Posted in: United States

Hope After Heartbreak

By | January 13, 2018


Irma, Harvey, Matthew, Sandy, Irene—the increased number of natural disasters in recent years has made storm names eerily familiar. Things will only get worse in the future. A model from the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory indicates that warming by the end of the 21st century will likely increase tropical cyclone intensity by 2 to 11 percent.

In the aftermath of these disasters, some governments do more than just rebuild. Instead of merely recreating old infrastructure, a few cities take proactive steps to improve the lives of their residents and the resilience of their communities.

Devastation in Tuscaloosa

A strong tornado tore through the community of Tuscaloosa, Alabama at 5:13 p.m. on April 27, 2011. Over the next six minutes, an eighth of the city was destroyed, 1,200 people were injured, and 53 lost their lives. After seeing the destruction, President Obama said he had never seen devastation like this.” The tornado disproportionately affected the poor: 70 percent of damaged properties belonged to low-income renters and homeowners. Mayor Walter Maddox and his administration were left with the difficult task of rebuilding their city.

Speaking to the media, Maddox declared that “the best way for us to honor those we lost is to rebuild the city in a way that honors their sacrifices.” The city government worked to build an inclusive coalition, holding meetings across the city and launching a virtual town hall website. Thousands of people provided their input. Surprisingly, those living in Tuscaloosa overwhelmingly weren’t interested in taking the fast lane to recovery. In their town hall comments, people expressed their desire to take the time to rebuild strategically.

Within days of the storm, as search and rescue efforts were still wrapping up, Maddox and City Council laid out a bold agenda, establishing a task force to plan construction in affected areas. Just four months later, Tuscaloosa Forward, a strategic plan to renew and rebuild the city, was born. The coalition identified four principles to guide redevelopment: effective land use, sustainable redevelopment, affordable and high-quality housing, and improving infrastructure to address long-standing issues and future needs. The local newspaper had high praise for the project, summing up the hopes of an entire city: “This may be the most open, collaborative, and important process the City of Tuscaloosa has ever engaged.”

Maddox and the City Council reassigned seven staff members and created a recovery agency, which later transitioned into the Office of Resilience and Innovation. “We gave staff the ability to go into a lot of departments, cut through city bureaucracy, and focus on recovery,” Maddox told the HPR. “Our recovery was rapid because we were able to cut the red tape and move the things we needed to move.”

Maddox’s approach has been widely praised. In 2012, he was named municipal leader of the year by American City and County for his “strong, decisive and comforting leadership.” He now serves as a Program on Crisis Leadership Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, helping train other elected officials and civil servants on how to respond to disasters. “Recovery is the hardest aspect of the event,” Maddox told the HPR. “When all the cameras are gone and the news cycle ends, your community is still struggling to rebuild and handle day-to-day operations of the government at the same time.”

Today, nearly all affected businesses have reopened or are currently under construction, and the city has invested over $364 million in improvements to private properties. $130 million has been provided for public infrastructure projects and economic development, rezoning land to provide high quality housing and commercial space. Moving forward, the mayor has also stressed the importance of adaptive management. “When we implemented the Tuscaloosa Forward plan, we didn’t stop improving,” said Maddox. “We have gone back on a quarterly basis and made changes where we felt like we needed to make changes.”

Resilience in Houston

As Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston, Stephen Costello, former Houston City Councilor and current Chief Resilience Officer of Houston, was closely monitoring flooding. “This was something we’d never anticipated before, both in terms of area of coverage and in concentration,” Costello told the HPR. Trained as an engineer with expertise in flooding and drainage, he’s affectionately called the ‘Flood Czar’ by the city’s mayor. His office’s job is not to coordinate immediate disaster response, but instead to look at the long-term, evaluating projects that will improve the resilience of the city in future disasters. With only one staff member, Costello’s agency is stretched thin.

Houston, a large city built on the Gulf of Mexico, is predisposed to natural disasters. In 2015, the Washington Post rated the city as one of the most flood-prone cities in the United States. Since 1964, Harris County has declared 27 disasters—eight hurricanes, eight floods, six severe storms, three fires and one tornado.  Because of the city’s sprawl and its proximity to water, commercial and residential properties are widely built on floodplains. Yet this practice is difficult to prevent: development of floodplain maps began in the ’70s and frequently change based on improved modeling.

With these factors in mind, Costello was working even before Harvey to mitigate potential damage in areas where the city saw repetitive flooding. He established the Stormwater Action Team to figure out how to improve infrastructure as soon as possible. SWAT launched a task force, in the works for the past year, focusing on challenges the city is facing in redevelopment. “We’ve been trying to build trust with the community and illustrate that we’re spending money on improvements wisely,” he said. Harvey created new challenges for the city, but Costello’s agency is maintaining its focus: “Our focus always has been and will continue to be flooding and drainage.

Despite being under-resourced, Costello is optimistic about the future: “I’m excited about the fact that as we recover we’ll be focusing on a more resilient phrase and long-term sustainability. I don’t want to prepare a comprehensive report and have it sit on the shelf. I’m an engineer–I want to build stuff and get it done.”

Every natural disaster is different, but the blueprints laid by one city can undoubtedly provide the foundations for plans laid by others. Much like Tuscaloosa, Houston is focusing on engaging individuals and businesses in the creation of a long-term resiliency plan. However, despite the fact that it is a far smaller city, Tuscaloosa has dedicated significantly more resources to long-term resiliency. With both the intensity and frequency of storms increasing in Houston, that may change in the coming years.

