Resilient Economies

Weather and climate are not the same thing. Weather is rain hitting you in the face when you walk out the door. Climate is how hard and often rain hits you in the face over the years.

Weather delivers sudden blows. Climate acts gradually over time. Yet one thing is true of both. As global temperatures push higher and higher, weather and climate are changing in ways that are harder — and more costly — to ignore.

The average number of extreme weather events causing $1 billion or more in losses has spiked in recent years. The average number per year between 2008 and 2018 was 6.3 such events (adjusted for inflation), but the average over the last five years is 12.6, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Total losses from natural hazards both large and small set an all-time U.S. record of $306 billion in 2017.

None of those natural hazards are new. Communities have dealt with hurricanes, wildfires, flooding and drought forever. However, as the severity, frequency and duration of these events grows, communities need to double down on protecting not only lives and property but also their economies, warns the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a 2016 report titled Planning Framework for a Climate Resilient Economy.

“Businesses depend on their local communities for their workforce, customer base, supplies, and reliable transportation and utility infrastructure,” states the report. “Likewise, communities depend on businesses for goods and services, tax revenue and employment. Having a climate-resilient economy ... that can withstand or recover quickly and efficiently from climate impacts in the short and long terms is essential to a community’s well-being.”

Investing in resilience strategies can more than pay for itself. Every $1 spent to increase resilience to natural disasters such as flooding, hurricanes and wildfires generates $6 in benefits in terms of reducing losses from business interruption, damage to buildings and other risks, according to an analysis of federal disaster spending by the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), a public-private partnership established by Congress.

The NIBS also found that designing new structures to exceed certain model building code requirements generates a $4 return for every $1 spent on resilience measures.

The planning process

The EPA’s planning framework is designed to help communities recognize their economic vulnerabilities and identify ways to be more climate resilient — with a focus on helping the business community respond to projected changes and think creatively about how to prosper in a world with shifting weather patterns.

The process starts with forming an assessment team representing government, business and community interests. The next steps are:

  • Evaluating which projected hazards such as flooding, sea-level rise, storm surge, drought and extreme heat could affect the community and over what time period.
  • Identifying community economic assets and their vulnerability. Some critical components might be obvious such as a road that is essential for getting goods in and out, a company that is the largest employer in the community, or utilities that supply power and water. Others might be less evident such as a supplier that other companies rely on for raw materials.
  • Analyzing overall economic implications for the community. Damage to transportation or utility assets, for example, could have far-reaching impacts on all sectors of the economy, including businesses, homes and tourist attractions.
  • Recommending actions to strengthen economic resilience such as relocating threatened facilities that provide essential public services. Resiliency can then be used as an economic development tool.

“Businesses that can operate with minimal interruption during and after extreme weather events could have a competitive advantage over less-prepared companies,” according to the report. “Similarly, communities that ... protect their transportation, utilities and other essential assets and services could be more attractive to businesses looking for more secure locations.”

One of the ways communities can do that is through smart growth because how and where communities develop is central to determining their resilience.

“Smart growth strategies, which promote compact, mixed use, walkable communities that protect ecologically and economically valuable open space and offer housing and transportation options, can help communities develop in ways that also make them better prepared for climate change,” the report states.

It starts with identifying and encouraging growth in areas that are already developed — or well-connected to such areas — and that are less vulnerable to flooding and other hazards.

“Encouraging development and redevelopment in these areas not only keeps people and property safe, it also takes development pressure off of undeveloped land that can protect the community from hazards such as flooding and avoids costly new infrastructure and utility extensions,” reads the report.

After where to grow, comes how to grow. Providing transportation choices and promoting compact development go hand-in-hand with making an economy more resilient.

A well-connected transportation network that makes it safe and convenient to walk, bike, take public transit or drive shorter distances gives people more choices in how to continue their daily activities in an emergency. And compact development in central locations makes businesses and important services easier to reach for customers, suppliers and employees alike — not to mention easier to protect.

Compact development also drives resiliency by using natural resources more efficiently. It saves water, for example, because pipes don’t have to be as long and therefore are not as prone to leaks. In the face of worsening droughts, every drop counts in many communities — not just for drinking but for agriculture, industry and energy generation.

Vermont's resiliency

Drought is not the problem in Vermont. “The climate models all show that it’s going to get wetter and warmer here,” said Chris Cochran, director of community planning and resilience with the state of Vermont.

