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Economics of Water Series: Extreme weather—resiliency, planning, and preparedness

December 05, 2017

Economics of Water, a Series—Part 2: Community leaders must have a clear understanding of their vulnerabilities and sensitivities

How can municipalities and leaders best prepare their communities for the impacts from severe weather events, similar to those recently faced by Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico? In part two of our Q&A discussion on these topics, two Stantec experts on resiliency and preparedness planning share their insights about what communities can do today.

This is part of our new Economics of Water blog series. In past years, we created an Economics of Water report to share trends, projects, and insights that expand the value of water infrastructure. We’re repurposing the report within our blog, and we look forward to sharing more insights on today’s most pressing water issues, trends, and solutions.

Coastal communities, like Flagler Beach, Florida, have vulnerabilities to natural disasters like hurricanes. Flagler Beach suffered beach access damage, enormous sand loss, and severe erosion during Hurricane Irma. (FEMA/Liz Roll)

Meet our experts:

  • Steve Mathies – Coastal restoration and resilience Leader for Stantec with more than 35 years of experience focused on ecosystem restoration and hurricane protection in the Gulf of Mexico coastal region.
  • John Malueg – Manager of Resiliency Programs at Stantec with more than 30 years of experience focused on resiliency, recovery, and disaster management across the globe.

Q: How can coastal communities better prepare for hurricanes and reduce their future risk of catastrophic/severe weather events?

John Malueg: Don’t limit strategies to primarily hard infrastructure, also review programs, initiatives, policies, design standards, and land-use designations that advance overall community resilience. Successful preparedness depends on diverse constituents working together to find compromises that benefit the entire community.

Steve Mathies: Coastal communities should never become complacent to the threat of hurricanes or severe weather. While you can never be totally protected from such events, investment in resiliency planning and risk-reduction measures is a proven and effective strategy to lessen their impact.

Q: What do you consistently see or hear from municipal leaders as their biggest hurdle or barrier to implementing resiliency programs for their communities?

John: A lot of questions relate to how to best foster partnerships with the private sector and best engage a broad cross-section of the community to advance resilience when most are struggling to meet daily challenges. These questions and concerns are heightened during times of crisis and recovery. In these cases, municipal leaders are largely concerned with how to best get their communities back on their feet.

The important thing to consider for leadership across all sectors is to ask and explore these questions and opportunities outside of disaster response. That is the best way to position a community to become more resilient to future events.

Workers begin repairs on the roof of a house in Big Pine Key, Florida, following Hurricane Irma. (FEMA/Howard Greenblatt)

Q: What are the main building blocks of any effective resiliency program, or the pillars of advancing resilience?

John: There are four key components that make up an effective resiliency plan, and leaders need to consider all of them:

  • Adoption: Adopting resiliency as a way of thinking. Resilience must be promoted and supported by leadership in a holistic manner, not an afterthought, otherwise you will see disproportionate added costs to achieve desired resilient outcomes. For example, consider assigning a person or team to evaluate and identify resiliency opportunities as part of your emergency response, as well as your normal development plan review process.

  • Holistic Benefits: Communities should strive to achieve co-benefits or “the Resilience Dividend,” which sets a minimum standard that ALL initiatives, programs, and projects will strive to achieve using holistic, community-based benefits considering social, economic, environmental, and organizational metrics.

  • Good Business: Promote resilience as good business, holding your team to a standard of documenting and celebrating a community-based return on investment. Leaders should strive to monetarily quantify benefits achieved through cost-benefit type analyses.

  • Diverse Involvement: Engage your community early and often. With broad community participation and input, traditional projects will be different, better, and more resilient. In fact, this approach helps to better connect various organizations, break down silos, and foster interdisciplinary thinking and innovation

Q: What coastal protection or restoration strategies or approaches should leaders consider to better support regions impacted by future hurricanes or severe weather events?

Steve: To successfully live and prosper in our low-lying coastal communities, it will require a combination of structural (pumps, levees, floodwalls, etc.) and non-structural (flood proofing of dwellings, elevation of structures, green infrastructure, etc.) measures.

Community leaders should:

  1. Have a clear understanding of their vulnerabilities and sensitivities.
  2. Prioritize coastal plan strategies to mitigate the vulnerabilities.
  3. Tap into state/federal grant programs to help fund coastal protection projects.
  4. Have an emergency response plan and contract mechanisms for recovery work.

Carlos Murati, Public Assistance staff, assesses extensive road damage in Cubuy, Naguabo, Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. Heavy rain caused a landslide that left a water pipeline exposed. (FEMA/Yuisa Rios)

Q: What are the key coastal restoration initiatives or projects in Florida or the Gulf Coast region over the next 10 years that will positively impact quality of life and economic development?

Steve: There are numerous projects that have or will help these areas, including efforts that we’re proud to be involved with.

The Permanent Canal Closures & Pumps (PCCP) project in New Orleans is the largest combined pumping capacity project in the world. The East Timbalier Barrier Island Restoration Project in coastal Louisiana provides protection to thousands of acres of fragile wetlands landward of the island. Green infrastructure for the city of New Orleans provides flood storage and thus reduces pressure on the internal drainage system.

The Miami Beach Pump Station and Outfall Permitting Program will include construction of seawalls, pump stations, and storm water outfall structures. Projects executed under the program include Indian Creek Drive that involved shoreline stabilization of 4,000 linear feet of seawall, mangrove plantings, elevation of an adjacent road, and construction of walkway.

Beyond these projects, we’ve also worked on shoreline-related restoration projects in New Jersey, New York, and Delaware that support wildlife restoration, shoreline protection, and improved coastal infrastructure in many key areas impacted by Hurricane Sandy.

Q: What else would you want community and municipal leaders to know about the best ways to design and implement resiliency programs?

John: At Stantec, we hold ourselves to a standard of “Design with Community in Mind.” In the case of disaster recovery, we promote the same mindset: “Recover with Community in Mind.” As devastating as disasters are, recovery is an opportunity for leaders to approach recovery and resilience with the right knowledge-based mindset.

Every community leader says he or she wants to build back better, stronger, and more resilient, but very few achieve these goals. I think it’s critical to use disasters as an opportunity to come together under the umbrella of a common cause—recovery. It is crucial to tweak your vision of your community to address a changing future and leverage local public, private, and disaster recovery funding to advance resilience.

There are four major things for communities and leaders to consider:

  1. The uniqueness, function, and role of each segment of coastline in your community. Coastlines are unique, and therefore every coastal flood risk mitigation strategy should be evaluated independently and as part of a greater system.

  2. Understand your vulnerabilities, risks, probability of an event, subsequent consequences, and sources of risk. With this knowledge in-hand, community leaders are positioned to better identify, select, design, and implement the resiliency program that are best for their communities.

  3. Focus on holistic strategies: off-shore (e.g., living reefs), near or on-shore (e.g., natural and reinforced sand dunes, seawalls, and wetlands), inland (e.g., flood walls, berms), site specific (e.g., green infrastructure), and building specific (e.g., elevating structures, flood-proofing, repurposing of first floors, elevating critical electrical and mechanical systems).

  4. Consider future risks associated with climate change, including sea-level rise. Dollars spent today to design and construct to a higher future standard are often cost-effective and sometime even negligible.

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