How Can Cities Become More Disaster Resilient?

Three historic hurricanes. Wildfires in the West. Increased frequency nuisance flooding and heavy rainfall. As extreme weather continues to dominate the headlines, in 2017 what can city leaders do to protect their communities?

Last week, NLC and the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) co-hosted a Congressional Briefing entitled “How Can Cities Become More Resilient to Extreme Weather?” Arriving on the heels of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma — and with wildfires raging in the American West — the panel featured Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Nicole Woodman, Sustainability Manager for the City of Flagstaff, Arizona, sharing how their cities invest in resilience for their residents.

To begin, Mayor Peduto recounted his city’s industrial legacy and how environmental and economic resilience lies at the core of its revitalization efforts. The heart of Pittsburgh’s OnePGH resilience strategy, he said, is to make sure that all residents and neighborhoods can thrive and share the same opportunities for prosperity.

That commitment to equity helps ensure that residents are able to respond and recover from any challenge, continued Mayor Peduto. The OnePGH strategy will help the city address stresses like an aging population and economic and racial inequality, as well as certain potential shocks to the community such as an infrastructure collapse or climate change and extreme weather.

At the briefing, Mayor Bill Peduto shares lessons from the OnePGH resilience plan. (EESI)

“We’re talking about resiliency, and we’re looking at it through a lens of man-made failures, environmental failures, economic failures,” said Peduto. “We’re a model of a city that’s been able to bounce back from all three. The one thing we didn’t do in any of those cases was prepare. We never built into the strategy of today the, ‘what about tomorrow.’”

In 2010, Flagstaff, Arizona suffered a series of natural disasters — including a major wildfire, blizzard, floods, tornados and more — spurring a community-wide resilience effort. That initiative, said Woodman, led the city to adopt a holistic systems approach to assessing climate risks and addressing vulnerabilities within the city’s operations, infrastructure and economy.

“2010 was a year of extremes — but the silver lining was that we had a living laboratory,” said Woodman. “We set off to answer a number of questions: how can a city organization reduce its vulnerability and build organizational resilience to climate variability and climate-related issues, and more importantly, what are the risks if we don’t act?”

“We learned that we can no longer ignore the interdependence of our systems.” The city identified water quality, water resources and water infrastructure, along with forest health, as the most vulnerable areas with the highest risk. The Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project is just one example of how the city, along with local partners and regional agencies, is addressing the inter-related risks of devastating wildfire and post-fire flooding.

NLC’s Cooper Martin, Program Director of the Sustainable Cities Institute, gave a national perspective of several other communities addressing resilience through the NLC Leadership in Community Resilience program. For instance, said Martin, the City of Annapolis, Maryland, is focusing on a historic preservation effort to adapt the city’s scenic downtown to increased flooding and sea level rise. Similarly, the City of San Antonio, TX, is focusing on climate impacts such as extreme heat, flash flooding and air quality.

To address these issues and help local leaders make their communities more resilient, NLC recommends that the federal government help build preparedness by reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program; provide incentives to cities and property owners to encourage mitigation and retrofitting of existing structures; provide continued emergency disaster assistance; and ensure that recovery and rebuilding efforts consider future climate risks and vulnerabilities.

As local leaders who are on the front lines of the effects of climate change and who serve as first responders in a natural disaster, cities will continue to take action, but they need a partner in the federal government.

Since President Trump announced in June the U.S.’s intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, cities from across the country have expressed their commitments to climate action — from passing council resolutions like in Jackson, WY, Oberlin, OH and Milwaukee to signing onto NLC’s Climate Letter. Those cities joined a grand total of over 2,300 cities, governors, businesses, investors, colleges and universities from across the U.S., or with significant operations in the U.S., to declare their intent to continue to ensure the U.S. remains a global leader in reducing carbon emissions.