Jessica Grannis is Adaptation Program Director for the Georgetown Climate Center at Georgetown University Law Center. In this role, Grannis works with cities and states on the legal aspects of adapting to the impacts of climate change. She has published and presented widely on adapting to sea level rise and coastal resilience. Prior to her current role, Grannis was Staff Attorney for the California State Coastal Conservancy and Ocean Protection Council. Following the recent devastation of Houston and Florida, Grannis provided testimony to Congress on rebuilding and preparing for future challenges. EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman caught up with her at her office in Downtown Washington, DC…
EarthTalk: Okay so Greater Houston was built in a sprawling manner. What impact did that have on Hurricane Harvey? How well prepared was the region for such a hurricane?
Jessica Grannis: Yeah, so many experts are saying that the land use and development patterns throughout the Houston region really exacerbated the flood risk that this region faced; natural landscapes are much better at managing rainfall and allowing that water to percolate into the soil and when you have large-scale development and you’re paving over the flood plain, that exacerbates flood risk. So part of the flood impacts that were experienced in this region were a factor—caused by some of those development patterns but as the climate changes, this region is going to see much more risk of extreme storms like Hurricane Harvey and Ike before it. These massive rainfall events, the region has seen three 500-year flood events over the course of the last couple of years. They’re going to see more heatwaves because it’s in a warm part of the country, and they’re going to see more challenges in terms of water supply and drought.
E: So it sounds like climate change is the big villain here but there are other factors, maybe loss of wetlands, maybe the way people built or just overbuilt there?
Grannis: Yeah, it’s a combination of factors. The land use patterns and development is one factor. The fact that it’s a very low lying city and it’s built on bayous that are designed to drain that water but because it’s low-lying, it drains pretty slowly. So when you get a rainfall of this magnitude, it just fills that basin and causes impacts to the city for a long period of time and then you have a combination of sea level rise, so the storm was riding on an additional two feet of sea level rise that they’ve seen in the last century and that’s a combination of also subsiding land because of oil extraction and water extraction, this region is actually sinking.
E: So it sounds like I’m not going to move there. It sounds like magic a strategic retreat but I know some people are going to want to come back and rebuild. So as they do rebuild, what can be done to make it less vulnerable to hurricanes and other environmental disasters?
Grannis: One of the challenges that this region faces is that Houston is one of the only major metropolitan areas that doesn’t have a climate adaptation plan; so they don’t have a plan in the books that helps them understand what climate change is going to mean in terms of their impacts. So it’s going to be much harder for them to take Federal disaster recovery dollars and rebuild in a way that’s climate smart. But they can learn from the some of the best practices that have been adopted in other cities and regions, like making room for rivers and bayous to manage that water. So they could do strategic buyouts around bayous and restore those natural floodplains to let nature do its work and manage that floodwater, and those techniques have worked for places like Tulsa, Oklahoma and Charlotte-Mecklenburg County where they’ve done a lot of buyouts that have significantly reduced their flood losses in recent events. They could do things like deploying green infrastructure which is like taking out the paved roads and sidewalks and other surfaces throughout urban environments and reintroducing natural landscapes and features that better manage storm water and follow the examples of places like here in D.C, where they’re deploying green infrastructure across the city or places like New Orleans where they’re using that approach. And they can adopt better floodplain land use practices and make sure that where people are building, that they’re building to be more resilient to future climate change and they’re leaving natural landscapes where they can and building in ways that will be better for the future.
E: So a lot of green scapes, just working with nature instead of against nature. The fact that they don’t have a climate plan, is politics behind that or climate denial or…
Grannis: I think there’s a lot of progressive folks in Houston. Climate adaptation plans are not a requirement; many cities have adopted them because there are state incentives to do so or they use federal dollars to do so but they’re not a Federal requirement. So a lot of cities just are not spending their resources in that way.
E: Okay, so we’ll see if Houston changes course in the future. And then turning to Florida, how does that compare to Houston because the ground is different and you didn’t have the same flooding but how does it compare in terms of sprawl and disaster preparation and how can it recover in a resilient way?
Grannis: Florida faces similar challenges, from sea level rise and coastal storms, salt water intrusion and heat, it was a different storm event. People were more concerned about wind damage and surge versus Harvey which was really a rain event. But one of the success stories from Florida might be the changes that the state made after Hurricane Andrew to update its state building codes. Many of the newer buildings in the state were designed to withstand these higher winds and floods and so the state may have significantly reduced the damages that they experienced during Irma because of smart practices like modern building codes. Another benefit that Florida may see in terms of rebuilding is that there is a lot of climate leadership in southeast Florida. The counties from the Keys up to Palm Beach all participate in the southeast Florida compact, where they’ve developed a regional climate action plan, including taking preparation to adapt to future climate impacts. And so they’re well teed up to use these Federal disaster recovery dollars to make significant changes in terms of infrastructure and how they’re building after Irma.
E: So the local government is forward looking but state government, maybe not so much? Is that going to impact the rebuilding?
