Glenn Heistand is the section head of the Coordinated Hazard Assessment and Mapping Program (CHAMP) at the Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) where a staff of 27 employees made up of engineers, GIS specialists, and outreach specialists, produce hydrologic and hydraulic models, flood insurance studies, digital flood insurance rate maps, mitigation plans, and related items in partnership with FEMA and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). Heistand joined ISWS in 2009, serving as the senior engineer through 2020, and was recently elected as chair of the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) board. Heistand recently completed a term as secretary (2021-2022) after serving two terms as treasurer (2019-2021).
With nearly three decades of experience in floodplain and stormwater management, he recently answered some questions about his work.
What drew you to this profession?
I was attracted to the engineering profession because I enjoy the challenge and creativity of finding solutions to real-world problems. Civil engineering provides a practical way to improve people's lives and leave a lasting legacy. The water-resources side of civil engineering was not what I originally imagined specializing in, but the opportunity presented itself in my first job, so I tried it and liked it. My first boss and coworkers made a great impression on me and were good teachers. I credit them with fostering my commitment to becoming a water resources engineer.
As chair of the ASFPM board, what are some goals for your term?
The Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) is a 501(c)(3) scientific and educational nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing flood loss in the nation. There are over 7,000 individual members nationwide, along with state chapter members and corporate and agency partners. It has a good mix of local, state, and federal floodplain managers and other governmental officials, industry representatives, higher education researchers, non-profit professionals, and other interested individuals. I see my primary role as ASFPM Board Chair being to support the ASFPM Executive Director and ASFPM staff in their excellent ongoing work of educating policymakers, improving knowledge of public officials, conducting applied research on flooding, developing tools to address all aspects of flooding, and ultimately to reduce flood risk. In addition, I can lend my perspective to the national floodplain management discussion, while gaining perspectives from other national voices that can be returned to serve Illinois through the Coordinated Hazard Assessment and Mapping Program (CHAMP) that I lead.
My goal is to advocate for a strong flood hazard mapping program through FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). This requires adequate federal funding for producing new and updated Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM) across the country and in Illinois, including the science and engineering that goes into making them. Funding for hydrologic and hydraulic studies, frequent LiDAR acquisitions, robust climate science, collaboration with other agencies, and public education and outreach are critical for effective engagement of State Cooperating Technical Partners (CTP) like the ISWS and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources - Office of Water Resources (IDNR-OWR). National statistics show that one dollar spent on flood mitigation saves at least six dollars in prevented flood damage costs–that’s a great investment of public funds. Hazard mitigation starts with risk identification, which is why good flood hazard maps are needed.
What’s a work-related accomplishment that you’re really proud of?
It’s easy to forget a project, but it’s hard to forget a person. I’m proud of the people I’ve had a chance to mentor and work with throughout my career, they’ve taught me a lot. It was my first boss and senior colleagues that helped turn my first job into a fulfilling career. That is what I want for people in my sphere of influence at work, to feel like what they do matters. Being a part of accomplishing hard things as a team is a great feeling. I’m very proud to be part of CHAMP at ISWS, producing flood studies, mapping, education, and resiliency for the citizens of Illinois. CHAMP is a unique program in the country, and we have the chance to positively impact the lives of every person in Illinois. That’s hard to top!
What is one thing you wish people knew about your work?
There’s no such thing as a natural disaster. Hazards are natural, disasters are manmade. Tornadoes, droughts, hurricanes, wildfires, and floods are all natural and attributed to weather and/or climate. A disaster is when a natural hazard meets a human population. The good news is that many natural hazards can be anticipated before they happen, giving people time to avoid the threat or mitigate against the threat. The bad news is that people make decisions without understanding the risks or heeding the warnings, leading to unnecessary trouble. Learning from past mistakes is not a natural talent for many people. My job is to help people recognize risk and (hopefully) change their behaviors.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?
Engineering issues can masquerade as definable problems to be solved by harnessing the power of physics, math, and science. However, when humans are added to the mix, especially in the context of social issues, politics, and values, a finite engineering problem leads to infinite solution profiles that are limited by boundaries outside the engineer’s control. As such, it has been my observation that there are very few problems that have only a single solution. This is very frustrating to engineers, at least to me. Problems can be solved, but people are always the source of conflict when two or more of them are added to the equation. The quicker a scientist or engineer realizes this, the savvier they can be to promote good-enough solutions that get the most support. Facts aren’t always the most important consideration to people, don’t take it personally.
What advice would you give to future scientists?
This advice is not new, but I’ve learned each of these aphorisms from experience and would have saved time had I not discovered them the hard way, and some of them I keep rediscovering. Be aware of your surroundings, change happens a lot. Rely on others, leveraged talents accomplish more. Try to see things from the perspective of others; changing your perspective will increase creativity and spark problem-solving ideas. The more you know, the more you know you don't know. One more thing… get a hobby, play a sport, spend time outside every day; you’ll be a better person for it.