Better planning to reduce impact of natural disasters
Research projects at DCRP are helping to improve our nation’s ability to be more resilient and bounce back after natural disasters. “ ...we keep building levees and seawalls and strengthening buildings along the coast, but what we really need to do is not build in dangerous places,” says Phil Berke.
(Article from the Institute for the Environment - 2013 UNC Environment newsletter)
Several major research projects at UNC-Chapel Hill are helping to improve our nation’s ability to be more resilient and bounce back after natural disasters.
Phil Berke, deputy director for the UNC Institute for the Environment and director of IE’s Center for Sustainable Community Design, is a land use planner with more than three decades of experience in community resiliency and planning. He has teamed up with other UNC researchers on several studies to improve resiliency of communities besieged by disasters such as hurricanes, flooding, sea level rise and other increasingly intense weather events that are expected to proliferate due to climate change. “In the U.S. in particular, we keep building levees and seawalls and strengthening buildings along the coast, but what we really need to do is not build in dangerous places,” Berke counseled. “But as long as there are financial incentives for coastal communities to build along our beaches – incentives like subsidized insurance and federal funds to rebuild after a disaster – people will keep building there. Our current federal policy de-incentivizes the risk elimination/land use planning approach, and we need to change that to be prepared for the inevitable hazards linked to climate change.”
In one study funded by the Department of Homeland Security, Berke and Gavin Smith, executive director of the UNC Coastal Hazards Center, have evaluated how well the Federal Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 is being carried out at the state and local levels. The results of the study, now in its final year, could have a major impact both on national policy and on its application by state and local officials.
“Congress did a wonderful job of saying that we need to be anticipating and addressing future risks so we can become a more resilient nation,” Berke explained. “But in our study, we found that while the law on paper is really good, we need to improve the way local and state governments are implementing it. Communities are using the law as more of an emergency management tool, when we really need them to think more broadly in terms of how to eliminate risk.”
Another UNC study has already led the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to improve how it encourages communities to plan their flood plain management. Under the National Flood Insurance Program’s Community Rating System, homeowners in communities that have adopted a floodplain management plan are eligible for reduced insurance premiums. But the UNC researchers found that most communities’ plans did not emphasize risk reduction efforts through land use planning, often investing in structural protection projects (seawalls and levees) and stronger building standards over avoiding rebuilding in dangerous locations. As a result of UNC’s findings and recommendations, FEMA has increased incentives for communities to develop stronger plans to reduce their vulnerability to flood hazards. Ward Lyles, a former doctoral student at the DCRP and currently a post-doc researcher at IE’s Center for Sustainable Community Design, also co-authored the study.
But how can we tell whether our efforts to improve community resiliency are successful? The UNC team is working with FEMA on another project to develop a set of indicators that can be applied by state and local governments to track their resiliency after a disaster strikes. “This will give us a way to determine the degree to which communities are reducing their risk, as well as areas where we need to improve,” said Berke, who is working with Smith as well as principal investigator Jen Horney, director of research at UNC’s North Carolina Institute for Public Health. Several other National Science Foundation-funded studies have also been launched as a result of this work.
Read more about the Institute’s latest research efforts in the 2013 UNC Environment newsletter: