New Orleans is the canary in the coal mine for coastal cities

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  • Jeffrey Thomas: New Orleans highlights the need for cities to be properly equipped to mitigate the damage of disasters
  • Thomas: To make cities more resilient, infrastructure, land use, funds, and public-private communications need to be adapted

Jeffrey Thomas is a New Orleans-based attorney with the law firm Cara Stone LLP who specializes in helping communities with post-disaster recovery and climate change adaptation. Jeffrey previously served as special assistant in the city of New Orleans' post-Katrina Office of Recovery & Development. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)As Hurricane Nate swept over Louisiana's coast, the flooding that Mother Nature brought to New Orleans with watery, improbable fury earlier this summer was still on the minds of the people who live in the city. Three unnamed rainstorms in as many weeks fell in America's shining city in a bowl. The last one, on August 5 -- a near "100-year storm" -- dropped more than 8 inches of rain in a matter of hours. It overwhelmed a less than functioning drainage system, exposed local government's limits to respond, and flooded neighborhoods to levels not seen since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Onlookers could be excused for thinking the combination of severe weather and man-made failings was just another ill-advised concoction served up uniquely in the "city care forgot." But then Harvey met Houston; and Irma visited Miami, Jacksonville and Charleston; and Jose discovered Norfolk and Long Island.
Jeff Thomas
Nationwide, the United States sustained 19 major floods just in 2016. This is the most since that stat began to be tracked in 1980, according to USA Today. That 2016 tally includes at least three "1,000-year" storm events. Indeed, according to the National Weather Service, between August 2015 and August 2016, American communities have sustained over eight rain events exceeding 500-year severity (0.02% change occurring annually), including three alone in Houston.
    The watery woes of American cities are also not just coming from the sky. With seas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts rising on average over 0.13 inches annually over the past 20 years, nuisance "sunny day" flooding is rising exponentially. Cities such as Atlantic City, Annapolis, Baltimore, Charleston, Miami, Norfolk, and Philadelphia are witnessing a five- to tenfold increase in tidal floods exceeding a foot or more. That is enough water to disrupt businesses, swamp homes, compromise drainage systems -- and discourage new households and investors.
    New Orleans and other US cities wading through chronic floods are the canaries in the coal mine. They are signposts for countless communities that face the specter of their own recurring natural hazards made unfathomable by climate change. The successful response to look for and emulate is not merely acknowledging changes afoot but also putting forth policy courage and innovation to retool municipal government in order to adapt and mitigate.
    Not operating at full capacity on August 5
    On August 5, a seemingly routine summer thunderstorm transformed quickly into a stationary monsoon and overwhelmed New Orleans' infrastructure and ability to anticipate and respond. It was a storm straight from the climate change playbook -- above average heat content in the air and nearby seas giving rise to even more copious rains in a region already the rainiest in the United States.
    New Orleans exists on the shoulders of 120 active drainage pumps nestled in a basin lying, on average, 6 feet below sea level and surrounded by water. These century-old behemoths, powered mostly by similarly ancient electric turbines, work against gravity to move water through over 1,700 miles of pipes, bus-width underground culverts, and open canals. At optimal capacity, city officials believe the system can prevent most flooding from rains falling up to 1 inch for an hour and then half an inch per hour after that.
    But August 5 was less than optimal. While a certain amount of flooding was to be expected given the volume of rain, at least 16 pumps and three of five electrical turbines were offline for repairs. In some of the lowest lying neighborhoods, draining capacity was just above 50% during the storm. In all, it took over 14 hours to drain the city and hundreds of homes, businesses and vehicles were flooded, resulting in over 800 flood insurance flood claims to date.
    This infrastructure failure was exacerbated by failures to adequately communicate the risk afoot to the public and among the multiple agencies that coordinate disaster preparation and response. With turbines and pumps offline in some cases for months or longer, local officials seemingly could not anticipate nor convey publicly the impact that might have amid severe storms. Indeed, as the rains fell, public assurances promised that pumps were running at capacity, a position later revealed to be classic bureaucratic rhetoric: "max capacity" apparently meant working at the "capacity they had available to them."
    New Orleans is sinking
    Making matters worse, New Orleans and its drainage system are sinking. At a rate of over 8 millimeters per year -- in some areas over 10 feet in the last century -- New Orleans' foundation of ancient Mississippi river clay and organic matter is compacting, ironically, because not enough rainwater is allowed to absorb into the soil. Amid worsening rainstorms, the impact of this is that the more the city sinks, the more the pipes break and the more New Orleans floods. Rinse and repeat. Of course, New Orleans is not alone in grappling with a confounding trifecta of copious rain, rising seas, and sinking lands. Houston, Norfolk, Miami, and many other US coastal cities face this same dilemma that compounds worsening storms and further warrants the need to reinvent urban build environments to survive.
    Adapting communities to be more resilient to climate change and natural disasters
    No city is disaster-proof or immune to deteriorating infrastructure, policy shortsightedness, or bureaucratic disconnects. Wisely then we should all be pondering what could be done to be safer next time. The buzzword is resilience. The solution is figuring out how to adapt local infrastructure, land use, public funds, and public-private communications to be a step ahead of intensifying and recurring natural disasters.
