Perhaps you saw Sam Brody on NBC News, explaining why Houston is prone to flooding, or read quotes from him in the Wall Street Journal, or heard him on NPR’s “Marketplace.” Since the catastrophic arrival of Hurricane Harvey on the Texas and Louisiana coasts, the director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University has been very busy explaining flooding to the world. The rain had just stopped when we called the Bowdoin College graduate to talk about his journey to expert status, how he managed to stay dry in all that rain and what Merrymeeting Bay taught him.

GAME CHANGER: Brody admitted right off the bat that he was exhausted. “I think I have given over 50 interviews over the last few days.” Primarily, he’d been talking about the reasons for the flooding in Houston and what humankind can do to protect its coastal cities and towns from future extreme weather. We wanted to hear about his roots in environmental studies. He said he arrived at Bowdoin College in 1988 thinking maybe he’d be the next great American novelist. He even got to live in the dormitory where Nathaniel Hawthorne had lived (and likely, caroused with his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). But the very first class he walked into changed his life.

WATER WONKWORLD: It was an introductory environmental studies course taught by Professor Ed Laine. “Ed was an oceanographer and was teaching, essentially, systems planning.” Although Brody had never given land use planning a thought before, “That first day I was like, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do.’ ” He majored in environmental studies and anthropology, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. No novel writing happened, but for his final project as a senior, Brody completed a study of Merrymeeting Bay and the

complications of an ecological system fragmented by many jurisdictional boundaries (Bath, Brunswick, Bowdoinham, to name a few) which would all have to participate in collective decisions for its future. He focused on water quality issues. “I remember going around to each town and looking at their policies.”

SUMMER DREAMING: To this day, he says, “Merrymeeting Bay is near and dear to my heart.” Maine too, he says. One of his early jobs was with Evan Richert, an adjunct professor at Bowdoin who later became the director for the Maine State Planning Office (an office established in the 1960s and eliminated under Gov. Paul LePage) working on coastal issues. “I am basically doing the same thing, or taking the same approach, today” (but with better mapping technology). Brody earned two graduate degrees, one in environmental studies from the University of Adelaide in Australia and another in resource policy and behavior from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He came back to Maine to work for the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment and on that stint in the state, met and married a Brunswick native, Korin Wilk Brody. They were fixed up, despite his insistence to the fixer-upper that he was done with blind dates. “I am a nice Jewish boy from Baltimore. I had been fixed up so many times.” Nonetheless, he opened the door “and that was it. The universe shifted.” They reluctantly left Maine for his doctorate program in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he focused on city and regional planning.

Water covers a country road in Sargent, Texas, on Sept. 1, nearly a week after Harvey crashed into the Texas coastline as a Category 4 hurricane.

AGGIE SPIRIT: He sped through his doctorate in three years. “I was thinking about taking some time off.” Then the phone rang. It was Texas A&M. “They have some of the best coastal programs in the world,” he said. But Texas wasn’t exactly on his or his wife’s wish list of places to live. They decided to give it a try for two years. “That was 15 years ago.” They still come back to Maine as much as they can in the summer. This summer it was to a rental cottage on Orr’s Island, and from there Brody would take runs through Bowdoin’s (new to him) Coastal Studies Center. “I was like, ‘Wow, I wish this was here when I was a student.’ ”


PUBLISH AND FLOURISH: He applied for a National Science Foundation Career Award, making a bid to look at natural hazards around flooding, and received it. “That led to a book and then another book.” And talks around his research, which to his mind hadn’t changed that much, but which his audiences suddenly found much more interesting. “Ordinarily, I would go and talk about it, and it would be a snore fest. And then I started talking about wetlands and habitat and related that to observed flood damages, and people went crazy for it.” The idea that reducing human impact on flood areas would make a difference was in fashion.

WE DON’T LIKE IKE: Brody’s position at Texas A&M changed after Hurricane Ike in 2008. The administration faced the question of closing for good the university’s satellite campus in Galveston, which had been seriously damaged by Ike. “Or do they double down and become leaders in the this area of coastal sustainability? This being Texas …” They doubled down? Yes. “They started a research center, and I came down to direct that.” The Galveston campus is now a special-purpose campus serving about 3,000 students. “Everything is focused on coastal marine issues.”

THE TROUBLE WITH HARVEY: Regional watershed approaches (like say, Merrymeeting Bay in the early 1990s) has long been the focus of his work. Key to those approaches is smart development that allows for natural barriers, like wetlands, to remain and considers the ultimate impact of creating impervious surfaces through building and paving. (Houston, American’s fourth largest city, has no zoning laws.) Brody has had national and international support for these ideas, but not so much in Texas proper. “I have been talking and writing and speaking and cajoling people for the last 10 years, which I think is why I am so tired from Harvey.” But he senses a shift. “The discussion about the pattern of development and impervious surfaces has really gotten louder and more frequent. I feel like there is hope going forward and this major disturbance will be a starting point for new conversations.”

DRY FEET: The Brody family was stuck inside their Houston home for three days because of the high water. With teenage boys. But no water entered their house. That wasn’t luck. That was planning – earlier this year when the Brodys were shopping for a new house. Brody took a careful look at elevation and drainage. “While Korin was looking at granite countertops, I spent a lot of time choosing a house that I thought would never flood.”

THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT: It occurred to him during their house shopping that average buyers aren’t able to tap into that kind of information easily. Zillow might give them crime rates, but it wouldn’t give them flooding odds. Homes that had been flipped, post-Hurricane Ike in Houston, for instance, might be advertised as “never flooded per seller,” but that was only because the seller hadn’t been there for Ike. “The public thinks that if you are not in the FEMA floodplain, you’re not going to flood. Not true.” A month before Hurricane Harvey hit, the university shared the app that Brody had developed, Buyers B-Where. “There are days when we have exceeded 50,000 users.” He hopes that the app can eventually be extended to the rest of the country. “That is the kind of stuff we need to be doing.”

THE PRICE OF PREDICTION: Although this has been his life’s work, watching it play out around him is not what he expected. “It is something I have studied for as long as I can remember. But the personal drama is stronger than I could have realized. I have gone all over the world talking about this, and then to have it happen. It is almost surreal.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

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