The Road to Resilience

In a city saturated with fast-rising creeks, Tim Traughtman has heard too many terrifying tales of narrow escapes from flash floods. Traughtman is the program manager for the Charlotte, NC, Flood Mitigation Program. “We’ve had several events that were in the middle of the night,” he says, “and I’ve heard stories of homeowners who said the first time they realized [their house was] flooding was while they were lying in bed. They heard their dishes clanging in the kitchen because the water had floated the dishes up, and they could hear them clicking together.”

In some places, however, floods are inevitable. Sharon Foote, information/education coordinator for Storm Water Services for Charlotte-Mecklenburg, says, “We’re telling folks it’s going to flood. We have 3,000 miles of streams; storms park over us, and that rain flows into the major creeks. The streets are part of the drainage system, and there’s no holding place for the water.”

In such a circumstance it would seem there is little that can be done to prevent catastrophe. But that’s not the way the Charlotte-Mecklenburg community sees it. Although Traughtman says the term resilience as a public policy may have come into vogue only during the past five years or so, the basic concept has been evolving in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area since early 1990s. At that time, the city became one of the first municipalities in the nation to implement a citywide stormwater utility fee, and that fee has been used to support a number of activities to strengthen its readiness for disaster. The utility chose not to spend the money in a futile attempt to prevent each and every flood, or to repeatedly rebuild structures ruined as a result of floods, but instead to concentrate efforts in finding ways to keep people and property clear of the danger zone when the inevitable flooding does take place.

No Room for Water
Foote says Charlotte is “a city of transplants.” Many of the residents come from “places like Schenectady, Cleveland, or Chicago–and they’ve come with the expectation that the weather patterns are different from where they came from. And yes, it’s warmer here than it is in Minneapolis, but our rainfall patterns are different, too.” Charlotte, she notes, gets more rain than Seattle in half as many days. While it rains on average less than 200 days a year, total precipitation each year averages 43 inches. It’s not uncommon to “get four, five, or six inches of rain in one day,” she says.

“Where do you think that water is going to go? Your house, your street–there is no way government can build infrastructure big enough to handle those kinds of storms,” she adds.

According to Foote, the watersheds of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region are so densely developed that there is little or no empty space to store floodwater in an emergency. “Once a creek is full, there’s no place to put it,” she explains. The creeks themselves run out of space as they fill. Floodwaters in Charlotte can rise up as quickly as 30 minutes after the rain starts to fall. Adding to these troubles, “The creeks that tend to flood the most are also the ones that have the most 1930s and ’40s development right in the floodplain,” she says.

“We’re a mess–we would never allow that development now,” concedes Foote, but notes that those areas had been built before 1978 when the floodplain maps that guide current development were drawn up.

These kinds of concerns energized the county’s floodplain buyout program.

House Hunting
Piggybacking on data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) floodplain mapping programs and National Flood Insurance Programs, the floodplain buyout initiative uses FEMA grants and matching local funds to purchase, at fair market value, homes at the highest risk of flood damage. Thus far, Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s buyout program has purchased and removed more than 150 at-risk structures from local floodplains.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s case, the municipality puts up 30 to 40% of the cost of buying the structures that have high repetitive loss, removing them from the floodplain and converting the parcels into open space. Participation for the homeowners is voluntary, but Foote says that once a house is removed, “You can’t put anything there other than, maybe, a park bench.” The land is then restored to the state “Mother Nature intended, into wetlands, or areas for temporary storage of floodwaters along all these literally thousands of miles of creeks,” she adds.

To qualify for buyout funding, the structures slated to be purchased must meet FEMA’s buyout criteria. For example, they must be in the floodplain and have living space at risk of flooding, and the costs of flood damage over time must exceed the cost of buying out the home.

Foote says the program has been working quite well using either the 100% locally funded Quick Buy program or a local/federal matching grant. “We’re getting to the point where we’ve purchased most of the structures that qualify for a simple buyout.”

