Two approaches to building resilience to coastal storms in the urban Northeast

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Tuesday, 6 January 2015
Malgosia Madajewicz, Columbia University, New York City, NY; and C. Rosenzweig, R. M. Horton, and L. Sohl

A large proportion of the United States' population, billions of dollars of urban infrastructure, important business districts, and critical ecosystems are vulnerable to flooding caused by storm surges along the coastal northeastern urban corridor. Storm surges are among the deadliest and most costly natural disasters. Hurricane Sandy was only the latest in a string of recent reminders of this fact, costing 43 lives and $19 billion in damages in New York City alone. Increased damage from coastal flooding as sea levels rise is one of the most certain impacts of climate change along the northeastern coast. Even lower-end sea level rise projections triple the frequency of current 1-in-10-year coastal flooding by late this century in most areas.

The northeastern urban centers, such as New York City (NYC) and Boston, have been leaders in the effort to understand and prepare for current and future climate risks. Both cities have documented their vulnerability to climate risks in great detail, through extensive engagements with researchers who study climate and climate impacts. Therefore their experience has the potential to provide useful lessons for applying science to decision making, especially with regard to preparation for coastal storms, which is at the top of their respective climate adaptation agendas. Further progress is hampered, however, by our limited understanding of what may constitute effective approaches to reducing the impacts of coastal storms.

This paper documents a two-pronged approach that the Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast (CCRUN) has taken in working with decision makers in New York City, to support decisions designed to build resilience to coastal storms. CCRUN is a Regional Integrated Science and Assessment (RISA) project funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate and Societal Interactions program, and has been working with decision makers in the NEUC since 2010 to develop strategies that can improve the resilience of urban centers to climate risks. CCRUN's approach to building urban coastal resilience consists of two components: (1) working with various agencies within the NYC government, and (2) working with local communities in the city neighborhoods that are most vulnerable to impacts of coastal storms.

Engagement with city governments represents the conventional approach to shaping people's livelihoods, through government policy, which can influence the lives of millions of people. CCRUN has been providing downscaled climate projections to inform the NYC government's effort to plan its response to climate risks ever since CCRUN's inception. The effort gained increased urgency in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy as NYC undertook an intensive 6-month long effort to develop a plan for a more resilient city, culminating in the publication of a new climate adaptation plan published in June 2013.

However, recent research suggests that engaging with local communities can produce impacts on resilience that may not be achievable through government action alone. For example, communities have been shown to play critical roles in determining the degree of resilience in the context of some climate risks, such as heat waves. Also, research suggests that involvement of people who are at risk in preparations for disasters may greatly improve the response when a disaster occurs.

We will report preliminary findings that document lessons from the experience with Hurricane Sandy in NYC about the respective roles of government agencies and community groups in supporting relief and recovery after a storm, and in building resilience at the community level. The role that communities that are at risk can play in building resilience has not been well studied in the context of urban flooding. CCRUN is working to better understand the contribution that communities can make in supporting coastal resilience by building connections with community groups in New York City neighborhoods through an effort that is also studying the roles that these community groups played in recovery from Hurricane Sandy.