Expert Commentary

Climate change, natural disasters and community resiliency: Research roundup

2013 selection of recent research on the effects of climate change on the built environment and how individuals and communities can best adapt.


Research shows that in recent years both the frequency and severity of extreme weather events have increased in the United States. As a consequence, mega-storms such as Hurricane Sandy are likely to become regular visitors in the future, exacerbated by rising sea levels. While efforts are being made to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, one of the root causes of human-caused climate change, there are acute risks ahead.

In response, federal and state governments have already begun to take action to improve our understanding of the short- and long-term effects of climate change. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Advisory Base Flood Elevations for New York and New Jersey give insight into what’s to come — the expanded flood zones reveal a significant increase in risk for tens of thousands of properties. Even prior to Hurricane Sandy, flood insurance reform was included in the Congressional transportation bill signed into law in July 2012. Among its provisions is to “phase out subsidies for severe repetitive loss properties,” according to the Georgetown Climate Center. In the wake of Congress’ $51 billion flood relief package, simple reform may not be enough. For a long-term, research-based critique of federal programs in this area, see the study “Catastrophe Economics: The National Flood Insurance Program,” published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. For more on some of these dynamics, see “Natural disasters, Hurricane Sandy and recovery efforts in the U.S.: Research roundup.”

Rising oceans and more frequent storms aren’t the only impacts of global warming, of course. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted a significant increase in heat spells, droughts, heavy rains and inland flooding, among other effects. Weather data already confirms the shift: Last year was the hottest on record for the United States, shattering the previous record by a full degree. The high temperatures and droughts of 2012 lead to a significant increase in wildfires that resulted in scorched forests, lost lives and destroyed property.

Managing the direct consequences and increased risks of ongoing climate change requires increased resiliency at all levels — the built environment, the communities in which we live and the regulations that govern our society. For reporters seeking information on their communities, see FEMA’s flood maps and the agency’s data feeds relating to disasters, mitigation, best practices and other related topics. (Note that FEMA’s maps are being updated.) To assess the flood risks for particular properties and locales, check out the government’s FloodSmart website, as well as a new site, FloodTools, that is backed by a consortium of insurance firms.

Of course, there is large political dimension to all of this. For more, see the political science research highlighted in a post titled “The Political Fallout of Natural Disasters,” from “Wonkblog” at the Washington Post.

Below is a selection of studies on issues related to climate change, natural disasters and community resiliency.



“Enhancing the Resilience of Coastal Communities: Dealing with Immediate and Long-Term Impacts of Natural Hazards”
Pine, J.C. Treatise on Estuarine and Coastal Science, 2011, Vol. 12, “Ecological Economics of Estuaries and Coasts,” 271-288.

Abstract: “Coastal areas are expected to see increases in natural hazards including sea-level rise. The need to understand the nature of coastal natural, social, and economic environments and their interaction is critical in ensuring a sustainable future…. Critical to planning for adaptation is community engagement and allowing local leaders the opportunity to more deeply appreciate the assets and challenges that they face and the need to plan for long-term sustainability. Building community adaptation and long-term sustainability is thus founded on community engagement, a deep appreciation of both the nature and interdependence of local natural, economic, social, and built systems.”


“The Dynamics of Disaster Recovery: Resilience and Entropy in Hurricane Response Systems 2005-2008”
Comfort, Louise K.; Oh, Namkyung; Ertan, Gunes. Public Organization Review, December 2009, Vol. 9, Issue 4, 309-323.

Abstract: “The challenge for policy makers and disaster managers is to achieve a balance between two dynamics — resilience and entropy — in order to develop sustainable risk reduction. Achieving an appropriate balance between resilience and entropy in any given community requires a systematic exploration of both dynamics. The recent hurricanes that struck Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005 and Hurricane Gustav, on September 1, 2008, offer an unusual opportunity to assess the degree to which both dynamics operated following Hurricane Katrina.”


“Disaster Resilience Indicators for Benchmarking Baseline Conditions”
Cutter, Susan L.; Burton, Christopher G.; Emrich, Christopher T. Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, August 2010, Vol. 7, Issue 1, 1547-7355. doi: 10.2202/1547-7355.1732.

Abstract: “There is considerable federal interest in disaster resilience as a mechanism for mitigating the impacts to local communities, yet the identification of metrics and standards for measuring resilience remain a challenge. This paper provides a methodology and a set of indicators for measuring baseline characteristics of communities that foster resilience…. The results show that spatial variations in disaster resilience exist and are especially evident in the rural/urban divide, where metropolitan areas have higher levels of resilience than rural counties. However, the individual drivers of the disaster resilience (or lack thereof) — social, economic, institutional, infrastructure, and community capacities — vary widely.”


“Open Space Protection and Flood Mitigation: A National Study”
Brody, Samuel D.; Highfield, Wesley E. Land Use Policy, Volume 32, May 2013, Pages 89–95.

