3 Must-Read Points on Building Hurricane-Proof Cities

By Ayana Byrd Sep 12, 2017

Between Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the list of cities facing flooding, no power and displaced residents includes the major metropolitan areas of Houston, Miami and Savannah. In one month’s time, these and other coastal cities have shown that they lack effective structures and infrastructures to withstand intense storms.

Wrier Vann R. Newkirk II’s new article, “How to Build Hurricane-Proof Cities,” published today (September 12) in The Atlantic, opens with a look at the Texas city of Galveston, which was devastated by a hurricane in 1900—half of the city’s homes were destroyed and more than 6,000 people were killed—before rebuilding better and smarter in the aftermath. Galveston elevated buildings, elected politicians who were sensitive to the issue and learned how to decrease its vulnerability to storms. But that was over a century ago and while groundbreaking, Galveston is not the size of a Houston or Miami: It did not have to rebuild while managing a population of millions of people, and it did not have to balance development demands with climate change realities.

Considering today’s cities, Newkirk writes, “The task of guarding them and of creating plans to deal with powerful storms in the future is almost too big to fathom…. But fathom it those cities must, if they want to survive yearly hurricane seasons that appear to be worsening.”

What do cities need to fortify if they are to be protected from hurricanes? They need structures that can stand sustained, high winds, storm surges and flooding. And infrastructure needs to include improved drainage systems, stormwater pumps and elevated roads. “Greater feats of engineering, like building a seawall and maybe even lifting the entire city are also in the realm of possibility,” he writes.

These three key excerpts provide a sense of what is being done, what should be done and what should not be repeated if cities are going to survive another intense hurricane season like this one.

At least in one domain, Miami and other Floridian cities are much better positioned to withstand hurricanes than they used to be. When Hurricane Andrew destroyed whole neighborhoods in cities across the state in 1992, one key factor in its destructiveness was the flimsiness of Florida homes. Then, a shoddy set of building codes in different municipalities led to thousands of homes whose builders made the kinds of decisions—roofing staples instead of nails, particle board instead of wood, and leaving mobile homes completely unmoored—that might not even have passed muster inland, let alone in a peninsula intersecting the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.

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For land-use planners, the only feasible long-term way to make coastal cities resilient is to rethink them. According to Danielle Spurlock, a frequent co-author of [professor of land use and environmental planning at Texas A&M University Philip] Berke’s and a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, city planners and other officials have so far been able to ignore any kind of meaningful reckoning with nature. “Although the magnitude of hurricane damage is huge, it’s intermittent enough to where people have been able to avoid proactive money-spending to fix it, until now,” Spurlock says. “More frequent events are putting that kind of prioritization into question.”

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At any rate, American cities will have to be built in a way that goes against what appears to be their nature, using the fullness of human ingenuity not to trample the earth and replace natural with the artificial, but to engineer both nature and the city in a way that emphasizes their codependence. Planners will have to look ahead to climate threats generations in the future, a prospect that seems bleak in the most vulnerable cities in the South, where leaders have either mostly ignored long-term considerations of climate change, as has Texas Governor Greg Abbott, or who, like Florida Governor Rick Scott, have actively suppressed discussion of the concept.

Read the entire article here.