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Thursday, 08 March 2018 15:34

Unbottling Vulnerabilities: Planning and Preparing Cities for Natural Disasters

Atkins Unbottling VolnerabilitiesGraphic2By Ed Beadenkopf, PE

As we view with horror the devastation wrought by recent hurricanes in Florida, South Texas, and the Caribbean, questions are rightly being asked about what city planners and government agencies can do to better prepare communities for natural disasters. The ability to plan and design infrastructure that provides protection against natural disasters is obviously a primary concern of states and municipalities. Likewise, federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cite upgrading aging water infrastructure as a critical priority.

Funding poses a challenge

Addressing water infrastructure assets is a major challenge for all levels of government. While cities and municipalities are best suited to plan individual projects in their communities, they do not have the funding and resources to address infrastructure issues on their own. Meanwhile, FEMA, USACE and other federal agencies are tasked with broad, complex missions, of which flood management and resiliency is one component.

Federal funding for resiliency projects is provided in segments, which inadvertently prevents communities from being able to address the projects entirely. Instead, funding must be divided into smaller projects that never address the entire issue. To make matters even more challenging, recent reports indicate that the White House plan for infrastructure investment will require leveraging a major percentage of funding from state and local governments and the private sector. 

Virtually, long-term planning is the solution

So, what’s the answer? How can we piece together an integrated approach between federal and local governments with segmented funding? Put simply, we need effective, long-term planning.

Cities can begin by planning smaller projects that can be integrated into the larger, federal resilience plan. Local governments can address funding as a parallel activity to their master planning. Comprehensive planning tools, such as the Atkins-designed City Simulator, can be used to stress test proposed resilience-focused master plans.

A master plan developed using the City Simulator technology is a smart document that addresses the impact of growth on job creation, water conservation, habitat preservation, transportation improvements, and waterway maintenance. It enables local governments to be the catalyst for high-impact planning on a smaller scale.

By simulating a virtual version of a city growing and being hit by climate change-influenced disasters, City Simulator measures the real impacts and effectiveness of proposed solutions and can help lead the way in selecting the improvement projects with the highest return on investment (ROI). The resulting forecasts of ROIs greatly improve a community’s chance of receiving federal funds.

Setting priorities helps with budgeting

While understanding the effectiveness of resiliency projects is critical, communities must also know how much resiliency they can afford. For cities and localities prone to flooding, a single resiliency asset can cost tens of millions of dollars, the maintenance of which could exhaust an entire capital improvement budget if planners let it. Using effective cost forecasting and schedule optimization tools that look at the long-term condition of existing assets, can help planners prioritize critical projects that require maintenance or replacement, while knowing exactly the impact these projects will have on local budgets and whether additional funding will be necessary.

It is imperative to structure a funding solution that can address these critical projects before they become recovery issues. Determining which communities are affected by the project is key to planning how to distribute equitable responsibility for the necessary funds to initiate the project. Once the beneficiaries of the project are identified, local governments can propose tailored funding options such as Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, impact fees, grants, and enterprise funds. The local funding can be used to leverage additional funds through bond financing, or to entice public-private partnership solutions, potentially with federal involvement.

Including flood resiliency in long-term infrastructure planning creates benefits for the community that go beyond flood prevention, while embracing master planning has the potential to impact all aspects of a community’s growth. Local efforts of this kind become part of a larger national resiliency strategy that goes beyond a single community, resulting in better prepared cities and a better prepared nation.

Atkins Beadenkopf EdEd Beadenkopf, PE, is a senior project director in SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business with more than 40 years of engineering experience in water resources program development and project management. He has served as a subject matter expert for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, supporting dam and levee safety programs.