Rebuilding After Disaster and Planning for Resiliency

For a resiliency plan to work, there must be communication, appropriate allocation of resource and a clear decision-making process

By Niek Veraart and David Reel

Each year headlines are filled with news of natural disasters happening from coast to coast. In just the past 20 years, the U.S. has sustained 258 weather and climate disasters where overall damage costs reached or exceeded $1 billion, with the total cost of these events exceeding $1.75 trillion. Rebuilding after a disaster requires the reorganization of land use patterns and infrastructure investments. Inevitably, these situations force people to ask questions they never had before like: Should we reconsider where we live? Does it make sense to invest in infrastructure that could be destroyed again in a number of years? By adopting a collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach to resiliency planning, we can establish a strategy to rebuild after a disaster, and a plan for a more resilient future.

Accommodating and Protecting Existing Structures and Infrastructure

When thinking about resiliency, the first thing is how to safeguard structures and infrastructure that is already in place. Accommodation consists of altering or adapting existing structures and natural areas to decrease the risk of hazards while increasing resiliency. This strategy incorporates measures like elevating structures to mitigate the risks associated with storm surge or retrofitting structures. Another resiliency strategy is to use engineered solutions that are structural and/or nature-based.

Planning for Managed Retreat

Coastal areas are particularly vulnerable when it comes to weather and climate disasters. With rising sea levels, amplified storm surges and more frequent powerful storm events, erosion and flooding are becoming more common. This can lead to a rise in property and infrastructure damage with each successive event. As planners, we must contemplate the idea of managed retreat when an area is facing a chronic condition.

A Proactive Approach

There are many inland areas that are poorly developed but could be transformed into more vibrant and sustainable communities. Land use planning is a powerful tool that can be applied to create a vision for a community and for regulating day-to-day activities by having effective policies and guidelines in place. By considering public infrastructure investments, market incentives, and conservation of natural resources, we can appropriately determine the location, type, density, and timing of land use.

With flooding and drought being major risk factors, a watershed-based approach is an essential component of a transition towards resilient, sustainable communities and regions that balance demand with regeneration. Inland areas with lower risk factors can be reimagined with new, performance-based regulations and zoning practices.

By incorporating resiliency into a city’s long-term blueprint, planners can help existing communities define their own vision of resiliency and prioritize items that have potential to increase resiliency while generating other benefits. Risk assessments are critical in planning this stage of development and can be incorporated into a comprehensive plan that addresses both natural and human-caused hazards (commonly referred to as “shocks”) as well as social, environmental, and economic “stresses.” For a successful stand-alone plan, it is important that key stakeholder groups come together, establish a common vision and share responsibility for addressing specific aspects of community resiliency and include implementation and monitoring and performance tracking components.

Planning for All Situations

For a resiliency plan to be successful, there must be regular communication, appropriate allocation of resources and a clear decision-making process.

Successful resiliency requires communication not only among the owners and key stakeholders, but also agencies and the public at large. Michael Baker has been working with FEMA for over four decades, providing flood mapping, coastal and hydraulic engineering, hazard mitigation, public outreach, and other services. To help educate communities on the importance and the value of long-term resiliency planning, we have partnered with FEMA to develop FloodWalk, an app that uses augmented reality to educate and engage residents of Denver and users around the country about flood risk. We realize that changing behavior is a difficult thing to do, but by blending communication expertise, engineering knowledge and behavioral science, we can help communities position themselves for a more resilient and better future.

David Reel is Vice President and West Region Practice Lead – Planning at Michael Baker International’s Northern California office.

Niek Veraart is Senior Vice President and National Practice Lead – Planning, located in Michael Baker International’s New York City office.