Resilience: Communities Connect the Dots to Dodge Disaster

Nov. 20, 2013

Rebecca Joyce told the story during a telephone interview of a neighbor in the Central Shenandoah Valley who had become so accustomed to flood waters overtaking her home that her emergency preparation plan was to keep the family photo album on a table near the front door in case she’d need to make a quick escape.

But acting alone, it’s hard to dodge such an all-encompassing disaster. “People who go through repetitive flooding have had to rebuild their lives so many times they’re worn down,” says Joyce. But being prepared to lose everything is not sustainable; it is resignation, and Joyce, who is senior planner for the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission (CSPDC), says there is a much better alternative than giving up.

The CSPDC serves close to two dozen jurisdictions in five counties of the Shenandoah Valley region, including the cities of Staunton and Harrisonburg, providing consultation covering land-use planning, transportation, water and wastewater utilities, natural resource management, affordable housing, economic and community development, disaster mitigation and preparedness, agritourism, and human services.

Relocating a house in Glasgow, VA

Joyce advocates building resilience into every aspect of a community’s planning as one of the best ways to reduce damage, hardship, and loss, during and after a natural or manmade disaster. Planning for resilience can give residents and businesses in areas prone to flooding not just the tools to deal with crises, but also the tools needed to recover quickly and to bounce back toward prosperity.

Being resilient can mean different things in different situations, Joyce says, but she also notes that preparing a pathway to recover from the worst should begin long before disaster strikes; it should begin by taking a close look at the risks that a community faces. And according to Joyce, flooding is not the only natural hazard facing residents of the Central Shenandoah Valley. The CSPDC All Hazards Mitigation Plan notes that residents also might have occasion to deal with high winds from tornadoes and derechos; wildfires have set off the alarm in the vast expanses of forests and public land in the region in the summer; and at the other extreme, epic snowstorms, ice storms, and sudden snowmelts in recent winters have proved that it would be wise for residents of Shenandoah communities to be ready for almost anything.

Helping share that awareness and to share ideas on what to do about it is part of Joyce’s business.

The CSPDC is funded through grants and assessments to operate as a go-between and advisor to state and local government and the communities they serve on issues related to growth and development. Joyce strives to encourage communities in the region to include resilience in their plans for future development as well as in current operations.

Storm Track
The Shenandoah Valley in Virginia might not be the first place that comes to mind when the subject of hurricanes comes up, but when they do show up they cause havoc. Hurricane Camille in 1969 marked a turning point in the way people in the area thought about flooding. It hit the Gulf Coast as a Category 5 storm and weakened to a tropical depression before reaching Virginia. According to a historical entry in the All Hazards Mitigation Plan, precipitation fell over many hours, dropping more than 27 inches of rain in Nelson County and over 10 inches in the area from Lynchburg to Charlottesville. Flooding and landslides, triggered by saturated soils, resulted in catastrophic damage. More than 150 people died and another 100 were injured. At the time, damage was estimated at more than $113 million. In the Central Shenandoah region, as a result of Camille, significant flooding occurred in Rockbridge County, the cities of Buena Vista and Waynesboro, and the town of Glasgow. Twenty-three people died in Rockbridge County, with damages exceeding $30 million (in 1969 dollars). The results were plain to see, Joyce says: “Some of the houses had water up to the second floor.”

During tropical storms, orthographic lifting makes things even worse for this largely agricultural district, with the winds wringing precipitation from moist tropical air forced up and over the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains. The result, Joyce says, is “pockets of flooding” that can occur almost anywhere after intense and rapid rainfall.

“We have had big trouble from hurricanes, because after they have made landfall and they are crossing the state and moving from the Gulf, they just stall out here and drop tons of rain,” she says.

And, since the time of Camille, the storms have continued, with Agnes in 1972 bringing 15 inches of rain. In 1985, Juan brought record flood levels to Waynesboro. In Buena Vista, 3 to 6 feet of water flooded homes and businesses. Hurricane Fran, in 1996, broke almost all flood records along the Shenandoah River with 8 to 14 inches of rainfall, and in 2003 during Hurricane Isabel, as much as 20.6 inches of rainfall was recorded by the upper Shenandoah monitoring station in Augusta County.