In one example, Mecklenburg County used a combination of its Quick Buy program and FEMA grants to respond to record flooding caused by Tropical Storm Fay at the Cavalier Apartment complex. Rainfall from Fay topped 11 inches, with part of the Briar Creek watershed getting more than 2 inches of rain in one hour. Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes, many by swift-water rescue boats. More than 600 homes, apartments, and businesses had flood damage. However, two months before the flood, Mecklenburg County had used a federal grant to help purchase the Cavalier Apartments in a floodplain buyout. The 2008 flooding also prompted Mecklenburg County to spend nearly $6 million in local funds to buy 37 flooded homes before residents made costly decisions to make repairs to properties that would likely see future floods and escalating costs.

Afterward, the flood the agency moved as quickly as possible to relocate the tenants then tear down the entire complex. Within a year every trace of the Cavalier Apartments had vanished, and the floodplain has been restored as open space.

The buyout programs, however, have specific criteria that may not apply to every home that is susceptible to flooding. For those homes that don’t qualify for buyout, Charlotte-Mecklenburg is putting together a new initiative that would give every property at risk of flooding a risk assessment score and a risk reduction list. Foote explains, “If you want to look at it almost like a 401(k) dashboard, you’ve got your green, you’re not at high risk of flooding, but if it’s yellow or red you are at high risk.” The goal of the risk assessment, she says, is to focus on what types of losses any individual home might suffer during a flood, “whether it’s the air conditioner, garage, or living space, and then we work with them, almost on an individual basis, to help them figure out ways to reduce their risks of flood loss.”

She hopes the program, which is currently in focus group evaluations, will help homeowners broaden their attention from the often narrow question of whether they will be required to purchase a flood insurance policy, and at what cost, and begin thinking about what they can do to prevent risks to their home and possessions.

“We’re not saying we can stop flooding, but we’re shifting some of the burden of responsibility to the homeowner and saying, “˜Well, flood insurance is number one, your mortgage lender requires it–but what else can you do?'”

A Knock at the Door
Of course, the very prerequisite for resilience is survival, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg is working hard to cover that ground as well. In Charlotte, floods are the most deadly natural disaster. Although the municipality has for a long time had a team of flood response personnel equipped with swift-water rescue boats and ready for duty, the notification system was far from optimal. Traughtman says that as recently as the 1990s, emergency responders were basically first notified of flooding when they got 911 calls. That was not a good situation, Traughtman observes. “By that time you’re pulling people out in boats, there’s water in their houses and they can’t get out, and they’re calling for emergency services. We said we could possibly do better.”

Traughtman believes it’s possible to remove a large part of the element of surprise from the flash flooding scenario.

The region happens to be covered rather intensively by a US Geological Survey (USGS) stream gauge network, deployed by the agency to gather scientific data on the nation’s hydrologic cycles. “Just within our county we have 80 rain gauges and about 60 stream gauges,” says Traughtman. He notes that Charlotte-Mecklenburg was able to enter into a cost-share arrangement with USGS to tap into both its rain gauge and stream gauge data in real-time for its own public safety mission.

At a cost of about $400,000 per year for the county’s cost-share component, Traughtman says, the county “was able to take advantage of a partnership that we already had through the USGS cooperative agreement where we cost-shared about 50/50 for all of our stream gauges and rain gauges.” He says Charlotte-Mecklenburg was able “to leverage all that data and build an internal computer and analysis system to interpret it to create the system known as the Flood Information and Notification System [FINS] to alert emergency responders to potential for imminent flooding.” FINS is designed to predict where the flash flooding will occur “while an event is going on in real time,” he says.

“That system helps make us more resilient, because it enables us to get people out of harm’s way earlier than we would if we didn’t have the system. It allowed our community to sustain less damage and recover more quickly.”

