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As Disasters Grow More Frequent, How Should States and Cities Prepare?

While Texas and Florida recover from hurricanes, other communities are looking at what they can do to prepare for flooding and other disasters. We talked to an expert in disaster planning to get her advice.

The Seashell Resort on Grassy Key was heavily damaged in the storm surge of Hurricane Irma.
(TNS/Miami Herald/Charles Trainor Jr.)
Madhu Beriwal has been preparing for major disasters for more than three decades. She spent several years working in Louisiana state government, where she focused on floodplain management and hurricane evacuations in the New Orleans area. She then founded a private consulting firm called IEM, which helps states and localities plan for potential disasters and advises communities that have been struck by disaster in how to recover and rebuild.

Governing spoke with Beriwal recently (but prior to Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico) about the state and local role in disaster planning and recovery. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Are hurricanes Harvey and Irma an aberration, or are they part of a bigger trend of more severe weather and natural disasters?

Whether we see climate change as happening or not, we have seen five flood events in the last 18 to 24 months that have been either 500-year or 1,000-year events. We’ve seen two Category 4 storms strike in the same year. So we are seeing an increased propensity for these very large flood events.

Flooding is the premier disaster that the country faces. Between 1980 and 2013, the total amount of flood damages have been on the order of $280 billion. It’s really important that we build back appropriately in these areas. That might mean, in some places, leaving the land open, because those areas are subject to greater intensity or greater frequency of flooding. In other areas, we have to build back stronger so they aren’t subjected to repeated traumas and repeated damages.

When you say communities should "build back stronger," what does that mean?

The flood insurance maps specify how high you have to build for the 100-year flood. You take that and you add a freeboard [a safety factor] to it, say a foot, two feet, three feet. You say, this structure has to be above that base elevation, or it has to be two or three feet above the elevation. When another flood occurs, you don’t have habited areas flood, essentially. We know through past experience that, for every dollar spent on those sorts of mitigation, it saves five dollars in the future from flood damages. So this is a very appropriate place to invest money.

And then there is taking some areas and turning them into open space, into parks and the like. They are places that can absorb water but at the same time they don’t have structures that can be damaged.

Disasters can lead jurisdictions to enact tougher building standards, but those regulations can also make it more difficult and more expensive to rebuild. Is there ever a good time to impose more stringent standards? 

What’s important is that you look at the community itself. We have a concept we call a “trust community” or a “control community.” This is born out of our work over the last 20 years looking at chemical weapons and where they are stored in the United States.

What we found is that you have communities that are largely in a “trust” model. They trust their elected officials. If their elected officials say, “This is what we need to do, and here’s how we need to do it,” they by and large go along with that notion.

On the other hand, you have “control” communities that do not trust their local officials. Either they’re apathetic and cynical about it, or they engage in vigorous debate and opposition to what the local officials say. In those communities, you have to have a process in which they can perceive that they have some control. Let’s take the Flint, Mich., community for example, a community that no longer trusts local officials or other officials. There you have to make sure the citizenry has transparent access to the information about what’s going on and the ability to influence the solutions that are put into place. It’s very important to engage people in dialogue in these control communities.

Do disasters affect how receptive communities are to leadership from their local officials?

Let’s look at Harvey, for example. There was an outpouring of support for each other. Strangers were helping each other just to get through the immediate response to the event. That creates the emotional vessel for a broader community engagement effort that addresses: How should we rebuild?

There is a dizzying array of federal programs to help communities rebuild after disasters. How do local leaders figure out which ones they qualify for?

There are all these federal requirements. They all fund certain things, but they don’t fund other things. So it’s very important for communities to figure out: What is it they want done? Then they can go to the funding sources and say, "How do we knit together the disparate funding from the different federal agencies like FEMA and HUD and match the funds together to do the large and bold projects that are necessary?"

What actions would you recommend that state and local leaders take to prepare for major disasters, especially given the number of disasters we’ve seen over the last two years?

It’s important to have recovery plan in place even if you have not faced a disaster. You should take a look at your recovery plan -- and I really believe that needs to be scenario-based. When you have a scenario and say, "This is what can happen with this particular event," it forces you to go through all of the logistics of response and recovery and how you would be able to manage that.

We have a number of these types of plans, and I’ll mention two of them. One of them was “Hurricane Pam,” which was a simulation we did in 2004. We were still in the process of working with the stakeholders in Louisiana. It was a catastrophic Category 3 hurricane striking New Orleans. A year later, precisely that storm occurred with some minor variation as Hurricane Katrina. The second was in 2006 and 2007, we developed a simulated hurricane that was a Category 5 storm that struck Florida on Sept. 10 and caused about $398 billion of damages across southern Florida.

These kinds of scenario-based plans force the emergency management community and the stakeholders to take a clear and objective look at exactly what their state or their community would be subject to. How would they respond? How would they do search and rescue? How would the fuel issue be resolved? How would power be restored? Finally, how would recovery do? It’s done in a timeframe so it’s not “hot thinking,” which is thinking in the middle of the disaster but “cool thinking,” so you can rationally look at your options, come up with ideas and put together a plan.

Generally speaking, how prepared are communities for major disasters?

They are more prepared than they were, but I strongly believe they need to do scenario-based planning. The base level of planning is just not sufficient. They should take the top three to five scenarios that are likely to develop in a community and do detailed plans that engage a lot of stakeholders, so everybody knows what their role would be. If you take a situation like Houston, there are 17 different jurisdictions involved there. Each of those jurisdictions has maybe 10 to 15 different agencies that have key functional responsibilities, like fire, emergency management, public works and law enforcements. So it can be quite challenging to do, but it is important to do this ahead of time.

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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