From Recovery to Resilience

November/December 2017

From Recovery to Resilience


satellite view of a hurricaneHurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Sandy provided important lessons and warnings about the vulnerabilities of cities and towns prone to sea-level rise and flooding. Now the floods brought on by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria are sending the same messages.

When natural disasters strike, licensed professional engineers are vital to helping communities recover and rebuild. While ensuring that critical infrastructure is brought back online in a manner that protects the public health, safety, and welfare is a top priority, professional engineers are also focused on building resilience into their design solutions and practice for long-term safeguards. PE spoke to professional engineers who are focused on engineering resilience issues in local governments, higher education, and private practice.

The Chief Resilience Officer

Hurricane Harvey became the first major Atlantic hurricane of the season to make landfall in late August. Even as Harvey’s strength was reduced to a tropical storm, it produced record-setting rains that caused catastrophic flooding in Houston and other parts of southeastern Texas. The flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey came on the heels of two significant flood events: the Memorial Day Flood of 2015 and the Tax Day Flood of 2016.

Following the Tax Day Flood, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tapped Stephen Costello, P.E., to serve as the city’s first chief resilience officer. Costello, who previously served on the city council, brought to this new position nearly 40 years of experience in the Army Corps of Engineers and as the founder of Costello Inc., a full-service civil engineering and surveying firm. His role involves engaging the public and coordinating between all local and state agencies that work on the city’s flooding and drainage issues.

One of the first major initiatives that Costello backed was Rebuild Houston, launched in 2012 to improve the street and drainage infrastructure with multiple funding sources. “Rebuild Houston is an acknowledgment that 60% of our infrastructure is inadequate and antiquated, and we need to start replacing some of it,” says Costello.

Since the start of the initiative, Houston’s Public Works and Engineering Department has reconstructed nearly 350 miles and rehabilitated more than 560 miles of infrastructure, according to a 2016 report. These projects are funded through a drainage utility charge, a developer impact fee, property taxes, and third-party funds. Before Rebuild Houston, the city was spending $100 million to $150 million for street and drainage infrastructure maintenance and repairs, says Costello. Now the city is spending almost $300 million a year, he adds, and in 10 years spending will be more than $600 million.

One of Costello’s first priorities as resilience officer was to have the department map the city’s bayous and floodplains and superimpose the locations of all homes that experienced flooding in 2016. “We have repetitive flooding where the bayous overflow, but what was alarming was that more than half of the dots on the maps were throughout the city—nowhere near a bayou,” says Costello. This information indicated that the infrastructure wasn’t capable of getting water to the bayou without flooding these homes.

A challenge faced by cities and counties across the nation is how to maintain and improve critical infrastructure with limited financial resources and many people opposed to paying additional taxes or fees. A part of Costello’s duties involves seeking funding resources to meet the mission of flood mitigation and securing grants for home elevation projects and potential home buyouts.

Maximizing limited financial resources also means developing innovative solutions to improve the city’s infrastructure. A Storm Water Action Team (SWAT) was created to replace smaller, but essential, assets to improve drainage and decrease flooding risks. Houston’s stormwater discharges into bayous through 6,400 outfalls, some of which are collapsed or eroded. SWAT is tasked with repairing these outfalls and increasing the capacity of the city’s off-road ditches to improve drainage and reduce flooding risks. “They focus on smaller, quicker-delivery-type projects so that the community can see that we are making progress,” says Costello.

Implementing a green infrastructure program is also part of Rebuild Houston’s strategic plan. Creating more greenspace throughout the city will be a priority, but Costello will have to get creative since most of the city is developed. The city is purchasing golf courses and will repurpose landfills as detention ponds. In addition, over 350 community parks could be enhanced to provide better drainage of neighborhoods while remaining park amenities.

In October, a taskforce was launched to focus on challenges brought about by redevelopment in the city. The taskforce will include members of the development community, the architecture and engineering community, and trade associations. “We will be having very frank discussions about development standards and criteria in a post-Harvey environment,” says Costello.

Lessons From Katrina

In 2005, NSPE member Robert Gilbert, P.E., was in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina made landfall. The storm’s aftermath, he recalls, showed the importance of the engineer’s vital contributions to society. When you take away shelter, clean water, communication, power, transportation, and waste management, chaos can ensue, he says. “Rational decision making goes away, and all sorts of crazy things happen when people don’t have their basic needs met.”

