September 18, 2017

After Harvey and Irma: Rebuild Stronger and Safer Communities

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Hurricanes Harvey and Irma awakened Americans to the new normal – where heatwaves, droughts, tornadoes and floods occur with alarming frequency and unprecedented intensity.

In addition to lives lost and communities destroyed, the insured damage caused by hurricanes Harvey and Irma is expected to be upwards of $70 billion.

Our new normal demands stronger and safer buildings with an updated set of design and engineering standards to help fortify our cities and communities from the intense impacts of extreme weather.

The problem is how unprepared many areas of the country are for future extreme weather events. Our nation’s five largest cities, New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix and Miami are all vulnerable to rapid-onset events like hurricanes, flooding and earthquakes and slow-onset events like drought and increased temperature and precipitation.1 Together these cities generate 85 percent of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and are home to 63 percent of the population. 2  3

Safeguarding them from extreme weather risk through resilient design and smart investments in infrastructure, housing and common areas will strengthen our economy and protect millions of Americans.

Five Steps for Resilient Design

Impacts of climate change are not linear, and neither should design be. The most expensive and ubiquitous climate threat is flooding and the water surge that follows a hurricane. The traditional flood mitigation guidance focuses on elevating buildings above flood levels. While this may be a baseline for mitigation design, typically, a storm will impact many aspects of a building’s function, so we must explore additional mitigation efforts.

  • Step 1: Understand your climate conditions. When designing, developing and repairing housing infrastructure, all involved partners must be cognizant of climate risk and potential known and unanticipated impacts.

    After Hurricane Sandy ravaged the NYC Metropolitan area, a range of partners including federal agencies, state and local governments, philanthropists and designers set out to catalyze innovative design. A leading edge partnership and ensuing competition was formed between HUD and the Rockefeller Foundation called Rebuild by Design to facilitate community scale resilience planning. One of the most impactful outcomes of this process was the recognition that climate impacts should be integrated into all conditions of design for a community and that there are multiple co-benefits that can be achieved by designing a thoughtful response.
     
  • Step 2: Always engage the end-user in the design process. When rebuilding infrastructure, community stakeholders must play a role in informing the design team. Through our post-Sandy partnership with the Jersey City Housing Authority we learned how important it is to include the voices from residents as well as local utility companies to help the design team identify local environmental conditions that can be stewarded by the users.
     
  • Step 3. Engage community infrastructure. Already burdened by continued use and insufficient upgrade – transit infrastructure, bridges and roadways are one storm away from catastrophic failure. Massive amounts of investment are needed to bring common-use infrastructure to a state of repair. When designing resilient retrofits, building designers should recognize the interplay between community vulnerabilities and building based resilience approaches, and plan for sufficient backup and redundancy – at the building level – should the community infrastructure fail. Coordinating with these infrastructure projects is an important consideration for building-based systems. 

    Take for example the Lower East Side in New York City, which is working on establishing an East River protection system. The system will create a barrier between the Lower East Side and the river, much like the naturally occurring salt marsh did before it was filled in. Given the dependency on infrastructure systems like public transportation, utilities and a network of sewage and storm-water pipes, implementing a localized building intervention is only as strong and resilient as the community-wide infrastructure. 
     
  • Step 4.  Establish co-benefits of improvements. Rebuilding efforts should always consider the additional co-benefits and return on investment that can be achieved by integrating efficiency and sustainability with mitigation best practices. Infrastructure that is more efficient can withstand fluctuation in energy and resources.

    Besides mitigating the direct risk from flooding, many resilient upgrades have the added benefit of increasing resource conservation and reducing operational costs.This can represent a shorter return on investment and yield ongoing savings through the life of the building. When a building owner is investing in any substantial retrofit, they should always consider the additional co-benefits that can be achieved by the intervention – here, integrating resource efficiency also reduces operating costs.
     
  • Step 5. Appreciate the full life cycle of buildings. Design and construction must incorporate the demands of the full building life cycle – at the front end when the building is being built or retrofitted and at the back end, to support operations and maintenance and usability. 

A resilient design approach will account for the risks of our new normal, saving lives and money and harnessing the creativity and innovation of America around a common goal: to strengthen our communities with the fervor, commitment and fortitude we demonstrated while rescuing citizens from the flood waters of Hurricane Harvey and Irma.

Building on this experience, Enterprise has launched the Harvey Community Recovery Fund to respond to the short, mid, and long term needs of communities impacted by Hurricane Harvey, with a goal to raise $10 million. The fund will support nonprofits serving displaced low-income residents and doing the necessary hard work of cleaning up neighborhoods, house by house and block by block in the storm-damaged areas of South Texas; the Houston metro area; Beaumont/Port Arthur, Texas, and Southwest Louisiana.

If you're interested in the fund, please email harvey@enterprisecommunity.org for more information.


1. Defined http://www.tulane.edu/~sanelson/Natural_Disasters/introduction.htm
2. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2015/cb15-33.html
3. The two largest cities, New York City and Los Angeles, alone contribute 13% of the nation’s GDPhttp://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/urbanization/us-cities-in-the-global-economy