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Gilbert Fowler White was born on November 26, 1911, in Chicago and died on October 5, 2006, in Boulder, Colorado. White earned his bachelor’s degree in 1932 and his doctorate in 1942 at the University of Chicago. He served in the New Deal administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt as secretary to the Mississippi Valley Committee, National Resources Committee, and the National Resources Planning Board. From 1940-42, he worked in the Bureau of the Budget in the Executive Office of the President. White was a Quaker and a conscientious objector to military service who in 1942 joined the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which aided refugees in France. He was interned in BadenBaden, Germany until 1944 when he was allowed to return to the United States; he continued working with the AFSC until 1946. White married Anne Underwood in 1944, with whom he frequently collaborated on problems of domestic water use in Africa, and they had three children. Underwood died in 1989 and White married Claire Sheridan in 2003.
From 1946-55, White served as president of Haverford College and then returned to the University of Chicago as a professor of geography until 1970 when he left in protest over the university’s expulsion of students during anti-Vietnam War protests. White moved to the University of Colorado and from 1970 to 1978 he was a professor of geography, director of the Institute of Behavioral Science, founder and director of the university’s Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center (from 1976 to 1984 and again from 1992 to 1994), and the Gustavson Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Geography from 1980 until his death in 2006.
Considered the “father of floodplain management,” White emerged as a central figure in the field of natural hazards research. He was an established scholar recognized for his contribution to the study of flooding and general advocacy of sound water management; he pioneered the United States’s system of identification and classification of adjustment mechanisms for flooding. These adjustments he termed structural or nonstructural. Structural adjustments were those mechanisms constructed by engineers designed to modify flooding hazards so that people could live comfortably in areas that were subject to periodic flooding. Nonstructural adjustments were those changes made by governments to restrict the use of areas susceptible to floods. White advocated whenever possible the accommodation of, or adaptation to, flood hazards rather than structural solutions, such as dams and levees, that had dominated thinking in the first half of the 20th century.
White promoted an integrated system of floodplain management that had at least seven constituent elements:
(1) mapping the estimated frequency and magnitude of flooding, (2) planning and regulation of use of vulnerable areas and of areas contributing to flood flows, (3) government support of insurance against flood losses, (4) improvement of flood warning systems and advice and training as to how to respond effectively to warning, (5) research and education as to how to flood proof property against damage, (6) extending the federal program of financial assistance to victims of flood damage to include support for buying out damaged property to support abandonment of severely affected property and movement to lands beyond the reach of floods, and (7) taking explicit account of the costs and benefits to ecosystems and human recreation of leaving a floodplain completely open to water and silt from natural overflow.
Throughout his career as a citizen-scientist, White’s ideas had a tremendous impact on government policy at all levels. He used his mediation skills and position as chair of the University of Chicago’s Department of Geography to bring members of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Valley Authority together. He assisted the Lyndon B. Johnson administration’s 1959 Senate Select Committee on National Water Resources, which led to the creation of the Flood Control Act of 1960 and eventually a Water Resources Council in 1965. In these years he chaired a Ford Foundation mission to advise the United Nations (UN) Mekong River Committee concerned with flood control in that region and later headed a UN task force that studied several major water storage projects in the Zambezi, Senegal, Volta, and Nile River drainages.
White’s crowning achievement in these years came from his 1966 appointment as chair of the Task Force on Federal Flood Control Policy. His work resulted in the creation of Congressional House Document 465 and Executive Order 11296 that for the first time mandated that all federal agencies incorporate flood planning into their programs. The task force’s broader aim was to create a unified national program for managing not only flood losses and flood control, but also floodplains as ecosystems, and it was slowly being achieved. When Congress established the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in 1968 that created the Federal Insurance Administration-something White’s 1966 task force and a parallel task force were largely responsible for-White emerged as both its champion and critic. In the late 1970s, White pushed for the transfer of the NFIP out of the Department of Housing and Urban Development to the new Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was established in 1978 by Congress during the James Carter administration.
Throughout his life, White worked to build communication bridges between various constituencies and served on numerous committees. A past president of the Association of American Geographers, he became involved with the International Geographical Union and Commission on Man and Environment (which he chaired from 1969-76) and the International Council of Scientific Unions’s (for which he served as president from 1976-82) Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment.
White also built institutions that survived. For example, as the chair of a Ford Foundation Resources for the Future institute in the 1970s, he spearheaded a successful multimillion dollar fundraising campaign to help ensure the institute’s future in the 21st century. In 1974 he founded the Natural Hazards Research and Application Information Center and for decades worked there with students and colleagues producing a host of socially relevant master’s theses and doctoral dissertations in a wide range of natural hazards research. Many of his students have gone on to become leading practitioners in the field. In a career that spanned seven decades, White produced over 400 scholarly papers and earned 50 degrees and honorary awards.
- Robert. E. Hinshaw, Living with Nature’s Extremes: The Life of Gilbert Fowler White (Johnson Books, 2006);
- Robert W. Kates and Ian Burton, eds., Geography, Resources, and Environment, Volume 1: Selected Writings of Gilbert F. White and Volume II: Themes from the Work of Gilbert F. White (University of Chicago Press, 1986);
- Task Force on Federal Flood Control Policy, A Unified National Program for Managing Flood Losses: Report by the Task Force on Federal Flood Control Policy (House Doc. 465, S. Government Printing Office, 1966);
- Gilbert F. White, Human Adjustment to Floods: A Geographical Approach to the Flood Problem in the United States, D. diss., (University of Chicago, 1942).