Building Resilience, City by City

Highline park

With escalating risks and uncertainty around the globe, cities are challenged with understanding and circumventing those risks to stay vital. Much as in the business world, municipalities are moving towards resilience—the capability to survive, adapt and grow no matter what types of stresses are experienced.

Recognizing that they have much to offer each other, communities and businesses are often working together to pool their experience and knowledge. Helping to foster this is a project called the 100 Resilient Cities Challenge, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The project has selected 100 cities around the world and provided funding for them to hire a chief resilience officer.

“Resilience is a study of complex systems,” said Charles Rath, president and CEO of Resilient Solutons 21. He spoke about resilience and his experiences with the 100 Resilient Cities Challenge at the recent forum, “Pathways to Resilience,” hosted by the American Security Project and Lloyd’s in Washington, D.C. “To me, resilience is a mechanism that allows us to look at our cities, communities, governments and businesses almost as living organisms—economic systems that are connected to social systems, that are connected to environmental systems and fiscal systems. One area we need to work on is understanding those connections and how these systems work.”Green space

Rath said that cities that have successfully implemented innovative resilient solutions have been able to “identify and communicate co-benefits. If you do some research around those jurisdictions that received funding, you’ll see interesting strategies that address their risks, but also have added economic, social and other co-benefits.”

Examples were evident after Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. “Those communities that were able to bounce back quickest were those that had strong, socially cohesive societies. We also know that social cohesion drives economic activities in urban areas as well,” he said.

One of the first projects he worked on for the Resilient Cities Challenge was with the city of El Paso. “It is in the southwest and excessive heat is an issue they are dealing with,” he explained. “They have many parts of the city that see significant spikes in temperature, which leads to asthma, increased cooling costs and the list goes on. It’s projected over the next 70 or so years to increase 7 to 10 degrees, so it’s a big problem.”

To address the issue, he researched the issue and met with El Paso’s city manager. “We were able to pinpoint all of the different areas in El Paso where there is heat island effect,” he said. “We could tell what degree it was and roughly what was causing it.”

Causes for the escalating heat proved to be a lack of reflectivity, impermeable surfaces and lack of green space. “But it was at the point where we told him that he was costing the city about $150 million a year in increased cooling costs—because we were able to isolate the building outlines in the downtown area—that he began to pay attention,” he said. “Then we also showed him areas of the city where there was increased heat island effect where there was a significant amount of concrete. There were also a large percentage of children in the area who didn’t have access to parks.”

A solution for both dilemmas could be achieved by “transforming those vacant lots to pocket parks so that kids could have access to playgrounds.” he said, adding, “Those types of solutions with multiple co-benefits are an important element of what we are doing and this encouraged us to explore that.”

Long-Awaited Infrastructure Repair Bill Nears Passage

Road work

While short-term patches have been used to shore up our nation’s infrastructure for years, leaving large, long-term projects such as bridge repairs to languish, those issues may be remedied by a bill passed by Congress on Tuesday. The measure approves a long-awaited five-year measure of more than $300 billion to fund highways and mass transit. Known as TEA-21, the bill is expected to win final passage by the House and Senate.

“Right now, 11% of our bridges across the country are rated structurally deficient and another 13% are considered functionally obsolete,” Andrew W. Herrmann, 2012 president of ASCE and principal with Hardesty & Hanover LLP, an infrastructure engineering firm, told Risk Management in February 2014. “This means they were designed to an older standard, so they may not have the same lane widths or turning radius or may have been designed to carry lesser loads.”

Deterioration of the nation’s infrastructure jeopardizes public safety, threatens quality of life, and drains the U.S. economy. “If they have to start closing down, restricting or putting mileage postings on bridges, the economy will be affected,” said Herrmann, who served on the advisory council for the 2003, 2005 and 2013 report cards and chaired the council for the 2009 edition. “Bridges are the most pressing need in the infrastructure overall. You can have all the roads and highways you want, but if you don’t have the bridges to cross the rivers and intersections, it slows everything down.”

In California alone, 58% of roadways require rehabilitation or pavement maintenance, 20% need major maintenance or preventative work and 6% need to be replaced. Traffic volume is also growing 10 times faster than lane miles, the California Transportation Commission reported.

According to the Wall Street Journal, highlights of the bill include:

  • Extending the Highway Trust Fund through Sept. 30, 2020, and allowing for total transportation spending of as much as $305 billion.
  • Renewing the Export-Import Bank through September 2019.
  • Separating the budget for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor services from the rest of the passenger rail network. This would allow the carrier to invest more in the heavily-traveled lines between Boston and Washington.
  • Preserving a program that allots a share of mass-transit funding for seven high-density Northeast states, including New York and New Jersey. The House had earlier voted to eliminate the set-aside and use the money to fund bus programs whose funding had been slashed in 2012.
  • Providing a total $10.8 billion for freight projects, including establishing a $4.5 billion grant program designed to award money to large-scale freight projects.
  • Providing the largest share of funds to the federal highway-aid program, with authorization to spend $207.4 billion over five years.
  • Providing the next largest share of funding to mass transit projects, at $48.7 billion over five years, an increase over levels approved by the House.

Potholes Cost NYC $27.6 Million in Settlements Per Year

potholes infrastructure municipal risk

Earlier this month, the transportation research group TRIP found that more than 80% of the major roads and highways in the New York City and Newark metropolitan areas were in poor or mediocre condition—the country’s seventh worst ranking among cities with more than 500,000 residents. According to the report “Pothole City: A Data-Driven Look at NYC Roadways,” released yesterday by New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer, this crumbling infrastructure has cost the city’s taxpayers over $138 million in the past six years—an average of $27.6 million per year.

The city’s failure to prioritize and effectively manage repairs of potholes on city roads has resulted in 12,268 property damage defective roadway claims and 5,913 personal injury defective roadway claims between fiscal years 2010 and 2015. Of the claims filed, 1,549 property damage claims were settled at a cost of nearly $1.5 million, while 2,681 personal injury claims were settled to the tune of $136.3 million.

The city’s potholes, Stringer said, are a “persistent and pervasive” problem that “deflate tires, break axles and twist ankles, often at a significant financial cost to the city.” His findings are part of an initiative introduced last year called ClaimStat Alert, which aims to identify patterns in claims made against the city in an attempt to reduce the amount paid in settlements, the New York Times reported.

In February 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg announced a series of steps to try to improve pothole maintenance, including weekly “pothole blitzes,” citywide targeted repaving, an asphalt engineering technology challenge, and an emphasis on impact prevention. Yet the difficult winter proved quite a challenge.  The average time to close a pothole work order in the first four months of FY 2015 was 6.7 days—nearly triple the 2.4 days during the same period in FY 2014, according to the report. The city stated that, while repair times were “atypically high” through the first quarter of FY 2015, they were “returning to normal levels by October 2014.” Stringer’s report did note, however, “to its credit, the DOT filled over 74,000 potholes (arterials and local streets) in the first four months of FY 2015, a 60% increase over the same period in FY 2014.”

The severe winters felt by the whole Northeast have correlated closely with the number of pothole claims—a predictor many cities may need to weigh more heavily when making weather preparations and budgets.

Snowfall and pothole claims

But patching does not present the best long-term investment of city funds, Stringer said. While the city has initiatives to make patching more efficient, the report said “a more cost-effective, long-term solution may be a complete reconstruction of certain city streets.”

Other financial drains due to road conditions include improperly restored streets and intersections following utility work, milled roadways and hummocks. The comptroller’s office recommended several municipal risk management tactics to tackle these potential claims generators, including:

  • Re-evaluating DOT protocols to ensure that restoration work conducted after street work is properly done. While private companies and utility providers such as Consolidated Edison and Verizon are required by the New York City Administrative Code 18 to maintain the area 12 inches around manholes, vaults and plates flush with the road surface, restoration work following construction sometimes does not match that standard. In addition, the NYPD should also perform spot checks to make sure that contractors performing street work in their precincts have proper permits.
  • Roadways are generally paved in a two-step process. A layer of the old roadway is scrapped off (milling), followed by the introduction of a layer of new asphalt. When the street is milled, it presents a hazard to pedestrians and vehicles using the roadway, and yet there is often a delay in repaving roadway. DOT should examine the extent of these delays and modify its procedures to insure that milled roadways are repaved as soon as possible.
  • Hummocks are variations in road conditions where asphalt is pushed up in a wave-like shape. In many cases, parked buses cause this condition on account of their weight and design. Given the trip hazard posed by hummocks, DOT should work with the MTA and private bus companies to explore the feasibility of using different pavement that is less likely to result in hummock conditions where buses commonly park.

