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Thoughts From Engineers: Gearing Up for Resilience

Chris Maeder on November 30, 2023 - in Articles, Column

The United States continues to move forward with plans to rebuild the country’s infrastructure with allocations from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, Inflation Reduction Act and other sources. A critical shift also has been triggered to integrate resilient planning and design standards into key infrastructure, fortifying communities against extreme storms and climate-driven events. The federal government has launched more-urgent policy initiatives, and, at President Biden’s direction, federal agencies—from the Department of Transportation to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—are fine-tuning programs to promote climate resilience as a core objective.

Other indicators point to a shift away from the more-reactive responses of previous years to a more-deliberately proactive course of action at local, regional and national scales. Activity within specific sectors of the U.S. economy (e.g., realtor, builder and business groups) is picking up. The reason for this is plain: an extreme storm cripples a community’s economy on multiple levels.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information, from the outset of 2023 through Oct 10, 2023, the United States had 24 weather or climate-driven events that each incurred losses of more than $1 billion (bit.ly/ClimateDrivenEvents). Few funding sources can foot the entire bill long-term. FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell appealed to Congress recently (bit.ly/CriswellStatement) to replenish funds for long-term disaster recovery, pointing out that FEMA’s mission has become more “challenging and complex” with a “disaster declaration every three days.”

Federal Policy and Funds Converge

Sometimes a sweeping and bold “call to action” can be the necessary fuel for a sputtering fire. In June 2023, the Biden administration released the Climate Resilience Framework (CRF), whose six organizing objectives are designed to bring agencies, government, the private sector and other legs of the economy together to invest strategically, pool resources and build resilience for the complex climate challenges ahead (bit.ly/ClimateFramework). Federal agencies have been directed to integrate resilience principles into all aspects of federal programming, from building retrofits and upgrades to more-operative aspects of an agency’s mission.

Ideals expressed in the CRF already are taking shape in the form of specific programs and initiatives. Application guidelines for Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) grant recipients for the 2024 cycle, for example, lean heavily toward climate-adaptive projects in high-risk areas (bit.ly/BRICtips). The Department of Energy is tackling grid flexibility and considering the needs of the U.S. electrical power system under future weather conditions. The Department of Health and Human Services is addressing the resilience of all parts of the healthcare delivery system and its ability to withstand stress under extreme conditions.

In September 2023, FEMA identified 483 “community disaster resilience zones” (bit.ly/ResilienceZones) across the country that are essentially areas most at risk from climate-related events. These resilience zones, authorized by the Community Disaster Resilience Zones Act passed in December 2022, will have priority status in terms of gaining technical and financial assistance for FEMA funding moving forward. These zones—or census tracts—were identified based on numeric scores derived from the National Risk Index, essentially a score based on vulnerability to 18 natural hazards and other factors.

Resilient Infrastructure Partnerships

Few dispute the value of building to code, but many homeowners don’t actually follow such guidelines. Research developed by the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) showed significant savings to be gained from mitigation, particularly from the adoption of updated building codes (bit.ly/NHM2019report). According to the study, adopting the most-recent building codes can offer savings of up to $11 for every $1 invested. Other findings showed that basic retrofits and upgrades create significant returns for a comparatively minor investment. Upgrading “lifeline” infrastructure such as telecommunication networks, roads, water infrastructure and electrical power sources can yield $4 in returns for every $1 spent.

These and other research findings validate efforts by the Biden Administration, FEMA and other organizations to strongly promote building codes to protect property and lives. With directives from the PRECIP Act of 2022, NOAA is working with the American Society of Civil Engineers and others to provide critical climate data and other relevant projections for updated building and engineering standards.

NIBS also is leading an effort known as “Resilience Incentivization Roadmap 2.0,” which is a collaboration among finance, real estate and insurance interests and designed to spread the burden of community mitigation investment among a greater number of stakeholders. This could include business interests offering incentives to homeowners to encourage structural updates and other improvements. Clearly, the aforementioned federal programs, projects and local efforts represent only a small sampling of resilience initiatives active in the United States. These developments are promising and suggest a nation that’s moving in the right direction.

The Frontlines

Relentless news footage of flooding disasters in typically dry inland areas and cities across the globe now are eerily mainstream. A recent New York Times article (bit.ly/NYTflooding) covered the crisis hotline units that were set up in Miami to field hundreds of calls from desperate area residents during a 2022 flood event. It’s difficult to see collapsed buildings, landslides and homes half underwater and not be stunned by the sight.

This “battle” being waged throughout the country—and the world—against destructive storm systems obviously is different in character from those described in our history books, but it’s still a battle, and there are many unknowns. Communities are being devastated; costs to restore buildings and infrastructure are soaring; and plenty in the way of resources, resilience and sheer will is needed to come out ahead. 

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About Chris Maeder

Chris Maeder, P.E., M.S., CFM, is engineering director at CivilGEO Inc.; email: [email protected].

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