The system provides three tiers of notification: At the first tier, an alert goes out by cell phone pager or e-mail in the event of heavy rainfall. If the situation worsens, an investigate notice requires personnel to visit the location of flooding or heavy rainfall to barricade roads or take other action to prevent injury. The emergency status, the highest level of notification, puts responders on notice that it may be necessary to evacuate residents near the high-water areas.

“We’ve had lots of success stories,” says Traughtman. “Probably the most extreme cases are with apartment complexes in the floodplain. When you deal with apartment complexes that are subject to flash flooding, there are a lot of people to evacuate, a lot of cars to move to avoid damage and to get people out of harm’s way. We’ve had events where the fire departments have been able to get out there before flooding occurred and monitor the situation, and in a few cases where the streams continued to rise, they’ve been able to make the majority of evacuations on foot, going door to door, rather than all of them on boats pulling people out of the water. We’ve seen a lot of cases like that where they get to the scene before it floods and can evacuate on foot and really start the process before things get dicey.”

In addition, Traughtman says, there are many other uses for the data the county has obtained. “It’s not like we just said, “˜We have nothing; let’s build this system from scratch and invest $400,000 a year.’ We had a system in place because of USGS; we just figured out strategically where we needed to add some gauges that USGS would benefit from as well, and then worked on the technology to get the system up and running.”

Although the data are not provided directly to the general public, Traughtman says the notification system resonates with the public, and a few added bells and whistles help keep flood safety awareness at the forefront. A web-based component allows residents to check gauge levels from their own electronic devices. Complementing the public access feature, he says, the city added five creek cameras, “and we’re adding seven more, so that if there’s one in certain sections of the creek in their vicinity they can check to see what is happening.” During bad weather, he notes, workers using the Web-based tools will be able to “check from work and see if it’s flooding at home,” in case they need to make arrangements such as having their pets moved to safety.

Redrawing the Map
A resilient stormwater strategy doesn’t just mean addressing immediate flooding issues; it also calls for careful thought about dealing with future scenarios, sometimes even hypothetical ones.

Foote says Charlotte-Mecklenburg has begun responding to what might be by becoming the first community in the nation to use flood insurance rate maps that contained “two floodplains and two floodways.” The maps identify current flood zones as well as outline areas “likely to flood in the future when the watershed is fully developed.” Foote explains the rationale: “We knew we were going to have more land at risk. How do you show it, and reduce the likelihood of builders putting houses there that are going to flood in the future? You map where it’s going to flood in the future.” This practice, she says, is becoming more common across the country.

“It’s an example of not waiting for FEMA to say, “˜You have to do this.’ We know what FEMA says you have to do; we’re going to go beyond it, to create community standards.”

Stormy Nights in Georgia
Terri Turner agrees that the very concept of resiliency requires doing more than the minimum. Taking that concept to heart, perhaps, she holds the job of development administrator for Augusta, GA, and also the position of hazard mitigation specialist, while simultaneously performing the duty of floodplain manager as well. One person wearing so many hats might sound like a monumental juggling act, but according to Turner, it’s actually quite a logical. She says promoting resilience infuses everything she does, and she’s in the prime position to do it.

“In most communities your hazard mitigation and flood plain management is done in the EMA [Emergency Management Agency] department,” she notes. “Sometimes floodplain management is done in a building codes department.” But, she says, “Planning is in every aspect of our hazard mitigation work and our floodplain management and our sustainability and resiliency initiatives, and you flip that around–sustainability and resiliency and flood plain management and hazard mitigation are in our planning documents. So we are cross-emphasizing all of this in everything we do.”

And floods are practically part of the landscape.

“If you were to look at our community, it would look like a coastal community; we have a number of watersheds all feeding to the Savannah River, and over 25% of our county, which is the third-largest in Georgia, is in the special flood hazard area. That’s a lot of landmass. We can’t ignore what Mother Nature has presented to us; we’ve got to embrace it and deal with it. The way we deal with it is from a regulatory standpoint,” says Turner.

