ADR Program Hosts Disaster Recovery Conference

April 27, 2018

Texas A&M School of Law's Aggie Dispute Resolution Program held its first annual conference, Natural Disasters, Stakeholder Engagement and Dispute Resolution, bringing together public officials, policy makers, judges, lawyers, academic experts and members of the community to share ideas about ways to recover from natural disasters and plan for resilience.

Disaster DR conf Hamilton and WelshBilly Hamilton, Rebuild Texas Commission Deputy Commissioner and Texas A&M University System Vice Chancellor and CFO, with Professor Nancy Welsh, Texas A&M School of Law Aggie Dispute Resolution Program Director, who organized the conference.

The Aggie Dispute Resolution Program, ranked 12th in the nation by U.S. News and World Report, co-sponsored the conference with three other law school programs—the Program in Natural Resources Systems, the Program in Real Estate and Community Development Law, and Global Programs.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey on August 25, 2017, Governor Greg Abbott issued a proclamation creating the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas and selected Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp to head up the multi-agency effort. Texas A&M University System Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer Billy Hamilton joined Sharp as Deputy Commissioner.

Disaster ADR keynote Billy HamiltonConference keynote presenter Billy Hamilton.

In his keynote address at the April 13 conference in Fort Worth, Hamilton recounted the Commission’s experience and accomplishments, noting the need for enhanced communication to assist with recovery. “Governor Abbott did an amazing job and abided by Chapter 418 government code [on emergency management],” Hamilton said. The Commission will soon issue a report and recommendations.

Hamilton added, “It is good to see people take interest in disaster conferences like this because it will help us to be more prepared.”

Bill Fulton of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, a panelist for this event, appreciated the camaraderie of the conference. “It is a good way to bring lots of different people together to talk about some of the issues,” Fulton said.

“Looking at disasters from a dispute resolution point of view is pretty novel, at least from my point of view. However, it actually makes sense when you think about how, after a disaster, there are so many different constituencies, so many points of view. It is easy for people to get into disputes with one another, and to find other ways for them to talk to one another is beneficial,” said Fulton.

Fulton also focused on the unequal effects of natural disasters. “This conference has reinforced for me the fact that disasters actually exacerbate different economic differences and disparities in a city,” Fulton said. “That is one thing that has become obvious after Harvey in Houston, but that comes up in every one of these conversations. There are some people who just have a harder time bouncing back, and you have to deal with them differently than with more typical homeowners.”

Disaster Dispute Resolution conf panel 1Augustus Campbell, President & CEO, West Houston Association; Bill Fulton, Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Rice University; Marvin E. Odom, Chief Recovery Officer, City of Houston; and Professor Gabriel Eckstein, Director, Texas A&M Law Program in Natural Resources Systems, discussed Hurricane Harvey, Houston and Texas as a ​case ​study for ​stakeholder ​engagement and ​dispute ​resolution in ​response to a natural disaster.

Aaron Renaud, who works with Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas (LANWT) and specializes in community revitalization projects, was one of the conference attendees. He said the conference provided useful insights into officials’ and other stakeholders’ plans for responding to natural disasters.

“I think this type of conference is incredibly important for some of the reasons referenced in the conference, which is to protect our most vulnerable populations who are disproportionately harmed by natural disasters,” Renaud said.

DisasterDR_vanZandt-8933Texas A&M Law Associate Dean Cynthia Alkon, ​Professor Shannon Van Zandt of Texas A&M College of Architecture, Professor Gabriel Eckstein, and Professor Lisa Alexander, Co-Director of the Texas A&M Law Program in Real Estate and Community Development Law. Van Zandt presented "Engaging Vulnerable Populations as Stakeholders."

Discussing the presentation by Dr. Shannon Van Zandt, Nicole & Kevin Youngblood Professor of Residential Land Development at Texas A&M’s College of Architecture, Renaud noted, “Some people are unable to fully recover after a natural disaster due to the inherent inequities that we have in our city, in our state and in our nation. My interest with the Natural Disaster Response Team is bridging the gaps between responding to disasters and preparing for the next one.”

