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Preparing for the Next Disaster: Three Models of Building Resilient Communities

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WINTER 2015   


        Federal Disaster Policy: Toward a More Resilient Future
        The Research Basis for Disaster Resilience
        Preparing for the Next Disaster: Three Models of Building Resilient Communities

Preparing for the Next Disaster: Three Models of Building Resilient Communities


      • The San Francisco Bay area responded to a major 1989 earthquake by retrofitting the region’s lifeline infrastructure and housing stock so it could rebound more quickly and easily from future disasters.
      • After a devastating 1997 flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota, the city developed flood mitigation infrastructure like greenways and shifted downtown development away from the river; these adaptations made a 2006 flood much less costly.
      • Greensburg, Kansas focused on sustainability as it rebuilt following a 2007 tornado, lowering the long-term operational costs of buildings and creating other economic benefits, such as energy production from wind turbines.

Cities throughout the United States are vulnerable to destructive events — such as wildfires, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and rising sea levels — that risk millions of lives and trillions of dollars in assets.1 More than 20,000 U.S. communities are in flood-prone areas, containing an estimated 6 to 9 million residential and commercial buildings, and an estimated 16.4 million people live in coastal floodplains. 2 Over the next four decades, $7.4 trillion in assets in the Northeast alone could be affected by rising sea levels.3 In California, experts estimate a 99 percent probability that the state will experience an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.7 or greater during the next 30 years.4 To not only recover from immediate disasters but also prepare for potential calamities, many communities are embracing a resilience framework that allows them to develop in a way that can better withstand future stresses.5

Having weathered their own catastrophes, three communities — the San Francisco-Oakland region in California; Grand Forks, North Dakota; and Greensburg, Kansas — provide valuable lessons for developing an approach to resilience that is based on consensus and an understanding of the complexities of local conditions. San Francisco-Oakland is enhancing the earthquake resilience of the regional economy by strengthening key physical infrastructure, particularly its transportation systems and housing. Following a flood, Grand Forks revamped its flood mitigation system and redeveloped its declining downtown. Finally, Greensburg, which was destroyed by a tornado, decided to rebuild as a model of sustainable rural development, demonstrating that resilient communities can derive value from disruptive events.6 During their respective recoveries, these communities worked to mitigate future uncertainties and build better places to live.

An aerial view of a double-decked freeway viaduct showing the upper deck collapsed onto the deck below.
The upper deck of the Cypress Street Viaduct sheared off of its support columns and collapsed onto the lower deck. The soft soil around the viaduct’s foundation amplified shaking, contributing to its collapse. Photo courtesy: H.G. Wilshire / U.S. Geological Survey
Regional Earthquake Resilience: San Francisco Bay Area

The 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake struck on the afternoon of October 17, 1989, with an epicenter 60 miles southeast of San Francisco and 9 miles north of Santa Cruz. The earthquake caused 63 deaths, 3,757 injuries, and an estimated $6 to $10 billion in property damage. Perhaps most frightening was the failure of the region’s freeways; the Cypress Street Viaduct, a section of the bilevel Nimitz Freeway in Oakland, collapsed, crushing motorists on the lower level. The Embarcadero Freeway, Central Avenue Freeway, and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge also suffered damage.7 If the next earthquake were centered closer to the Bay Area, it could inflict as much as $17 to $54 billion in damage.8

Earthquake resilience, therefore, is crucial to San Francisco’s future. The city’s approach focuses on two objectives: first, seismic retrofits to individual buildings and structures are designed to limit the number of casualties and damage that immediately result from earthquakes, and second, seismic retrofits target “lifelines” to limit the long-term damage to the regional economy by stemming population loss and facilitating a quick return to normal.9 Lifelines are important infrastructure systems, such as transportation networks, that other systems and the regional economy depend on to function properly. The failure of one lifeline can cause repercussions in other systems.10 Patrick Otellini, San Francisco’s chief resilience officer, states that San Francisco is “trying to build a city that can withstand the shocks and stresses” of an earthquake. “It’s about thriving after a disaster, not just surviving.”11

