Todd Davison has managed the Gulf, Southeast and Caribbean Region for the NOAA Office for Coastal Management since 2006. A native of Baton Rouge, La., Davison was Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region IV Mitigation Division and previously managed FEMA’s Technical Assistance and Compliance Branch. An expert in floodplain and coastal zone management programs who has been a member of the Coastal Resilience Center’s (CRC) Advisory Board since its earliest incarnation in 2008, Davison spoke with us about how his work and that of the CRC overlap.
Coastal Resilience Center: What originally interested you in coastal management as a professional field?
Todd Davison: I grew up in South Louisiana and as a kid I fished and hunted on the coast. I went through several hurricanes as a child, Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and Hurricane Camille in 1969; those left a huge impression on me, and I got really interested in the whole concept of coastal storms and impacts to the coast that I saw and experienced firsthand.
CRC: You worked for the state of Louisiana prior to joining FEMA. What lead your career in that direction?
Davison: As a kid, I grew up in a lower middle-class family that didn’t have a lot of money, and so there weren’t a lot of options for me to go to school anywhere but LSU in Baton Rouge. So I just worked my way through school there and ended up working in the geology department at the school. I guess I was a good enough graduate student that the Louisiana Geological survey, which had its offices on campus at the time, hired me.
One of the projects I worked on was the first set of maps of coastal floodplains in coastal Louisiana. It’s pretty commonplace now but back in the 1970s there weren’t a lot of good flood risk information pieces out there. They hired me to work the geological surveys to produce an atlas of flood risks and flooding. Bulky old paper atlases used to be state-of-the-art. Now they’re in museums, I think.
… Then I went up to D.C. and got a job working in the area flood mapping and floodplain management [program with FEMA]. They were really interested in my Louisiana experience because Louisiana is such a flood-prone state with all kinds of complicating issues like levees, storm surge and sea-level rise. They thought that my expertise down the Gulf Coast would help them run a national-level policy.
I got a chance to work with a congressional committee at the time helping draft what ultimately would become the National Flood Insurance Reform Act in 1994. I spent 10 years there then in a position for the regional director of mitigation division director in the Atlanta (Southeast) regional office. That division does all of the flood mapping, floodplain management, the rain system, hurricane evacuation programs, all the mitigation grants as well as a number of responsibilities for post-disaster mitigation. That’s how I crossed paths with [CRC Director Dr. Gavin Smith].
No sooner gotten that job in 1996 when the hurricanes started to roll into North Carolina: Bertha, Fran, Bonnie, Floyd, they were like conveyer belts there for 4-5 years. … It was enjoyable working with [Dr. Smith] because we really pushed hard for policy change and just doing things differently, really more science-based, more planning-based, certainly with an eye toward improving communities from a sustainability and long-term prospect.
… I worked for Gov. Jim Hunt, who was really open to planning and to a strong leadership role in all of those hurricanes, so we got a chance to really support the state’s efforts on buying out old flooded houses and turning it to open space. We really pushed the envelope on chronically flood-prone buildings, floodplains; that’s not easy work – it’s a cross between emergency management and real estate. There’s just so many issues involved, social dynamics, financial issues, but planning’s the foundation for how you do that successfully.
We can’t manage a risk if you don’t know where it is and how severe it is.
CRC: In your experience with NOAA, with working in the Gulf, Southeast and Caribbean regions, have you noticed any differences in resilience efforts in those three regions? Is there a difference in how local governments approach the idea of resilience?
Davison: Yes and no. There are a lot of similarities in the Southeastern states and how they develop their coastlines, the risks they face. The Caribbean too, certainly the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, are highly hurricane-prone. So from a risk standpoint, the causation’s very similar. Culturally, capacity-wise the Caribbean is very different, because of all the issues you have with smaller government, fewer resources for the area, but Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands just have a lot less capacity than many of the U.S. states to deal with issues.
There are some unique issues in South Louisiana, parts of Texas, with land subsidence and things of that nature. Generally, watching recent land development, from Texas up to the Carolinas in the last 30 years, those coastal areas have developed tremendously. In all the states, the influx of people, retirement communities, golf course developments, all of those things that pull in a lot more people in those places. …In terms of resilience, they all face very similar risks in terms of a lot of people on the coast, huge vulnerabilities, huge risk in terms of potential for being in a hurricane.
CRC: You have done a lot of work with floodplain management. What is the importance of floodplain management on protecting coastal communities?
Davison: I would say, in general, the importance is that we can’t manage a risk if you don’t know where it is and how severe it is. The management component really has to start with reasonably accurate, hopefully highly accurate, risk information on flooding. If people understand where it is and how bad it can be or has been, then your ability to build management frameworks around that are easier. Our ability to map floodplains now is so much more sophisticated that it ever has been.
… So, what the future challenges are is that flooding’s not a static risk, in particular with the uncertainty around climate change and rising sea levels for coastal areas in particular. There’s always a challenge with interfacing land development versus flood plains, but in terms of our ability to understand what flooding is, changing flood risk, you first have to understand variability and potential changes with sea level rise, especially in coastal areas.
The vast majority of property at risk in floodplains is along the coast. It’s where all the density is, from Houston and New Orleans to Miami, and that’s just the big cities. But if you go up and down the eastern seaboard and the Gulf Coast, coastlines are densely developed. So, if the sea level rises 3-6 feet in the next 100 years, that is a game-changer for our ability to map future flood risk. The problem is that the infrastructure and housing you’re putting in place now is going to be around for a really long time. So if you’re mapping it, especially infrastructure, which is really hard to move and hard to adapt, then you’re setting yourself up for increased flood risk 50 to 100 years from now. … Managing floodplains’ future is really trying to draw a path to these conditions that will change, but we are very uncertain about where and how much a condition will change.
CRC: We work in a wide variety of subjects here at the CRC – education, infrastructure resilience, social resilience and disaster dynamics. What are your hopes about what this research could do to impact your work at NOAA?
Davison: There are a lot of areas that we’re interested in terms of what the Center can do to help advance the science and the planning. One is the people element: social science, interactions, physical science. We just don’t understand a lot about the human dimensions and how risk information is understood by people: how to use it, how to message it, the complexities of cultural, social, environmental issues at the community level and how those play into coastal risk planning.
Managing floodplains’ future is really trying to draw a path to these conditions that will change, but we are very uncertain about where and how much a condition will change.
The other area is community planning and sustainable development. Coasts are really dynamic places and there’s a certain kind of carrying capacity for these coastal areas in terms of what they can do and how much they can absorb. Flood risk is just one component in a series of planning considerations for coastal communities. There are all kinds of other issues: economics, land development, environmental issues – and we’re really interested in the broader picture of how coastal flood risk and how resiliency fits into the broader envelope of community planning.
Another important thing is the work that the Center has been doing improving our ability to map storm surge. Some of the [coastal modeling] portfolio projects that the Center has for advancing our ability to understand storm surge and map it dynamically in a real-time way is really important to our agency.