Rising Sea Levels - A Global Threat to Coastal Infrastructure
Building resilient infrastructure and providing critical services that can withstand - and easily recover - from adverse natural events is becoming increasingly important and is a reality that society should address.
The question that must be asked by coastal infrastructure public sector planners and private sector developers is not - Are we going to experience an adverse natural event? but rather- When are we going to develop an adverse natural event?
The potential of adverse natural events impacting coastal communities is now a regular seasonal occurrence in many instances and an unavoidable reality for many. Time is running out to mitigate the avoidable.
The existing threat to global coastal infrastructure should be by all assessments, be the area of largest concern for governments around the world. Documented rising sea levels (or sinking landmasses if you prefer) are placing hundreds of millions of people’s lives, livelihoods, and property at increased risk to hurricanes, tsunami’s, and high tides to name a few.
It is Time to Act Responsibly and Resiliently
It is time that politicians, planners, engineers, developers, investors, and citizens begin to develop a common and pragmatic understanding of the risks facing coastal communities. It is also important that civic, community, and political stakeholders act responsibly in a timely manner to develop resilient infrastructure and disaster recovery programs.
The ongoing debate on rising sea levels needs to be de-politicized and responsible leadership at all levels of society should be actively collaborating to develop resiliency plans that adopt best practices that will protect lives and property from unnecessary mitigatable impacts. The debate needs to shift from the political to the economic and practical. It is rather disquieting that we are having an ideological debate about natural forces, that respect no ideology and which have enormous consequences if ignored.
Unfortunately, politicians (and their constituents at times) seem to have short-term myopic memories. For example, it seems that Gulf Coast political leaders have forgotten the political fallout that occurred in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The accusations of neglect, especially in communities that were socioeconomically vulnerable, destroyed many a political reputation. Bearing this in mind, we have to ask ourselves – without guile - why any politician would risk inaction and the ire of his or her constituent about something that responsible leadership could prevent. Yet they do and miss the opportunity to protect their communities from disasters.
The Case of Tampa Bay, Florida
If you want to gain insights into the irresponsible game that politicians are playing, it might behoove you to read The Washington Post article that was published on the 30th of July, 2017 (see source at the end of this blog).
The article is titled, “Tampa Bay’s Coming Storm.” This sobering article addresses the high likelihood that sea-level rise could result in the destruction of Tampa Bay if a large hurricane were to strike the area. The article reports the professional views of oceanographic and planning experts who believe that the Tampa Bay area is not prepared for a hurricane and that if a hurricane the size of Katrina hit, the consequences would surpass anything we have ever seen.
Analysts say that the 700 miles of the Tampa Bay Metropolitan area shoreline is the most vulnerable in the United States to flooding and damage if a major hurricane ever scores a direct hit. The World Bank says that Tampa Bay is one of the ten most at risk areas on the globe. In addition, it is predicted that financial losses in the event of a Katrina size event could be in the range of $175 million.
Source: Weather Underground – Using NOAA SLOSH Data https://www.wunderground.com/hurricane/surge/tampa_mom4h.png
Tampa is not immune to hurricanes, it is just luck that it has not experiences a major hurricane in the last 100 years.
The article further reports that the Tampa Bay area has barely begun to assess the rate of sea-level rise and address its effects. Political leadership’s slow response to a major feasible hurricane threat is a case study in how cities around the world are unwilling to prepare for or acknowledge the inevitable when it comes to the cumulative impacts of adverse weather events and rising sea-levels.
The Need for A Pragmatic Approach to Adverse Weather Events
By prohibiting discussions on climate change we are sticking our heads in the sand and preventing a constructive and pragmatic debate on solutions. Politically, it is important to step away from the global warming debate and rather focus on the local reality of reoccurring events in many cities that are indicators of what is on the way. There are irrefutable records of sea-level rise (or land settling) that cannot be ignored anymore as they increasingly magnify the potential impacts of storm flooding in the future.
Actions That should be Taken to Prevent and Mitigate the Impacts of Natural Adverse Events
Coastal cities cannot bet anymore that they can avoid major natural disasters. However, they can take steps to improve coastal urban planning and build resilient infrastructure. With all the latest technological and innovative ideas that are emerging, much can be done. Even more can be done through partnerships between the public and private sectors.
To promote collaboration and increase the adoption of best practices the following actions are recommended:
- Incorporating comprehensive resilience best practices in all stages of typical Design Built Finance Operate, Maintain (DBFOM) project models
- Giving receive due consideration to the 4Rs of infrastructure resilience - Robustness, Redundancy, Resourcefulness, and Rapidity of recovery – should become the industry standard
- Avoiding building residential buildings, hotels, shops, ports, power plants, and hospitals in areas prone to repetitive flooding
- Encouraging planning bodies to run simulation scenarios of impacts to coastal areas to determine the survivability of planned construction
- Designing hurricane proof buildings and resilient infrastructure that can weather the worst events for a number of days
- Preparing evacuation and recovery plans that mitigate the impacts of an event
- Planning for all events no matter the magnitude – even smaller events are causing impacts on infrastructure and livelihoods
- Increasing community awareness of what could happen
- Improving institutions capacities to respond adequately to events
- Considering unpopular taxes to fund critical corrective actions for at risk areas and infrastructure
- Leaving politics and ideology behind and rather focusing on pragmatic best practices that transcend the political debate
- Initiating collaborative planning between all levels of government so that regional resources can be leveraged for regional events
- Getting political and civic leaders to talk to each other so that common knowledge can be shared to the benefit of all
- Establishing advisory panels that include all stakeholders who will be impacted by an event
- Co-opting the resources of national and international organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the New Orleans International Public Private Partnership Resilience Center (IPPPRC), The Global Infrastructure Hub, and PPIAF to help develop comprehensive resiliency programs
- Considering buying out property owners in flood prone areas and using vacated areas to create buffers that will absorbed the worst impacts of storms and flooding
- Improving storm draining infrastructure so that flooding can subside and recovery can commence as soon as possible
- Enforcing ordinances that require that strategic and critical infrastructure be built away from modelled scenario flooding exclusion zones
We can learn much from past events. The City of New Orleans has become a showcase for resilience and disaster recovery best practices that it developed after Hurricane Katrina. It is important that institutions research, document, and share best practices that advance the international community's knowledge of the advancements in resilience and recovery planning from adverse coastal hurricane and flooding events. The fact is, irrespective of upfront cost fears, resilience best practices will save lives and lower government recovery costs in the short term.
Embracing best practices that reduce impacts are a moral and financial imperative that transcends politics. The sooner governments embrace best practices for vulnerable coastal communities, the better citizens will be able to sleep better at night.
IPPPRC – www.ippprc.org
National Chamber Foundation – Public-Private Partnerships and Infrastructure Resilience: How PPPs Can Influence More Durable Approaches to U.S. Infrastructure - 2011
Washington Post - Tampa Bay’s Coming Storm -
Weather Underground - Tampa Bay - Category 4 Hurricane Storm Surge -