Working With Nature to Minimize Disaster Damage

By Deborah Brosnan
Ecosystem Scientist and Disaster Risk Reduction Expert

Mother Nature, it seems, is running amok. Two weeks ago, Hurricane Harvey roared ashore in Texas and lingered. This week, Hurricane Irma became a Category 5, striking the Caribbean Islands with sustained winds of 185 mph. As I write this, Irma is tracking towards Florida and the east coast, showing no signs of weakening. The Florida Keys and parts of Miami have been evacuated.

Hurricanes are part of nature. Anyone living in a hurricane zone will surely experience the effects of one. We cannot fully safeguard ourselves against a strong hurricane like Irma or Harvey. There will be damage to property and sadly there will be injuries too. Through good disaster planning, we’ve learned what actions to take in order to minimize risks when a storm hits and to respond quickly to help those who are suffering.

The lesson that we have not yet learned is how to minimize those risks in the ways that we plan, develop and grow our communities. We’ve repeatedly ignored the role that our landscapes and ecosystems play in protecting us during natural hazards. By doing so we’ve put many in harms way.

Across the USA, cities like Houston have experienced rapid growth. Many have developed as concrete jungles. Urban sprawl, high-density business zones, and shopping malls have created miles of impervious surfaces that cannot absorb water and streets that funnel floods at great speeds through neighborhoods. Along our coasts, developments have paved over marshes and sand dunes, creating communities that have little protection against storm surge and that are increasingly vulnerable as sea level rises. When hazards strike, these areas are more likely to become disaster zones. Harvey dumped an unprecedented 50 inches of rain on parts of Texas in less than four days. The flooding was catastrophic and many were harmed. But this is not the first time Houston has seen major floods. Last April storms flooded more than 1,000 homes and caused $5 billion in damages.

We need a better strategy and nature can help us.

Texas will recover from the Harvey. But in doing so it has an opportunity to take a fresh approach and leverage the services that nature provides for free. Other places around the U.S. can take a similar approach and some are already doing so. For example, Milwaukee, Minnesota’s Greenstream project is restoring natural flood plains with wetland areas designed to hold 1.3 billion gallons of water – about 1,970 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Ramsey County, Minnesota developed green infrastructures to reduce localized flooding, decreasing runoff volumes by over 90% and saving them half a million dollars over the cost of gray infrastructure.  The Netherlands, a low-lying country that faces extreme flooding risks, recently created a government-private sector partnership to identify and pursue nature-based solutions that work with engineering approaches to reduce the risks to their citizens.

Natural ecosystems can protect communities against storm surge, flooding and act as a filter reducing runoff of dangerous pollutants into communities.

There are five actions that every elected leader and every community can take today:

  1. Evaluate the benefits that the surrounding ecosystems provide to the community against hazards.
  2. Compare the benefits and the costs of developing or restoring a community by using green (nature-based) or gray (concrete) infrastructure or a mixed (green-gray) option.
  3. Identify the most effective options among them.
  4. Target investments in conservation or restoration to the most cost-effective areas.
  5. Enact ordinances and provide incentives to encourage nature-based solutions where they are effective.

It is critical that we learn to design infrastructure that can serve more than just one purpose.  The ways we develop and manage disasters must align with natural processes rather than work against them. Solutions must be adaptable to cope with changing conditions and more extreme events brought by a rapidly changing planet. Towns and cities can lead the way.

Nature is not a ‘nice to have” feature of our towns and communities, Nature is a “need to have” because our ecosystems are the foundation of our resilience.

~Dr. Deborah Brosnan is an ecosystem scientist and DRR expert with experience working in hazard and disasters around the world. She is president of Deborah Brosnan & Associates and Professor of Biology at Virginia Tech