Planning August/September 2015

Preparing for the Next Big One

Places that put 'resilience' in their future.

By Jon Davis

Droughts and rising seas may be slow-moving hazards, but other natural disasters can destroy in minutes or hours what took years to build. How cities and regions bounce back is entirely in human hands.

Resilience, a word embodying the many ways that regions withstand and recover from the shock of disasters or economic downturns, is permeating planning as the realization grows that those areas planning in advance for disaster recovery are those areas that best recover.

Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery: Next Generation, issued in December 2014 by APA's Planning Advisory Service, strongly recommends pre-disaster planning as a — perhaps the — biggest step toward post-disaster resilience. "Disaster-affected communities with well-established planning functions have tended to be the most effective at managing reconstruction," it says. "Pre-disaster plans are also important in recovery because they represent consensus policies about the future and demonstrate that the community has an active planning process, active channels of communication, and strong planning tools and documents."

Or, as Michael Greenberg, professor and associate dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, puts it: "If you wait too long, and you wait until a disaster is upon you, you're in real trouble."


Heavy rains flooded parts of Norfolk, Virginia, in July

A (very) brief parse

Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery offers an in-depth look at the profession's latest thinking on resilience planning, along with several case studies of cities and situations ranging from Los Angeles (earthquakes) to Colorado Springs (forest and brush fires), to Greensburg, Kansas, whose residents purposely rebuilt as green as possible after an EF5 tornado all but wiped it from the map, to how the Iowa cities of Cedar Rapids and Davenport dealt with catastrophic floods. Among the report's key points:

  • "Broad community leadership support for recovery planning requires earnest engagement with all the community leaders who may be involved in a key aspect of disaster recovery and its successful implementation."
  • "Pre-event planning for recovery provides the opportunity for communities to think about those [post-disaster] contingencies and the kind of place they wish to rebuild if the need arises."
  • A resilience mindset requires "the willingness, perhaps even the courage, to make tough, critical decisions in the face of an emergency."

Pre-planning also allows the establishment of clear lines of responsibility, reviews of financial needs, and assessments of overall preparedness. Failure on that last note, particularly, has bad consequences for the elected officials who ultimately oversee planning:

"In the worst cases, the resulting embarrassment has cost public officials their jobs, either through dismissal or at the ballot box. It is almost a hallmark of modern public administration that preparedness is seen as the mark of an effective manager and a way of building and maintaining public confidence," the report says.

The report uses the National Academy of Sciences' definition of resilience — "the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events" — while expanding a bit for professional planning contexts, and so shall we for this purpose of this article.

In addition, the report notes that planning after a disaster must vie for public support with residents' collective — and sometimes faulty — memory of their community. And it must do so knowing that the clock is ticking as people clamor for a speedy return to "normal."

"Successful disaster recovery plans and processes find a way to effectively attain a baseline of community recovery while also moving the community's vision forward in adapting to the 'new normal' and taking advantage of post-disaster opportunities to transform and thrive," the report states.

Post-disaster planning can be a time to assess newer ideas, more sustainable rebuilding, and other recovery strategies, but the time frame is compressed. That means pre-disaster planning buys time when a disaster actually hits.

"There's a challenge here," says James C. Schwab, AICP, a senior research associate at APA who manages its Hazards Planning Center and is the editor of the report. He means that there will be tension between pre-disaster planning — how to organize for recovery, what your goals will be and should be — and post-disaster planning once the extent and pattern of damage is known.

"That division of responsibility between pre- and post-planning is a critical delineation that we made in that report that we had not made quite so clearly in any previous document," Schwab says. "What's important is to understand that distinction and what you're in position to do."

Greenberg says preparation also means knowing your assets and liabilities, and which assets could become liabilities. An example: "What facilities could turn into hazards if they're hit by lightning or a storm?" A good starting point for planners is a regional hazard mitigation plan, followed by a review of municipal plans, to see if they're in sync, Greenberg adds.