“We were more resilient in our systems to help people. We have made progress and fewer people lost their lives in Harvey than I suspect would have lost their lives if Katrina hadn’t taught us these lessons.”

Gilbert served on an American Society of Civil Engineers review panel that assessed how the hurricane protection system failed in New Orleans. The panel also recommended improvements to engineering design procedures for hurricane and flood protection systems to better protect the public.

It’s worth noting, he says, that fewer lives were lost during Hurricane Harvey than during Katrina. “We were more resilient in our systems to help people. We have made progress and fewer people lost their lives in Harvey than I suspect would have lost their lives if Katrina hadn’t taught us these lessons.”

Another critical lesson from Katrina, says Gilbert, is that you can’t design something to never fail. “Our challenge as engineers is how do we design something so when it does fail, it’s not catastrophic. It fails gracefully,” he says.

Gilbert also believes that infrastructure such as levees, while necessary, hide the fact that people are living in a floodplain. Communities might be better off, he adds, if they were designed so water could run through them without having catastrophic effects. “We have to start thinking about how to live with water instead of trying to prevent water from interacting with us,” he says.

Living with water will also require changes in how homes are designed. For instance, sheetrock is the worst material for dealing with floods because of mold, says Gilbert, yet homes in floodplains are still built with this material. “These are problems that we could avoid if we built homes acknowledging that they’re going to get wet occasionally, and just embrace this,” he says.

One way that Gilbert is helping to change how engineers view designing for resilience is through the curriculum within the Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. For nearly three years after Hurricane Katrina, Gilbert and other faculty members took students and practicing engineers to New Orleans to help people who didn’t have the resources to rebuild their homes. “The students learned how what we do as civil engineers is as much about the people as it is the facilities,” says the department chair and professor. “It’s getting to know the people and understanding their stories and how the event has impacted them. It’s not just about sticking the house on stilts.”

This outreach led to Gilbert’s department creating a class in which students work on projects in Austin with real clients and stakeholders. “We want them to understand that there’s not just one aspect that you consider with engineering design and planning, it’s not just what’s the lowest cost, it’s not just what’s the safest design, or meeting the minimum design requirements based on the codes and regulations,” he says.

The class started as a one-hour course last year, but will be upgraded to a capstone course focused on learning how engineering requires working with the public and balancing all design factors. “Engineering is not just about simply protecting people, but also trying to improve the quality of people’s lives,” says Gilbert.

Bouncing Back to a Better Place

In a recent Washington Post column, Brian Bledsoe, P.E., expressed concern about the inaccurate and misleading ways public officials and the media describe floods. “People have this misunderstanding that if flooding happens this year, then it’s going to be a long time before it happens again. That’s not how it works,” says Bledsoe. “We can definitely improve and work harder on expressing risks in ways that will actually register in the collective consciousness of the public.”

“The best designs these days aren’t optimized for one single vision of what the future is going to be. The designs need to deal with uncertainty with climate and how people are going to move around.”

Bledsoe believes that discussions around 100- and 500-year flood concepts should be expressed in terms and language that the public can better understand. “When one realizes their home has a 1-in-4 chance of experiencing a 100-year flood in 30 years, or a 15% chance of a 500-year flood over an 80-year lifetime, then perceptions shift and denial becomes more conspicuous,” he wrote in the column. “We need to invest in better flood hazard maps and update them to transparently show the uncertainty in flood levels due to model inaccuracies and potential changes in weather, urbanization, and drainage.”

Bledsoe is doing his part to reduce risks to the public and improve infrastructure through his leadership at the Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems at the University of Georgia in Athens. IRIS assists communities, businesses, and governments with mitigating risks involving environmental change, extreme weather, and climate-related events. Through partnerships, research, education and training, and outreach, Bledsoe and his team are working to transform infrastructure systems to strengthen social, economic, and ecological resilience.

Resilience, says Bledsoe, is being able to bounce back and be strong when bad things happen. And to bounce back to a better, less vulnerable state. The institute is looking at how the traditional built infrastructure can work together with nature-based infrastructure—also referred to as green or blue infrastructure. It’s common in stormwater engineering and flood mitigation, he says, to talk about green infrastructure acting as sponges that soak up runoff and rainfall in cities and help reduce flooding. Part of IRIS’s quest is to develop the science and engineering practice to help integrate gray and green infrastructure in a cost-effective, flexible way. “The best designs these days aren’t optimized for one single vision of what the future is going to be,” he says. “The designs need to deal with uncertainty with climate and how people are going to move around.”

