Coastal Processes, Hazards, and Society

How to Increase Adaptive Capacity: Non-structural Measures for Strengthening a Community’s Resilience to Coastal Hazards


How to Increase Adaptive Capacity: Non-structural Measures for Strengthening a Community’s Resilience to Coastal Hazards

What can be done so all members of a community can increase their adaptive capacity to reduce the impact of a coastal hazard event?

It’s important to draw a distinction between the actions of individuals, families, neighborhoods, municipalities, etc. to build the adaptive capacity of their community versus decisions on a governmental level to construct physical barriers such as flood walls and other engineering structures to protect the community, which were the focus in Module 7. In this module, we are focusing more on what is called non-structural adaptations and the policies that drive them, rather than on engineering or structural solutions. But of course, the two kinds of adaptations work together to reduce the risk of coastal hazards.

A community can take action towards increasing its adaptive capacity on many levels. These actions are designed to reduce or avoid risk or damage from hazard events or to reduce or avoid people’s or places’ exposure and/or sensitivity to hazard events. So, included in thinking about adaptive capacity and resilience is how everyone can become better informed and prepared for an event that could cause harm, whether it is a hurricane, tsunami, or another coastal hazard event. We will delve into this in detail below.

Evacuation Route sign with arrow
For people who live in hurricane zones, knowing the evacuation route for the individual or his or her family, as well as having evacuation plans for family members, is important for enhancing their adaptive capacity to hurricane hazards.

Increasing Community Resilience

A lot of work is taking place to address the need to increase coastal resilience or adaptive capacity. Work can be done at all levels of society - Individuals, families/households, communities, and local, state, and federal governmental units. There are many exemplary programs around the U.S. and the rest of the world that are working to reduce the vulnerability and increase the adaptive capacity of coastal communities. Each major coastal disaster we have looked at in this course has stimulated local and national policy changes in the communities affected so that greater protection and resilience is enacted. The questions you might ask are: Is enough being done? Is coastal resilience increasing at the same rate as the risk of harm from a coastal hazard is increasing? What can different levels of a community do to increase a community’s adaptive capacity and resilience?

What individuals and families can do:

As an individual, learning about hazards can help you prepare for the hazard event and know what to do during or after disasters. Families or households can buy hazard insurance, prepare a disaster supply kit, and develop an evacuation or shelter in place plan to protect themselves and their loved ones. As we noted above, families must have the means to buy insurance and execute plans such as evacuation. Those who don’t have the means are at an immediate disadvantage.

What community organizations and local government entities can do:

Communities and local governmental and non-governmental entities such as non-profit organizations in a community can play important roles in educating the community and working on various aspects of community resilience, including providing assistance to disadvantaged families.

In areas prone to coastal or other hazards there are usually educational programs offered to schools, churches, and other places where learning takes place to increase awareness and understanding of disaster preparation. An example in New Orleans is the Evacuteer program, which is a non-profit organization that started after Hurricane Katrina, filling an immediate need to help people plan an evacuation, but also to help New Orleans community members generally develop greater resilience or adaptive capacity. See Evacuteer. Another example is in coastal Washington state where schools prepare students to evacuate in the event of an earthquake and possible tsunami that would flood their school (see Module 7).

In addition, community organizations and local governments can work together with citizens to develop hazard mitigation plans to help community members before, during, and after hazard events. One important way communities can increase their resilience to flooding is to take mitigation steps that count toward the Community Rating System (CRS) of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). CRS points are earned to reduce flood insurance premiums in a participating community. This is described later in the section on the NFIP. It is a very important tool for communities to take proactive steps towards addressing resilience to chronic flooding issues. Mitigation measures may include raising the elevation of homes and protecting critical infrastructure.

In Module 12 we will focus on the Emergency Management Cycle of Mitigation, Preparedness, Response, and Recover. The measures mentioned above will be explored further there.

