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Taking the initiative on disaster management

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U.S. cities from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Los Angeles are taking steps to ensure that their infrastructure can sustain direct hits from major hurricanes and floods.

“It's interesting to me how the awareness of these issues is changing so quickly,” said Shelley Poticha, director of urban solutions at the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council.

Before Superstorm Sandy brought severe flooding to much of the Northeast, “cities were just not that interested in getting ready for a disaster or addressing the impacts of climate change,” Ms. Poticha said. “Now, there's so many more cities clamoring for ways they can get ahead.”

Cities trying to enhance their infrastructure resiliency have taken different approaches.

For example, Philadelphia charges stormwater fees based on the amount of impervious surface, such as parking lots, sidewalks, driveways and buildings, on a parcel of land. Parcels with more impervious surface produce more stormwater runoff and are charged higher rates.

Los Angeles is considering a similar fee system to back an overhaul of its stormwater infrastructure that now leaves some neighborhoods with significant flooding during major rainstorms, Ms. Poticha said. The city is exploring building natural infrastructure to capture water on-site or underground while also addressing the city's parkland shortage.

“Frankly, in Los Angeles, it does not rain very often, so these (water detention) sites can be used to play ball but occasionally will be flooded with water,” she said.

Hoboken, New Jersey, Mayor Dawn Zimmer, made it her personal mission to improve the city's resiliency follow a series of major storms since 2011.

“It's getting more severe and we have to address it,” she said.

The nation's capital has received kudos for its “green” infrastructure efforts. Forty-three percent of the District of Columbia's land is impervious, meaning a 1.2-inch rainstorm produces about 525 million gallons of runoff, according to a presentation by the District of Columbia Department of the Environment.

The department developed an innovative option to meet stormwater management rules established in 2013: the first U.S. stormwater retention credit program, which grants credits to properties that build green infrastructure to reduce runoff, which the owners can trade with others that need them to comply with the rules.

“It's part of the puzzle for resilience in D.C.,” said Bill Updike, chief of green building and climate branch at the department's urban sustainability administration.

Washington-based The West-chester Corp. sold the first 11,013 credits in the program last year for $25,000 from a project that installed rain gardens on its properties. The unidentified buyer would have had to pay a compliance fee of $3.57 per gallon, but the credits sold for just $2.27 each.

“They saved money and we get the benefit of something we voluntarily installed,” said Ann Benefield, the property company's general manager. The stormwater credit program “should be a source of income for us for a long period of time.”

The program allows the private sector to get involved in the resiliency challenge, which is important considering limited public dollars and the still-undetermined total price, Mr. Updike said.

“We have to figure out how to drive private capital into green infrastructure,” he said. “Planning for the future and finding the capital are probably the two biggest challenges. We don't have the issue of denial that they do in other parts of the country.”

For many cities, the challenge in retrofitting or revamping their infrastructure to make it sustainable and resilient is the absence of financial, legal and engineering expertise, said Shalini Vajjhala, founder and CEO of La Jolla, California-based re:focus partners L.L.C., the lead organization in the Re.invest Initiative.

The initiative, backed by a Rockefeller Foundation-funded coalition, conducted a competition in 2013 to identify cities that want large-scale, comprehensive solutions to build resilient infrastructure, she said. Re.invest helped eight U.S. cities — El Paso, Texas; Hoboken, New Jersey; Honolulu; Miami Beach, Florida; Milwaukee; New Orleans; and Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Virginia — overcome that “predevelopment hurdle” by doing much of the preliminary work, including a detailed technical assistance package, for them, Ms. Vajjhala said.

Each package described existing conditions and challenges faced; the state of their infrastructure; and potential improvements, implementation strategies and funding options.

The packages were all designed with an eye toward making the financing of these infrastructure projects more attractive to major investors such as large pension funds, insurers or universities with significant endowments — generally most interested in investment opportunities in the $100 million or more range — to allow cities to access new sources of capital, the participants said.

Investors are under pressure from regulators and constituents to move away from the oil and gas sector into investments considered more socially responsible, and the building of resilient infrastructure in these cities could fit the bill, said John Nelson, managing partner of Wall Street Without Walls.

The common denominator among the Re.invest cities was a willingness to move away from the siloed approach typical of infrastructure development to one that incorporated financial, legal and engineering considerations, he said.

“I hope more municipalities understand the importance of a comprehensive and integrated approach,” Mr. Nelson said.