Aerial view of the city of Brattleboro in Vermont

Photo by Adam Palminte

Vermont’s mountainous geography already makes many of its communities highly flood prone as runoff from rain and snowmelt swell the rivers and streams in the steep valleys where people live. Heavier rainfall and higher temperatures — which lead to rapid snowmelt — are the last things those communities need.

After being ravaged by flooding from tropical storm Irene in 2011, the state obtained federal funding to launch the Vermont Economic Resiliency Initiative (VERI). The initiative has helped five especially vulnerable communities prepare for future cataclysmic threats as a consequence of climate change. “It’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, it’s when,” Cochran said.

Flooding can deliver multiple blows to a community’s economy ranging from utility outages that prevent businesses from opening to road closures that leave employees stranded, break supply chains and impede the delivery of goods to market — all of which can put people out of work for weeks and even for good.

Nearly 40 percent of businesses do not reopen after a disaster, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Data from the U.S. Small Business Administration indicates that nearly 10 percent of businesses fail within two years after being struck by a disaster.

That creates a sense of urgency around resilience projects. “Most of the communities we’ve worked with have all done ... multi-million projects to reduce the threat from future floods,” Cochran said.

In the town of Brattleboro, for example, a senior housing complex upstream of town was relocated out of the flood plain of Whetstone Brook and converted to green space to give the water “somewhere to go that isn’t in somebody’s home or basement,” Cochran said. “To the extent we can get people out of harm’s way and get businesses out of harm’s way, we can make sure that when it does rain really hard, it doesn’t impact our economy.”

Maryland weathers the storm

Flooding is also a problem in downtown Annapolis, Md., but relocation is not a viable strategy given the historical significance of this seaport town, where increased tidal flooding caused by rising sea levels prompted the city to create a plan to protect the downtown called Weathering It Together.

Flooded streets in Annapolis, Maryland

Photo by Amy E. McGovern

In the early 1960s, the downtown area experienced nuisance flooding at high tide only three days a year, the plan notes. Today, flooding occurs between 30 and 40 days a year. By 2030, it will flood every other day, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists. By 2045, downtown will flood every single day.

“Our stormwater system gets backed up (at high tide) because our elevation is so low that the water doesn’t have anywhere to go. It just comes up through our pipes,” explained Sally Nash, Annapolis’ chief of comprehensive planning. “It’s worse if there’s a high tide and a rain event.”

The city’s vibrant Dock Street District at the harbor’s edge is hardest hit. Flooding can close the streets and parking lots, which discourages shoppers and tourists — who flock to Annapolis to visit the Naval Academy — from patronizing the businesses.

“We’ve tracked the number of times we’ve had to close the main road and that number has increased every year,” said Sally Nash. “If people hear the road is closed, they go somewhere else.”

Help is on the way. The Weathering Together plan called for building a pair of pump stations to remove flood water. One of the stations is already under construction. Additional resilience strategies such as building a seawall and elevating portions of the Dock Street District are also being considered.

“We all know that if we don’t do anything we are basically choosing retreat and I don’t think anyone wants to do that because we have so many structures downtown that have been here 300 years,” Nash said.

Iowa City's planning leads to economic growth

Following the devastating Iowa River floods of 2008, Iowa City scored a resiliency and smart growth win-win. Supported by federal grants, the city closed a wastewater treatment plant that had been inundated by the flooding and expanded the capacity of another plant outside the flood plain. The site of the old plant was then converted into a 17-acre park that doubles as natural storage for future floodwaters.

Aerial view of Iowa City Riverfront Park

Courtesy of Iowa City

The cherry on top? The park served as a catalyst to rezone nearby land outside the flood plain and create the Riverfront Crossings District.

The master plan for the mixed-use district includes a form-based code that raises height limits to between eight and 15 stories to allow greater density. So far, more than 1,000 units of new housing have been built or are under construction, along with space for offices, stores and restaurants.

Aerial view of Iowa City Riverfront Park

Photo by Kevin Crawley; Courtesy of Iowa City

“We’ve had phenomenal growth in that area — mostly due to converting (the wastewater plant) to a park and converting that land that is not in the flood plain to higher residential,” said Tracy Hightshoe, Iowa City’s neighborhood and development services director.

The reality? Communities across the nation need to take action to protect their economies from shifting weather patterns. But planning for future resiliency is an opportunity for economic growth in all areas.

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