What other levels of government can do:

Governments at various levels can work to increase resilience in several ways. These methods include the improvement of building codes and enacting new zoning and land-use plans to address issues arising from increased flooding. Emergency services, early warning systems, and communication of warnings are key to community resilience and rely on coordination at many levels to be effective, as we mentioned in the discussion on tsunamis. The Federal Department of Homeland Security, in which the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) resides has state offices that address emergency preparedness and disaster management. State Office of Homeland Security oversees all-hazard preparation, mitigation, and recovery. City and state governments in many coastal areas have emergency preparedness offices or agencies and many have coastal resiliency officers. Government agencies such as these also play an important role in disaster-reduction educational programs. Check out the links under Recommended Resources to find ways FEMA provides guidance to homeowners to prepare for potential flooding events. As you will read below, the federal government is overdue to address weaknesses in the NFIP, which, when enacted may change the way flood insurance works for homeowners and business owners.

Addressing Social Inequity Issues that Hamper Community Resilience

People in poverty may not have access to ways of coping in an emergency and therefore they suffer more. After the hazard event has passed, poor people may have fewer means during recovery. They may not be able to repair the damage to their house for a lack of funds and insurance. Programs that address disparities between the rich and poor when it comes to coping with coastal and other hazards are essential. Although policymakers recognize the importance of poverty reduction in enhancing people’s adaptive capacity, it is challenging to implement so it must be a long-term, ongoing strategy for building adaptive capacity.

Poverty reduction might be the most fundamental way to enhance people’s adaptive capacity. Working to increase educational and financial opportunities to lead people out of poverty in communities in need is one long-term strategy that is fundamental to decreasing poverty and thereby increasing adaptive capacity around the world as well as in the U.S.

In a 2018 article, “Echoes of Katrina: Post Hurricane Maria Public Health Threats and Trauma”, referenced in the Recommended Reading section of this Module, authors with the Center for American Progress discuss the disproportional impact of extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have in communities disadvantaged by poverty and racism. Below we will look at the impact of Maria on Puerto Rico and the response by the Federal Government. In the article, the authors state,

“To prepare for and recover from increasingly strong and frequent extreme weather fueled by climate change, communities of color and families living in poverty are forced to overcome additional barriers set in place by historic discriminatory policies and practices. And, as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, families with limited means, women, young children, older adults, and residents with disabilities are disproportionately affected.”

These “barriers” come in various forms, often related to public health, such as: being more likely to live in sub-standard housing subject to the growth of mold after a storm, which can cause serious lung ailments; living in neighborhoods more prone to flooding and environmental pollution, which compounds the impacts of the event from which the community is trying to recover; more likely to suffer trauma, which can lead to PTSD and other mental health issues. Therefore, on top of the financial strain of trying to recover from a major disaster, these many obstacles can compound the problems in disadvantaged communities. In addition, many poor families are forced from their homes permanently because of economic needs, whether it is a lack of funds for repairs or the need to move to find employment. This was a common scenario following Katrina in New Orleans and Maria in Puerto Rico. These factors hamper and prolong the recovery process. The authors of the above-mentioned article stress that disadvantaged communities such as those devastated by Hurricane Maria must receive ongoing financial assistance to be able to not only rebuild but increase the resilience of their community by making the needed changes and improvements to remove the obstacles mentioned above.

Cultural Sensitivity

In working to enhance community adaptive capacity, policymakers also need to be aware of the cultural differences among members of their populations, especially in regions or nations that have diverse cultural groups. These differences have major implications for developing community disaster reduction projects. For example, some cultures tend to work collectively while other cultures stress individual action. In another instance, some cultures may be inclined to believe in fate, making them less likely to prepare for natural disasters. It is worth mentioning here that cultures that have evolved in coastal settings also contain a level of local knowledge of the hazards that can be helpful in times of disaster or ongoing threat. Examples include many groups of indigenous people around the U.S. and in other countries. An example you met in Module 9 is the case of the tribal members of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, who are descendants of Biloxi, Chitimacha, and Choctaw Indians. Their resettlement plan ran into obstacles related to misunderstandings due to cultural differences between the state policy experts and tribal leaders. To read more about the resettlement of Isle de Jean Charles, please visit Isle de Jean Charles: Tribal Resettlement.