Beach merged with Princess Anne County, Suffolk merged with Nansemond County — but the movement petered out.  The OECD report spelled out reasons for resistance to consolidation that apparently apply across the economically developed world:

Common reasons for the persistence of administrative borders are strong local identities and high costs of reforms, but also vested interests of politicians and residents. Even if policy makers try to reorganize local governments according to functional relations within urban agglomerations, it is often difficult to identify unambiguous boundaries between functionally integrated areas.

There doesn’t seem to be any appetite for consolidating local governments in Virginia, but the OECD report does suggest an alternate strategy: Identifying specific functions that can be transferred to regional authorities.

Would it be worth the effort to invest political capital in such endeavors? Take a look at the chart at the top of this post. The big dividing line in economic growth is between medium-low and medium-high fragmentation. Assuming Virginia metropolitan regions fall into the medium-low category — and I do confess that I do not know exactly what the dividing line is — there doesn’t seem to be much of a growth premium from consolidating our way into “low fragmentation” status. Indeed, I would argue that some competition between jurisdictions in a metropolitan area is a good thing — the ability of inhabitants to “vote with their feet” helps keep the politicians honest.

But that’s a shoot-from-the-hip reaction based upon one OECD chart. If Virginia is serious about positioning itself for economic prosperity in the years ahead, our governance structures, rooted in 19th-century settlement patterns, surely need to keep up with economic reality.

“Hacking for Good” Comes to Virginia

Andrew Hyder with Code for America describes the "hack for good" movement spreading across the U.S.

Andrew Hyder with Code for America describes the “hack for good” movement spreading across the U.S.

by James A. Bacon

Michael Kolbe experienced first-hand the power of data-driven election campaigning while working on the 2012 Obama re-election team. He went on to take a job as a strategy analyst for Health Diagnostic Laboratory in Richmond but didn’t discard his idealism. Hoping to harness the power of data to solve social problems, he joined others to bring the burgeoning civic hacking movement to Richmond last year.

His first “hackathon” fizzled, Kolbe concedes. The goal was to create a “where’s my school bus” app for the City of Richmond schools, adapting open code developed elsewhere. Despite initial enthusiasm, school officials “went radio silent” and Kolbe and his compatriots didn’t have a strong enough team to push the project through. “It just fell apart.”

Learning from that inauspicious beginning, Kolbe tried again. The results of his efforts could be seen Saturday in Code for RVA’s code-a-thon held at INM United’s warehouse-chic office building in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition. This time, more than 60 participants worked on a half-dozen projects to make local government data more accessible and useful to citizens.

This time Kolbe had time to build an organization and line up sponsors and alliances. The Richmond hack-a-thon was held as part of a national CodeAcross event organized in dozens of cities across the United States by San Francisco-based Code for America. Code for America dispatched a team to help organize the Richmond event. Socrata, a Seattle-based open-data company, created a portal to which the Richmond hackers could add their data. Code for RVA also found a local champion for its open-government projects in Andreas Addison, a self-described “civic innovator” for the City of Richmond.

“This meeting wouldn’t have happened two years ago,” said Addison, who has led the effort to bring data analytics to City of Richmond decision making. “Things are changing.”

Even the governor’s office is getting on board. Zaki Barzinji, deputy director for intergovernmental affairs in Governor Terry McAuliffe’s policy shop, said the administration hopes to work with Code for America, Virginia universities, state agencies and local Code for America “brigades” like Code for RVA to organize a statewide conclave with the goal of driving open data and cultural change in state government.

Most of the projects undertaken Saturday were simple, aiming to make existing data more accessible to the public. One team worked on creating RVA Answers, a Web resource providing answers to most frequently asked questions. Another team tackled the goal of making data about city boards & commissions more readily available, including information on how to apply for a position. Yet another group worked on improving the display of city crime data.