Transportation Lessons From Loma Prieta

Loma Prieta exposed many of the physical and operational vulnerabilities of the Bay Area’s transportation system. The earthquake damaged freeways, bridges, and other structures. Although the amount of damage a community experiences from an earthquake depends on its distance from the epicenter, the composition of the soil on which the community’s structures are built is also a factor. Certain soil compositions can amplify seismic waves and undermine foundations through liquefaction, a process that turns the ground into a water-soil mixture similar to quicksand, or other forms of ground failure.12 The Cypress Street Viaduct, a section of the Nimitz Freeway, collapsed because the soft mud it stood on amplified the shaking, causing the upper deck of the viaduct to shear off its support columns and fall onto the lower deck. Columns in other parts of the viaduct also broke apart and collapsed.13

A building that collapsed at the point where the ground floor support was weak.
Soft story buildings are vulnerable to collapse because of their weakened ground floor support, often due to garage doors or large storefront windows. Photo courtesy: J.K. Nakata/U.S. Geological Survey
According to Tom Shantz of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), Loma Prieta demonstrated that engineers cannot “overpower earthquakes” with extremely rigid bridges and freeways. Because predicting how the ground will react during an earthquake is so difficult, bridges and elevated freeways are now built to absorb greater stress by keeping their foundations and superstructures elastic.14 To upgrade the state’s freeway and bridge network after Loma Prieta, Caltrans established the Seismic Retrofit Program. Through the program, more than 2,200 bridges in need of retrofits were identified and $12 billion was spent to seismically upgrade them.15 Over a 25-year period, Caltrans completely “rebuilt the whole freeway system in San Francisco,” says Shantz.16

Loma Prieta also demonstrated the value of San Francisco-Oakland’s multimodal transportation network and the consequences if it were to fail. San Francisco connects with Oakland through two major routes: the Transbay Tube, which carries the regional rail lines for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. With the Bay Bridge closed due to Loma Prieta, residents were able to shift to alternate modes of transportation such as the regional rail system and ferries, which limited long-term disruption of the economy. Within a week of the disaster, BART’s ridership increased by 124,000, reaching a weekday average of 342,000 riders. Most new commuters used BART’s Transbay Tube, which saw an increase of 117,000 new daily riders. In total, 40 percent of automobile users switched to transit during the early recovery period, facilitating a speedy return to normal life.17

Although the Bay Area’s multimodal system was able to cope with service disruptions during Loma Prieta, the system does have limitations. During 2014, BART averaged 399,000 weekday riders, nearly double its weekday ridership in 1989. With the system near capacity, the BART system would be seriously pressed if it were required to accommodate displaced Bay Bridge car commuters as it did in 1989.18 The ferry service could provide additional capacity, but it is limited by the number of docking sites. If both the Bay Bridge and the Transbay Tube were destroyed or even temporarily out of service, the effects on the Bay Area’s economy and quality of life would be both significant and detrimental.19 To try to prevent this calamity, the Bay Bridge and Transbay Tube were seismically upgraded. The West Span of the bridge was strengthened and retrofitted to allow greater movement during an earthquake.20 The East Span was completely replaced with a new bridge that is engineered to last 150 years and resist an earthquake that occurs once every 1,500 years.21 The Transbay Tube received seismic retrofitting through BART’s Earthquake Safety Program, which is also upgrading older tracks, stations, power stations, and the Berkeley Hills Tunnel through a $1.2 billion (2004 dollars) effort. Work to secure the interior and exterior of the Transbay Tube, which is still vulnerable to flooding, is ongoing and may take an additional seven to nine years.22

