Friday, August 23, 2019

Terms and Conditions

The science around addressing environmental changes in our built environment is brimming with terms, buzzwords and jargon.  In an attempt to help clarify how many of these terms interact, I sought a variety of resources and found some excellent examples.  The best are summarized in two diagrams, below.

A recent post, here, defines the term "Risk" and outlines a methodology for reducing it.  The elimination or minimization or risk is, of course, the sole purpose of this page.  Essentially:

Which begs the obvious question: If reduction of vulnerability is the key, how can that be done?  A series of definitions provided in a presentation by scholars Erica Hetzel and Erica Largen, titled "Planning Tools for Climate Adaptation and Community Resilience" helps shape a relationship between the various components as I've depicted here:

Furthermore, a diagram I've seen in a number of locations (most recently accessed online in a presentation from Harris County, TX) breaks down the Adaptation/Mitigation arrow further as:

A resource from Texas A&M University describes the two (Hazard Mitigtion and Climate Adaptation) as "mutually compatible." I'd add that they are, as shown above, two parts of the same positive activity, resulting in the same, comprehensive improvements for our communities.  The TAMU piece explains:

"Addressing the serious issues of coastal growth, with ever increasing populations in coastal hazard zones, automatically addresses issues of climate change and exacerbating coastal hazards. The same set of policy tools will be used....

"Preparing in advance for disasters, whether acute like Katrina, Ike and Sandy or chronic like sea level rise, is what mitigation for natural disasters is all about.  While necessary to protect “inevitable development,” structural mitigation, such as a levee or a seawall, has the deleterious side effect of making hazardous areas seem safer than they are. Non-structural mitigation, which involves first and foremost planning, is the preferred alternative of almost every knowledgeable hazard management specialist...."

The article makes the case that planning does make a difference. "The key," the author says, "is figuring out what mix of requirements and incentives are best, and what level of government is best suited to carry out on-the-ground plans. The policy mix that best addresses current coastal hazard management will also best address impacts associated with global climate change."


Definitions provided by Hetzel & Largen are copied here for reference:

Adaptation:  Adjustment in natural or human systems to a new or changing environment that exploits beneficial opportunities or moderates negative effects.

Adaptive Capacity: The potential of a system to adjust to climate change, to moderate potential damages, to take advantage of opportunities, and to cope with the consequences. A society’s ability is a function of its adaptive capacity.

Resilience:  A capability to anticipate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from significant multi-hazard threats with minimum damage to social well-being, the economy, and the environment.

Mitigation: Intercepting the impacts of a hazard or climate change. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions (climate change); weakening the effects (natural hazards)

Vulnerability: The degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes. (Lessons from natural hazards and poverty)

Risk:  A combination of the magnitude of potential consequences of climate change impacts and the likelihood that these consequences will occur. Risk = hazard + exposure + vulnerability

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Resilience and Master Plans

A favorite (and timely) topic of mine, I read with interest an article published in the SCUP journal Planning for Higher Education in 2015 titled "Integrating Resilience Planning into University Campus Planning."  The article is useful in that it endorses the same kind of integrated planning discussed here on this page.  Some of the comments made by the authors were thought-provoking, including:

Many institutions are starting to understand the limits of their insurance coverage and the operational and financial risks posed by the increased threat of natural disasters and climate change. Severe weather poses the most obvious threats to property, but other, more subtle threats from drought and temperature extremes can include the rising costs of irrigation, stress on infrastructure, and limits to campus use during extreme heat. All of these threats can be reduced through resilience planning, mitigation measures, and prudent investment….

A significant factor in many institutions’ vulnerability to natural hazards and climate change relates to building codes. Buildings and infrastructure are designed and constructed to comply with the code requirements in place at the time of their design. The primary natural hazard-related objective of the building code is to protect against loss of life. There is little or no emphasis on safeguarding an investment, sustaining operations, or ensuring business continuity. In addition, codes have no retroactive provisions for improving older infrastructure and buildings with known weaknesses in order to conform to current standards. Over time, if left unchecked, the impact of a major event on older infrastructure and buildings could place catastrophic stress on the financial well-being of a campus.

The article describes the three major steps in the traditional campus planning process: (1) data gathering and analysis; (2) exploration of campus development options; and (3) synthesis or refinement of options and laying out an implementable plan.  The authors then tie similar steps in resilience (and hazard mitigation) planning to these, noting that “there are numerous advantages to integrating these two planning processes and, in particular, to using the comprehensive, inclusive nature of the campus plan to raise the visibility and level of planning around resilience-related challenges.”

