Three months before Hurricane Irma hit Florida, the state relaxed what many had considered to be one of the best building codes in the country. That wasn’t an anomaly. A report by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety found that many states along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts either lack building codes or have relaxed them in recent years.
When jurisdictions fail to plan, or plan too little, they squander the opportunity to avoid or mitigate significant problems. Houston and surrounding Harris County, have seen massive in-migration and development in the last 20 years on some of the least absorbent soils in the nation, but has not developed adequate stormwater infrastructure. Behind Orleans and Jefferson parishes in Louisiana, Harris County ranks third in the nation for the amount paid out by the National Flood Insurance Program over the last 40 years.
Hurricane Maria revealed Puerto Rico’s underlying vulnerability and poor resilience capacity, including its decrepit power system and lack of on-island basic necessities and services. That vulnerability was rooted in the island’s poverty. Looking ahead, the tragedy highlights the significant challenges facing low-income communities and states lacking adequate resources to reduce vulnerability and achieve greater resilience.
An Ounce of Prevention . . .
Although climate change is a global problem with global impacts, those impacts are manifested at the local level. Global emissions may cause climate change, but when sea levels rise and hurricanes drive storm surge into New York City’s subways or into homes along the Gulf Coast, the experience is decidedly local. Accordingly, adaptation and resilience planning at the state and local level is essential. State and local governments control many critical levers. They have the capacity to plan the location and structural integrity of essential infrastructure, such as transportation, power, and water supply and treatment. And they have the authority to control how land is used and how structures are built. States and their municipalities decide whether the floodplain gets developed, how close homes and schools can be to contaminated areas, and how strong the roofs must be.
Critical features of planning
Certain features are critical to good planning. Communities often lack the will to devote the resources needed to plan for uncertain disasters. And after a disaster, it may be some time before they have the resources to devote to planning processes. If planning is to be effective, local governments need to understand vulnerabilities; to be efficient, solutions need to focus on strategies that yield multiple benefits. For example, green infrastructure parks being developed in New Orleans will not only help protect communities from flooding, but also provide recreation for residents and support tourism.
To achieve equitable adaptation, planners must identify and assess the risks faced by physically vulnerable or socially marginalized groups, like the elderly, disabled, and poor. A failure to focus on the risks to these groups virtually ensures that they will suffer disproportionate harm, as occurred when a nursing home failed to plan for post-hurricane power outages, leading to the preventable deaths of some residents in the sweltering summer heat after Hurricane Irma.
Building strong partnerships by engaging local stakeholders and facilitating collaboration will produce better decisions and a more engaged and prepared community. And decision-makers must incorporate sound science, acknowledging uncertainties without becoming paralyzed by them. Tools like multiple-scenario planning and low-regrets strategies can help local governments manage risk. And decision-making is an ongoing process that requires monitoring and re-evaluation of strategies over time. Measurable goals and metrics — both qualitative and quantitative — are key to ensuring that outcomes can be assessed systematically.
The challenges for sound land use planning
Critical as it is to resilience, local land use planning for adaptation and resilience presents special challenges due to the political forces facing local governments. New building codes, limitations on rebuilding, land use restrictions to preserve wetlands as a storm buffer, or other local planning measures will entail costs that citizens are likely to resist and that can be hard for local politicians to support without political cost. Restrictions on new development could also deter new investment in a community, harming the powerful real estate community and depriving local governments of hoped-for tax revenue. The ultimate local adaptation measure — retreat — is likely to be extremely controversial for local officials who advocate it. Analysts extolling the virtues of local land use planning must be cognizant of the political forces at play, and strategies for achieving resilience must overcome the political impediments to local action.
What Should Be Done?
Local governments should leverage state and regional power
Local governments may require new tools in order to address the threats they face from disasters in an era of climate change and sea-level rise. Florida offers two examples of how state and regional efforts can help support local government adaptation efforts. The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact, forged by four Florida counties and numerous municipalities and partners, has provided a key information clearinghouse, an incubator for adaptation and resilience policies, and a coalition for seeking legislative reform and funding. The Compact’s leadership led the state to adopt a new statute that authorized local governments to incorporate Adaptation Action Areas (AAAs) into the coastal element of their comprehensive plans. These AAAs help local governments designate areas that require special adaptation measures to deal with sea-level rise and related impacts. They also help local governments prioritize and tailor their funding and planning. Valuable resources like the Adaptation Clearinghouse help local government officials and staff research best practices to identify strategies that suit their particular situations.
State governments should ensure local planners consider disaster risk
State legislatures should use their power not only to give local planners tools, but to ensure that they adequately consider disaster risk in all aspects of their planning. In 2015, Florida adopted SB 1094, “An act relating to the peril of flood.” The law included several requirements to ensure that local governments take account of the future flood risk from storm surge and sea-level rise in their comprehensive planning process. Among other things, state law now explicitly includes sea-level rise as one of the sources of flood risk that local governments must address in the redevelopment portion of their comprehensive plans (in Fla. Stat. 163.3178(2)(f)(1)). The law also requires local governments to develop principles, strategies and engineering solutions to reduce the flood risk from storm surge, as well as high-tide events and related impacts of sea-level rise. It also encourages use of best practices to reduce losses due to flooding and requires local building codes to be at least as stringent as the state flood-resistant construction standards.
On the other end of the continent, California has likewise required local governments to address adaptation and resilience when they next revise their hazard mitigation or general plans. The law (in Government Code § 65302(g)(4)) requires a vulnerability assessment that addresses hazards, population sensitivity and ability to cope, as well as the agencies responsible for protecting health and safety. Local governments must then formulate objectives to resolve the identified vulnerabilities and specify feasible implementation measures. Florida and California’s requirements for local planning provide a critical mechanism to induce local jurisdictions to face the difficult challenges ahead.
State and federal governments should provide funding for poorer communities
Given how far climate change has progressed, adaptation will not come cheap. Poor residents could well be unable to afford new building requirements, and poorer municipalities are unlikely to be able to help their residents or take expensive measures to protect their infrastructure. State and federal funding will be essential. Federal funding for pre-disaster hazard mitigation grants provided by FEMA is critical, and Congress should be praised for having included generous funding for these in the 2018 budget. Without state and federal support specifically targeted for low-income communities, however, existing disparities in vulnerability and impacts will only worsen. California has set aside funds — 35 percent of the revenue from its carbon cap-and-trade program — to benefit disadvantaged communities, and adaptation measures are among the purposes to which the funds can be devoted. As climate risks become increasingly evident, funding to provide low-income communities with protection or the means to retreat will be essential.