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The hurricanes that battered North America this year have boosted awareness of climate change and increased cities' resolve to act
Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate. 2017’s mega-storms battered the Caribbean and the US mainland repeatedly and strenuously during the autumn storm season. The US sustained 15 natural disasters costing $1bn or more, making 2017 one of the most expensive to date for disaster recovery.
Since 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and then 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, more North Americans became aware that 21st century storms can turn brutally devastating and into the path of populous areas in a matter of hours.
A dozen years after Katrina, the idea that these mega-storms might not be 100-year or 500-year anomalies but regular, recurrent events is starting to dawn on us, and with that dawning a movement toward resilience is ramping up.
Jim Blackburn, co-director of Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters centre in Houston says though superstorm awareness is increasing, it is doing so unevenly.
“Right now the new actor is the public, generally becoming aware of ‘weird weather’,” Blackburn says. “Harvey increased awareness – by that I mean in the general public – of big storms.”
Unfortunately, this is not universally shared in the corporate and government world, he says, “Both of which seem to still be in denial.”
This is certainly the case in the Gulf Coast region, where governments and corporations still refuse to readily accept scientific modelling that help predict storm surges. “If we had modelled a rain storm like Harvey,” he says, “we would have been derided as crazy academics.”
It is not just coastal cities like New York that have realised resilience matters. Houston is 50 miles from the Gulf of Mexico but still in the path of powerful superstorms
Nevertheless, a recent Pew Center poll of Americans’ views on climate change found 74% agreeing that there is “solid evidence” of global warming, the highest level since 2007.
And climate resilience is a term that is increasingly being discussed by city governments across the US and finding its way into boardrooms.
The former is in part thanks to the funding largesse of the Rockefeller Foundation and its 100 Resilient Cities movement. With the forces of urbanisation and globalisation causing continual city expansion, city governments have more of a vested interest in climate consciousness than either state or federal agencies.
This trend was notable in the way cities and resilience leaders such as New York’s chief resilience officer Daniel Zarrilli have been active in the #WeAreStillIn movement, which was highly visible at the COP23 climate talks in Bonn.
Also prominent in the alternative US delegation to COP23 was Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto, regarded as one of the leaders in the resilience movement. This year the city issued its ONEPGH resilience strategy, pledging, among other things, to “design, scale, and maintain our infrastructure for current and future needs, providing benefits and services to our neighbourhoods during times of calm and crisis.”
Pittsburgh is also helping officials from the coastal Vietnamese city of Da Nang develop a resilience plan.
Scott Tew, executive director at North Carolina-based Ingersoll Rand’s energy efficiency and sustainability centre, says cities have no choice but to systematically prepare for climate-related challenges.
It is not just coastal cities like New York that have realised resilience matters. Houston is 50 miles from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico but still in the path of powerful superstorms, and subject to flooding because of its location on a flat plain.
Tew believes companies provide the ”unique expertise” that cities will need. For example, Ingersoll Rand has expertise in deploying water-cooling technologies during natural disasters.
While resilience is a bit of a buzzword, it has been four years since cities globally started hiring chief resilience officers (CROs) with seed money from the Rockefeller Foundation. In North America 24 US and four Canadian cities have CROs, and many have begun or are well under way formulating resilience plans with input from local stakeholders. In some ways, this makes resilience the new sustainability, though Rockefeller’s Otis Rolley says the concepts have key differences.
“Resilience incorporates the notion of disaster response with a holistic and proactive approach,” says Rolley, who is North America regional director, city and practice manager at 100 Resilient Cities. “If sustainability aims to put the world in balance with natural systems, resilience looks specifically at city systems to make them survive and thrive.”
PwC predicts that today’s compliance officers will be change-makers in large companies by 2025, with chief resilience officer a more fitting title
No city is alike, which is one of the reasons Rockefeller’s chosen cities develop their own individual plans for resilience.
“We engage stakeholders and look at the data to determine the top ‘shocks’ and structures affecting that city,” Rolley says. That’s not only from superstorms and natural disasters, he notes.
“In Boston, for example, if Superstorm Sandy had gone a different way the risk was high for storm surges. However, structural racism is also affecting Boston’s ability to be resilient …They have to put measures in action to chip away at that.”
Technology should help, as the availability of much more real-time data from the mass of cellular phones and devices can aid all types of disaster efforts – that is, if smart cities figure out how to tap and manage this data.
Rolley noted that this year’s superstorms ramped up resilience efforts that were already in motion. The storms, he says, combined with the ongoing retreat at the US federal level of meaningful efforts to combat climate change, have intensified cities’ resolve. “It is somewhat sad but also encouraging,” he said.
In New Orleans, for example, a committee reviews all capital projects, from scoping through delivery, to ensure they reflect the goals of climate adaptation and local economic opportunity.
Resilience-planning has been embraced by New York. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was the first globally recognised superstorm, and New York was its victim. But New Yorkers have rallied since that first superstorm. There are plans to build what is called The Big U, a series of protective technologies around the perimeter of lower Manhattan, including a Bridging Berm to protect from storm surges, and flip-down gates from an elevated highway that would be deployed to slow flooding during big storms.
There’s even a novel resilience plan to build artificial oyster beds off Staten Island that will help break up waves and make storms less dangerous.
New York is also at the forefront of massaging building codes, and published preliminary resiliency design guidelines earlier in 2017. Rolley of 100 Resilient Cities says Rockefeller’s initiative has now spread beyond the 100 initial cities. In addition, cities like Washington DC that have used up their Rockefeller funding are retaining their CROs and expanding resilience efforts.
If 3C of warming happens, resilience planning in city spots such as Miami’s South Beach could be insufficient as great swathes would be under water
The urgency is growing. A report in October from the General Accountability Office warned that if the worst-case scenario of 3C of warming predicted by UN scientists does indeed occur, great swathes of Miami’s South Beach could be under water from rising seas.
Companies, too, are getting their own chief resilience officers. In a recent forecast, PwC analysts Sally Bernstein and Andrea Falcione predict that today’s chief compliance officers will be the change-makers in large companies by 2025, and that their more fitting title might be chief enabling or chief resilience officer.
Of course, many US corporations have been working on sustainability and climate change issues for many years. Erin Meezan, vice president of sustainability at Atlanta, Georgia-based Interface, says storms aren’t shifting attitudes as much as stormy politics is. “Recent weather patterns have not shifted our attitudes. But we have seen a shift in our industry and beyond due to President Trump’s departure from the Paris Climate Agreement.”
April Streeter writes on sustainability, health and wellness for a variety of publications. She is former managing editor of the now-defunct Sustainable Industries Journal and began her career at Tomorrow Magazine. When she isn't working you will most likely find her biking on the beautiful Pacific NW trails and roads near her home in Portland, Oregon.