Abstract: “Open space protection is increasingly being used for flood mitigation at the local level. However, little if any empirical research has been conducted on the effectiveness of this land use policy in terms of reducing actual damage caused by floods. Our study addresses this issue by statistically examining the performance of open space dedicated for flood mitigation purposes across a nationally representative sample of local jurisdictions. We measure the amount of open space protection designated under FEMA’s Community Rating System (CRS) program for 450 local communities, and then test the degree to which this strategy reduces insured flood damages over an eleven-year period from 1999 to 2009. Results indicate that, even when controlling for environmental, socioeconomic, and policy-related variables, open space protection is an important land use planning tool for mitigating the adverse impacts of flood events in the U.S. Our findings provide insights for local planners and decision makers interested in pursuing an avoidance strategy of flood mitigation, where people and structures are essentially removed from the most vulnerable locations.”


“Mitigating Flood Exposure: Reducing Disaster Risk and Trauma Signature”
Shultz, James M.; et al. Disaster Health, January/February/March 2013.

Abstract: “In 2011, following heavy winter snowfall, two cities bordering two rivers in North Dakota, USA faced major flood threats. Flooding was foreseeable and predictable although the extent of risk was uncertain. One community, Fargo, situated in a shallow river basin, successfully mitigated and prevented flooding. For the other community, Minot, located in a deep river valley, prevention was not possible and downtown businesses and one-quarter of the homes were inundated, in the city’s worst flood on record. We aimed at contrasting the respective hazards, vulnerabilities, stressors, psychological risk factors, psychosocial consequences, and disaster risk reduction strategies under conditions where flood prevention was, and was not, possible.”


“A Review of Coastal Community Vulnerabilities Toward Resilience Benefits from Disaster Reduction Measures”
Ewing, Lesley; Flick, Reinhard E.; Synolakis, Costas E. Environmental Hazards, 2010, Vol. 9, Issue 3, 222-232. doi: 10.3763/ehaz.2010.0050.

Abstract: “Hazard responses for the built coastal environment have typically been resistance: constructing stronger buildings, enhancing natural barriers or creating artificial barriers….. However, as coastal forces continue or magnify and resources become scarcer, resistance alone may be less effective or even unsustainable, and interest in resilience has grown. Resilience is a community’s ability either to absorb destructive forces without loss of service or function, or to recover quickly from disasters. Community resilience encompasses multiple elements, ranging from governance to structural design, risk knowledge, prevention, warning systems and recovery. This paper focuses on hazards of coastal communities, and provides a review of some recent engineering efforts to improve the resilience elements of risk knowledge and disaster warnings for coastal disaster reduction.”


“Bone Dry in Texas: Resilience to Drought on the Upper Texas Gulf Coast”
Schmidt, Deanna Harlene; Garland, Kathleen A. Journal of Planning Literature, July 2012. doi: 10.1177/0885412212454013.

Abstract: “Climate change is likely to increase losses and reduce supplies of freshwater during drought. Resilience, briefly defined as the ability to reduce vulnerability, to drought is crucial to coastal communities. This article examines drought, reviews the resilience literature, analyzes one community’s efforts to address drought through their water resource management plans and their comprehensive plan, and concludes with a discussion regarding how resilience thinking can assist planners and their communities.”


“A Concept for a Performance-based Rating System for Home Resilience: ReScU”
Bencze, Orsolya Csilla; Dasmohapatra, Sudipta; Tilotta, David C. International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment, 2012, Vol. 3, Issue 2, 148-165. doi: 10.1108/17595901211245242.

Abstract: “Citizens who live in disaster-prone areas need to protect their properties — particularly their homes — against the destructive effects of natural disasters to avoid large-scale economic losses. The purpose of this paper is to present the basic concepts and methodology for an improved system for rating the resilience of homes against natural-disaster perils.”


“Creating Disaster-resilient Communities: Evaluating the Promise and Performance of New Urbanism”
Stevens, Mark R.; Berke, Philip R.; Song, Yan. Landscape and Urban Planning, February 2010, Vol. 94, Issue 2, 105-115. doi: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2009.08.004.

Abstract: “Conventional low-density development patterns have been cited as a partial explanation for increasing per capita losses from natural hazards in the United States. There is an emerging appeal for New Urbanist design as an alternative to conventional low-density development, and particular features of New Urbanist design make it theoretically amenable to reducing natural hazard losses. However, because New Urbanist developments are built at relatively high densities, they can exacerbate hazard risk when they locate in areas subject to natural hazards and do not incorporate sufficient hazard mitigation techniques such that hazard risk is adequately reduced. We present a comparative evaluation of 33 matched pairs of New Urbanist and conventional developments located in floodplains to evaluate whether New Urbanist developments are incorporating hazard mitigation techniques at a greater rate than are conventional developments.”

Keywords: research roundup, disasters, water

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