Renaud was particularly impressed by the variety of stakeholders who attended the conference and public officials’ commitment to the principle of equity in the recovery process. “I am glad that the stakeholders who are involved in planning this process are thinking about issues of inequalities,” he said. “I honestly did not expect that level of awareness and that is good, and we need to push it forward.”

Divya Babbula, who also works with LANWT on community revitalization projects, agreed that the conference was beneficial. “One of the benefits of this conference is being able to hear from people who are working day in and day out in the field of disaster response and recovery,” Babbula said. “It has been interesting to hear their perspective about how things work from the top-down because most of my work is very much with the community and hearing what they have to say.”

Professor Nancy Welsh, who directs the Texas A&M University School of Law’s Dispute Resolution Program, observed, “One of the clear takeaways from this conference was the need to engage vulnerable populations as stakeholders and to involve the advocates and organizers who have pre-existing, trusting relationships with these populations.”

Welsh stressed ​the ​importance of an easily-accessible roadmap ​which would allow public officials to facilitate post-disaster communication and collaboration among stakeholders​.

“I was really struck by our presenters who are dispute resolution neutrals, judges, lawyers and administrators and their descriptions of intentionally and carefully reaching out to all of the stakeholders affected by disasters to find out about their needs. Those conversations have led to expedited court procedures, community leaders’ collaboration on the use of recovery resources, and the resolution of disputes,” Welsh said.

Disaster DR Blake Hudson Panel 3Professor Blake Hudson, University of Houston Law Center ​with panelists Professor Charlotte Ku, Texas A&M Law Global Programs Director; Professor Ashley Ross, Texas A&M University at Galveston Department of Marine Sciences; and Professor Amnon Reichman, University of California Berkeley Law.

Texas A&M School of Law Professor and Associate Dean for Global Programs and Graduate Studies and Co-Convener of the Global and Comparative Law Program Charlotte Ku believes this conference was important to all stakeholders.

“The conference highlighted how enduring the effects of a catastrophic weather event like Hurricane Harvey can be. Yet, experience with such events tells us that attention and resources wane after the initial emergency,” Ku said.

“Speakers at the conference underscored the importance of a long-term commitment to rebuilding and repairing not only the physical but also the social structure of communities affected by these events. Great damage is done, but there can be great opportunity in the rebuilding if care is taken to work with all stakeholders and to understand their requirements,” Ku said.

Disaster DR conf panel 4Texas A&M Law Professor Peter Reilly; U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York Magistrate Judge Ramon E. Reyes and ADR Administrator​ Robyn Weinstein; Kimberly Taylor, Senior VP & Chief Legal and Operating Officer, JAMS; and Robert Jerry, Isidor Loeb Professor of Law, University of Missouri, took questions from attendees during the panel on national and international perspectives on courts' and insurers' procedural innovations in response to natural disasters.

Texas A&M School of Law Professor Gabriel Eckstein, Director of the Program in Natural Resources Systems, highlights that natural disasters affect our natural resources. “Dealing with natural disasters like hurricanes, and their aftermath, invariably means that you have to deal with environmental and natural resources issues, but there are always a variety of opinions that are in dispute on how to prioritize both responsive and preventative measures,” Eckstein said.

“Looking at these issues from a dispute resolution perspective is an invaluable opportunity to learn how to address such clashes, and how to integrate different voices into the decision-making process,” said Eckstein.

Disaster DR conf Mayor PearmanJames Pearman, FEMA ADR Advisor and former Mayor, City of Mercer Island, Washington, on the panel "National and International Perspectives on Public Collaboration and Stakeholder Engagement for Recovery and Resilience."

► See more photos from the conference on Flickr.

- Article by Tyra Kelly, Texas A&M University School of Law; photos by Doug Thurman, Texas A&M University School of Law