Climate hazard adaptation and mitigation planning: The first steps toward building resiliency for NC communities
As we swelter and sweat this summer, communities along the North Carolina coast and further inland are also thinking about hurricane season, wondering if heavy rains, wind, or flooding is on the horizon.
Protecting communities from these destructive events is beyond the ability of any single town, city, county, or even a state. Storms are getting stronger with a warming climate that bloats them up with even more moisture, leading to floods farther inland. These are not hypothetical scenarios, but already a reality for many. But while stopping severe storms is not possible, communities can prepare for them and build an ability to withstand and bounce back from their effects. That’s where resiliency planning comes in.
North Carolina administers the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) through its Department of Environmental Quality. The purpose of CAMA is to protect the unique natural resources of North Carolina’s coastal areas. CAMA covers 20 coastal counties, and DEQ’s Resilient Coastal Communities Program (RCCP) assists and incentivizes those communities to build a resilience project portfolio.
WithersRavenel Director of Community Planning Jay McLeod believes that dealing with such storms and other aspects of our evolving climate can feel like an overwhelming proposition, especially for smaller communities with limited resources. But communities can focus on the things that are possible to accomplish at the local level through planning. That’s where Jay believes climate hazard adaptation and mitigation planning comes in.
“It can lead to action paralysis because climate change is such a large issue, and it’s feels larger than the local governments can handle on their own, but we can focus in on specific areas and find solutions to specific nuisance issues. We do this while looking at the long term prospects for these areas and ensuring the investment is fruitful. Overall, I think people have been receptive to that approach,” he said.
A multidisciplinary approach
An effective climate hazard adaptation and mitigation plan incorporates a multidisciplinary approach, which WithersRavenel specializes in through its varied professional teams.
“We are well-positioned for this type of work because of the broad background of professionals that we have—stormwater modelers and engineers, civil engineers, landscape architects, community and long-range planners, and our funding and asset management team,” Jay said.
All these disciplines have important roles to play in coming up with a successful resiliency plan.
Jay cites the examples of GIS professionals and land-use planners, who can not only help identify vulnerabilities through analysis of data, but also use that information to engage community members and leaders by prioritizing problem areas spatially and building a resilient vision for the future.
“We’ve got planners that can look at the potential impacts of the changing environment on different public assets so that our funding analysts and asset managers can anticipate costs, and communities can use that to plan for the future,” he said.
Providing an incentive to have a climate hazard adaptation and mitigation plan in place is as important as a community’s need to have such a resiliency plan. Those incentives can take the form of government grants and/or legislation. For some programs, municipalities are required to have a mitigation plan in place before they can apply for a grant. In many cases, the opportunity for grants is a great incentive to make a plan, Jay said.
Just as building a climate hazard adaptation and mitigation plan is made up of multiple aspects, putting the plan in place and eventually making it work is a multi-stage effort.
“The plan starts with awareness, analysis, vulnerability assessment, and engagement to help find and prioritize potential solutions,” Jay said. “Then there’s vetting followed by designing of those solutions. Then there’s the implementation of these solutions, building them and then measuring how successful it is.”
For Jay, to create an effective climate hazard adaptation and mitigation plan, a community must start with a strong foundation of information, analysis, and local involvement if the plan will have a high chance of succeeding and getting implemented.
“You have to build local knowledge and capacity to act, and then help organize and bring consensus among local stakeholders in finding a solution that they can move toward together,” he said. You also have to leverage local knowledge and experience. “Beachfront communities have different erosion and flooding concerns than do riverine communities such as [the City of] New Bern,” Jay said. “For instance, a storm can blow water back up the river as opposed to coming down the river. That needs a whole different approach than flooding from rain.”
Working with a city’s residents
It is just as important to keep the conversations going before and after a plan gets adopted. The City of New Bern adopted a Resiliency and Hazard Mitigation Plan in 2021 that was created with the help of a consultancy firm. WithersRavenel is now working with the City in helping the most important stakeholders—the residents and businesses in the City—get a good understanding about the plan to help move it forward.
Liza Monroe is a WithersRavenel Planner who led community engagements for this implementation effort. As a native New Bernian, she is uniquely positioned for the responsibility. These efforts, dubbed WithersRavenel’s Resiliency Roadshow, piqued the interest of many area residents and led to “good conversations,” according to Liza. The plan came about during a global pandemic, which made engaging the community even more vital. The roadshow delved deep into the plan findings, and Liza and other team members of WithersRavenel’s community planning team were tasked with bringing a better understanding of the plan to the people.
“A lot of our conversations were focused on ‘tell us your story’,” he said, and the team did not approach the project with a “hey, here’s some information” approach. “Instead, our main concern was to make sure were engaging sensitively,” she said. “It is really hard to tell people that ‘this is what you need to do to make sure you are resilient to a hurricane’ when they have dealt with hurricanes all their lives. So our concern was: are we actually having intentional conversations?’”
One size doesn’t fit all
A resiliency plan can differ from community to community even if all those communities are affected by, for example, the same storm. Not only do geographic and environmental conditions dictate climate hazard adaptation and mitigation planning, but also each place’s legacy of development and land-use decision-making will require different approaches.
For Liza, the big factor to keep in mind, in addition to being sensitive, was to realize that WithersRavenel was not trying to be an expert about the day-to-day life experiences of a New Bern resident. As a team that had not created the plan (which was already approved), it was important to keep that in mind going in. “In speaking with the City staff, it was clear for them the plan is a living, breathing document,” Liza said. “They could release another hazard mitigation plan in two years.”
In his role as a planner working with coastal communities, Jay said he has always found residents in those areas to be very receptive and understanding since they experience the climate effects directly and recognize the change. “They understand what is going on,” he said.
That said, he understands that “change is difficult, and it requires giving up something in order to get something else. “And a lot of people—myself included—aren’t big fans of lots of change all at once,” he says.
An advisory role
Jay said that in some respects the resiliency planning process can be an advisory role where “we help guide people through understanding what they have, and what’s likely headed their way. It is about helping people navigate change, which can be difficult.”
As Jay puts it, a climate hazard adaption and mitigation plan is about building local awareness about vulnerabilities, then organizing people to tackle those problems with eyes-wide-open, because communities that plan, will prosper.
Have questions on how to build resiliency for your community? Our Planning team can help you guide from start to finish. Reach out to Jay McLeod at email@example.com or 919-238-0422
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