The hurricanes that ravaged the South and the Caribbean and the fires raging through the Northwest in recent months have refocused and energized resilience discussions around the United States.
“Recent events are an almost weekly reminder of why we are here today,” said Marissa Aho, chief resilience officer for Los Angeles, who moderated a timely ULI Fall Meeting panel focused on resilience issues.
In south Florida, there has already been a shift in the discussion as the state emerges from the devastation of this summer’s storms. “Clearly this is kind of a new normal,” said David Martin, president of the Terra Group, a Miami Beach–based developer. “After hurricanes this summer, we saw the priority of resource allocation to flood management and to stable power was increased dramatically.”
The storms also raised issues about the decision-making process for disaster management, in the context of resiliency, said Jim Murley, chief resilience officer of Miami-Dade County. For example, residents were told to evacuate, which may have caused more problems. “We need to find ways for people to be safe in their homes,” he said.
The storms also focused attention on the real infrastructure issues facing the region, notably that the impact of the storms was directly related to the rise of sea levels, Murley said. “Resilience in southeast Florida is still primarily about climate change issues,” he noted.
The heart of the resilience discussion remains political leadership, said Jeremy Newsum, former executive trustee of the Grosvenor Estate in London and former ULI global chairman. Politicians need to be “broad-minded enough for long-term thinking to address things that might not get them elected next time but are critical to cities,” he said.
The United Kingdom was hit with a manmade disaster in June when a London residential tower caught fire, killing more than 80 people.
“I was absolutely shocked at what appears to be a failure of regulation in the United Kingdom in 2017 could have allowed that to happen,” Newsum said. “If I had been asked day before if that could have happened, I would have said ‘I don’t think so.’”
The fire “made me realize you can’t take anything for granted,” he said. “We have to pay a lot more attention.”
The impact of the recent storms heightened the need for a fundamental shift in the discussion, Martin said. “What we need to do is try to change the discussion away from how many feet the seas are going to rise” and focus more on energy independence and innovation, he said.
During Hurricane Irma, the local nuclear power facility was shut down, leaving thousands without power—and emphasizing the need for more independent, community-based energy sources, Martin said. New developments can play a key role in creating off-the-grid energy sources for the community, he said.
“The question is, can we see more urban nodes along transit corridors where we have enough real estate to introduce power and generate excessive power in order to power a micro-grid in the area?” Martin said.
Developers and communities need to find better ways to fund resilience infrastructure projects, he said. One solution may be to create tax increment financing districts, introducing a system for new projects to help fund infrastructure improvements.
“We have to look at a way to hack capitalism to help solve the revenue and resources allocation issues we have,” Martin said.
After Hurricane Andrew caused severe damage to the state in 1992, Florida enacted some of the strongest building codes in the United States, which helped mitigate damage from the recent storms and illustrates the effectiveness of strong government guidelines. But the concept of “hurricane amnesia”—that people soon forget the impact of a disaster—is very real, panelists said. Maintaining the focus in the years following a disaster is the real challenge, Martin noted.
“Typically, there is a change in political power before anything can get done,” Martin said. If nothing else, the storms might bring a closer focus on the real issues. “Hopefully, these events can create a quicker timeline so we start to act,” Martin said.