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NDMC’s directors look back at what led to center’s founding 25 years ago

August 6, 2020

From left to right: NDMC founder Donald Wilhite, former NDMC director Michael Hayes and current NDMC director Mark Svoboda at the Center’s 20-year anniversary in 2015.

In 1995, the National Drought Mitigation Center opened its doors in Chase Hall on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln East Campus. Its founding director, Donald Wilhite, had to tell two of the center’s first staff members he hired that funding was only in place to keep the doors open for a year.

“But,” he told Michael Hayes and Mark Svoboda, “I’m pretty damn confident that we can turn this first year of funding into long-term support for the Drought Center.”

Wilhite said that a series of research projects, workshops and collaborations with state and federal leaders leading up to its founding in 1995 reinforced for him a need to develop a center that would put drought issues front and center for policymakers. Wilhite indicated that discussions regarding preparedness for natural disasters often excluded drought, which is much different from other natural hazards given its slow onset characteristics and often ‘invisible’ impacts compared to earthquakes, hurricanes and floods.

A few massive droughts in the years leading up to the NDMC’s founding helped others see the need, too.

“It really addressed a need that the nation had,” Hayes said. “Don had done a great job in scoping out what a drought center would look like. He held a national conference in Portland in 1994, where the recommendations for a national drought center were put forward. He really did his homework in setting up the NDMC.” 

Hayes and Svoboda went on to become Wilhite’s successors as directors of the NDMC, which celebrates its silver anniversary in 2020.

“The NDMC was at the forefront in bringing attention to the drought problem, and developing and sharing resources that better address this hazard proactively,” said Svoboda, the current NDMC director. "The 25th anniversary of the NDMC is a great time to reflect on all that we’ve done to better detect, prepare and plan for droughts before it’s too late, and to celebrate the continued, growing support for our work. We still have a lot to do, but we’ve come a long way.” 

Now retired, Wilhite’s emphasis when he began working at the University of Nebraska was going to be more broadly exploring numerous climate impacts. That too was influenced by a major drought. One hit the Great Plains in 1976 and 1977. Wilhite earned a grant from the National Science Foundation to evaluate state and federal responses to the drought. 

“At the end of the study, the basic conclusion was neither federal nor state response to the drought was very effective,” he said. “It was mostly poorly coordinated. It was reactive. It was more after the fact, what came to be called crisis management. There was little preparation for a drought.”

The results of that study led Wilhite to think about how other countries deal with and prepare for droughts. He received another NSF grant to evaluate Australia’s response to an early 1980s drought tied to a severe El Niño event. Australia’s response aligned similarly with the U.S. and Great Plains drought responses he’d analyzed. Both were mostly reactive. He then looked at data from South Africa. Similar reactive response. 

“It became a common understanding that droughts affected many countries throughout the world, and governments in general were just poorly prepared to deal with them,” he said. 

In 1986, Wilhite organized a major international drought symposium and workshop at UNL. The goal was to bring experts and leaders together to explore why governments of all shapes and sizes were typically unprepared once drought took hold. Was it a lack of scientific understanding? Poor policies? No policies? 

“The conclusion was that it wasn't that we didn't have a fairly good grasp on the science of drought,” WIlhite said. “We had some real deficiencies in terms of policy.” 

That conclusion shaped what Wilhite sought to improve — the way governments prepare for drought. From monitoring droughts, to creating proactive drought plans that sought to reduce risk in advance of droughts rather than scrambling to react to current droughts, there was plenty of room for improvement in the U.S. alone. In the early 1980s, Wilhite said, only three states had drought plans on file. 

Following the symposium, Wilhite founded the International Drought Information Center at UNL. The center’s mission was to create a global network to help foster more communication about drought preparedness. Drought Network News, a newsletter edited by Deborah Wood, was published three times annually, providing case studies that showed how different countries tackled drought before and during the events. The IDIC received some significant initial publicity, Wilhite recalled. 

Then, in 1988–89, the U.S. experienced more severe drought. A colleague of Wilhite’s in the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked him to assess the drought mitigation actions taken by state and federal agencies during those years and recommend future federal policy actions that would help. In a report published in 1992, he proposed two. One of those was to create a more comprehensive drought monitoring and early warning system for the U.S. (Read about the development of part of that system, the U.S. Drought Monitor, in the Fall 2019 edition of DroughtScape here.) The other was to create a national or regional drought mitigation center. 

The two proposals served as the key topics of two pre-conference workshops held at the invitation-only Portland drought conference funded by NOAA and USDA in 1994, when the region was experiencing severe drought.

“The support was overwhelming,” Wilhite said. “Yes, we needed a more comprehensive drought monitoring and early warning system for the country, and secondly, yes it would make a lot of sense to develop a national or regional drought mitigation center to bring the drought issue more front and center with regards to policymakers.”

Wilhite met with U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, whom he’d worked with on Nebraska’s drought plan when Kerrey was the state’s governor, and the senator agreed to push for federal funding for the National Drought Mitigation Center. NOAA and the USDA each contributed $200,000 in funding, and Wilhite was able to open the doors with Wood, Svoboda, Hayes, Kelly Smith and Vicki Wilcox on the first NDMC staff. Though NOAA’s funding was set to expire after a year, Wilhite felt confident that the NDMC would stay open. 

Svoboda said that the NDMC’s stance since its inception — that proactive, mitigation-based approaches to drought risk management lessen the effects of drought compared to in-the-moment crisis management — created a sound foundation for the NDMC that the center’s growing staff has built upon with partners from local, state, national and international levels. 

“I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention another watershed moment in the NDMC putting down solid roots early on and that was the creation of the U.S. Drought Monitor,” he said. “The USDM has become the gold star for drought monitoring and early warning in the U.S. and has become a model for dozens of states and countries around the world in how they track drought. You can’t pick up a paper or turn on the Weather Channel without seeing the USDM. It also helped solidify our partnerships with the USDA and NOAA”, Svoboda said.

Hayes attributes the success and longevity of the NDMC to three Ts — teamwork, trust and tools. 

“Don always emphasized the value of a great team,” Hayes said. “In those early days, we were six. And there are still four of us (Svoboda, Wood, Smith and Hayes) that are involved with the NDMC. 

“The success of the NDMC has centered around the team of individuals that make up the NDMC. That's definitely true during the nine-plus years I was director at the NDMC.”

And the NDMC’s efforts to develop or collaborate on the development of tools like the U.S. Drought Monitor, Vegetation Drought Response Index and Visual Drought Atlas has helped build a level of trust with current and potential partners, Hayes said. 

“When you ask us to do something, we do it,” Hayes said. “From 1995 to 2020, we have been that trusted source of drought-related information that people can go to.

“Those three Ts are going to be as important in 25 years as they are today. Droughts are still going to be here. They may actually play more of a role in American society depending on how climate variability and climate change proceed going forward. But those three Ts are still going more or as important.”

Wilhite looks forward to celebrating its 25th anniversary once the NDMC team and its supporters can safely convene. 

“What the Drought Center has done has been unbelievable not only nationally, but internationally,” Wilhite said. “It's been a great investment for the federal government and the state of Nebraska. It's brought so much visibility to the state and the university to be “drought central,” globally, on this issue. When I started working with drought in the early 1980s, there were three states in the country that had drought plans. Now there are 47 states. That was a message that I was up on my soapbox, just continuously pushing not only in the U.S. but internationally — you've got to find a way to prepare for future drought events since they are a normal part of climate.”

-Cory Matteson, NDMC Communications