Grannis: So one of the reasons why the compact formed was because when the Crist administration transitioned to the Scott administration, there was less focus on climate preparedness and climate action and so the local government in southeast Florida took on that leadership and really decided to push forward. There’s a lot of powers that local government has but it’s better to have a state that’s a partner in preparedness actions and helping advocate on behalf of the local governments and making sure that they have the flexibility they need to use the disaster recovery dollars to rebuild in a way that’s more resilient to future climate change.
E: Okay. So national leadership would help, state would, but local, they are able to do a lot and work together. Turning back to the petrochemical industry on the Gulf Coast. So parts of Houston are quite contaminated, right, and it might be kind of stirred up in water to make a polluted stew and I’m thinking of like, Port Arthur. So what can be done to help residents of the most vulnerable areas recover?
Grannis: I think that’s going to be one of the biggest travesties from Harvey is the toxics and contamination that’s being spread by the floodwaters and more needs to be done in terms of monitoring and testing floodwaters and working with public health officials to make sure that affected communities have the resources they need to limit the health effects of those who have been exposed. In terms of future efforts, more needs to be done to prevent these kind of flood impacts to these highly hazardous facilities so that we’re not seeing this contamination spread throughout residences and businesses.
E: Okay. So do you think some of these neighborhoods will be able to recover?
Grannis: It’s hard when you have this level of contamination spreading. It gets into the soils, it gets into people’s building materials, so it’s going to be a really difficult thing to recover from and make sure you’re not having public health—longterm public health effects from all of this contamination.
E: Right. You don’t want children growing up in some of these areas, playing in the grass or whatever.
Grannis: They’re telling people to avoid all of the soils and sands that are cropping up as the floodwater recedes. So it’s a scary situation.
E: Okay. Turning to the National Flood Insurance Program, there have been critics saying it’s actually encouraging people to build in the wrong places because they know the government is going to come in and save them. They don’t have to buy their own insurance. Do you agree that such programs need to be rethought and if so, how?
Grannis: The Federal Flood Insurance Program could use some reforms. People do purchase flood insurance, it’s just a Federal program versus a private program. Part of the challenge is that it’s been subsidized since it was created so many properties are not paying the full risk rate of their actual flood risk but it is the last line of defense that homes and businesses have to recover in the event of flood losses. So one of the big sticking points in terms of reforming the federal flood insurance program is making sure that rates are still affordable for folks that are lower income homeowners; to make sure that they’re able to have the insurance payouts needed for them to recover. But other reforms that have been talked about are just encouraging more people to buy-in into the program. In Houston, the rates of coverage were under 20% in some parts of the city which means that a lot of people just don’t have the insurance they’re going to need to be able to afford their own recovery. The flood insurance program needs to look at how climate change is affecting these storm events, how sea level rise and change in patterns are going to exacerbate flood risks in communities and make sure that we’re pricing insurance affordably and that we’re making the maps reflect those changing flood risks.
E: So do you think like, more buyouts might be a solution? It seems like equity and preparation for likely future events are kind of in conflict here.
Grannis: Well one of the reforms that’s being debated on the Hill right now is looking at severe repetitive loss properties. So properties that repeatedly flood and some that flood way over the—have flood claims way over the value of the house, to require those properties to eventually be bought out or not be covered under the flood insurance program anymore. But the flood insurance program itself doesn’t do buyouts, that’s paid for by other programs, but it can help to take out some of those most repeated claiming properties.
E: Okay, so it already corrects to an extent.
Grannis: That’s just being debated, it’s not law yet.
E: Okay, so they’re talking so that’s a suggested law right now, but that seems like it would be a very good idea.
Jessica: There’s challenges in terms of buyouts because these are people’s homes and communities and there’s social dislocation that comes with buyouts. So places like New Orleans looked at how they can relocate whole communities out of floodplains and do land swaps so that they can relocate communities together. They’re looking at relocating at the Isle de Jean Charles Tribe in Louisiana after land losses kind of…
E: And I know, New Orleans of course has a tremendous history in the U.S. and I’m sure we’d rather recover if we can, but I guess there are painful choices to be made.
E: Okay. So climate change, as you’ve already said, means that all of these problems are likely to get worse in the future. I guess it’s kind of an intensifier of what’s already dangerous anyway, although this kind of flooding was something new in Houston. So I’m looking at the very big picture, what are some key ways that cities can rebuild to become more resilient and to prepare for a difficult future?
Grannis: Climate change is going to be a threat multiplier so if you’re already seeing flooding, you’re going to see more flooding. If you’re already seeing heatwaves, you’re going to see more heatwaves. So the first step is to understand how climate change is going to exacerbate risks of natural hazards for your community so you understand what your risks are, and then there’s a range of strategies that communities can take to reduce those risks. Everything from adopting to higher building codes to prepare for those big storms that we know are going to be more frequent and intense, to elevating structures so that they’re better able to withstand these flood events, to building buildings so that they’re more resilient to heatwaves and can protect people in place during heat events. Communities are looking at things like micro-grids so that critical facilities like hospitals and senior centers stay online during storm events when greater power outages are out, to save lives during these big storm events. So there’s a number of different strategies that communities around the country are employing to enhance their resilience to these future events.
E: Okay. So there is at least some hope if we think ahead and prepare.
E: Thank you very much!
Grannis: Thank you.