Jul 16, 2021

How U.S. Communities are Building Resiliency

Communities around the U.S. are building on resiliency efforts to prevent disaster following intense storms 

disaster resiliency

A word is circulating more and more in disaster planning circles. It shows up in job titles, committee names and in information about disaster preparedness. The word  — resilience. Disaster planning has always included what comes after the disaster, the storm, the hurricane. But this word resilience implies not only adapting to bad circumstances but overcoming them. 

Many coastal communities face destruction from hurricanes or nor’easters every year. Inland municipalities can be flooded from severe rain events. All of these require planning for storm water management and for recovery after the storm. Communities are handling that process in different ways. 

Maryland Entity

Charles County, Maryland, established a Resilience Authority, a non-profit entity that can apply for grant funding, set up more efficient and faster project timelines, and make decisions outside of the political system. The authority is run by an independent board of directors appointed by the board of county commissioners. Anne Arundel County and the city of Annapolis have also started a Resilience Authority. 

Resilient Houston

Houston, Texas, faced a challenging catastrophe in August 2017, Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, dumped more than 60 inches of rain in parts of the city over a span of eight days. It was the largest rainfall event in U.S. history. After the devastation, the city of Houston formed Resilient Houston, an organization pledged to understand the different priorities of all the neighborhoods and execute projects to enhance the quality and safety of life in each one section. This might include flood prevention projects in one neighborhood and water quality improvements in another. The Resilient Houston web site defines urban resilience as “the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within an urban area to survive, adapt and thrive no matter what kinds of chronic stress and acute shocks they experience.” 

Florida Beaches

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has an Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection. The beaches are a valuable natural resource, and the office works to ensure that beaches are protected and rebuilt after storms. The plan also includes protecting wildlife and plant life on the beaches. Other funds are spent by the office to assess needs of each community and for education for the public. 

Louisiana Barrier Islands

Pipelines are pumping 9.2 million cubic yards of sand from Ship Shoal, 15 miles away, onto Trinity-East and Timbarlier islands and onto the West Belle Headland. Bulldozers push the sediment into place at eroded shorelines. This work on barrier islands in Louisiana is the biggest barrier restoration project in the state’s history. These barrier islands protect inland wetlands, defend from storm surge and guard communities in the Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. The huge plan is part of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA). The work accomplished by CPRA has already had great results, preventing the 2021 hurricane season from being even more destructive. 

Storm Challenges in Virginia

Arlington County, Virginia, is not a coastal area. Located about 40 miles inland and across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, the county is highly urbanized. 

One big challenge is intense rain events. In July 2019, a strong storm dropped 3 to 6 inches of rain in one hour across the area. This equates to a 200-to-500-year storm event. Widespread flooding struck the area.

The county has instigated plans for A Flood Resilient Arlington. Building from a “Stormwater Master Plan,” updated in 2014, the blueprint incorporates a hybrid-engineering approach for improvement of the storm sewer system. Multiple challenges include:

  • lack of space and overland relief;
  • conflicts with other infrastructure;
  • poor soils and;
  • undergrounding of two-thirds of the county’s natural streams during rapid development in the mid-1970s. 

According to Aileen Winquist of Flood Resilient Arlington, shorter term improvement involves expanding storm detention facilities. The storm water infrastructure needs to handle short-duration, high-intensity events, as well as longer-duration events, such as a hurricane. More detention vaults, storm water pumping stations, and other facilities are being built. Many of the facilities are installed beneath athletic fields and parks, utilizing areas that have the space needed for detention vaults and decreasing the need for public right of way installations. A first ever storm water bond was proposed and passed by voters in November 2020, helping to provide funds for these improvements.

The county encompasses five watersheds. The improvements planned for each watershed are complex, long term plans. Each watershed will launch with an “anchor” project that will pack a bigger punch and then continue on to other priorities. In the Torreyson Run watershed, a storm water detention vault will be installed at Cardinal Elementary School. The vault will be built under the playground and an adjacent athletic field. 

Cooperation in New Hampshire

According to Sherry Godlewski, Resilience and Adaptation manager, New Hampshire Department of Environmental
Services, t
he New Hampshire Coastal Adaptation Workgroup (CAW) combines over 30 organizations to protect coastal communities and ensure that they are ready and can show resilience after severe weather events. The collaborative group includes companies, governments, university and regional planning commissions. Vulnerability assessments of 17 coast communities have been accomplished and each area is focusing on the work needed. 

Numerous nor’easters have helped many see the need for additional planning and resilience. The impact from these storms has included street flooding at high tides, marshes filling up behind homes, rising groundwater and some infrastructure damage. 

Many of the projects undertaken so far are creating living shorelines. The Wagon Hill Farm on the Great Bay near Durham, New Hampshire, has a tidal shoreline that had experienced heavy erosion. The shoreline and the salt marsh habitats were degrading and wildlife, shellfish and fish habitats were being destroyed. Starting in August 2016, the project has three phases. Phase 1 was to assess the design possibilities using a living shoreline. In Phase 2, a design for a living shoreline was laid out.

Phase 3, construction of the living shoreline, is in process now. The shoreline has been stabilized with stone toe protection and a line of coir log rolls placed between the low marsh and high marsh to gain elevation. A storm water management system will be constructed to treat runoff and help stabilize the bank. The planting of the high marsh zone will use vegetation sheets to increase plant diversity without the high labor cost of placing individual plants. 



About the author


Roberta Baxter has been writing about storm water and erosion control for more than 15 years. Baxter can be reached at rbaxter500@aol.com.