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Community Conversation: Learning Together with Becca Fricke-Croft

May 11, 2020
Susanna Pho, CFM

In Community Conversations, we chat with floodplain management professionals about their work. First up, Becca Fricke-Croft, a Senior Project Manager at Atkins!

Tell us about your work and background.

I'm a project manager with Atkins EDPM. We are part of the Strategic Alliance for Risk Reduction II (STARR II JV) supporting FEMA with technical services under the Risk MAP program. Atkins also supports state and local agencies with mapping and floodplain management throughout the country.

My background is in floodplain management. Prior to coming to Atkins, I worked for a small company that served as the contract engineer and floodplain administrator for small towns in Southern Oregon. We supported local communities that didn't have big staff or lots of resources in their floodplain management programs.

What is the best part of your job?

The best part is helping people solve challenging problems. The floodplain management challenges that communities have are very different, everybody is unique. But there are also often common themes. Being able to work with communities and states that vary in size and geography to try to find common threads and connect the dots for communities that have never faced a particular problem before is very rewarding.

It's great when we are able to come up with something innovative or employ a strategy that's tried and true to help communities that wouldn't otherwise know where to turn.

The other day someone called me up and said "My boss wants to throw away all of our floodplain management files. Can you help me cite a reason why we can't do that"? In that instance I was able to give them the state code and the local ordinance that explicitly backed their argument. Other times, property owners call us for assistance with navigating a permit process. We don’t advocate for a particular outcome, but we try to make sure that processes are fair, and that people understand them. Sometimes we help floodplain managers who don't know where to find tools to make decisions properly. Helping everybody from the property owner up through the state to FEMA's regional offices is really fun. Everybody has a need to understand the other side, and I've been that liaison for most of my career.

What is the hardest part of what you do?

The challenge is great, but the challenge is mostly fun when you can overcome it, right? Getting to that moment where somebody says, wow, thank you that really helped. The hard part is sometimes dealing with the quantity of the work. It can also take a long time to get to an answer, but it's still rewarding because our team can often get to an answer faster (with knowledge and connections) than someone might not be able to otherwise. We often refer to what we do as “forensic floodplain management”. Sometimes, in my line of work, you have to try to decipher what someone was thinking 30 years ago. You have to be a detective and ask: "Well, what maps were they using and what was the rule then?" It's like solving a mystery. So the hardest part is sometimes just getting to answers, but that's also what makes my work fun – especially if it, in turn, makes someone's job easier or gets someone closer to their objective.

You work a lot with government agencies of all scales to develop better regulations and better navigate floodplain compliance. Are there common themes or recurrent questions in the problems that you encounter?

There are common questions for different stakeholders. For example, property owners might be looking to find a flood map, need to find the status of a LOMA, or are trying to understand why a LOMA was rejected. The most common questions I answer are centered on pointing people in the right direction. In those instances, we direct them to a resource or make an introduction to a person who will directly address their concern.

It is particularly rewarding to be able to help people I really respect. Whether I'm teaching, working with someone, or answering a question, I find that it's best to remember that the people I am helping are much smarter than I am and just don't know the answer to their question yet. Maybe they're maneuvering through a process that they've never had to navigate before. For example, sometimes we'll meet people who come in as the new local floodplain manager and they don't yet know all the responsibilities of that role. This kind of thing happens at all levels, where someone gains a few new responsibilities. I get to help a lot of smart people who are just navigating something new; I often learn something in the process, too.

We're facing a lot of uncertainty with mapping evolving rapidly, new forms of flood insurance, pandemics, and sea level rise all affecting how we deal with natural disasters. How do you see floodplain management evolving in the future?

As part of FEMA's Production and Technical Service (PTS) team, we make products that help communicate risk. We also support floodplain management on the regulatory/compliance side. From this perspective, I would like to see more tools that help laypeople understand flood risk in a really meaningful way. That doesn't mean we need to provide or less information, or even more information. We need to produce more digestible information. That's what Risk MAP did in many ways. We got a lot better at communicating depth and return intervals, at the community level. I hope we can evolve to provide this data at the property level. We want people to take information and then act on it. We want people to understand that the requirement to buy flood insurance isn't just an onerous burden someone is putting on them. There are a lot of ways that we can create better products that will help communicate risk so that people who want to protect themselves, can. There's a great quote from Jon Frye in Santa Barbara County, California. After his community was devastated by wildfires and—just a month later—terrible mudslides that prompted new flood risk maps that some residents didn’t like, he said, "Don't fear the map, fear the hazard". We make tools so that people will understand hazards, but conversations often get tied up in regulation and sometimes people they feel like they're victims of a taking or burdensome regulation. We understand that, but we're also just the messengers. We're just telling you what the science says, and we’re here to help you find innovative ways to mitigate the risk. Don't fear the map, fear the hazard.

Going into the future, I see the floodplain management being more closely tied to detailed maps that show property specific-, or at least more locally specific-, risk that can be used to make better decisions at the local property level. That's what I would like to see, and I think that that's where we're moving. We're here to make sure that people have the information that they need to make those good decisions and that, whatever happens programmatically, we're still trying to affect change at the local level.

A large part of your work is educating floodplain management professionals at conferences and in local courses. What have you learned in teaching across the country?

The most fascinating part for me about this community of floodplain management is how connected we all are. You might have a very talented engineer who is the best at what she does. She is made more powerful when connected to the outreach person, or the planner who can mobilize her work. You never know where the good ideas are going to come from. I've built my whole career on that idea. Attending conferences, small meetings, large meetings, I want to learn something new. I go into every workshop or webinar that I’m teaching hoping to learn something from my class. I go in there saying, what can you guys teach me? I never know when someone is going to have a solution to one problem that I can use to help someone else. Throughout my career I've tried to develop a reputation as a person who can help you connect ideas, resources, and people. I'm just connecting the dots and there's value to that, but it's also just one part of a really important body of work and knowledge.

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