Changing The Paradigm Of Disaster Preparedness And Rebuilding Post-Sandy

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"Changing The Paradigm Of Disaster Preparedness And Rebuilding Post-Sandy"

This is the second in a three-part post about what the Atlantic Coast can learn in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy from victims of other natural disasters. You can read part one here.

by Bill Becker

In 1993, flooding on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers produced one of the country’s worst natural disasters at the time, killing 50 people and causing $15 billion in damages.  Hundreds of flood control levees failed in nine Midwestern states.  Parts of the region remained underwater for five months.

When flood waters finally began to subside, pubic television aired a movie about Soldiers Grove’s relocation to higher ground (see Part 1).  People in several of the communities destroyed by “The Great Flood of 1993” saw the movie and tracked me down where I was working at the time — the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) — to ask for advice as they considered moving out of the floodplain.

I assembled some of the country’s best experts in sustainable community design and development. We selected two communities – Valmeyer, Il., and Pattonsburg, MO. – and held town-hall meetings to help residents identify what they wanted their villages to be like in the future.  We helped them develop master plans for recovery that incorporated sustainable designs and technologies.

Both communities eventually moved to higher ground and incorporated “green” features.  A web site described the process in Valmeyer:

With funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, a Sustainable Redevelopment Team of national experts was assembled to help the town learn about and incorporate sustainable technologies into their new town’s design. The group met three times with residents, concluding with a weekend community planning session in June 1994. Later that summer,

workshops were offered on passive solar design and ground-source heat pumps.

Seeds planted during those sessions resulted in a number of steps taken to make the new Valmeyer a resource-efficient community.

With financial incentives from the state, homeowners incorporated energy efficiency features as they rebuilt. Some homes used passive solar design; others installed geothermal heat pumps. The fire hall is a model of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Energy efficiency measures in Valmeyer’s new school were expected to save $35,000 a year.

Back at DOE, my bosses and I created a “Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development” to provide similar help to other communities.  One was Arkadelphia, AR, population 10,000. In the spring of 1997, an F-4 tornado tore through buildings and infrastructure across 60 of its blocks. Six people were killed, nearly 100 were injured, and more than 150 residences were destroyed. In the city’s business district, the tornado destroyed or damaged 45 businesses and 16 public buildings.

In the aftermath of the disaster, President Clinton toured the city and asked its residents, “What would you like this community to look like in 25 years?” His question changed the context of the city’s recovery from rebuilding the way it was to rebuilding the way it wanted to be.

City officials acted quickly. Within two days, they instituted strict guidelines for how buildings should be repaired or rebuilt. They created a task force, then an  “Arkadelphia 2025 Commission” to explore how best to rebuild for the future.

Four months after the tornado, the 2025 Commission invited me to brief it on the concept of sustainable development. I gave the Commission a slide presentation on what sustainability could mean for the city’s recovery. As the idea took hold, citizens formed a Task Force on Rebuilding, held weekly community meetings, organized a housing fair and held workshops to gather input from townspeople on the type of business district and neighborhoods they wanted.

Fifteen years after Arkadelphia’s tornado, the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center commissioned a study of the community’s progress. County Assessor Kasey Summerville told the researchers: “After the initial shock of the tornado, community leaders quickly banded together to create a plan to rebuild. Businesses, churches, and homes were all repaired or rebuilt better than they were originally.”

“Certainly, DOE’s efforts to introduce sustainability worked,” the researchers reported,  but “federal efforts to promote sustainability must come with financial resources.”  As was the case in Soldiers Grove, the lack of coherent federal technical and financial help had made sustainable recovery a long, difficult and risky process.

Then came Hurricane Katrina.  The State of Louisiana commissioned me and two other sustainable development experts – pioneering green architect Bob Berkebile and real estate expert Bill Browning —  to work with the people who remained in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward.

In a series of meetings with survivors, we coaxed out their aspirations on a wide variety of topics, including public safety, historic preservation, open space and preservation of natural areas, compact development, housing, infrastructure, recreation, mobility, public health, economic renewal, energy efficiency and renewable energy, the remediation of contaminated areas, and the community’s ability to survive future disasters.  It was clear the Lower Ninth could not be relocated, so Berkebile gently persuaded people who had lost their homes in the lower portion of the Ward to rebuild on vacant lots in the Ward’s higher parts.

The result of these sessions was 50 pages of grassroots recommendations the city officials folded in to a formal recovery plan.  Community groups in the Lower Ninth Ward are still working to implement the plan today, but rebuilding the neighborhood has proven to be a painfully slow process.

In Soldiers Grove, Valmeyer and Pattonsburg, we hoped to change the paradigm of disaster prevention by demonstrating an alternative to bulldozing rivers. Congressional studies showed that despite billions of dollars of investment in flood control structures over the decades,  deaths and property damage were increasing, often because the dams or nature didn’t perform as expected.

