Growing Returns

Hurricane season is here. What past storms can tell us about reducing risk.

With the start of another Atlantic hurricane season, coastal residents from Texas to New York should hope for the best and prepare for the worst. While the current prediction is for a close-to-normal 2019, prior years have demonstrated that it only takes one storm to bring widespread devastation.

In 2018, Hurricane Michael became the first Category 5 storm to hit the continental U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Communities are still recovering from the unprecedented 2017 Atlantic Hurricane season, which caused $282 billion in damages, including $92.2 billion in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands from Maria and $128.8 billion from Harvey in Texas.

Through this devastation, we have learned several important lessons about how to better prepare for and react to storms to reduce damages and hasten recovery.    Read More »

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States are turning to data and interactive maps to help residents confront and manage flood risks

2019 has been an unprecedented year for flooding, even before the start of hurricane season. Despite the number of devastating hurricanes in recent years, a new University of Notre Dame study published in Climatic Change found that most coastal residents do not plan to take preventative action to reduce damages.

In addition to speeding up the recovery process, taking action before disaster strikes can help homeowners reduce damages, save money and even lives. For riverine floods, every dollar spent before a disaster saves $7 in property loss, business interruption and death.

So how can individuals, businesses and the public sector be incentivized to make proactive investments to reduce vulnerability before a disaster strikes? The first step is clearly understanding risks—now and in the future—and having concrete recommendations for how to mitigate them.

In the past, FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Rate Maps have been the source for this information; however, these probability-based maps have not resonated with most people as they rely on the obscure “100-year floodplain” concept. Being told you live in an area that has a 1 percent chance of flooding any given year does not inspire action, nor does it reflect the reality of a changing climate.

In recent years, states have stepped up with more robust tools that give residents a clearer depiction of risks and resources for how to reduce them. Three states stand out. Read More »

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From barrios to the bio bay, what Puerto Rico’s recovery teaches us about resilience

Natural disasters are oftentimes felt most severely by human communities and ecosystems that are already vulnerable. This disparity is on clear display in Puerto Rico, where I am currently working.

On Sept. 20, 2017, just two weeks after Hurricane Irma skirted the islands of Puerto Rico, the eye of Hurricane Maria struck, with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour and gusts measured at 255 miles per hour by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, until the weather station was torn away. Twelve hours of wind, rain and high seas left no part of Puerto Rico unscathed.

In Vieques, the island where I’m based, and other remote areas of Puerto Rico, the power grid was offline for more than five months – the longest blackout in U.S. history.

While recovery efforts were slower and more painful than they should have been, the Puerto Rico experience still offers some key lessons in resilience. Read More »

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Army Corps releases crucial guide for reducing flood risk and increasing resilience

This week, the Army Corps of Engineers formally released an important resource guide, “Engineering with Nature: An Atlas.” This isn’t your typical government issued atlas of maps and figures. It’s an important first step toward broadening understanding, consideration and acceptance of natural infrastructure as a flood risk reduction and resilience strategy.

The glossy compendium of 56 Corps projects illustrates that restoring nature and using nature-based features and processes – such as dunes, wetlands, reefs, functioning floodplains and rivers – can efficiently yield real economic, environmental and social benefits.

Here are four ways the atlas helps to advance natural infrastructure solutions. Read More »

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Four recommendations for new governors on preparing for disasters and building resilience

Most politicians know that reelection can rest on successfully navigating a disaster response.

A bitter truth is that, as climate change continues to make weather events more intense and frequent, it is increasingly likely that governors will be grappling with critical tests of resilience brought on by more extreme weather events, natural disasters, crumbling infrastructure and cyber threats.

But the paradigm is shifting from disaster response to disaster preparedness, as it is becoming clear that the human and economic toll of not being prepared for disaster may be just as consequential as the immediate response.

The good news is that new leaders taking office this month now have a New Governors’ Resilience Playbook, thanks to a bipartisan committee of 18 governors known as the U.S. Climate Alliance. These experienced leaders advise incoming governors on how to build long-term resilience during their first year in office and recommend a 10-step program based on best practices. The best practices gathered in the New Governors’ Resilience Playbook will help any new governor tailor resilience efforts to meet their state’s needs. Click To Tweet

Aimed at busy executives, the playbook is a quick read with lots of good advice about leadership, timeliness and governance. At its core, the message is that new governors need to focus on accelerating actions that build resilience to better prepare for disasters before they strike.

