Planning for resilience

Alexandra Hosford | 18 Aug 2014 | Comments

Natural disasters provide an opportunity to reflect on patterns of development and evaluate best practices in the way we have planned (or not), built, and maintained our cities and infrastructure. Tragedies like Superstorm Sandy offer an incentive to improve technology and the methods we use to protect and restore our hometowns.

Superstorm Sandy made landfall on October 29, 2012, just when the tide was at its highest level. Damage was concentrated in coastal communities in New York and New Jersey, where the high tide combined with the storm surge to cause severe flooding (14 feet in some places) and structural damage [1]. In all, Sandy caused $65 billion in damage and killed over 150 people [2].

Sandy was so devastating because it made landfall in an area that rarely experiences hurricanes. The culture in this region is to live, work, and play in close proximity to the ocean. The recovery efforts from Superstorm Sandy offer a test case for Future Proofing and disaster recovery planning, with important lessons for better protecting vulnerable coastal regions.

In the days and weeks after the storm, the recovery rhetoric was largely about rebuilding these coastal communities exactly as they were before the storm. “Restore the Shore” became the mantra of the recovery effort as agencies began working quickly to clear debris, restore power, and reopen flood damaged areas. For FEMA, Atkins’ emergency management staff mobilized to provide temporary housing assistance to meet critical needs in affected areas [3].

But behind the immediate clean-up and rebuilding effort, a long-term planning discourse emerged that focused on ensuring the safety and habitability of coastal areas for future generations.

For instance, New Jersey created a state action plan, published by the Department of Community Affairs, to manage the $1.8 billion in recovery funds provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

FEMA has also played a substantial role in determining how shore towns are rebuilt by updating flood maps and redefining the areas that will require buildings to be raised in elevation from a few feet to an entire story. Although flood map updates are still ongoing in the New York/New Jersey area, both states are requiring homes that sustained substantial damage during Sandy to be rebuilt to FEMA elevation standards based on flood zone.

Municipalities and state governments are starting to address the issues that leave entire communities vulnerable by investing in a variety of infrastructure improvements.

An example of using natural systems as protective infrastructure is the investment in increasing coastal dunes in New Jersey. Barrier islands are a natural defense system that can be used to help bolster a shore town’s resistance to storms. Areas of the Jersey Shore that had intact dune systems suffered much less damage than communities with boardwalks or housing developments directly facing the Atlantic.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has moved forward with a coastal dune-building program that will construct a continuous dune system along the vulnerable barrier islands, in partnership with the US Army Corps of Engineers [4]. Other communities are taking matters into their own hands, hauling leftover Christmas trees to the beaches to act as a base for building natural sand dunes [5].

The City of Hoboken, New Jersey, which sits across the Hudson River from Manhattan, is developing another type of infrastructure to protect against future storm damage. Hoboken is developing the first non-military application of a “micro-grid” to provide uninterrupted electricity to critical community facilities as part of their community resiliency planning effort [6]. Hoboken and other municipalities also are planning to develop sea walls and other hard infrastructure designed to protect coastal communities during future storm events.

Developing a framework based on individual buildings (e.g., the micro-grid), natural features (like dune systems), and large-scale infrastructure (such as sea walls) creates a layered approach to disaster planning that achieves both protection and resilience. Critically, the components of this layered approach can be replicated in other vulnerable parts of the globe before disasters precipitate the devastating need.

With extreme weather events expected to become more frequent and intense, the lessons being learned from Superstorm Sandy can be adapted to different locales and situations to prevent future catastrophic damage.