Straight Talk, Flexible Rules
Although Augusta has been working to develop a strong stormwater ordinance, Turner says, “Where we really have the power is in our flood ordinance. We have probably one of the strongest flood ordinances in the nation. If any portion of the property has floodplain on it, we regulate the entire property as if all of it was in the floodplain, and we have a three-foot freeboard requirement.”

The city, Turner says, also has a strict floodplain certification regime. Before development can proceed on any property with more than one acre in the floodplain, the developers are required to perform an engineering analysis to certify that, “by popping your development into a floodplain, it will not increase flooding events upstream or downstream for one mile, by even a teaspoon full.”

Turner, who began working for Augusta shortly after the city and county consolidated in 1996, says the channels of communications were not clear at the beginning. “You had people who had worked for the county for a number of years, and people who had worked for the city for years, and they still weren’t communicating very well.” It wasn’t because of personal failings but because there was no system in place yet to facilitate efficient interaction. “They didn’t know how, so we came up with a lot of initiatives that brought that communication level to the forefront and helped foster new initiatives.”

The resulting new–and inclusive–decision-making process, Turner says, is what gives Augusta’s resilience programs their greatest strengths. “When we did our hazard mitigation plan two years ago, we involved pretty much anybody who was anybody in the community in the planning process.” And that communication strategy still influences decision-making.

Turner says it’s a consensus-building approach that goes beyond just planning to actual policy decisions. She takes as much pride in the decision-making process as in the individual initiatives Augusta has undertaken to promote resilience.

For example, she says, “We have a committee that is made up of government employees, plus citizens, developers, engineers, and so forth, and any regulation changes have to go before them before they go to the Augusta Commission. We make sure we have a consensus of our development and citizen community before we take regulations to our elected officials, and it works extremely well.” Citing a conservation subdivision policy as an example, she says, “That was a regulatory change that we had to take to them [the committee] and hammer out the fine points, and get it to where everybody was happy with it, and then take it to the commission.” According to Turner, the practice of building consensus has worked so well that it has fostered an atmosphere that has “everybody talking to everybody.” And she says that communication smoothes the path for essential stormwater and flood regulations. “By the time they go before the commission “they are generally on the consent agenda, with no discussion, because the discussion has been held at the committee level,” she says. “We are very careful in reviewing our development that is going in or near the special flood hazard area.”

Turner says the conservation subdivision concept that emerged from this dialogue is structured around the idea that “if you protect the floodplain, wetlands, riparian buffer, and sensitive areas, then we’re going to give you a density break on the rest of your property.” Developers using this approach, Turner says, “still end up with the same number of houses, but they have protected floodplains and wetlands, and then those become amenities in their subdivision.” The incentive has proven attractive, and so far about a half dozen developers have utilized the program. “Rather than having people develop on marginal land, probably where they shouldn’t be developing, they’re leaving it alone because they are able to get the number of houses they want elsewhere.”

An Inventory of Essentials
As part of this hazard mitigation policy that also encompasses the entire community, Augusta is refining its critical facilities inventory, pinpointing the location of every facility that might be exceptionally vulnerable or essential during an emergency. The list, which is being compiled by the city’s Information Technology Department and GIS mapping services, includes institutions such as nursing homes or day care centers that may need emergency evacuation, schools that might be called upon to provide shelter during extreme events, and even fire stations and broadcast facilities to help ensure safety and communications during a disaster. “We want to make sure we know where they are. We might have a need to evacuate a nursing home, how can you evacuate them if you don’t know where they’re located?”

She adds, “We’re working on a massive data collection effort not only locally within government but also outside the government, involving and universities and chemical plants and so on. We think we know what our hazards are now–but once we collect this data we’ll better know what our hazards are.”

Augusta also has a Flood Hazard Mitigation Plan on file with FEMA, making the city eligible to apply for Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) grants from the federal government. The plan outlines the risks associated with flooding, describes the existing conditions in Augusta, describes the city’s existing mitigation programs and activities, and presents a list of recommended mitigation strategies.