The most ambitious project, long in the works, is an initiative to address the spread of STIs (socially transmitted infections), especially among the city’s poor and young. The city has pulled together a multi-disciplinary team to organize and analyze existing data, supplemented by insight gleaned by interviewing poor people and shadowing government health workers. The mission is to encourage people to get tested for STIs and to direct them to locations in their neighborhoods where they can do it.

This initiative will not likely wither on the vine — Danny Avula, deputy director of the city health department, is pushing the project forward. “A lot of people in government don’t get it,” Avula said, speaking of the use of data analytics. “But there are advocates now.”

Open data sounds great in the abstract, but civic hackers often face indifference or resistance. When the McAuliffe administration launched its open data portal last year, said Barzinji, it encountered a tendency among state agencies to keep their data to themselves.  The administration started small, asking each agency to share at least one data set. Once the value of public data can be demonstrated, he said, he expects the agencies to loosen up.

Never under-estimate the role of simple bureaucratic inertia. Mike Walls, IT strategy manager for the City of Richmond, noted that government IT departments are focused on the core mission of “just keeping the lights on.” Top priorities are making sure payroll is met, bills are paid and basic functions work. “You can’t have the network go down. You can’t have the emergency dispatching software crash. It creates a very cautious mindset.”

In his experience, Walls said, IT bureaucrats aren’t opposed to releasing data to the public as much as they are overwhelmed by their existing responsibilities. They see the task of opening up data as more work. “When your day job grinds you down, it’s hard to find the enthusiasm.”

Another issue, said Walls, is that data can’t just be dumped willy nilly into public databases. When data reveals information about individuals, public access may raise privacy issues. Often there are technical issues as well. Data is typically compiled to the standard of “good enough for the intended purpose,” not for a purpose someone might dream up later. As a consequence, mashing up, say, land use data calibrated to difference levels of accuracy might lead to absurd results like fire hydrants appearing in the middle of a street.

But civic tech advocates expressed optimism that the obstacles can be overcome. Small victories lead to larger victories. Said Barzinji: “First what we need is the proof of concept.” Then the push for legislation and executive action can follow.

Land, Density and Resilience

Flood-prone areas of south Hampton Roads. Source: Virginiaplaces.org.

Flood-prone areas of south Hampton Roads. Source: Virginiaplaces.org. (Click for detail.)

One more takeaway from the Resilient Virginia launch conference yesterday: All other things being equal, more compact communities are more resilient communities.

Like Bacon’s Rebellion, Cooper Martin, program director of the Sustainable Cities Institute, is a big fan of Joe Minicozzi and his maps and graphics showing how dramatically land value-per-acre varies between core urban areas, suburbs and the countryside. Densely settled urban cores have land values that are literally a hundred times higher per acre than low-density shopping centers and large-lot subdivisions.

In my commentary, I have focused mainly upon the fiscal folly of building disconnected, low-density development. The infrastructure — the roads, utilities, sidewalks and other amenities — are more expensive per household to maintain. But Martin added a new dimension when addressing the Resilient Virginia conference yesterday. Low-density development makes it more expensive to harden homes and businesses against disruption and catastrophe. When the taxable value of land is high, it’s easier to support expensive investments to protect that land than when the value of the land is low.

So, to take Hampton Roads, which I have written much about recently, resiliency planners need to take into account not only which areas are flood-prone, but which urbanized areas have land values high enough to make them economically justifiable to protect.

It’s going to be gut-wrenching and agonizing, but local officials must come to grips with the reality that much of the development that has taken place is fiscally indefensible. The region cannot possibly afford to protect every low-density subdivision in every flood-prone region — much less the roads and bridges providing connectivity for them — no matter how loudly unhappy homeowners howl at the prospect of being abandoned. The sooner local officials begin making these determinations, the sooner developers will stop building in indefensible areas and the fewer the naive homeowners who will be harmed.