Making Homes and Buildings Resilient

Most of Loma Prieta’s casualties resulted from the failure of buildings and other structures.23 According to Laurie Johnson, task force member and contributing author for SPUR’s Resilient City initiative, “The damage in the central Bay Area was in pockets with older, vulnerable structures and on soils vulnerable to shaking.”24 Strengthening vulnerable homes and other buildings is a critical component of San Francisco’s earthquake resilience strategy because one determinant of a community’s short- and long-term recovery following an earthquake is the number of residents that remain. SPUR estimates that about 75 percent of the city’s current housing stock will provide adequate shelter following an earthquake. This standard, known as “sheltering in place,” allows residents to remain in their buildings while they are being repaired. For San Francisco to be resilient, SPUR estimates that 95 percent of the city’s residents need to be able to shelter in place.25

A close-up view of a hinge pipe beam used in repairing a span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which is shown with a missing section.
The newly reconstructed eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge uses hinge pipe beams that absorb seismic energy during an earthquake to protect the rest of the bridge. Damaged beams can be replaced following the earthquake. Photo courtesy: Copyright (2014, 2005) California Department of Transportation, all rights reserved
San Francisco is retrofitting its housing stock through the Earthquake Safety Implementation Program (ESIP), a 30-year program designed to ensure that buildings remain habitable following an earthquake. It includes a mix of market incentives and mandatory building compliance measures to limit the damage caused by an earthquake. ESIP is the culmination of recommendations proposed in the Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety (CAPSS), a nine-year citywide planning effort that analyzed the impact of four potential earthquake scenarios and elicited citizen input and expert advice on how to respond.26 “It’s the community telling us what they are concerned about,” explains Otellini, “and us developing those policy fixes in conjunction with them.”27 The CAPSS recommendations were adopted in 2010 and divided into three phases, with the first phase running through 2015.28

In 2013, San Francisco’s mayor signed into law the Mandatory Soft Story Retrofit Ordinance and, to enforce the ordinance, instituted the Mandatory Wood Frame Retrofit program, a key recommendation of CAPSS and a “major accomplishment,” according to Johnson.29 The law requires seismic upgrades for soft story wood-frame buildings with three or more stories and five or more units that were built before building codes changed in 1978. Soft story buildings have large openings on the ground floor such as garage doors that weaken the building’s support, making it susceptible to collapse.30 Based on a recent ESIP analysis, about 4,800 buildings housing more than 100,000 people need soft story upgrades. Retrofits through both the mandatory program and a voluntary program being operated in tandem include adding shear walls and steel bracing to reduce shaking and lessen the probability of collapse to one percent.31 To help building owners pay for the upgrades, San Francisco worked with 25 different private lenders and created a public financing option available through the city’s GreenFinanceSF initiative.32

Although retrofits can be expensive, costing an estimated $60,000 to $120,000 per building, the program actually protects the city’s affordability because many of these units are in rent-controlled buildings.33 If these buildings collapsed, residents might be forced to leave the city to find affordable housing. Over the long term, damaged affordable units are returned to the market at a slow rate; for example, it took 7 to 10 years to recover the affordable housing lost during the Loma Prieta earthquake.34 Rent-controlled units in buildings that collapse may also be permanently lost. In San Francisco, units in a newly constructed building on the same parcel of land are not subject to the rent control requirements of the units in the previous building.35

Coordinating Future Actions

Addressing the Bay Area’s remaining vulnerabilities “requires an ongoing commitment” and “a culture of preparedness,” says Johnson. Following Loma Prieta, she explains, “people and organizations were committed to fixing problems…but that [commitment] can taper off as time goes by.”36 Despite making impressive strides toward improving the resilience of its transportation infrastructure and housing stock, San Francisco has several remaining structural weak spots. One top concern is the Embarcadero seawall, which protects the waterfront from the bay. The seawall was built in many layers over the past 100 years and is seismically vulnerable.37 Several major infrastructure lifelines, such as power, wastewater, and water services, and the Transbay Tube pass through the seawall. A failure of the seawall could flood the downtown area, inflict significant damage on adjacent streets, and impact fire suppression if water supplies were cut.38 Responsibility for the seawall and other remaining retrofit projects is shared among a number of stakeholders: state and local government, private and public utilities, local businesses, and residents. For example, BART worked with Caltrans and the California Seismic Safety Commission to design enhancements to the Transbay Tube.39 San Francisco is completing a vulnerability study of the seawall to determine recommendations for retrofits and future actions that may affect residents and businesses along the waterfront and downtown areas, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and BART.40 According to Otellini, Bay Area governments are coordinating their actions to ensure that local resilience initiatives promote the resilience of the entire region. “The next big step,” says Otellini, “is working together as a region and acting regionally to make ourselves more resilient in the face of a disaster.”41