1.  Campus Analysis
During the comprehensive data gathering and analysis stage of the campus planning process, collecting data on the campus’s vulnerabilities will strengthen the plan’s conclusions… A key aspect of the campus planning process is the assembly of a broad group of stakeholders to collectively craft a campus vision. Decisions around resilience are relevant to the entire campus constituency; they go beyond facilities management and risk management and include finance, academic affairs, student life, athletics, and others. It is prudent to capitalize on the broad campus planning conversations to raise awareness of resilience-related vulnerabilities and choices.

2.  Campus Development Options 
The second phase of a campus plan typically involves consideration of short- and long-term options for campus development. These alternatives should be developed and evaluated with an eye toward resilience objectives, including the financial cost of potential property damage and business interruption.

3.  Synthesis
As the campus plan is developed and finalized, resilience strategies should be prominent. Including a set of resilience-oriented design guidelines in the campus plan can help protect the institution and ensure its ongoing health.

In a previous post (and another) on this page, I outlined some of the specific ways the resilience/hazard mitigation components of this effort could be incorporated into the final plan document.  The SCUP article concludes with the following statement(s): 

Given the increasing need to prepare for natural hazards and the near- and long-term effects of climate change, institutions would be well advised to integrate resilience strategies into their campus plans. Resilience planning can have a profound and long-term effect on institutional sustainability, allowing institutions to develop a realistic understanding of their risks and vulnerabilities and enhancing their ability to adapt to natural hazards and climate change…. Incorporating resilience planning into the campus planning process provides an outstanding opportunity to leverage a familiar activity involving relevant key stakeholders to address a campus’s vulnerabilities, align resilience-related investments with the broad campus vision, and ensure the long-term viability of the institution.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Reference Update: The Whole Building Design Guide

The Whole Building Design Guide, an exhaustive reference for all things design and construction, is made possible by the National Institute of Building Sciences, and a wide range of Federal agencies and other organizations.  It includes a section on the parameters of Hazard Mitigation Planning that begins:

"Buildings in any geographic location are subject to a wide variety of natural phenomena such as windstorms, floods, earthquakes, and other hazards. While the occurrence of these incidents cannot be precisely predicted, their impacts are well understood and can be managed effectively through a comprehensive program of hazard mitigation planning.  Ongoing changes in climate patterns around the world may alter the behavior of hydro-meteorological phenomena within our lifetimes. The frequency and severity of floods, storms, droughts, and other weather-related disasters is expected to increase, as is the risk from associated changes in the manifestation of other hazards such as wildland fires."

The page includes definitions, descriptions and links to references about a wide range of hazards; and lays out a number of recommended best practices for planners, designers, building owners, communities and government leaders. A separate section adds a wealth of links to online resources on a variety of related topics, as well as building codes and standards. These links, in turn, provide connection to a seemingly limitless source of detailed information.  It is a highly recommended "must see" resource.

The page references a number of principles underlying the hazard mitigation process, paraphrased as follows:
  • Hazard mitigation is at the core of disaster resistance and supports achieving resilience.
  • Unsustainable development is one of the major factors in the rising costs of natural disasters.
  • Mitigation serves to help stop the cascading effects of hazards and their impact.
  • Concurrent or sequential multi-hazard events may result in a compounded impact.
  • Impacts from natural hazards can be reduced through preventive or corrective actions.
  • Proactive (preventive) mitigation measures are usually cheaper and more effective.
  • Risk reduction techniques must address as many applicable hazards as possible.
    High-performance buildings should exceed model building code requirements for disaster resistance.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

It's About Helping People Help Themselves

Photo Source

I recently re-read a fascinating paper by O’Brien, et al., titled "Climate Change and Disaster Management," published over a decade ago in the journal Disasters [2006, 30(I):64-80].   

The piece is built on the premise that “climate change, though a natural phenomenon, is accelerated by human activities.” It opens by citing statistics that bear out that “disasters triggered by natural hazards are killing more people over time and costing more.” This is, sadly, a trend that has continued, not abated, over the intervening years since the article’s publication.

The paper’s authors profoundly underscore the notion that, while hazards are natural, disasters are man-made. This is something discussed on this site frequently.  The article describes situations in developing countries, for instance, where entire populations have no choice but to live in flood-prone areas. 