For more about the public risk management challenges of roadways and bridges, check out Caroline McDonald’s article “A Bridge Too Far: Repairing America’s Aging Infrastructure,” from Risk Management magazine.

Building Resilient Communities on a Shoestring Budget

Jay Shaw IDCE

NEW ORLEANS—While it may seem counterintuitive at an event that also has an expo, one speaker at the International Disaster Conference today argues that a lot of the “preparedness” products on the market are not worth the price tag—and may even work against public safety.

According to the graduate research of disaster management expert and firefighter paramedic Jay Shaw, dikes and levies reduced people’s preparedness levels by 25% for all hazards including flooding. About three quarters of respondents in his research had experience with a major flood, and 75% felt prepared for a flood. Yet 65% felt unprepared for any other disaster, and 46% did not have any emergency kit, plan or supplies. The dikes in their town, Shaw found, led to a sense of security against flooding risk, and left many unaware of other risks and how to best prepare for them.

Nationally, a 2009 FEMA study found that 57% of people claim to be prepared for a disaster for 72 hours. Under further review, however, 70% of these individuals did not know the basic components of an emergency go-bag or emergency plan.

Amidst go bags, 72-hour disaster kits, car kits, evacuation kits, shelter in place kits, and disaster buckets, the consumer-facing market for emergency preparedness often just confuses the public, selling overlapping supplies and sometimes contradictory instructions.

“We are failing to get through to people,” Shaw said. “We need to stop telling people what to do and start showing them. A 72-hour preparedness message is not enough. It is a great idea to tell people to get prepared, but people are not doing it. And part of the problem is that there is no social stigma—it is still acceptable to be unprepared.”

Other top barriers to preparedness, according to Shaw, include:

  • Ignorance – “It won’t happen to me”
  • Risk perception is low
  • Hazard recognition is low
  • Cost
  • Vulnerable population
  • Confused about what to do
  • Capacity to cope is too high, due to a false sense of preparedness

Indeed, most people with resources consider a credit card all the emergency kit they need. “If you have to evacuate in the middle of the night, you’re going to take out the credit card and get a hotel room. If Ebola is coming, we’ll rent a cabin out by the lake and get out of town,” Shaw said.

Even those who do purchase basic pre-made kits are not improving capacity for resilience. “We are selling a sense of security, but if you’re opening it for the first time in an emergency, you have gained nothing to prepare for and understand the risks of a disaster and how to best make it through,” he said. “Buying all the kits for the hazards in my community would cost $2,600 and it would take up a 10-by-10 room in my basement. But I not be prepared because I would not know how to use them.”

Some of the best solutions may include:

  • Conducting comprehensive research on preparedness levels to understand why they are so low
  • Encouraging communities to engage in creative ways to finance local preparedness efforts and events
  • Using the soldiers we have—figure out what percent of duties we can take away to increase the prevention roles and education of police, fire, EMS and healthcare professionals
  • Developing and maintaining CERT teams, including members from prospective police, fire and EMS candidates, even offering the incentive of hours on the team for preferred application status
  • Shifting department and budgetary focus from response to preparedness
  • Creating train the trainer courses to build capacity across departments
  • Developing an international strategy on the contents of emergency kits, analyzing relevant risks and tailoring messaging on what it means to prepare for known risks and hazards
  • Aligning marketing strategies on the real risks and the best means of being prepared
  • Building relationships locally and lobbying colleges and universities for applied projects that offer real-world solutions to local risks

Other marketing can also greatly improve local preparedness. Encouraging programs at local schools and community groups and even naming or offering sponsorship on dikes and dams can increase awareness and incentivize discussion and around risk mitigation measures.