“Our cities have issues with flooding because they have creeks or streams that run through them,” says Joyce. In addition, she says that due to the peculiar feature of karst topography that honeycombs the region, the precise locations of floodplains are sometimes difficult to nail down. “A good portion of the floodplain is actually underground, so you don’t even realize that the water is rising, and it has to have somewhere to go, so it seeps through.” Which, she says, means floodwaters sometimes invade homes from the inside out.

But she notes that in most cases the flooding in the area “is the result of rivers swelling over longer periods of time” until they overflow their banks.

Moving Up
The first resilience efforts in the region were flood mitigation projects such as the one in Glasgow, VA, at the confluence of the Maury River and the James River. “Half of the town is in the floodplain, so they had issues with repetitive flooding of houses,” explains Joyce.

With a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Joyce says, CSDPC projects “either elevated, relocated, or acquired” 53 houses in the floodplain. “Now those houses are either protected because they are higher, or we’ve put them on the back of a truck and moved them out of the floodplain. The land was acquired, and the house was demolished, and the land will be kept as an open space so that no one can build on it again.”

Stabilizing Triage
To determine where to begin the process of acquiring or mitigating floodplain properties, the CSPDC evaluated how deep each of the at-risk homes were in the floodplain. It then used a prioritization process dividing the floodplain houses into three categories based on flood depth and frequency. CSPDC used that information to triage its approach to mitigation. “The first houses we dealt with were the ones that got the most repetitive flooding and the deepest flooding, then the second phases received the next tier of funding, and the third phase received the least. But all of them were significant, because when you receive the grants from FEMA you have to do a benefit-cost analysis and prove that the mitigation projects you implement are cost efficient based on the type of house and what you’re going to do.”

According to Joyce, establishing the triage process based on the severity of the risk for each property was a better approach than just having a list “where everyone was thinking: “˜I know I’m number one, or I know I’m number two.'” It not only served to reduce the potential for conflict but also provided flexibility for managing the program. “Sometimes during mitigation projects, personal issues or other things would come up where a person might be having surgery, or they couldn’t be out of the house for one reason or another. We had a group of houses we were working with, so if that one person had to be delayed we were able to keep going with the project.”

Compound Disaster
The Central Shenandoah Valley’s Hazard Mitigation Plan considers flooding itself a multifaceted hazard. The plan notes that as a result of floods, homes and business may suffer damage and be susceptible to collapse; that floods pick up chemicals, sewage, and toxins from roads, factories, and farms and therefore any property affected by the flood may be contaminated with hazardous materials; and that debris from vegetation and manmade structures may also be hazardous following the occurrence of a flood. In addition, floods may threaten water supplies and water quality, as well as initiate power outages.

With this in mind, CSPDC takes a holistic view of dealing with disaster. For instance, recognizing that damage to critical facilities can significantly increase the overall effect of a flood event on a community, The Hazard Mitigation Workgroup implemented a survey of key facilities in the region.

Using a geographic information system (GIS), the critical facility points were intersected with the FEMA flood zones. The CSPDC used a 30-foot buffer on the facilities to provide a radial distance from the center of the building to determine the proximity to the floodplain. Although the initial study indicated that 52 critical facilities were located near or in the floodplain, the study also revealed “great diversity in the type of facility located within or in close proximity to the floodplain.”

The report, however, cautions that GIS determination of floodplain vulnerability should be used only as a planning tool. The plan notes, “In order to accurately determine if a structure is actually in the floodplain, site-specific information must be available.” CSPDC says it is then up to each jurisdiction, armed with this information, to decide for itself the best way to prepare facilities for the possible hazards of flooding.

By 2004, the CSPDC had sponsored almost 100 mitigation projects in eight localities to keep people and their homes safer in potential flood situations. Almost $9 million in grant funding was used to flood-proof, elevate, relocate, or acquire homes. While a big part of promoting flood resilience is encouraging people not to reside or build their businesses in the floodplain, its bigger role is keeping people safe; for that reason, CSPDC projects have also included outreach efforts to special populations such as the disabled, elderly, and non-English-speaking communities. One such effort resulted in a successful evacuation adjacent to a flood-prone river in Waynesboro, VA, on the eve of Hurricane Isabel.

Can Money Buy Resilience?
The federal government pours a lot of money into disaster relief, and the unfortunate reality is that disasters keep happening anyway. According to The Center for American Progress, the federal government spent $136 billion total from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2013 on disaster relief.