“Hazards, such as floods, are natural events; however, disasters are not natural.  In Latin America, it has been common for some time to define disasters as ‘failed development…’ Since risk is a function of both hazard and vulnerability, and hazards are, at least to some extent, known and constant, vulnerability appears to be the main factor that distinguishes between those who suffer loss and those who escape it.”

A comprehensive approach to risk management “would integrate natural hazards mitigation, routine development efforts,… and efforts to address climate change.”  So, the writers ask, “what approach to planning is compatible with all three and provides a bridge among natural hazards mitigation, sustainable human development and adaptation to climate change?" Their answer is that “climate change adaptation needs to become part and parcel of comprehensive risk management.”

“The underlying drive of disaster management is to reduce risk to both human life and to systems important to livelihoods. Risk to human populations is a function of the frequency of a hazard event, its severity, and people’s vulnerability. Vulnerability depends on many factors that influence the amount of damage and the loss of human life that a particular hazard can cause. These variables include exposure, physical susceptibility, socio-economic fragility, and lack of resilience.  Vulnerability, and hence risk, is socially determined… and vulnerability is made up of ‘the characteristics of a person or group and their situation that influence their capacity to anticipate, to cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a natural hazard.’”

Definitions aside, what is important here is, in my opinion, that the decisions we make influence the severity of the impact of a natural hazard on our communities.  “Investments and development activities are almost never risk-neutral.”  The notion of defining a disaster as “failed development” raises a host of questions about why and how we often ignore (or minimize) the potential impact of a hazard event when, for instance, choosing a location for development or choosing how best to construct improvements in areas we know to be prone to natural hazards.

“Adaptation to climate change may involve some very difficult political choices. For instance, long-term changes to land use are likely to be required (affecting agriculture and forestry, the use of coasts, estuaries and river resources and settlement patterns and infrastructure).  It may be necessary to instigate a process of managed retreats from those areas that will become unusable, involving relocation to areas that offer security and opportunity. To deal with such serious matters, national decision-making will require strong, sustainable and accepted institutional structures and a population and civil society educated in the issues and alternatives.

For those who lack the choices populations in more developed countries enjoy, “risk management cannot, of itself, address the underlying causes of poverty. But if approached from the standpoint of resilience, it can help to build those structures that will enable a greater degree of self-help. It is about helping people to help themselves. The mechanisms, resources and capacity do exist.”

Short Memories

A recent article in the New York Times begins with a sobering observation of fact: "In many coastal states, flood-prone areas have seen the highest rates of home construction since 2010, a study found, suggesting that the risks of climate change have yet to fundamentally change people’s behavior."  The article continues, saying:

"There are many reasons construction persists despite the danger. In some cases it’s urban sprawl, in others it’s a desire among government officials for property-tax revenues. But whatever the reason, this kind of building activity will 'come back and bite,' said Benjamin Strauss, president and chief scientist of Climate Central, which produces and publishes research on the effects of global warming.

The article describes the two-fold problems of such irrational decisions. The first is financial. Flood risks and, thereby, flood insurance rates (and rebuilding costs) will continue to increase over the years for residents in these flood-prone areas.  The second is, for me, the most obvious: Safety. When the floods come, families will be put in danger, as will those who come to rescue them (if they come at all).  So why isn't more being done to prohibit (or at least inhibit) such development?

For many communities, it's a lack of political will to address the problem. Where homes are destroyed (as with Hurricane Sandy), local governments are reluctant to prohibit redevelopment, citing the negative financial impact of lost property tax revenue. While coastal properties continue to be so highly valued, the opportunity cost of a decision to create safer, less vulnerable coastal open space is just too high.

Memories are short. The article describes areas in the south affected by Hurricane Katrina where the desire for coastal living outshines the lingering danger of a potential future storm.  So houses continue to be built and eager homebuyers pay higher and higher flood premiums.

The City of Nashville has an answer.  An NPR piece a couple of years ago describes the government's plan to buy people out of their homes and eliminate the risk in flood-prone areas permanently.  The report continues:

"Since 2010, Nashville has bought 261 homes and hopes to acquire 90 more. They're mostly houses built before the 1970s, when the city raised its standards for how high a new structure had to be above the floodplain.  It's not as expensive for cities as it seems. The Federal Emergency Management Agency pays 75 percent of the cost of buyout, figuring that otherwise it could be stuck helping to fund flood insurance for a property, or paying to help rebuild it every few years. Buyouts have become a priority for FEMA as climate change had led to more intense rainfall events and flooding.

"'We don't look at the 2010 flood as a once-in-a-lifetime event,' says Roger Lindsey, who oversees flood mitigation for Nashville.  He says the focus of the buyout program is 'to take houses that are repetitive loss houses, to offer a homeowner fair market value for the house, and we demolish that home and return the land to a more natural state.'  The land then becomes space for a community garden, a greenway, or park. But that is up to neighborhoods to organize and could take time" 

Even leaders in Nashville admit it's not always an easy sell.  Homeowners are reluctant to leave.  But as the frequency and severity of flood events continues to grow, more are handing over their keys and giving in to the changing climate.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Bathtubs: Or When Words Fail

Frederick MD's Baker Park on Monday (source Frederick News Post)

Following a massive rain event that resulted in dramatic flooding along the I-270 Corridor between Frederick MD into Washington DC and suburban Virginia, I read a headline in the Washington Post that included the phrase “why the D.C. area was deluged by a month’s worth of rain in an hour.”  The article said:

The record-setting cloudburst unleashed four inches of water in a single hour, way too much for a paved-over, heavily populated urban area to cope with at the height of the morning rush.  The sheets of rain, with nowhere to run off, turned major roads into rivers while streams and creeks shot up 10 feet in less than an hour. The rushing water stranded scores of people in their vehicles, poured into businesses and the Metro system, submerged cars in parking lots, swamped basements and caused some roads to cave in, forming massive sinkholes.

Yes, it was a lot of rain that fell in a short period of time in an area marked by urban development (e.g., hard surfaces with limited drainage ability). But I kept reading for an answer to the question “Why?” Why the deluge? The article devolved into a discussion of warm air masses, stalled frontal boundaries and convective cells. But it still didn’t answer the question “Why?”

Then came the very last sentences in the article. Almost as an afterthought, a tepid explanation of the “why” behind the massive storm was tacked to the end of the piece by the author, simply:

Storm environments with these exceptionally high amounts of atmospheric water content are expected to increase from climate change-induced rising temperatures. And it’s plausible Monday’s rainstorm was intensified by the climate warming that has already occurred.

So much for a substantive explanation.

Fortunately, another article (a story published by WAMU, American University's radio station) in Washington, DC, did a much better job outlining both the evolution of the problem and the path going forward, as it is being laid out by FEMA and others.  The WAMU story correctly points out that:

This week’s flooding was caused by a short, intense storm that dumped water faster than stormwater pipes could carry it away. This is called interior flooding.  D.C. is also vulnerable to riverine flooding and tidal flooding. Both of these come from our rivers, but from different directions. Tidal flooding occurs when a coastal storm surge pushes up from the Chesapeake Bay, making the Potomac and Anacostia rise out of their banks. Riverine flooding occurs when a storm upstream brings too much water down the rivers.

More importantly, the article lays out the specifics of the climate problem and describes what city government is doing to address it and plan for the future.

Climate change is making all three types of flooding worse. Sea level is rising — already, the Potomac has risen 11 inches, and could go up another three feet. This makes tidal and riverine flooding more likely. At the same time, climate change is increasing the intensity of storms in the mid-Atlantic, meaning interior flooding is more likely, too. What was once considered a one-in-100-year storm could be a one-in-15-year storm by 2080….  Now, the District is spending $5 million to create a new, more accurate flood map that will take into account all three types of flooding as well as climate change, showing residents in much more accurate detail which areas are most ask risk.

“The modeling will tell us where to prioritize, and where the areas are more bathtub-like within the District,” says Tommy Wells, director of the District Department of Energy and Environment.  Wells says addressing those bathtub-like areas, where floodwaters can build up without draining, will be a major undertaking. It may require replacing some stormwater pipes with larger ones, and also rethinking other public areas that could hold water temporarily during an intense rainfall, keeping it from flooding homes and businesses.  “That next park that we build or redo or refurbish — maybe we need to drop that park down two or three feet so that water will be held there in the event of a major storm,” says Wells.


Update (a day later): A DC Area TV news story focused on the dramatic flooding in Frederick, MD's Baker Park (pictured at the top of this entry).  They said the massive deluge in the park was done on purpose.  It was the result of a deliberate flood mitigation system put in place to steer water away from populated areas!