Recovery and Resilience in a Mid-Sized City: Grand Forks

On April 21, 1997, the Red River of the North crested at just over 54 feet, 5 feet higher than earlier predictions and the height of the levees protecting Grand Forks. An above-average snowfall the previous winter led to excess snowmelt in the spring, flooding 75 percent of Grand Forks. The flood destroyed 9,000 homes and 751 commercial buildings. While the floodwaters inundated homes, a fire raged downtown, burning 11 historic buildings and 60 apartment units beyond repair. No drinking water was available for three weeks, and it took nearly a month for the water level to recede to the point that devastated residents could survey the damage to their homes and community, estimated at $3.5 billion (1997 dollars).42 As Grand Forks officials charted a path to recovery, they embraced a flood management system that made the city more resilient to flooding and more livable. Adopting an approach similar to the Netherlands’ Living with Water paradigm (see “A Dutch Approach to Flood Resilience”), Grand Forks has built a flexible flood mitigation system that can accommodate and withstand floodwaters while limiting potential damage.

Flood Mitigation Efforts and the Greenway

In the 17 years since the flood, Grand Forks has implemented a range of flood mitigation strategies. Eight miles of levees were built to protect the city’s downtown from the river. The levees are 10 feet wide to withstand the pressure of hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and have a 60-foot river gage that measures 6 feet beyond the 1997 flood crest. To reduce the water load on the levees, Grand Forks installed a 9.5-mile English Coulee diversion channel that redirects floodwater around the city and away from the downtown area. The city also built 12 new pumping stations, the largest of which can move 112,000 gallons of floodwater per minute. These flood protection measures, in conjunction with mitigation efforts in East Grand Forks, will protect the cities from a flood that occurs once every 250 years.43

The centerpiece of Grand Forks’ flood mitigation system is the Greenway, 2,200 acres of parkland between the dike system and the river. With higher dikes, Grand Forks can resist more water than before. The Greenway increases the protection of the dikes by creating additional floodwater capacity. Instead of the river inundating vulnerable low-lying neighborhoods, it harmlessly floods parkland that retains its primary function when the water recedes. When the water level is low, Grand Forks residents have access to 20 miles of recreational land for camping, fishing, picnicking, golfing, and the annual Grand Cities Art Fest.44

The centerpiece of Grand Forks’ new flood protection system is the Greenway, parkland between the river and the new dike system that can be safely flooded during periods of
high water and used as recreation space at other times.
The centerpiece of Grand Forks’ new flood protection system is the Greenway, parkland between the river and the new dike system that can be safely flooded during periods of high water and used as recreation space at other times.Photo courtesy: FEMA/Brenda Riskey/UND
The Greenway was built on land that flooded in 1997 with funding from the Community Development Block Grant program and Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. The city bought 850 homes in neighborhoods in the floodplain through a voluntary program. In total, the city acquired and demolished nearly 1,000 homes and 500 other structures.45 To increase citizen support for the buyout program, Grand Forks officials took steps to improve the transparency and efficiency of the program. The city met regularly with affected residents, used local home assessors, and determined the value of the homes based on prices from before the flood. Also, officials from the city and federal agencies (HUD, FEMA, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) collaborated to more efficiently coordinate their agencies’ activities, further expediting the process.46

According to Tom Dennis, opinion editor at the Grand Forks Herald, the Greenway helped “unite different factions during the early planning and recovery phase” because residents saw that the Greenway would be “such an obvious benefit to the community.” Resident enthusiasm for the Greenway, in a positive self-reinforcing cycle, encouraged leaders to add more amenities, which increased residential support. Although residents might have been interested in pursuing a project such as the Greenway before the flood, “it was only after the flood that people saw it as obtainable,” says Dennis.47 All of these actions — working with residents, quickly administering funds, and adding amenities — increased public support for the buyout program and the Greenway.