In Arkadelphia and New Orleans, we hoped to change the paradigm of disaster recovery by making sustainability and its co-benefits (we called it multi-purpose planning) an intrinsic part of rebuilding.

There has been some progress. The federal government no longer ignores nonstructural alternatives to disaster prevention. Congress has added some reforms to federally subsidized flood insurance. But the old paradigms have not shifted.  As the New York Times noted recently about the aftermath of the Great Flood of 1993,  “governments at all levels acted to try to limit development in flood plains and Washington spent billions of dollars relocating resident from these areas. But as pressure grew from agriculture and from housing developers, especially in the exurbs of cities like St. Louis, the regulations and guidelines were eroded and bypassed in subsequent years.”

Today, as the weather gets more extreme and the extremes become more frequent, oceans and rivers remain magnets for development. Communities with million-dollar views are more vulnerable than ever to billion-dollar disasters. Half of the U.S. population lives on our coasts and the number is growing. When disaster strikes, the victims’ first impulse is still to call in the engineers to subdue nature – a futile response in the long term — and their politicians’ first impulse is to help them.

The “it won’t happen here” illusion doesn’t apply only to waterside communities; climate change is a versatile threat. But communities can be versatile, too. If they can’t move away from hazards, they can retrofit to manage the risks.

In the West where record wild fires are occurring,  homeowners can create “defensible borders”.  Heat waves are now the No. 1 weather related killer in the United States, causing more fatalities each year than tornadoes, hurricanes, lightening and floods combined.  Cities can reduce inner-city temperatures during heat waves by planting trees, promoting roof gardens and light-colored roads and rooftops. More cities can create “cooling centers” for their most vulnerable citizens.

Coastal buildings can be strengthened to withstand most hurricane-force winds. Homes, schools and churches in tornado alley can be equipped with safe rooms.

In fact, any disaster-prone community achieve greater resilience, even when resources are scarce.  Often, the most important resource is not financial capital from the government, but intellectual capital from the citizenry. In Soldiers Grove, for example, the passive solar buildings in the new town cost no more to construct than conventional buildings. The new buildings were just built smarter.

Still, there is no question that disaster mitigation, particularly moving out of harm’s way, is a slow and arduous process. More enlightened federal funding policies and programs would make sustainable recovery easier and more common. More about that in Part 3 of this post.

Bill Becker is the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project. For more specific information about the Soldiers Grove experience and its lessons for other disaster-affected communities, see Becker’s manual, “Rebuilding for the Future”.

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9 Responses to Changing The Paradigm Of Disaster Preparedness And Rebuilding Post-Sandy

  1. Mark E says:

    I applaud DOEs efforts and like Bill (the author) wish it would go faster. Just one quibble…. in the last paragraph Bill equates disaster mitigation with moving out of harm’s way. To the extent climate change instigates or exacerbates disasters, moving out of the way is not mitigation… it is an adaptation. Lets be real careful talking, a dubious, about discussing sustainability without simultaneously talking about the multi-wedge economy-boosting off-the-shelf technologies that are the only real way to achieve mitigation of climate-change related disasters. See thinkprogress.org/climate/2011/09/30/333435/socolow-wedges-clean-energy-deployment/

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Just how do you ‘move out of the way’ of a global cataclysm? Move to another planet?

    • Bill Becker says:

      Mark, thanks. I’m defining mitigation this way: relocation is one way to mitigate disasters (meaning in this case floods that affect people and property), but it’s an adaptation to climate change.

      In the context of climate change, you’re correct. Soldiers Grove adapted by moving and mitigated by building a passive solar community.

  2. Zimzone says:

    Until we get proactive, rather than reactive, on climate change, (which includes flooding), we’re just in a ‘tail wagging the dog’ mode.

  3. Paul Klinkman says:

    We know, first, that the ocean is rising 60% faster than models have predicted. Second, we’re not good at calculating runaway positive feedback mechanisms. Third, in geological history a sudden sea level rise is known to happen. Fourth, the storm surges are officially getting bigger, as of last month.

    So, when do we build sea walls and when do we just prepare to slowly abandon people’s ancestral homes?

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Sea walls are a waste of money. Retreat is the only answer. Imagine if you were living in Holland, Bangladesh, the Nile Delta or Florida. Unfortunately, magical wishful thinking just will not do. Retreat and live, or stay and drown. Or grow gills.

  4. Zola Moon says:

    Interesting article. Just one factual correction. Arkadelphia is in ARKANSAS, the postal abbreviation for which is AR. AK is the postal abbreviation for Alaska.

  5. Margo says:

    Alaska has scores of villages that need to be relocated because of climate change. But, not to be nit picky, but Arkadelphia is not in AK (Alaska) but in AR (Arkansas).