Better Way for Coastal Communities to Prep for Devastating Storms

Coastal storms can cause surges, sea-level rise, and cyclone winds that devastate communities. But emergency management experts in a new study detail a method for involving local stakeholders in planning for such extreme events and thereby helping such vulnerable areas in becoming more resilient.

Coastal communities’ ability to plan for, absorb, recover and adapt from destructive hurricanes is becoming more urgent.

As of 2010, approximately 52 percent of the United States’ population lived in vulnerable coastal watershed counties, and that number is expected to grow.

Globally, almost half of the world’s population lives along or near coastal areas.

(Learn More, courtesy of the New York Sea Grant and YouTube)

“In general, risk management has not been sufficiently focused on coastal resilience, with community stakeholders involved in the process of making their coastline, as a system, more resilient to coastal storms,” according to the study, “Enabling Stakeholder Involvement in Coastal Disaster Resilience Planning,” by George Washington University researchers Thomas Bostick, Thomas Holzer, and Shahryar Sarkani.

Their study was published in the online version of Risk Analysis, a publication of the Society for Risk Analysis.

“This research demonstrates a methodology for involving stakeholders in discussions that make their coastlines more resilient,” says Bostick.

After disasters strike, local stakeholders are often surprised and frustrated with the damages inflicted on their communities and seek greater involvement in reducing risk.

That frustration can be addressed by investing more in physical infrastructures to protect against flooding.

But the needed infrastructure can be expensive, such as the $14.5 billion the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was given to reinforce New Orleans after the 2005 destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, an amount of federal support that most high risk areas are unlikely to receive.

(A decade after Hurricane Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers talk about the changes the city of New Orleans has made to strengthen the surrounding area’s levees. Courtesy of USA Today and YouTube)

Recognizing that a methodology was missing for integrating coastal stakeholders into the process of identifying and selecting of resilience-enhancing projects, the authors conducted a case study with data from a stakeholder meeting in Mobile Bay, Alabama, to demonstrate a method for engaging stakeholders over a longer period to identify what the group considered the community’s most significant critical functions and project initiatives to preserve those functions under different scenarios.

Mobile Bay, Alabama’s only port for ocean-going ships and an entry point for smaller recreational and commercial vessels, has seen population growth and accompanying demand for housing, infrastructure development, and other changes that have impacted natural ecological systems.

During tropical storms and hurricane events, Mobile Bay’s Eastern Shore is vulnerable to coastal erosion and sediment transfer into the bay.

A workshop involving approximately 30 participants was held in 2015 at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Alabama, to test methods to calculate resilience for the Mobile Bay region.

Participating stakeholders worked with subject matter experts in systems engineering, coastal engineering, risk and decision analysis, and other fields to develop a set of proposed projects to address key resilience stages and domains.

Resilience domains include the physical (built infrastructure as well as wetlands, dunes, and other natural features), information (policies, building codes, evacuation routes, and other materials), cognitive (human processes for sharing and acting upon knowledge to make, communicate, and implement decisions), and social (“interactions, organizations, people, and policies that influence how decisions are made,” such as government flood insurance, religions, cultures, and languages).

Lieutenant General Thomas P. Bostick
Lieutenant General Thomas P. Bostick

“Coastal communities can improve resilience not only in the physical domain, but also in the information, cognitive and social domains,” says Bostick. The methodology described in the study is intended to support such improvements.

Through the workshop, stakeholders generated 11 project initiatives, including, for example, reducing saltwater intrusion, environmental and coastal storm education, utility pole replacement, removing scrap metal, and reducing impervious surfaces.

The subject matter experts aligned the initiatives with the four critical stages associated with resilience: preparing, absorbing, recovering, and adapting. Participants also identified a set of critical functions, such as telecommunication, electricity, housing, clean water, the tourism industry, and others.

In reviewing the workshop results, the authors note that their study does not seek to measure whether a community or a coastline is resilient or not because there “is clearly no agreement on how this would be accomplished.”

However, the methodology offers stakeholders an opportunity to understand the concept of resilience and scenarios and, based on this understanding, to make informed choices on how to improve the coastal resilience in their community. “This is a capability that does not currently exist,” the authors write.

Society for Risk Analysis

Risk Analysis: An International Journal is published by the nonprofit Society for Risk Analysis (SRA), an interdisciplinary, scholarly, international society that provides an open forum for all who are interested in risk analysis, a critical function in complex modern societies.

Risk analysis includes risk assessment, risk characterization, risk communication, risk management, and risk policy affecting individuals, public- and private-sector organizations, and societies at a local, regional, national, or global level.