What Cities Can Do to Prepare Themselves for Increasingly Severe Weather

While the eastern seaboard was fortunate to safely make it through hurricane season this year, cities should take this opportunity to invest in innovative storm water infrastructure systems that can help them withstand the next 100-year storm.
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This year mayors along the eastern seaboard are letting out sighs of relief that the U.S. made it through this hurricane season without a major storm system hitting landfall. Meanwhile some areas affected by Superstorm Sandy are still cleaning up from last year's devestation and communities from the Phillippines to Illinois have suffered extreme devestation because of other severe weather events.

Cities across America have good reason to expect that increasingly severe weather events could bring devastation.

Today, a 100-year flood is no longer a once-in-a-lifetime event. Cities such as New Orleans, Milwaukee, and Hoboken deal with regular flooding issues. In Miami Beach and Norfolk, ocean-side streets flood with seawater simply when a high tide comes in. And in many cities, a mild thunder storm is enough to overflow sewers and release sewage into fresh water supplies. In these communities, local leaders are searching for practical, cost-effective solutions to manage floods, storm water runoff, erosion, and other negative environmental impacts from storms.

Forward-looking cities that want to better prepare for future severe weather events can take proactive steps to mitigate the damage of future storms. The costs of preventative measures are actually a fraction of the expense of rebuilding after severe storms. It takes a concerted effort on the part of municipal leaders to determine a viable long term plan of action, but they can make strategic changes to ensure a more resilient city that is better able to face the next big storm.

One step a city can take is to treat its roads as part of its comprehensive water plan. Roads, parking lots and other surfaces that are paved with conventional, nonporous materials play a major role in water runoff and flooding issues. When water from a storm hits an impervious material, it has nowhere to go, so it tends to roll in to sewer systems until drainage systems and water treatment facilities are overwhelmed. Some municipalities are beginning to realize that they can reduce water runoff by using porous pavement and incentivizing private property owners to do the same.

Second, parcels of unused land in flood-prone sections of cities could be put to work to help control water runoff. For example, an abandoned parking lot in a low-lying area could be transformed into a wetland or park. Instead of contributing to a runoff problem during the next storm, these spaces would actually absorb excess rainwater.

Of course governments are strapped for dollars and it is expensive to tear up and repave roads that might otherwise have years left in their operational life. But with thoughtful finance and implementation strategies, municipalities can find ways to package together a series of improvements and minimize the financial burden by working with multiple parties and private investors.

For example, a city could decide that they will use porous pavement every time a road needs to be repaved, and create more green space to absorb rain before it even hits the pavement. When the water utility needs to do work that will require tearing up a road, the city could approach other parties such as broadband or electrical companies about joining the project and synchronizing their work. Perhaps it is counter intuitive, but bringing different systems together to work on the same project can make funding easier since there are more parties to pay for the work. The costs could be shared more efficiently among all the groups who do underground work, creating substantial savings that can be used to finance the next set of projects.

Scientists are still debating if severe weather events are increasing in frequency and intensity, but recent experience suggests that communities should accept and expect that hurricanes and other weather systems are going to be a big part of our future.

While the eastern seaboard was fortunate to safely make it through hurricane season this year, cities should take this opportunity to invest in innovative storm water infrastructure systems that can help them withstand the next 100-year storm.

Dr. Shalini Vajjhala is the founder and CEO of re:focus partners, which is leading the Rockefeller Foundation-funded RE.invest Initiative, and a Visiting Associate Professor of Environmental Policy at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Previously, she served as Special Representative of the US-Brazil Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability in the Office of Administrator Lisa Jackson at the US Environmental Protection Agency.

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