If they aren't, "I [would be] thinking real hard about how to change that," he says. "If those collide, you need to know about that."

It's up to the planner to figure out whom to contact among municipal departments, utility companies, and other stakeholders. It's also the planner's job to get everyone together at the table to figure out what the available options are for building resilience into the region, Greenberg says. But, he cautions, "Get people who actually know what they're talking about."

July 11, 2015: Severe weather has become more commonplace in Norfolk, where three inches of rain fell in about an hour, according to reports. A car tries to drive through the flooded intersection of 26th St. and Llewellyn Ave.

Resilience planning = planning resilience

The idea of adding resilience as an overlay to more common planning measures is about where sustainability planning was 10 years ago, says Carlos Martín, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center.

Historically, planning in the U.S. has meant envisioning your future and planning toward that vision, he says, and that's a more definitive process than disaster planning, which is planning for the unknown. "The hard part about disaster mitigation and resilience is you have no idea what the future holds," Martín says.

Resilience in this context can take many forms. Greensburg's recovery from its 2007 tornado is a famous, oft-cited example; so are Valmeyer, Illinois, and Pattonsburg, Missouri. Residents of both small towns chose to rebuild them on higher, drier ground in the wake of 1993's Great Flood along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, which turned a wide swath of the Midwest into a temporary sixth Great Lake.

Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy offered recent, stark lessons (good and bad) of both pre- and post-disaster planning and resilience on the Gulf and East coasts, respectively, while tornadoes regularly test the resilience of regions across the Midwest and South in annual dances of death and destruction.

But Norfolk, Virginia, the East Coast's third largest container port (including Newport News) and home to the world's largest naval base, faces a slower disaster.

Thanks to climate change, the Atlantic Ocean is rising and will reclaim parts of the city before this century's end, according to state analysts. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science estimated in 2013 that if current trends continue unabated, the sea level at Norfolk will rise at least 5.5 feet by 2100 — a daunting challenge to existence, not to mention resilience (and no small measure of irony for a region that relies on the water for its livelihood).

Moreover, the land is sinking because groundwater is being removed faster than it's being replenished and because of an accident of geology: Chesapeake Bay's basin was created about 35 million years ago by a meteor strike, and Norfolk is slowly — about 0.12 of an inch annually — sinking into the subterranean crater.

Stories like one in the Washington Post on May 31, 2014, noted that before 1980, "an inlet near the Chrysler Museum, known as the Hague, had never flooded for more than 100 hours in a year. By 2009, it was routinely flooded for 200 and even 300 hours a year."

"We cannot save every inch of dry land that we have. The cost benefits of that are just not there and the technical ability to do so may not be there either," says George Homewood, AICP, Norfolk's director of city planning and president of APA's Virginia Chapter.

Homewood says the city's planners and political leaders are starting to accept the facts of higher water levels and that some parts of the city may be underwater in 50 to 100 years, which means that future investments need to be directed at "those areas that will remain relatively high and dry at the end of that timeframe."

"Our mantra, if we have one, is that as part of our transformation, we need to learn to live with the water," he adds. "The good news is that we don't have to do this tomorrow. That means we do have time, time to really think about it and time to get it right. The bad news is that it's so far off that people don't want to think about it."

But in fact they are thinking about it. Resilience isn't just physical but economic and social — and long-term, which means taking a much longer view than is typical in this country, Homewood says. Twenty years is insufficient; Norfolk's planners are now thinking in terms of 50 to 100 years, he adds.

High tide at the water inlet known as the Hague, near the Chrysler Museum of Art

Embedded expert

Norfolk is also working with the Rockefeller Foundation's "100 Resilient Cities" initiative to develop strategies for integrating resilience and planning. The foundation is funding Christine Morris's presence as Norfolk's "chief resilience officer."

Morris, who has been in place since July 2014, says the first phase of her work has been identifying resilience challenges. The second phase, begun in April this year, is to begin identifying where additional diagnostics are needed before rolling out plans to deal with areas where systemic shocks and stresses will be.

