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Floods, Fires, and Hurricanes: Steps Every Community Should Take to Be More Resilient

Nov. 20, 2020, 9:01 AM

We all likely have experienced the destruction of tropical storms and hurricanes, drought, wildfires, and similar “Acts of God.” Many are also experiencing daily disruptions such as king tides, nuisance flooding, and retreating shorelines. How can communities become more resilient to address these impacts on the safety and welfare of their citizens?

As an attorney who has represented state and local agencies and private property owners alike, I have been involved in various efforts in response to extreme weather events and the destruction they can wreak on homeowners, business owners, and municipal budgets. More recently, these discussions have begun to focus less on emergency response and more on how cities and towns can achieve resiliency in our ever-changing climate.

Some leaders are intimidated and confused by the seemingly insurmountable odds of preparing for the unknown and the unquantifiable. Others see no choice but to face the daunting challenges head-on, but many don’t know where to start. Here are a few fundamental recommendations on how communities can begin adaptation planning.

Review Municipal Codes and Land Planning

The first and most practical step a municipality can take is to critically review their land development codes. Many codes have not been meaningfully updated in five or six decades, when the concerns of the time had little to do with resiliency.

Today, such concepts as floor elevations, impervious surfaces, wind loads, and drainage must account for modern conditions and changing climates. Updating a land development code to incorporate resiliency objectives is a most important first step.

Rebuild Aging Infrastructure

Second, all communities should examine the age, performance, and capacities of their infrastructure systems—particularly stormwater management. Most municipal infrastructure systems have not been updated since original installation—again, likely decades ago, only getting attention in response to system failures or emergencies. Repairing a broken pipe that is flooding a busy intersection is one thing. Retrofitting a municipal-wide drainage system that can’t handle current conditions is another.

Resurfacing roads and expanding pedestrian access is important to all communities, but so too is improving the capacity and performance of stormwater management systems to account for increased water volume management and discharge. This also requires cooperating and partnering with neighboring communities to ensure that infrastructure systems are working together to handle impacts that know no geopolitical boundaries.

Utilize and Expand on Existing Resources

Many larger cities have commissioned studies and retained experts to analyze the impacts they are facing and develop the necessary and appropriate planning responses. While every community is unique, the challenges often have many commonalities.

Instead of starting from scratch, communities can use existing studies to help kick-start their own planning and response efforts by pinpointing priorities and identifying experts that may be a better fit for a given community’s needs.

Tap Grants for Funding

The above recommendations may seem obvious, but a big question remains: How are communities going to pay for such improvements? Studying the effectiveness of an entire land development code to address resiliency can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and the financial implications on property owners may be even more (which directly impacts a city’s tax revenue). The engineering and construction associated with modernizing public infrastructure can easily exceed tens of millions of dollars.

There are, however, a multitude of grants available to help fund resiliency planning efforts, including the creation of resiliency departments and the hiring of resiliency officers. For instance, Florida offers Resiliency Planning Grants to develop and implement coastal management elements to county comprehensive plans. Other states have similar funding mechanisms.

The U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit also offers opportunities for municipalities seeking to fund their resilience-building efforts. NOAA’s Coastal Resilience Grant Program is specific to coastal communities that prepare for and recover from extreme weather events and climate hazards. FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities is a pre-disaster mitigation program that focuses on partnerships and innovation. Some states even offer grants to private businesses that invest in their facilities, business systems and equipment with resiliency objectives.

Get Started Now—And Harness the Momentum

While some municipalities are well on their way to addressing weaknesses and vulnerabilities, some are just getting started by reaching out to expert consultants or hiring their own resiliency chiefs or industry-specific in-house grant writers. These types of hires can help develop practical strategies, as well as demonstrate to communities at-large that resiliency and adaptation are serious priorities requiring citizen participation and buy-in.

The key is to take the first steps and to utilize the resources and the opportunities that are available. Many grants are awarded based on rigorous, merit-based review, which means communities must take a hard look at the impacts they are facing and their capacities to plan and adapt.

Resiliency must become a planning and funding priority of any municipality. By starting with the fundamentals of code review and infrastructure analysis, all communities can become less reactive to extreme events and more proactive towards achieving a more resilient future for their residents, businesses, visitors, and future generations.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owner.

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Patrick W. Krechowski is a partner in Balch & Bingham’s Real Estate; Land Use & Zoning; and Public Policy & Government Relations practices. Based in Jacksonville, Fla., he has more than 20 years of experience in real estate, land use, environmental, governmental, administrative litigation, appeals and title insurance law.