Resiliency is the Name of the Game

Wall of Sandbags

August 6th, 2014

By CHHS Research Assistant Mona Qureshi

Sea levels have risen an average 8 inches in the past century, leaving American cities struggling to keep their heads above water. Yet outdated, quick fixes to curb flooding and other disasters across the country continue to be used today. Recognizing the overwhelming costs of using the same flawed band-aids years after year, the federal government has recently turned to competitive outlets for innovative ideas in resiliency.

Specific to flooding, the Rebuild by Design competition for creative disaster mitigation was launched in 2013. Teams consisted of engineers, architects, scientists, and urban planners. Instead of rebuilding standard flood walls, the goal was to design the surrounding area in a way that lessened the impact of flood waters on the community. One winning team declared: ‘resist, delay, store and discharge’ – devising a plan that directed water elsewhere around the city as flooding began, absorbing the initial high water levels into the landscape over time to reduce the greatest risk of damage. The winning teams announced in June will receive $920 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 has appropriated more money for HUD to continue these competitions.

President Obama announced a new competition this summer: the National Disaster Resilience Competition, which will also be managed by HUD. Like Rebuild by Design, the National Disaster Resilience Competition’s main goal is innovative design with respect to infrastructure, but more of an emphasis is placed on engaging local governments and stakeholders within their communities to come up with solutions. This competition does not solely focus on flooding, but rather concentrates on disasters participating communities have directly encountered in the past. Communities are encouraged to develop a plan that will better protect them from the same harm that previously damaged their homes, businesses, roadways, and other critical infrastructure.

The Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, through the Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery, has set aside $1 billion for this competition. Eight hundred and twenty million dollars of the grant is limited to those communities that were affected by a Presidentially-declared major disaster in 2011, 2012, and/or 2013. One hundred and eighty million dollars of the grant money is limited to states that were affected by Hurricane Sandy. However, these limitations do not drastically reduce the number of eligible participants, as 48 states are eligible including Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico.

For those who are eligible, the competition consists of two phases. Phase one encourages communities to identify vulnerabilities in partnership with experts and proceed through resiliency planning. Phase two participants will polish their plans from Phase one and test the efficacy of their designs. Broad participation in this competition is encouraged so that a wide range of communities are able to present a diverse set of proposals for different geographic regions. In addition to dispersing grant funding for future resiliency, the competition will create a pool of successful proposals that communities across the U.S. will be able to draw from and tailor to their particular needs.

With great geographic landscape diversity, comes great responsibility. It would take considerable time for one government agency to formulate resiliency plans for the entire country. This competition allows effective proposals to serve as appropriate frameworks for various communities. The need for resilient disaster planning is an urgent one, and this approach is likely to jumpstart the nationwide overhaul concerning resiliency planning. These competitions are an effective way to start dialogue and form new ideas about the way we plan for disasters.

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