"Can you build resilience across multiple networks?" Morris says. "If you've got one dollar to invest, where do you get the most building in terms of infrastructure improvement, peoples' ability to get their basic needs improvement, community leadership improvement? Can you build that capacity across all your systems?"

The idea of resilience planning is still so new that there are still multiple definitions and frameworks available to explore, she says, adding, "We'll see what has legs over the next 20 years."

Homewood agrees: "Resilience is a long-term strategy; it's not the short-term recovery. This is a whole new way of thinking for many of us," he says. "We're maybe, perhaps a little further along than some, but that doesn't mean that we're all that far ahead of everyone."

Leadership makes a difference

Jim Schwab agrees that more resilience can, and should be, built into municipal codes and plans. U.S. planners need only look at the death tolls from the 2010 earthquakes in Haiti and Chile (about 316,000 versus 525) despite a difference in magnitude (7.0 versus 8.8, each step up in magnitude equaling 32 times more energy released) to realize what benefits come from the willingness to apply more stringent building codes.

In a February 2010 opinion essay published on Nature's website, Roger Bilham, professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, noted that — differences in the types and locations of the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes aside — collapsed buildings in Port-au-Prince told their own tales:

"In my visit to the region in the weeks after the earthquake, the reason for the disaster was clear in the mangled ruins — the buildings had been doomed during their construction. Every possible mistake was evident: brittle steel, coarse non-angular aggregate, weak cement mixed with dirty or salty sand, and the widespread termination of steel reinforcement rods at the joints between columns and floors of buildings where earthquake stresses are highest."

In a March 2010 essay at by John Mutter, professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University (and students Belinda Archibong and Danni Pi), attributed building codes, or the lack thereof in Haiti, as a contributing factor in the different death tolls, but not the contributing factor. While Chile has them and enforces them, Haiti's dire poverty makes enforcement of building codes superfluous when its government struggles to meet basic health and sanitation needs, the authors argued: "Poverty is the strata upon which the buildings and lives stand or fall when disaster comes. Building codes — or their absence — are just symptoms of this sad reality."

The International Code Council's ongoing review and analysis process is a good example of how resilience can be built into the system, Schwab says, cautioning that resilience has its limits, too. "Up through about an EF3 [tornado], the same kinds of building codes used against wind resistance in places like Florida for hurricanes do a very good job against smaller tornadoes," he says. Building codes can't provide much protection from an EF4 or EF5 tornado.

While larger cities have their own resources, smaller communities like unincorporated Fairdale, Illinois (pop. 150), which was devastated in April by an EF4 tornado, must lean on others.

Schwab notes that APA and its state chapters offer that support, as do metropolitan planning organizations or other regional entities like Iowa's council of governments network, which helped Parkersburg, Iowa (pop. 1,870), rebound from a 2008 EF5 twister.

But states, even those in the throes of austerity regimes, cannot abandon pre-disaster resilience planning, he adds. "I think, frankly, there is a role for the states, including Illinois, to foster some of that sort of planning. Whether that happens in the current fiscal climate is tough to say, but just because you don't budget for them doesn't mean there won't be any more tornadoes or floods," Schwab says.

Political leadership is a critical factor both for resilience planning and outcomes, he adds.

That cuts both ways. Florida required "post-disaster redevelopment plans" in a 1993 law, but didn't issue guidance on how to prepare them until 2010, leaving local officials in the lurch. Gov. Rick Scott's administration has since removed that mandate from coastal jurisdictions.

Greensburg, Kansas, was more isolated than Fairdale, but had a bigger population (estimated at between 777 and 1,000 at the time of the tornado). And, says Schwab, "there was some really good political leadership in Greensburg — transformative, visionary stuff. That's a critical factor, the quality of leadership that is available to articulate where you want to go."

Because if you decide to rebuild, he adds, "there's going to need to be some really intense participation among the community of survivors to decide what that community is going to look like."

And sometimes, what that community will look like won't be determined by planners, no matter what they do.