Principles of Sustainability

While Tuscaloosa and Houston are both actively working to improve their resiliency, they have decidedly different approaches to sustainable development. In Houston, Costello said that “to develop sustainably we figure out a way to use as many resources as possible to minimize the effects of flooding.” Tuscaloosa’s increased allocation of resources to development projects means that they have the luxury of thinking long term. “[Sustainability] means that what we rebuild lasts more than a generation,” said Maddox.

Municipal leaders aren’t alone in their struggle to define sustainable development. The international community has struggled for years with the complicated dynamics of balancing environmental preservation, economic development, and the well-being of people. The most widely used definition of sustainable development comes from the United Nations: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

100 Resilient Cities, a project of the Rockefeller Foundation, is a global coalition of municipalities and experts working together to build stronger cities. Their “City Resilience Framework” describes the essential systems of a strong city in terms of four dimensions: health and wellbeing, economy and society, infrastructure and environment, and leadership and strategy. The foundation emphasizes the importance of communities being reflective, using past experiences to inform future decisions; inclusive, forming a broad coalition when crafting policy; and redundant, accommodating potential system failures through extra capacity. The project is still young, launching in 2013, but hopes to encourage more cities to adopt similar resilience measures to Tuscaloosa.

The Federal Government’s role

Federal agencies, which pay some municipal redevelopment costs with hefty restrictions, tend to frustrate local leaders. Both Maddox and Costello criticized the federal government’s narrow focus when providing funds for redevelopment. In Tuscaloosa’s case, FEMA calculated that the municipality had $1 billion in unmet need after the storm. The city received only $130 million from the agency, much of which came from insurance money. To this date, FEMA owes the city over $2 million in outstanding payments. Similar problems are currently occurring in Houston. Costello told the HPR that citizens trying to elevate their homes through a FEMA program have been overwhelmingly rejected in recent years. Last year, over 600 Houston residents applied for the program. FEMA accepted only 39 requests.

“I constantly think about places like Houston and Florida and Puerto Rico, who have been hit by disaster. My heart goes out to those leaders, because they think they’re going to get quick use of federal funds, but it will take years and years for them to recover their communities,” said Maddox. “Part of me wishes we’d never taken the money [from FEMA] and just borrowed it ourselves. We still have recovery projects going because of the inefficiency.”

Houston is struggling with similar restrictions. Costello explained that the city is interested in a buyout program, which would involve raising and redeveloping flood plains around the city, but that, among other problems, the federal government mandates that only green space can be developed on the floodplain. FEMA contends that this is the best policy for preventing storm damage to homes and businesses, but this places significant financial strain on municipalities. When areas are left undeveloped, cities lose a significant portion of their tax base. Houston is currently evaluating options to use local dollars for a potential buyout plan, which would allow them to raise floodplains and rebuild homes and commercial buildings on them.

FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance program covers 75 percent of the cost of municipal projects that will permanently eliminate or reduce an area’s long-term vulnerability to disasters. This funding is accompanied by many restrictions, including that all mitigation projects must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and other applicable laws. These restrictions can place a significant burden on local governments. In Tuscaloosa, an intersection at Berry and Hargrove roads was completely destroyed. Thirty years ago, wells under two gas stations on the site were remediated improperly. Despite the local government’s determination that there was no threat to water nor the sewer,  they were still unable to use federal funds to rebuild the site after it was declared an environmental risk by the federal government. Maddox expressed frustrations with the inequalities caused by these regulations: “In our case, the areas which were destroyed were low-income areas with environmental issues. Once you begin environmental testing, which takes forever to get to, you discover environmental issues, which makes it difficult to use federal dollars.”

Costello, frustrated in his efforts to protect Houston from future flooding, has met with FEMA officials, offering to use Houston as a pilot for modifying restrictions on their funding. Particularly important to him is eliminating a requirement that cities only build green space on floodplains. Costello explained, “Why not elevate the flood plains and put houses and businesses on top of them? We can expand our tax base and make people better off at the same time.” As of this article’s publication, FEMA had not accepted Houston’s offer. FEMA declined the HPR’s requests for comment.

People living in these communities are often stymied by inefficiency as well. Frustrated by the federal government’s lack of progress, Jeff Kalpin, a construction contractor in Houston, set up a Facebook group with other organizers shortly after Hurricane Harvey. The online community is coordinating grassroots recovery efforts in the area. “People volunteered trucks and manpower from their businesses, and everyone worked together. You had people just step up into leadership and management roles and make amazing things happen every day,” Kalpin told the HPR. “What I walked away with from this experience, is that neighbors and residents can often be far more effective in mobilizing efforts because the lack of bureaucracy and chain of command.”

It’s easy to get wrapped up in numbers and statistics, forgetting that people are impacted in a very real way by decisions leaders make in the relative safety of government offices. Kalpin is still haunted by those realities every day: “I still get emotional when I drive through neighborhoods to see people’s lives stacked on the curb like trash. To me it represents the thing we often take for granted; our home and everything in it. I am in neighborhoods every day that are lined as far as you can see in all directions with those people’s lives still stacked up on the curbs.”

Image Credit: U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons

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