The success of Grand Forks’ flood management system has influenced other riverfront communities. In 2008, the Cedar River flooded and destroyed much of downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In response, the town learned from and adapted Grand Forks’ flood mitigation system, including building a floodable greenway.48 Then, in 2012, the city, county, and state agreed to create an innovative financing mechanism, the Growth Reinvestment Initiative (GRI), to fund Cedar Rapids’ Flood Mitigation Program (FMP). GRI returns a portion of the increase in revenues from Linn County’s $0.06 sales tax to the city. GRI is expected to raise $264 million over 20 years to cover 46 percent of FMP’s cost for 6.24 miles of permanent and removable levees and floodwalls, 11 pump stations, and improvements to a flood-prone bridge, among other actions.49

Rebuilding Downtown

Photo of floodgates that serve as a barrier to rising flood waters.
Floodgates help protect Grand Forks from rising water levels of the Red River. Photo courtesy: FEMA/Michael Rieger
Grand Forks used the recovery as an opportunity to rebuild its downtown. Before the flood, new development was occurring outside of the downtown and on the suburban fringe, following a pattern similar to that of other cities across the United States.50 In the 1970s, the city tried to attract new investment to its downtown with a suburban-style mall, but the mall’s eventual failure ended up contributing to downtown blight. The mall was partially damaged during the 1997 flood, and in response, Grand Forks officials tore it down and restored the original street grid.51 Using $28 million in Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program funds, the city rebuilt the central business district, which was declared a historic district in 2005, and created an open-air plaza.52 Downtown businesses also received grants for up to $230,000 to repair damaged buildings, and the city built a $16 million, 100,000-square-foot office complex.53 In total, $280 million of federal disaster recovery money was invested in Grand Forks, including $49 million to help businesses recover.54 After a slow start, private investment in the city’s downtown increased in 2004 and continues today.55

The Greenway and other flood protection measures facilitated Grand Forks’ recovery in two crucial ways. First, with the risk of future flooding high, Grand Forks had to rebuild in such a way that stakeholders would feel their investments, particularly in the downtown area, were protected.56 Second, the Greenway, as one of Grand Forks’ main amenities for recreation and tourism, helped anchor new development in the city’s downtown.57 According to Dennis, “It’s on everyone’s short list of attractions. Residents show it off to friends and relatives,” and the city uses it to attract new businesses.58 The city used its flood mitigation infrastructure to both protect and enhance the downtown. In recent years, Grand Forks’ downtown has undergone a structural shift in its land use; its focus has shifted from predominantly retail uses to mixed uses such as offices for professional services, high-end and niche retail, restaurants, and housing.59 From 1997 to 2007, Grand Forks added 2,907 housing units, including 1,922 townhomes and multifamily units. Grand Forks is now a growing community that has surpassed preflood population levels.60

Residents saw the flood as “the best thing and the worst thing” that happened to the city, says Dennis.61 The destruction wrought by the Red River was heartrending for the victims, but through strong leadership; a bold vision for the future; and a comprehensive, consensus-based approach, Grand Forks is now stronger than before. Although some points of the recovery triggered heated debate, particularly the issue of where the levees would be placed, local, state (both North Dakota and Minnesota), and federal officials and residents supported the process. The 1997 flood, in addition to forcing residents to reevaluate their priorities, united disparate elements of the community; everyone understood the pressing need to protect the community and was willing to work together to increase the city’s flood resilience.62 Grand Forks has already seen the benefits of its flood mitigation strategies. The levees, pumping stations, and diversion channel spared the city from a flood in 2006 that was the third highest on record and crested only a few feet lower than the 1997 flood.63