    Much of the public infrastructure and land use policy within vulnerable US cities is incompatible with addressing climate change and disaster resilience needs. For example, customary "hard" infrastructure such as levees, sea walls, and pumps are mostly effective at walling off water and moving it out of an area. However, such assets offer very little toward slowing subsidence or creating buffers between people and floods that also add aesthetic and recreational value.
    A more sustainable approach also enlists a city's curbs, medians, parking lots, parks and waterfronts in the service of flood protection. "Green infrastructure," including rain gardens, retention ponds, permeable surfacing and larger-scale natural areas, can absorb water to slow subsidence and runoff, create new park spaces, and sponge up contaminants for good measure. New Orleans, Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, and Prince Georges County (Maryland), among others, are making impressive strides toward city-scale green infrastructure plans. Elsewhere, among communities rebuilding in the Houston area, reintroducing more natural barriers separating homes from water is a priority. Indeed, 1 acre of restored Houston prairie grass can soak up the runoff created by 2 acres of adjacent single-family homes or 1 acre of commercial property.
    Comparable natural protection potential exists for any city built around watersheds or coastlines. The opportunity ahead for American cities is to craft long-term infrastructure investment and land use strategies that not only re-establish natural defenses in urbanized areas, but also maintain community cohesion by working with relocating households to find -- or even collaborate together to create -- safer nearby neighborhoods or communities.
    Still, implementing such innovative concepts continues to run into outdated local governance norms for investing in public infrastructure, including municipal bond issuances that do not easily quantify disaster resilience as a calculable return on investment and political resistance to consolidating design, build, and maintenance contracting, which can lure private investment into public projects but risks reducing overall contracting opportunities and creating new user fees.
    Status-quo urban land use policy is also increasingly challenged with every flood, revealing the true identity of many neighborhoods and subdivisions. They are floodplains masquerading as higher enclaves.
    For example, in the Houston metropolitan area there are over 140,000 single-home residences in regulated floodplains, UPI reports, citing the flood control district website, spurred along by a population increase of over 70% in that area's "100-year" floodplain between 2000 and 2010. Upstream of Houston during Harvey, the 26,000-acre Addicks and Barker Reservoirs, built from ranchland in the 1930s to prevent floodwaters from careening into Houston, filled completely for the first time and had to be opened, causing flooding to thousands living nearby. That was a hardship exacerbated by decades of land use policies enabling community building where waters lay.
    This is not just Houston's tale. Since 1993, over $3 billion in federal funding has been used for the voluntary buyout of over 38,000 floodplain properties nationwide, including more than 1,500 homes in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut after Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. Tellingly, though, over that same period (not including 2017), the National Flood Insurance Program paid out over $52 billion in flood claims, according to FEMA. That's a coalmine canary in need of a new tune.
    Federal disaster funding is upside-down
    In the United States today, the surest means for cities to fund large-scale investments in climate change and disaster resilience requires first suffering a natural disaster. At present, few, if any, federal, state or local public funds match the federal monies awarded after a federally declared disaster in terms of capacity to help improve a city's disaster resilience. This is an upside-down paradigm. Public Assistance Grants and Hazard Mitigation Grants (HMGP) from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and disaster-recovery Community Development Block Grants (CDBG-DR) from the US Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) can provide disaster-impacted state and local governments with hundreds of millions of dollars or more to build infrastructure, businesses and homes.
    The problem is obvious when you look at federal funding in advance of disasters. By comparison, FEMA's smaller pre-disaster HMGP program is slated for budget cuts and the other main pre-disaster federal source of community development funding -- HUD's CDBG program -- has been proposed for outright elimination.
    For cities seeking to invest in their future disaster resilience, the idea is not to have to rely on after-the-fact, one-time federal monies. In New Orleans, hundreds of millions of dollars is being invested in upgrades to the city's pump-turbine system and towards neighborhood-scale green infrastructure projects. All of it is federal funding received after Katrina and successive hurricanes.
    Elsewhere, HUD recently conducted a National Disaster Resilience Competition in which 67 state and local governments, all of which sustained at least one disaster since 2012, competed for a portion of $1 billion in funding for proactive disaster resilience projects. There were over $7 billion worth of submitted proposals.
    Give homeowners and businesses tools for smart choices
    New Orleans and other communities would benefit from the public sector sharing adequate tools by which homeowners and businesses can gauge their own risk, i.e. providing full information to enable market-driven decisions. For example, in New Orleans, real-time data and mapping of stormwater flows, pump capacity, and other metrics remain the wonky providence of watershed managers and emergency planners. The private sector and general citizenry are still largely relegated to conveying flood risk via sobering oral histories that describe past neighborhood flood events.
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    Looking ahead, lessons learned from the watery tales of New Orleans, Houston and other vulnerable communities can benefit all Americans. Climate change in all its wild and diverse permutations will increasingly challenge the future of America's coastal cities. New Orleans, and its like kind, are but front row opportunities to witness how countless communities will rise up to redefine how they govern, build and thrive to meet that challenge -- or not.