As a practical matter, Hampton Roads municipalities will have to evolve to a pattern of denser development on higher land. Where development exists in flood-prone areas, there will have to be sufficient density to justify spending millions of dollars on protective measures. Fortunately, this is a slow-motion problem. The region has decades to adapt. But it needs to begin now — when complex and painful decisions must be made, decades can slip away in no time at all.

– JAB

Resilience and Competitive Economic Advantage

Flooded Honda factory in Bangkok, 2011 -- what you might call a serious business continuity issue.

Flooded Honda factory in Bangkok, 2011 — what you might call a serious business continuity issue.

by James A. Bacon

If you were a manufacturing company contemplating an expansion to Hampton Roads, you would take into account traditional criteria such as proximity to customers and suppliers, access to a skilled workforce, transportation connections, prevailing wage levels, taxes and so on. But as corporations become increasingly sensitive to the issue of business continuity in the face of disruption or disaster, you also might consider the region’s vulnerability to flooding.

Outside of New Orleans, Hampton Roads is the lowest-lying metropolitan area in the country. It is notoriously prone to flooding now, and the region’s vulnerability will only get worse as the sea level rises. You may or may not believe the McAuliffe administration’s predictions that the sea level will be 1 1/2 feet higher by 2050, but the risk that the forecast might prove accurate would have to factor into your calculations. Logical questions would arise: Would flooding disrupt rail and highway access to your facility? Would it hamper the ability of employees to get to work?

Perhaps the most important question is this: Do state and local governments have a plan to cope with recurrent flooding that will likely only get worse in time? How resilient is the region — not just one particular jurisdiction but, given the connectedness of transportation arteries and commuter flows — the entire region?

The resiliency movement is gaining momentum around the country, driven mainly by worries about climate change. Whatever your views on that polarizing issue, however, there are sound reasons to engage in planning on how to make your community less vulnerable to natural or man-made catastrophes (see “The Non Global Warmist’s Case for Resiliency Planning.”) The fragility of Hampton Roads is obvious for all to see. But every community has vulnerabilities of some kind. The integrity of the electric grid and water supply, for instance, are things everyone should worry about.

Every community should know its risk profile. In Hampton Roads the big concern is flooding. Western towns and cities worry about forest fires. Plains localities lose sleep over tornadoes, while others fear blizzards or terrorist attacks.

The insurance industry pays close attention to some of those risks, which are reflected in insurance rates (unless government policy distorts the price signals by subsidizing rates, as it does with flood insurance.) But, as Cooper Martin, program director for the Sustainable Cities Institute, observed at the Resilient Virginia launch yesterday, insurance covers less than half of total losses. States and localities don’t have insurance for washed out roads and bridges, for instance. There’s no insurance policy that covers the aftermath of a forest fire when rain washes ash into the water supply. “Who pays for uninsured losses?” he asks.

Perhaps the most unappreciated risk of catastrophe is to is a region’s brand, Martin said. Increasingly, a willingness of communities to identify systemic risks, develop plans to deal with them and maintain the financial commitment to carry out the plans will be a big differentiating factor. Corporations that place a premium on business continuity will pay close attention.

The Non Global-Warmist’s Case for Resiliency Planning

hampton_roads_flooding2

by James A. Bacon

The key to building a strong resiliency movement — making communities more adaptable in the face of natural and man-made disasters — is finding common ground. So argued Steven McNulty, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Southeast Regional Climate Hub, in addressing the launch event of Resilient Virginia this morning.

Fear of rising temperatures, droughts and sea-level rise is a major impetus behind the increasing emphasis that all levels of government are placing on resiliency. But political views about climate change are highly polarized, McNulty said. “Are you a fear monger, or are you a denier? We need to get beyond that.”

Most climate scientists believe that man-made climate change is a cause for concern. But the forestry land managers McNulty deals with do not. In a recent survey, he said, “only 10% of Southeast foresters thought that climate change is man-made and real. The agricultural community is almost as disbelieving.” As it happens, their perceptions are not without basis, he added. Rising temperatures in the Southeastern U.S. have been far less pronounced than anywhere else in the country.

