Ideas Worth Stealing: Preparing cities for warmer and wetter weather

    Marine unit police officer Robert Jonah walks through flood waters from the Schuylkill River on Main Street in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia on May 1

    Marine unit police officer Robert Jonah walks through flood waters from the Schuylkill River on Main Street in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia on May 1

    Helping Pennsylvania cities adapt to climate change. 

    At the Keystone Crossroads “Urban Ideas Worth Stealing” conference in Harrisburg last Tuesday, George Connor, the executive director of the Dauphin County Department of Community and Economic Development, said that Pennsylvania is the second-most flood prone state in the country. The next question was inevitable. 

    “What’s first?”

    The answer was more of a surprise: Alaska is the most flooded state in the country.

    But a fellow panelist, Fran McJunkin, deputy director at the Lycoming County Department of Planning and Community Development, added a caveat: “Alaska is the most flooded state. But Florida is the most flood-damaged state.”

    That’s an important difference, particularly for those who work in urban planning and development. Rising waters and massive storms are not going away. But how cities in the second-most flood prone state in the country prepare for those threats could completely alter the damage they inflict.

    Warmer and wetter

    Christine Knapp, the director of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, says climate change will make Philadelphia warmer and wetter. Since 2010, the city has experienced the two wettest years, the two warmest summers, the snowiest winter, the most days over 90 degrees and the wettest single day on record. 

    That’s not something the city is built for. Growing Stronger, a report issued by the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability in 2015, found that “the city’s buildings and infrastructure were designed to withstand past climate conditions, not those that scientists expect will occur in the future. Over time, prolonged exposure to higher temperatures and changing precipitation patterns may lead to safety hazards, service outages and higher maintenance costs.” 

    You need only think back to this past winter and the record-breaking snowstorm that hit the eastern half of the state to see that this is not a Philadelphia-exclusive problem. Communities in Lycoming and Dauphin Counties are also dealing with the fallout of warmer and wetter. McJunkin and Connors said that communities that had been intentionally developed along the river are now struggling with the implications of that location. 

    Flood planning

    Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Lycoming County are approaching the issue from different angles.

    Philadelphia is focusing on preparing city buildings and public spaces to respond to natural disasters. The focus is on emergency responders and public transportation, but also many city-owned facilities like city hall, the airport and the seaports.

    Philadelphia is full of historic buildings, many built more than 100 years ago. They were not intended to deal with the weather conditions of today, and restoring or recovering them after a natural disaster is it’s own headache. Philadelphia is one of four counties in Pennsylvania that has received a grant from the National Parks Service as part of the Hurricane Sandy recovery fund. They will be the first major city in the country to have a plan to prepare historic buildings for natural disasters

    Historic monuments and city facilities are the priority in Philadelphia. But in Lycoming County, the county is focusing on helping private homeowners be proactive about flooding. Williamsport is the largest city, but Lycoming County has many smaller boroughs built along the west branch of the Susquehanna River. In some communities, 40 percent or more of the homes sit in the floodplain. 

    McJunkin says the county has had to work hard to mitigate the risk, one house at a time. Often, that means convincing residents to raise their homes above the waterline. In extreme cases, the county has bought out homes that are too flood-prone, torn them down and left the green space. That reduces the effect of flooding on the community, but isn’t always a welcome suggestion to those homeowners. It also costs a lot of money — a lot of money. McJunkin says finding funding has been the biggest challenge. 

    And the Harrisburg metro area, among other initiatives, is looking at the issue from the ground up. Shannon Miller, the CEO of Capital Region Water system, says the current water infrastructure isn’t prepared to handle global warming. Pipes and sewers back up and overflow during heavy rainfall, causing flooding and river contamination. Capital Region Water has launched the City Beautiful H20 project to slow that process. 

    They are hoping to create more green infrastructure projects, like rain gardens, pervious pavement and tree trenches. The layers of natural barriers can catch some of that storm water before it enters the sewer system, slowing the flow of water into the pipes. Miller says the project will have many benefits, including community engagement and neighborhood beautification. 

    Flood insurance and community rating

    There are aspects of resiliency that have nothing to do with flooding, of course. As one audience member pointed out, solar panels and renewable energy should be a focus of the conversation around adaptive cities. Extreme heat is another concern, particularly as it affects vulnerable populations like the elderly and children. 

    But flooding is top of mind, both because of it’s prevalence in Pennsylvania cities and because of the recent changes to the flood insurance system in the United States. Homeowners living in the floodplain have seen their rates skyrocket over the past few years, since a federal law removed all subsidies from the national flood insurance program. 

    This has pressed communities to have those tough conversations they’d been putting off for years. In many Lycoming County boroughs, McJunkin says the choices feel punitive: on a house worth $85,000, you could spend $100,000 to raise it or pay more than your mortgage each month in flood insurance. Many homeowners faced with those options would just move, which can be equally devastating for a community. 

    Dauphin County is working to chip away at those flood insurance costs on behalf of residents, according to George Connors, from the Department of Community and Economic Development. The county put Community Development Block Grant funds towards participating in the Community Rating System (CRS) by FEMA. Communities that go above and beyond the requirements for flood planning and mitigation can see a reduction in flood insurance rates for all homeowners, between 5 and 45 percent. 

    Harrisburg has had flood insurance rates reduced by 20 percent. The county is hoping to work on floodplain mapping, green infrastructure and flood preparedness programs to increase that, and to get similar discounts for other municipalities. 

    Finding local government support

    All of the panelists agreed that being proactive about climate change was necessary, but challenging. After a natural disaster, there is always a push for funding to assist with recovery and rebuilding. But how can municipalities find funding before the storm hits? 

    McJunkin says this issue is quickly becoming a national question. There are discussions on the federal level of making funding available to communities that want to mitigate the flood risk in advance, and she says interested communities should keep an eye out for opportunities to seek those grants. 

    But in lieu of federal dollars, finding local government support can be equally challenging. There are so many immediate needs in many Pennsylvania cities. Convincing the local, county and state government to invest in proactive preparations can be tough. 

    Knapp says the key is to “sell it” by pointing out the co-values to different entities. 

    She has found success in making an economic argument for planning for climate change. The cost of investing in crisis-ready infrastructure and adaptive planning is far, far less than the cost of cleaning up after a natural disaster. One example cited in Greenworks, the 2015 report, is of SEPTA, Philadelphia’s public transit system. Helping SEPTA prepare for inclement weather events and long-term climate change will result in fewer service interruptions and lost transportation dollars over the coming years. 

     

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.