“Nearly all of this disaster spending was for relief and recovery from major storms and other smaller natural disasters. Most of these disasters are symptomatic of manmade climate change,” the authors write. And you don’t have to look far for predictions of more and worse to come.

The big question is how much can a federal government do in the face of compounding risks? FEMA itself has begun trying to encourage communities to be more resilient as an alternative to relying on the emergency management agencies to respond to try to rebuild post-disaster.

Joyce gives a good deal of credit for CSPDC’s success in implementing its hazard mitigation initiative to FEMA’s Project Impact program, which operated at the federal level from 1997 until 2001. It helped hundreds of cities and local jurisdictions, including those in the Central Shenandoah Valley, with disaster readiness initiatives based on local needs and priorities. Although that program no longer exists, its spirit continues in the form of Tulsa Partners in Tulsa, OK, one of the communities that had participated while the program was in full swing.

Tim Lovell, executive director of Tulsa Partners, one of the direct descendants of FEMA’s Project Impact, says he’s not arguing with NOAA’s and the National Weather Service’s predictions of increasing “severe weather and severe weather impacts”; he just wants to be ready.

The inspiration for programs promoting resilience, he says, “Seems to be coming from a number of perspectives. There is some effort from FEMA with their whole community approach to foster resilience at the local level. One of the things at the federal level is the awareness of the limitations that come with working at the federal level or the national level.”

But overall, he says, there is a dawning realization that “there are certain actions that promote resilience that can only be done locally by the communities involved.”

According to Lovell, there are two steps to becoming resilient. “One is to be informed of the issues and the kinds of things you can do to minimize the impact of disasters before they happen. And the second is to become connected–know your neighbor.”

He says, “Community connections between local communities, as well as local communities to state regional and national and even community-to-community across the country, can provide mechanisms for communities to foster resilience to learn from one another, to find models where they might be able to apply something that has been done in another community. The more connections you have within the community and also outside the community–that seems to make a difference with resilience. After a disaster, a more interconnected community is able to bounce back faster.”

This is a lesson Tulsa has learned over hard years of experience. Lovell says that during the 1970s and 1980s the city had nine federal disaster declarations, primarily due to flooding.

The most devastating shock came in the midnight hours of Memorial Day 1984. A killer flash flood hit the city during a heavy rainstorm and took14 lives, injured 288 people, damaged or destroyed nearly 7,000 buildings, and left $180 million in damages ($257 million in 1994 dollars).

City officials responded immediately and before the night was over had assembled the city’s first Flood Hazard Mitigation Team to develop the city’s strategy by crafting a unified program to curb flood losses.

Lovell says during the 1980s, “a coalition of the people who were impacted by the flooding, professional hydrologists and engineers who knew some of the ways that you could fix this, and public officials got together and worked on the stormwater problem.” During that process, he says, the group “made sure to inform the community about what needed to be done.”

Ultimately, the program they put in motion included relocation of 300 flooded homes and a 228-pad mobile home park, $10.5 million in flood control works, and $2.1 million for master drainage plans. The total capital program topped $30 million, mostly from local capital sources, flood insurance claim checks, and federal funds. But it went further than that, giving birth to an ongoing collaboration in Tulsa of those impacted and concerned members of the community, focused on disaster preparedness.

During the late 1990s when FEMA was looking for communities to pilot its Project Impact, emphasizing public private partnership in disaster preparedness and recovery, Tulsa became one of the first communities invited to participate, in part, Lovell says, because “the city already had a network of partners, and they had actually started working on multiple hazards.”

The effort has snowballed, and the city has since bought out 1,000 at-risk structures through FEMA repetitive flood loss grant programs.

Bill Robinson, Tulsa’s lead stormwater engineer, says the city has implemented regulations requiring all new storm sewer systems be designed for the 100-year flood event and has upgraded Tulsa’s floodplain regulations to employ a significantly tougher standard than that required by FEMA. In addition, Robinson says, Tulsa’s participation in the community ratings system has achieved a Class 2 rating for the city, which helps the residents save money on flood insurance policies.

According to the Tulsa website, since the city adopted comprehensive drainage regulations 15 years ago, none of the structures built in accord with those regulations has flooded. Nevertheless, says Robinson, Tulsa’s resiliency efforts are just at their beginning.

Robinson, who is also chair of Oklahoma Floodplain Management Association, says the city “has a pretty active hazard mitigation program, but there is more to resilience than just hazard mitigation.” He gives the example of Tulsa’s Stormwater Drainage and Hazard Mitigation Advisory Board, made up of citizens from public sector, private business, and non-profit organizations, whose mission is to provide input to the mayor and city council on things that can be done to further the city’s stormwater management and hazard mitigation.

In addition to addressing stormwater management issues, he says, the advisory board has become active in meeting a broad scope of emergency challenges. To address concerns over power outages that might occur as a result of floods or other disasters, the board has begun supporting legislation to require emergency generators or transfer switches on all nursing home facilities as well. “Back in 2007 we had a bad ice storm where parts of the city were out of power for up to 10 days,” he says. “That put a big strain on the Fire Department, because they were charged with evacuating all these people on life support from nursing homes that didn’t have backup generators.”

Every Little Bit Helps
Tulsa is constantly looking for new, cutting-edge solutions to stormwater quality issues, and under the right conditions, Robinson says, some of these measures can have the desirable side effect of addressing water quantity as well. For instance, in conjunction with the Oklahoma Ready Mix Concrete Association, Oklahoma State University, and the National Ready Mix Concrete Association (NRMCA), Tulsa recently sponsored a pervious concrete demonstration pour on city property, in the parking lot of Street Maintenance Division. Five different concrete manufacturing companies poured their pervious concrete into test forms for monitoring to determine if pervious concrete will hold up under Tulsa’s weather and soil conditions.

Although pervious concrete might be considered a stormwater quality measure, small things add up when you are talking about low-impact development, or LID. “We’ve been seeing an increased trend in short-duration, 10-year storms,” says Robinson. Not many structural measures short of a levees, conveyance, or a huge basin can handle the runoff from a 100-year storm event; however, on the lower end of the scale, Robinson says, LID techniques, in addition to addressing water-quality issues for which they are designed, could have some potential for alleviating localized flooding that can occur as a result of high-intensity but short-lived downpours.

With the trend continuing toward more intense storms, life-saving measures have become a central focus of Tulsa Partners’ approach. Although Tulsa Partners does not have an emergency response role in disaster recovery work, Lovell traveled to meet with community leaders in the aftermath of the Moore, OK, tornado earlier this year. “I did actually see the damage myself. I talked to the emergency manager there along with some other people from Tulsa Partners and the NHMA as well as the stormwater drainage advisory board,” he says. “At the city of Tulsa, much of what we’re trying to look at is what we can learn and what we can promote in the future in terms of disaster-resistant construction.”

He says he learned a major lesson–not precisely in the realm of stormwater management, but one he hopes to share not just in his hometown but also more widely: “Safe rooms proved themselves there. There is no evidence of a safe room failure in Moore, and in fact they saved lives. We’re having a lot of discussion about the need for safe rooms in schools.”

Robinson says Tulsa is also considering a strategy to build back better in case disaster does return. “Typically, if a community is not ready in advance and they lack something in their building code to encourage building back better, after the disaster the focus is “˜Let’s get everything up and running again as soon as possible.’ You build back to the status quo–you don’t build it any better that it was before.”

Looking at the broad view of resilience in a community where disaster risks include not just floods but also severe thunderstorms, hailstorms, and devastating tornadoes, Robinson says, “We’re looking into fortified building codes through the Institute for Business and Home Safety. They’ve got relatively inexpensive construction methods, so that for less than 5% of the cost of the structure, it can be hardened so that it can withstand 135-mile-an-hour winds.”

Lovell says becoming resilient is an ongoing process, not a one-time project. “And there’s a reason for that; any time you create anything or build anything, there’s going to be maintenance. Just like if you move into a new house you may expect not to have much maintenance at first, but over time there will be. It’s the same with an effort to make a resilient community. Even if you reach the point where your community is 100% resilient, you’re still going to have some things you have to do to keep things up–you’re still going to have people moving into the area who are not educated about the kinds of things may happen, you have children that grow, and the people who are here now may not be here in 20 years.”

In a fast-changing world, Lovell says, “you always will have to continue education, to continue looking at how things are and seeing what you need to do in order to continue to make the community a resilient one.”

He adds, “To me, the resilience of the community was really formed in a crucible of those nine federal disaster declarations and the flooding that occurred there, and it is still apparent today.”

About the Author

David C. Richardson

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

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