It’s hard to mobilize people who don’t believe in catastrophic man-made global warming to change the way they do business. “Don’t talk climate change; you’ll lose a lot of folks,” said McNulty. But flip the issue to climate variability, and the conversation takes on a different tone. Everyone acknowledges that temperatures and precipitation fluctuate, and everyone would like to protect themselves from those fluctuations. “You don’t need global warming to have big disasters.”

McNulty was one of several speakers Thursday morning who made the case for resiliency planning. The resiliency issue hasn’t made big inroads in Virginia but Resiliency Virginia, a non-profit group of state and local government officials, environmentalists and private companies, hopes to change that. The group has a mission of educating the public, sharing best practices and encouraging people to take action.

In Virginia, the most pressing resiliency issues are in the low-lying Tidewater region, especially the Hampton Roads metropolitan area where thousands of people and millions of dollars in private buildings and public infrastructure are exposed to flooding. As Brian Moran, secretary of public safety and homeland security, told the gathering, a one-and-a-half foot sea level rise would inundate 82 square miles of dry land in Virginia, 15 miles of interstate highway, miles of railroad track and significant port acreage.

While there is plenty of controversy over how rapidly the sea level is rising in Hampton Roads — not everyone accepts the prediction that the sea level will rise 18 inches by 2050 — few would deny that between subsidence (partly caused by the draw-down of aquifers, partly by the shift in tectonic plates) and the slow-but-steady sea level rise seen over the past century unrelated to man-made climate change, flooding will become increasingly severe.

Flooding in low-lying areas is not the only potential disruption to Virginia communities. Flash flooding is an issue in urban areas where the ground has been covered by asphalt and the ground has lost is capacity to absorb rain water. Ice storms, snow storms and drought are recurrent concerns. Some worry about the impact of massive solar flares that could overwhelm the electric grid. There are man-made issues as well, such as potential terrorist strikes against critical infrastructure, particularly the electric grid.

In Chicago urban flooding is a significant issue, said Cooper Martin, program director for the Sustainable Cities Institute. When city officials began mapping where the insurance claims were occurring, they expected them to cluster in the flood plains. The traditional response to flooding had been to bring in the engineers, build some levees and build some dams. But close analysis showed that many claims were occurring outside the flood plains. “All that concrete has created a new ecosystem, creating flash flood hazards,” said Martin. “The way we’ve built this community is fundamentally non-resilient. More concrete is not the answer. Taking out some of the pavement may be the most productive thing to do.”

Another problem is rampant developing in vulnerable coastal areas. An analysis of 77 counties along the Gulf Coast (not including Florida) showed $2 trillion in asset value. “Even without climate change,” said Martin, “the way we’re building our communities, we’re creating risks where we didn’t have them before.”

People have a lot of ideas of how to prepare for another Katrina-scale hurricane, said Martin. But which options offer the greatest protection for the least cost? Building up beaches offers a high payback, as do building codes mandating construction standards to withstand higher winds. (Sixty percent of Katrina’s damage came from winds, not flooding.) Mandating higher home elevations is on the borderline of being economically justified; other proposals offer a very low return. As long as coastal communities continue to permit development, they need to address these issues.

Bacon’s bottom line. As I’ve made clear repeatedly on this blog, I’m not convinced that human-caused climate change is a cause for alarm, much less an excuse to re-engineer the economy. But you don’t need to be an apocalyptic environmentalist to value resiliency. Disasters happen. They always have, always will. We don’t protect ourselves from disaster by burying our heads in the sand and pretending they can’t possibly happen. We protect ourselves by anticipating possibilities, weighing probabilities and setting priorities. That kind of thinking is making inroads in Virginia, but we have a long way to go. I applaud Resilient Virginia for highlighting the issue. Check out the Resilient Virginia blog here.