The resilience playbook includes four overarching takeaways for new leaders. Read More »

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Virginia is creating a coastal resilience plan. Here are 5 ways it can succeed.

Virginia is experiencing some of the highest rates of sea level rise in the nation and has suffered a 250 percent increase in federally declared disasters over the last 20 years. The commonwealth’s coastal and riparian communities are becoming more and more vulnerable to flooding and storm damage exacerbated by climate change.

The good news is that Virginia is taking proactive steps to make its people and communities more resilient.

Last month, Governor Ralph Northam signed an executive order designating an official chief resilience officer and directing the creation and implementation of Virginia’s first Coastal Resilience Master Plan to reduce the impacts of coastal flooding.

Here are five important points for Virginia policymakers to consider as they move forward with a coastal resilience plan. Read More »

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How to accelerate the use of natural infrastructure to aid climate change adaptation

Florida and North Carolina are once again recovering from hurricanes – this time, from two of the largest storms to hit our coasts in a century. In a climate-driven world, an important aspect of recovery is rebuilding in ways that make communities safer and more resilient to storms.

One strategy for reducing future flood risks is restoring natural features such as barrier islands, dunes, wetlands and floodplains. These natural infrastructure solutions help slow storm surge and hold flood waters, reducing the devastating impacts of storms.

Even where a dune was completely lost during a storm, it did its job. A dune’s job is to be a chew toy for waves, so that roads and houses aren’t being chewed on. (Photo Credit)

Yet, despite what we know about the effectiveness of these features, natural infrastructure is still an underutilized resilience strategy.

While there is broad agreement that natural infrastructure can be an effective, sustainable means to reduce flood damages, existing information gaps make it difficult for city planners, engineers and decision-makers to fully support these practices. The good news is there is work already underway to help fill these gaps and make natural infrastructure solutions more accessible. Read More »

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Following Florence, lessons from Harvey in recovery and resilience

With the impacts of Hurricane Florence continuing to unfold, coastal communities in the Southeast will soon be looking to other coastal areas, like Houston, as models for rebuilding resiliently. By doing so, they can speed their recovery and build back in smart ways – because that’s what resilience is all about.

For Houston, it wasn’t a single event that triggered discussions of resilience. Houston residents have faced a decade of intense storms and floods, with Hurricane Ike in 2008, the Memorial Day Flood of 2015, the Tax Day Flood of 2016 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Together, these repeat catastrophic events sounded the alarm that past approaches to managing flood waters are not sufficient.

Last week, I went to Houston to help decision-makers explore how the city can realize its aim to become more resilient. One year after Harvey, Houston is still learning from its experiences and building upon lessons learned from mega-disasters like Katrina and Sandy to move more rapidly into resilience-building phases. That’s good news, because with more frequent, intense weather events, communities across the nation are going to have to rebuild smarter.

Once communities and officials in the Southeast begin thinking about recovery from Florence and preparing to rebuild, there are four key lessons they can learn from Houston after Harvey that will ultimately help them strengthen the social, economic and environmental fabric of the region. Read More »

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Environmental impact bonds can help make coastal communities safer, sooner. Here’s how.

Last year’s hurricane season was the most destructive disaster season in U.S. history, causing $265 billion in damage and forcing more than one million Americans from their homes.

As climate change causes weather to get more extreme, coastal communities across the country are struggling to find cost-effective solutions to enhance their resiliency to storms and develop new ways to finance that work.

Photo Credit: Karen A. Westphal, Audubon Louisiana

How can we help make coastal communities more resilient more quickly? How can we engage the private sector in coastal resiliency efforts and generate a financial return for investors?

Together with my EDF colleagues and partners, I set out to explore how one innovative financing mechanism – environmental impact bonds – might help. Read More »

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Coastal resilience is getting high-tech, but there are still information gaps to fill

Coastal communities are struggling to accurately understand their flooding risks and identify appropriate solutions for mitigating the effects of rising seas and increased storm surges.

Fortunately, new technologies are emerging that facilitate more rapid acquisition of more accurate data and improve data visualization to support efforts to build coastal resilience.

Leaders in the private sector have already developed bold new technologies – from satellites and sensors to machine learning – to help understand risks and develop solutions. But this fourth wave ingenuity is not limited to the private sector. Several public sector entities offer innovative and readily usable resources to help build more resilient and safer coastal communities.

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