IRIS is currently involved in a multiinstitutional project through the Urban Water Innovation Network. UWIN’s mission is to create technological, institutional, and management solutions to help communities increase the resilience of their water systems and enhance preparedness for responding to water crises. This project focuses on developing new ways of mapping flood risks that can be used in any system to improve flood resilience. The test cities are Baltimore, Charlotte, Atlanta, Tucson, and Denver.

Opportunities for policy shifts can arise during a crisis, says Bledsoe, but part of IRIS’s mission is to encourage public officials and decision makers to set a vision and plan before disaster strikes. It’s not just about gray and green infrastructure working together, but also the functioning of social and governance systems.

One major hurdle, says Bledsoe, is a fear of overinvesting in infrastructure and resilience. He wants to be a part of a movement demonstrating the costs of underinvesting. “It’s a great time for engineers to step up in more of a leadership role in articulating the importance of proactively investing in infrastructure,” he says.

Going Above and Beyond

Over a 33-year career, NSPE member Michael Schmidt, P.E., has worked on more than 300 stormwater management, ecosystem, and civil works infrastructure projects and programs in 31 states and in seven nations for CDM Smith. Schmidt’s projects have involved a mix of what he describes as “proactive” and “reactive” projects. No matter the type of project, he’s always adamant about building in resiliencies that go above and beyond the minimum standards so his clients are more than ready for the next flood or storm.

And Schmidt sees more intense storms that involve extreme flooding—more frequently—on the horizon. “Hurricane Irma set a record for the highest wind velocity ever in the Atlantic hurricane history at 185 mph, and Harvey set records on the Gulf side with the greatest rainfall that they’ve ever seen,” says Schmidt, a senior vice president and technical strategy leader for water resources, based in Jacksonville, Florida.

In 2003, Schmidt was an advisor in Houston for the Harris County Flood Control District after Tropical Storm Allison, which dropped 30 inches of rain in the metro area and flooded 70,000 homes. Hurricane Harvey produced more than 50 inches of rain. “The trend seems to be toward more extreme rainfall and tidal surge events that have to be factored into infrastructure design projects,” he says. “Public officials will need to have a more proactive view to plan for a worse scenario than people may expect.”

In 2016, communities in Florida experienced tidal surge and heavy rain because of Hurricane Matthew, says Schmidt. His insistence on going beyond the minimum standards paid off with additional resilience for many communities when Hurricane Irma arrived in September. “The communities that we planned for, particularly up and down the east and south coasts of Florida, all used a tidal boundary that was higher than the FEMA requirement; that served them well to be more prepared for the recent surge events,” he says.

When assessing trends, particularly in respect to rainfall, Schmidt examines data from 100-to-500-year events to consider the worst-case scenarios. The client may not design all facilities for a 500-year event or for the highest tidal surge, he says, but it’s helpful to know what will happen when you have that type of event. “The more moving parts, the more risk there is, and you’ll want more contingencies in place.” When working with a government client, Schmidt’s team identifies contingency plans for evacuation routes, critical infrastructure, and emergency facilities in addition to police, fire, and ambulance access plans.

It’s not just coastal cities and towns that need to prepare for historic rains and floods. In 2011, the city of Minot, North Dakota, experienced massive flooding due to heavy snowmelt and record precipitation. When the Souris River overflowed, more than 12,000 residents were displaced and losses and damages exceeded $600 million.

The CDM Smith team helped the city secure a $74 million grant from the National Disaster Resilience Competition, which provided resources for a home buyout program in addition to improvements for reducing risk and vulnerabilities and boosting resilience. The city will also be restoring floodplains and wetlands, which is a critical green infrastructure response. “Our project scope was initially to address issues related to the flood, but then along the way we worked with the city to look ahead to use refinements to enhance resilience as part of their future proactive design approach,” he says.

It’s important to think about the big picture, Schmidt advises, despite there being an established project scope, a budget, and a schedule. His experience has taught him that there’s no foolish question and it’s never too late to do the right thing. “Look for the things that are unexpected to make sure that you’re being comprehensive for your clients, because your clients may not know what they need,” he says. “If you see that they should be doing something more, you shouldn’t be afraid to raise questions.”