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Economics of Water Series: Extreme weather—after the hurricanes

November 21, 2017

Resiliency and coastal restoration experts say severe storm recovery starts with preparedness

At Stantec, our water team is focused on five core areas to help drive innovation and growth of smart water technology for municipalities, governments, and private industry. They are: resiliency, coastal restoration, reuse, sustainability, and total expenditure (TOTEX) planning models.

With the recent hurricanes impacting Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, we’ve asked several of our experts to share their perspectives on resiliency and coastal restoration—two critical topics as communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from severe weather events.

Members of FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue Nebraska Task Force One (NE-TF1) perform one of many water rescues in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. (FEMA News Photo)

Planning an effective response during extreme weather is the first of a two-part Q&A with our experts, and it is also 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.

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.

Hurricane Harvey dumped nearly 52 inches of rain in a six-day period and completely overwhelmed Houston. (FEMA/ Dominick Del Vecchio)

Based on your experience, what are the top best practices that communities can follow to effectively respond to and then more quickly recover from devastation caused by hurricanes and/or flooding?

Preparedness is the key. Effective response starts with a risk assessment that guides a community’s preparedness decision-making by defining the local mix of threats, vulnerabilities, and risk tolerance. That knowledge enables communities to make better resource allocation decisions both pre- and post-disaster. An effective response means recognizing the value of preparedness and providing adequate tools for planning, resourcing, inter-agency coordination, and training while also exercising a community’s inherent capabilities.

Those steps help minimize damage from a disaster event by building resiliency, which in turn brings about a quicker recovery. After a disaster, the challenge is to accelerate recovery and minimize future risk. For example, we use pre-qualified contractors and pre-positioned contracts for debris removal, emergency work, and recovery services; a variety of tools for accelerating procurement, standardizing designs, and compressing construction schedules; and systems to streamline the administration of the federal recovery grant process. We also encourage everyone to back up their infrastructure records!

What immediate and near-term impacts on coastal areas are we seeing due to recent hurricane events in Texas and Florida? Anything that stands out to you, in contrast or comparison to past events?

Steve Mathies: Rainfall quantities were off the charts. Houston, for instance, knew they were highly vulnerable to localized flooding under normal conditions and were in discussions with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) about developing a water-management plan for the city and surrounding areas. Hurricane Harvey dumped nearly 52 inches of rain in a six-day period and completely overwhelmed the city. Economic losses are expected in the $75 to $100 billion range. Hurricane Irma heavily impacted the entire state of Florida, and it could have been much worse if the eye had stayed farther east, as predicted. Rainfall amounts ranged from 4 to 16 inches and damages are estimated to be at least $65 billion.

Storm frequency and intensity could be on the rise, which threatens an ever-increasing number of citizens that are opting to relocate to areas close to the coast. Management of water from abnormal flooding events will continue to increase over time.

How can federal agencies, local responders, and private companies best work together to support the disaster response and recovery process? How can other communities get involved?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advocates a “whole community” approach to response and recovery. The intent is to optimize the process by integrating needs, capabilities, and resources across the community. That means engaging the full capacity of private and non-profit sectors, faith-based organizations, and the public to coordinate with local, state, tribal, and federal government partners. It’s matching capabilities and resources, and applying them where they are most needed and can have the greatest positive effect. A prepared and coordinated community has more survivors and less damage; and it recovers faster.

Hurricane Irma cut a path of destruction through the Caribbean and Florida, including this neighborhood in Big Pine Key, Florida. (FEMA/ J.T. Blatty)

What are the most critical steps that communities need to take in preparing to partner with FEMA during natural disasters?

The partnership is among FEMA, the community, and the state. Many communities position themselves for faster recovery by applying for state and federal resources to fund preparedness and hazard-mitigation projects. They can also align their operations with federal recovery grant program requirements to reduce the lead time for accessing grant money.

Communities should prepare their business processes and systems to meet FEMA’s Public Assistance Program documentation requirements, manage their procurement process in compliance with Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), pre-position contingency contracts for debris removal and other emergency services, and develop institutional knowledge of FEMA and other federal recovery grant programs, such as HUD Community Development Block Grants. Those actions help remove time-consuming compliance obstacles that can arise when the capacity to correct them is at its lowest.

What else would you want community and municipal leaders to know about smart approaches to response and recovery, including addressing any infrastructure impacts?

Steve: The bottom line is that just because a community has not experienced a major storm event yet, doesn’t mean that they should not prepare.

The benefit and need for a coastal restoration plan is key and includes four components for success:

  1. Understanding of the effects of coastal land loss and subsequent economic and environmental impact to the community.
  2. Development of a prioritized list of coastal-improvement projects to reduce risk.
  3. Gaining stakeholder input into the decision process.
  4. Identifying sources of funding.

We can’t overlook the impact of politics and the critical role it plays in disaster management. Communities with forward-thinking leaders who recognize the need to be prepared and have the will to find and commit resources fare better than those who don’t. Again, it’s all about preparedness—the time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining, and it takes political determination to make that happen.

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