"While it's easy to talk in generalities about parts of the city that we need to retreat from, it's a lot harder to say 'and it's going to be this block of that street'," Homewood says. "How do we approach this when dealing the fact that one of the things that makes Norfolk Norfolk is that we're a port?

"Recognizing that means recognizing we can't build a wall around the entire city, and that there are some parts that the ocean is going to retake," he adds. "We recognize that there are some areas that we're going to have some very serious adult conversations about."

Jon Davis is a Chicago freelance writer.


Images: Top — Heavy rains flooded parts of Norfolk, Virginia, in July. Middle — July 11, 2015: Severe weather has become more commonplace in Norfolk, where three inches of rain fell in about an hour, according to reports. A car tries to drive through the flooded intersection of 26th St. and Llewellyn Ave. Bottom — High tide at the water inlet known as the Hague, near the Chrysler Museum of Art. Photos by Jay Westcott.

Virginia Institute for Marine Studies, "Recurrent Flooding Study for Tidewater Virginia," January 2013:

100 Resilient Cities, Norfolk, Virginia: Select the Cities tab at

Norfolk, Virginia, Planning Department, Plans & Studies page:

Building Resilient Regions (University of California, Berkeley): focuses on disaster relief.

Solar Can Help Save the Day

By Stephan Schmidt

The benefits of solar energy — including fewer greenhouse gas emissions and lower electricity bills — are well known to planners. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, another aspect of solar energy is gaining popularity: its potential for enhancing community resilience. Examples from across the country demonstrate the value of solar in resilience efforts.

In 2003, the National Center for Appropriate Technology received funding from the Montana Public Service Commission to install solar photovoltaic systems with backup battery storage at fire stations throughout the state. The 20 new systems have been linked to quicker response times during power failures and reduced utility bills at the stations. More importantly, the systems have kept fire stations operating during blackouts. In October 2005, heavy snowfall caused widespread power outages, including in Billings, the state's largest city. Billings Firehouse #6, one of the stations where NCAT installed a system, maintained continuous operations and acted as a community hub during the outage.

Houston, one of the cities most at risk for hurricane damage, in 2011 purchased Solar Powered Adaptive Containers for Everyone units to supply emergency power. The mobile units — with a small PV system and storage battery — can be easily moved to affected areas, and while they have not yet been tested during an emergency, their placement at schools, community centers, and fire stations is educating the community about emergency preparedness. Each unit has a capacity of four kilowatts; potential uses include personal electronics charging and medical refrigeration.

After a catastrophic earthquake in 2011, the Fukushima Prefecture of Japan has made major investments in solar energy as a safer and more resilient alternative to nuclear power. Its goal is to be completely powered by renewables by 2040, and thus far the prefecture has installed solar energy projects at airports and golf courses, and has established a municipal utility and a research center. Some of the revenue from these projects will fund recovery efforts.

In Fukushima and elsewhere, destructive hazard events are acting as catalysts for community-based change toward a more sustainable future — with solar playing an important role.


Perhaps the most important lesson is the need for energy assurance planning, which aims to improve the ability of the energy sector to prepare for and respond to disruptions. It starts with evaluating and protecting critical facilities. In energy assurance plans, solar power systems — that can be operated independently of the grid — can provide backup capacity to support the continuity of critical loads at designated facilities.

Integrating solar energy into comprehensive planning efforts — allowing, encouraging, or requiring the use of solar energy — ensures that regulatory barriers do not impede the process. Best practices include crafting "right-to-solar" ordinances or solar access laws, or classifying systems as "by-right" accessory uses.

Planners should also examine current zoning, building, and subdivision codes and regulations to identify potential barriers. Best practices for incentivizing solar energy include streamlining the permitting and review process to shorten timelines. Accounting for potential solar installations via zoning and setback regulations can also spur development.

Stephan Schmidt is the author of Solar Energy & Resilience Planning: A Practical Guide for Local Governments. As of July 2015, he is Transportation Planner at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and is also a former intern at ICLEI-USA.