Aerial photos of tornado destruction of a town and of its buildings and streets once rebuilt.
The town of Greensburg, Kansas was almost completely destroyed by an E5 tornado on May 4, 2007 (left). The rebuild that ensued transformed the town into a model of rural sustainability (right). Photo courtesy: FEMA/Greg Henshall (left); FEMA/Steve Zumwalt (right)
A Model for Sustainable Rural Development: Greensburg, Kansas

On May 4, 2007, a tornado obliterated the small rural town of Greensburg, Kansas. The tornado tore a swath of destruction a mile and a half wide that demolished 90 to 95 percent of the buildings in the town; more than 500 homes, the hospital, local schools, grocery store, water tower, and municipal buildings were gone.64 As the residents emerged from the rubble, they faced the crucial question of how the community should rebuild. Although some wished a return to pretornado normalcy, many remaining residents and leaders from the government, nonprofit, and the business communities gravitated toward the idea of transforming Greensburg into a model for rural sustainability. Local residents saw becoming a “green” town as an opportunity to both recover from the tornado and build a future that might otherwise have been beyond their reach.65

Greensburg, like many similar farming communities, was in decline. The town “had [experienced] a disaster before the tornado,” explains Mayor Bob Dixson.66 Agricultural employment was shrinking due to automation, and people left as job prospects declined. The town’s population peaked in the 1960s with 1,988 residents and then dropped every year until it hit 1,378 in 2006.67 The population was also growing older. The city’s median age rose from 40.9 years to 45.6 years between 1990 and 2000, and the percentage of residents between the ages of 18 and 44 decreased from 30.4 percent in 1990 to 27 percent in 2000.68

Although the tornado eventually presented opportunities, simply recovering was a struggle. The cost of rebuilding exceeded the amount of insurance money that many residents received. Greensburg’s housing stock was mostly older, built immediately after World War II. This made the town affordable — the median value of a home in 2000 was $46,500 — but meant that the value of a new, comparable home exceeded the old one.69 These problems were exacerbated by Greensburg’s remote location in the western plains of Kansas, more than 100 miles from Wichita, the closest city with a population greater than 100,000 people. Workers and supplies had to be brought in from neighboring towns, raising the cost of construction.70

Building Community Consensus

The tornado and cost of recovery caused nearly half of the town’s population to leave. Although dramatic population loss is a setback for most communities, in Greensburg it had at least one positive outcome: most of the people who stayed were committed to sustainably rebuilding the community.71 Sustainability, argues Daniel Wallach, founder of local nonprofit Greensburg GreenTown, is “building for the long term” in a way that does not “leave environmental debt.”72 Greensburg’s small size made promoting sustainability easier because it fostered person-to-person interaction. “With the town gone, all we had were each other,” explains Dixson. “You’d have a meeting and 500 residents would show up.” Residents and leaders were therefore able to talk directly to the each other about the benefits of sustainability and “discuss the long-term vision of the community,” says Dixson.73

Local leaders partnered with outside experts to inform and educate residents on the financial benefits of sustainability. Residents participated in planning sessions to identify important community assets and a “distinct way of life in Greensburg.”74 This form of partnership and consensus building ensured that the information presented was not only high quality but also relevant and credible, which encouraged residents and leaders to buy into the plan. According to Daniel Wallach, “It’s about making people aware that rebuilding in an optimally sustainable and resilient way is in their best interest. And that relates to the cost of ownership being much less in a well-built home, even if the front-end costs are more....We’ve found that between a 2- and 10-percent increase in upfront costs can affect 40 to 70 percent [of the cost of] heating and cooling.”75 The sustainable features added to residential structures allowed the town to reduce its overall energy consumption by about 42 percent. Wallach reports that many of those who rebuilt their homes without energy-efficient features regretted their decision after they saw the savings accruing to those with more efficient homes.76

