How US Coastal Communities Are Building Climate Resilience

According to the Third National Climate Assessment, nearly 5 million people in the coastal U.S. live within 4 ft. of their local high-tide level, and global sea levels are predicted to rise by up to 6.6 ft. by 2100 compared to 1992 measurements. Extreme weather events such as hurricanes, which bring with them flooding, are increasing in frequency and causing devastation along U.S. coasts.

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) and the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC) recently held a briefing to discuss infrastructure in relation to building resilience in America’s coastal communities. The panel included Nichole Hefty, deputy chief resilience officer at the Regulatory and Economic Resources Department of Miami-Dade County in Florida; Steve Walz, director of the Department of Environmental Programs at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments; and Mark Wilbert, chief resilience officer for the city of Charleston, South Carolina.

South Florida: A Region Comes Together

Hefty gave an overview of South Florida, an area that has been experiencing fluctuations in precipitation patterns and temperature extremes, which affects the regional economy, particularly agriculture and tourism.

“Last year was a pretty challenging year,” she said. Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017 as a Category 4 hurricane. “We feel like we really dodged the bullet because if we had been hit directly by a Category 5 hurricane, the damages would have been extremely severe.”

South Florida has been fighting sea level rise, storm surge vulnerability, more frequent king tides and coastal erosion. Scientists have been gathering data to conduct stormwater modeling and predict king tides.

South Florida’s elected officials came together in 2010 and started collaborating on a regional basis to address climate change issues, starting with a regional climate change compact that entails the development of policies, resources, action plans and community outreach. They have developed a unified sea level rise projection for the region to use for planning purposes. The region comes together to look at data and modeling and update projections as needed, relying heavily on the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and NOAA. The models are used by real estate developers and other stakeholders.

Hefty emphasized that insurance is part of economic resilience. She also highlighted the successes of strengthening infrastructure by changing design standards, raising roadways and installing pumps and berm to adapt to climate change.

DC: The Nation’s Capital Examines Its Rivers

Introducing initiatives in the Washington, D.C., metro area, Walz spoke about how rivers are an essential part of the region’s coastal water system. In the D.C. area, storm modeling is being done to manage risk related to the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. The risk increases as the population grows. Over the next 20 years, 1.2 to 1.3 million people will be added to the 5.3 million people in the D.C. metro area, he said. In addition to risking lives, storm surge and flooding puts national treasures at risk, as well as transportation, energy, water resources and communications.

The Potomac River flooding Washington, D.C., in 2010. (Photo Credit: brownpau/flickr)

The region anticipates hotter temperatures and more frequent drought conditions. The current baseline for days hotter than 95° F is about a dozen, and by 2080 the low scenario would be about 80 days with temps hotter than 90° F, Walz said. This means public health concerns, with more code red days for air quality.

The D.C. metro area recognized the need to prepare for the impacts of climate change and has put forth smart growth strategies. USACE has identified areas to address for flood risk mitigation. The coastal flood risk assessment involves storm modeling and planning for infrastructure and emergency response. Northern Virginia has finalized a critical infrastructure roadmap that will be expanded to the full region.

The lessons, according to Walz, are that the scope of success must be defined. This means focusing on: specific sectors and geographic areas, drivers, what impacts to address, raising awareness, defining risk tolerance to determine budget, stakeholder feedback, mainstreaming strategies into comprehensive plans, and communicating the plan to stakeholders.

There is “a lot going on in the local levels. We’re trying to knit it together regionally,” he said, because “the storms don’t stop at the jurisdiction lines.”

Charleston: Constant Flooding in a Small City

Telling the tale of the small southern coastal city of Charleston, S.C., Wilbert began by declaring that Charleston has had a flooding problem since it was founded.

“I think it’s important to understand that resilience is certainly about economics,” he said, bringing up the fact that the Port of Charleston provides $53 billion worth of economic impact to the city every year.

“Just as important for us in the city of Charleston is that resilience is about getting down to the personal level,” he added, mentioning that flooding affects people and their neighborhoods.

From the beginning, the city started filling in its marsh, which has created major problems. Flooding is primarily a drainage issue, and the city has invested $238 million in drainage and another $400 million in identified engineering projects.

After releasing its sea level rise strategy, the city has had three storm events: a 1,000-year rain event and two near-record storm surge events.

Tidal flooding in this city of 145,000 people is becoming a “nuisance,” said Wilbert. Right now, it occurs 50 days a year; it will occur more than 180 days a year by 2040.

Land use, or building where it makes sense to build, is a major piece of the puzzle for climate resilience. “We can’t make any more mistakes,” said Wilbert.

Regulations are another piece; going beyond the minimum and engaging engineers and scientists on stormwater and floodplain regulations. He also championed the national flood insurance program to help create adaptation measures in anticipation of big storms.

A third piece is addressing the skills gap. The city added four people this year to focus on flooding issues. Wilbert said bringing in people with the right skills is critical, including those who can communicate to federal officials about climate change issues.

A fourth piece is outreach. Wilbert called himself an “action” type, but said he learned that it’s not enough to act; communicating is just as important, telling people what you plan to do and then going out and doing it, instead of answering a barrage of questions later.

And then there is the infrastructure piece. “That’s the hard part,” he said, because infrastructure is expensive. Charleston has a billion-dollar problem, for example, and that’s more money than a small city can handle.

Climate resilience is a “shared responsibility,” Wilbert said. It takes government, businesses, neighborhoods and individuals working together to deal with the changes ahead.

Aileen Torres-Bennett

Leave a Reply