Safe at Home
Augusta, like Charlotte-Mecklenburg, has implemented a voluntary flood buyout program coordinated through the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) and FEMA. While FMA project grants have been seen as an integral part of the city’s strategy to purchase property with a history of repeat damage from floods, Turner says, over the past few years, “There has been less and less grant money coming down the pike, so our community in its wisdom allocated money to go head and do this program without grant funding.” She says she is currently working on a buyout package of 21 homes “that would not have been bought otherwise.”

According to Turner, taking the initiative to move these residents and homes from potential flood zones has already begun to pay off. “We had a lot of flooding in August in December, and those areas would have been flooded, except there’s nothing there to flood now. Those homes have gone, and in those cases they were homes where some of my low-income people were, where some of my elderly were. Now these people are high and dry and they’re in another location, and they’re safe.”

Many of the parcels acquired through the buyout program in Augusta are held under city ownership and are simply left to nature. “It’s amazing what these things do in a short amount of time–next thing you know you’ve got pine trees growing on them. It’s amazing how quickly they revert back to nature if everyone just leaves them alone.” In the majority of cases, neighbors have offered to maintain the lots as open space for kids to play, pets to romp, or just as a community amenity, which Turner says the program does allow as long as no structures are built on the lots.

With 25% of the city in the special flood hazard area, Turner says, 400 to 500 homes face serious flood risk. But she says that the buyout program and other flood resilience efforts are slowly ratcheting down that number. In addition to 35 homes the city is working to buy using local funds, an additional 13 are slated for acquisition via grant funding. These will join the 75 homes purchased, demolished, and stabilized since the year 2000, when Augusta first embarked on the buyout initiative.

“It’s all part of adapting,” says Turner. “I can’t point to a particular day and say that day was a day in history–I’m saying pretty much every day over the past several years has been a significant day in history, because every day I can almost point and say “˜You know what? That person would have been in peril had we not done this program over here, and that person over there would have been in peril had we not done this other program over here.’ It’s kind of a huge combination of everything working for the good of the whole to protect our citizens.”

Had the programs not been able to go forward, she says, she couldn’t guess what might have happened in some cases. “I’m glad I don’t know what the outcomes would have been–I don’t think they would have been favorable. But these people are safely someplace else, and we’re converting all that property to green space, and we’re protecting it. No one will ever build there again.”

Rebound Potential
After initiating these reforms in its processes and programs, the city went back to its constituency to reevaluate its risks. Turner says close to 100 people from the community–“from all levels of government, from the educational system, from universities, from hospitals, from business, citizens’ groups, neighborhood committees, people from the nonprofit sector”–participated in the process, and concluded that as a result of the recent initiatives, flooding had moved from the number one perceived hazard to the number two spot, behind “tornadoes and damaging winds,” a hazard, Turner notes, “you can’t do much to prepare for, but you’ve got to deal with anyway.”

For Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Augusta, resilience is not just a static goal, but a process. Charlotte’s Traughtman says, “We didn’t build a program around resilience; we built a program around solid water-quantity and water-quality management and then were able to kind of rebrand it a little bit and couch it in terms of community resilience.”

However, he notes, resilience is not a destination but a journey. “It provides that broader perspective, when you can think in terms of your community’s ability to bounce back, or your community’s level of resilience, or your neighborhood’s resilience.”

Turner says much the same seems to hold true for Augusta. “It has just all morphed into being what it is today, and it works. That’s not to say I don’t put in a few long days, but that’s okay because the outcome of that is good–it’s bright; it’s hopeful; it makes a difference. It’s everybody working together for the good of the whole, and I think that’s what resiliency is exactly about: the ability to withstand some sort of adverse event, and the ability to rebound from that event.” Most importantly, she says, “It’s the ability to adapt, so that next time the event comes along you can handle it better.”

Author’s Bio: David C. Richardson is a frequent contributor to Forester publications.

About the Author

David C. Richardson

David C. Richardson is a frequent contributor to Forester Media publications.

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