How to Weather the Perfect Storm: Natural Disasters & Economic Resilience

The resilience of a community or an economy is measured by the level of vulnerability present before a disaster the capacity to respond to and recover from a disaster, and the degree of community preparedness to both reduce vulnerabilities and increase capacities.

Since I last wrote about disaster recovery and disaster preparedness for economic development in 2019, weather and climate events have more than doubled their impact on the national economy. Which leads us to question why is this happening and what can we do about it. The following is a brief overview of (1) the increasing cost of natural disasters and (2) some things economic developers can do to be prepared.

The increasing cost of natural disasters

Costs associated with these events have increased from $45.6 billion in 2019 to $95.9 billion in 2020. From hurricanes to droughts, fires, flooding, hail storms, flooding, tornados, and severe weather these events have impacted every state in the US (albeit at different rates). In 2020 alone, events like Hurricane Laura and the western wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington cost America $19 billion and $16.5 billion each, respectively.1

 

Two major factors are driving the frequency and costs associated with these weather and climate events: (1) climate change and (2) how/where we develop. Climate change increases the sporadic and extreme nature of these events. In the case of the western wildfires, climate-induced drought created a conducive environment for the fire to spread thus lengthening its lifespan and havoc. At the same time, despite known challenges associated with flooding, properties along coastlines and waterfront are desirable yet are inherently vulnerable to many disasters. Developing in these areas increases damage and costs when extreme weather events occur. Nationally, flooding events are becoming more frequent as inland floods caused by extreme rain and river flooding increase. How we develop buildings and properties plays a role. Structure design and materials impact how properties will withstand damage from a disaster and thus impact the cost needed for repairs.

Additionally, there is a systemic practice of developing low-income housing in areas that are vulnerable to these types of events leading to a disproportionate impact to low-income households. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, New Orlean’s low-lying flood plain had been developed into housing and occupied by primarily black and poor households thus wreaking the most havoc on that population. Other environmental injustices include development practices that have concentrated minority populations in inner cities with industrial neighbors and their pollution. Over time exposure to pollutants has resulted in underlying health factors such as asthma and lung disease which have been proven to exacerbate the impacts of the current COVID pandemic.2 How we develop neighborhoods and communities also plays a role. All populations should be considered when developing practices to prepare a community for disasters including those both weather and health related.

While we can’t prevent natural events from occurring, we can take actions to prepare and reduce their impact. Preemptively working to prevent loss of a future event helps to build resiliency rather than disaster recovery which is a restorative process once the event has occurred. Resiliency is becoming ever important as the frequency of disasters and their costs continue to rise. The vulnerability of our economies has made it critical for our communities and leaders to plan for these events to best mitigate damages.

So what can we do as economic development professionals?

  • Incorporate and educate on measures to reduce building damage from extreme events. Building codes can enforce measures to protect against extreme wind and limit the damage caused by fire, flooding, or winter storms. Economic development profressionals should work with community partners to identify areas of the community that are prone to environmental damage and incorporate this knowledge into development plans.  Furthermore, economic development profressionals should work to educate the development community about these policies so that they understand the importance.
  • Utilize data and analytics. Data and analytics help to establish a baseline of community resources that can be tapped into to understand risk and help to aid in recovery efforts as well as identify what businesses and resources can be impacted by a weather or climate event. Building an understanding of both of these aspects propel a community to respond faster to community needs. Camoin 310 works to help communities establish these baselines and better prepare for future events. For example, we are currently working in Rochester, NY with CLEAR Lake Ontario to analyze the role of the shoreline economy to help inform mitigation measures.
  • Build networks. Continue to build connections in and outside your community. Collaborate with local, regional, and state partners on climate and weather-related challenges. Join in on conversations of potential threats and solutions regarding weather and climate events and their impact on the community infrastructure, land use, workforce, etc.  Creating long standing relationships bolsters economic resiliency efforts.
  • Recognize vulnerable populations and locations and advocate for them. Having a clear understanding of the most at-risk parts of the community can help to reduce damage and costs in a community. Low-income, minority, and rental populations are particularly vulnerable when it comes to weather and climate events. Historically, these populations have faced long-standing inequalities in terms of disaster impacts and response. Economic development professionals should ensure there is representation from these populations in the planning process and discussions. Additionally, economic development professionals need to advocate resiliency efforts to strengthen these populations and neighbors whether that be through policies, infrastructure, aid, or information.
  • Leverage government funding. The EDA and FEMA offer grant funding to support a community’s efforts to engrain resiliency in their economy prior to a disaster. FEMA offers hazard mitigation, preparedness, and resilience grants to encourage planning and mitigation efforts. These funds can be used to support cybersecurity, training, updating building codes, and retrofitting facilities, among others. EDA offers funding to support Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies (CEDS), an economic development planning process aimed at preparing communities for the future through building capacity, resiliency, and economic prosperity. After Hurricane Irene, Camoin assisted Passaic County with its CEDS to build its resiliency and understand how Irene Impact the county’s economy.
  • Comprehensive planning. EDA’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies (CEDS) help to prepare communities to mitigate their vulnerabilities and build resilience across all aspects that impact its economy including disasters. This process should tap into the network of planning partners to develop a plan for issues such as land use, infrastructure, housing, industry, and environmental concerns. Our recent work developing the Los Angeles County CEDS used resiliency planning as a means for protecting and growing their economy. As such one of the five major goal areas for the county is advancing sustainability and economic resiliency.
  • Evaluate on an ongoing basis. Resiliency can change over time. For example, an area once risk-averse to flooding may become prone to flooding as floodplains change or from extreme rainfall events.  As the frequency of flooding events both along coastlines and inland has increased from extreme rainfall it is important to reevaluate floodplains as new development is proposed.

Economic resiliency is a continuous journey. Resiliency planning is less of a plan itself and more of a process that should be incorporated into all planning efforts for the community. Strategies to weather expected and even unexpected events will need to be adapted as new risks present themselves. Resiliency planning to mitigate damage and lay the groundwork for strong recovery should be a top priority for government agencies, planning organizations, and economic development organizations to ensure economic prosperity in a community - not only can it reduce costs associated with disasters but more importantly it can save lives.

For more information on how to incorporate resiliency planning into your planning effort, visit https://www.eda.gov/ceds/content/economic-resilience.htm.

 


1. https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/#:~:text=The%20U.S.%20has%20sustained%20285,285%20events%20exceeds%20%241.875%20trillion

2. https://tcf.org/content/commentary/environmental-racism-left-black-communities-especially-vulnerable-covid-19/?agreed=1&agreed=1

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