The city eventually decided that all municipal buildings should be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certified but allowed individuals to decide what made sense for them.77 In a small town like Greensburg, Wallach states, it was possible to “empower people through education and information” about the benefits of sustainability.78 Many in the business community were won over by the economics of efficiency. For example, Kelly and Michael Estes, owners of the local BTI-Greensburg John Deere dealership, constructed a new LEED Platinum certified dealership. According to Michael Estes, “As one of the major employers, we wanted to show leadership….LEED Platinum was the best and so that’s what we wanted.” The upfront costs for the upgrades, which included a wind turbine, a system for recycling waste oil, and high-efficiency lighting, will be paid back in approximately 7 to 10 years through utility savings.79

Making Greensburg Sustainable

A group of people seated on folding chairs in a tent, listening to a speaker.
Discussions of Greensburg’s future included a literal big tent, where residents of the devastated town gathered to listen to plans and offer feedback. Photo courtesy: FEMA/Greg Henshall
Between 2007 and 2014, Greensburg added 28 sustainable buildings, including 5 LEED Platinum buildings, and rebuilt a walkable downtown core.80 Branding the community as a model for sustainable construction helped Greensburg attract outside experts such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which collaborated heavily with Greensburg GreenTown.81 With NREL assistance, Greensburg GreenTown built a silo-shaped “green” house, the first of 12 eco-homes, as a demonstration project. The house, built from reclaimed materials, has a green roof, a rainwater catchment system, low-flow and dual-flush toilets, a solar water heater, and solar panels. The entire house acts as a safe room, able to withstand winds of up to 200 miles per hour because of its durable concrete construction, the absence of interior load-bearing walls, and circular shape, which reduces the buildup of air pressure during a tornado. The shape of the building also improves energy efficiency by reducing heat transfer to the outside.82

Outside groups also assisted Greensburg residents in developing a Sustainable Comprehensive Master Plan and a Long-Term Community Recovery Plan.83 Two key elements of both documents are an understanding of the region’s ecological assets and an emphasis on prudent stewardship of precious resources, principles that many residents saw as connecting the town to a pioneer past that demanded conservation for survival. With the town’s average annual rainfall measuring only 22 inches, the success or failure of Greensburg’s farming community often depends on the availability of water. Recognizing water’s importance, the Sustainable Comprehensive Master Plan declares that one of the community’s goals is to “treat each drop of water as a precious resource.”84 Water conservation efforts include rain gardens and rainwater collection systems, low-flow water fixtures, and native drought-resistant landscaping.85

The town also sought to turn wind from a destructive force into a tool for energy production, declaring in the Sustainable Comprehensive Master Plan that “Greensburg’s vast wind resources are part of an emerging economy and should be harvested.”86 Many buildings, such as the 5.4.7 Arts Center and the local K–12 school, incorporate wind turbines on their property. The city funded a 12.5-megawatt wind farm outside of town built by John Deere Renewables that allows all of the city’s energy to be generated by renewable sources.87 “Many of these ideas were floating around the community,” says Dixson, but the tornado provided the space and motivation to connect different sustainable ideas into a continuous and comprehensive approach.88

Greensburg’s long-term sustainability and resilience, however, will be determined by its population and economic growth. The town’s population, at 888 in 2012, is still half of pretornado levels, but elementary school enrollment has risen slightly and the town’s median age has decreased slightly. Employment and other financial indicators are similarly mixed. Although the town has a low unemployment rate (3.2% in 2012), as of 2014, an outside employer in the green industry has not located in Greensburg despite two manufacturers showing a strong interest.89 According to Dixson, however, Greensburg has “seen local businesses diversify into sustainable fields. A great example is the local John Deere dealership, BTI-Greensburg,” which began selling and servicing wind turbines and added solar panels to its portfolio of products.90


Developing and implementing a resilience framework that allows a community to withstand future stresses involves making numerous decisions that affect the community’s physical, social, and economic environment. The process of becoming resilient, says Henk Ovink, senior advisor to the former Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, requires “connecting all of the dots in regards to future uncertainty.” Ovink advocates embracing the complexity of future uncertainties; by understanding the interconnected nature of policy decisions, policymakers can avoid “divert[ing] them into different subject matters or sectors with divided views.”91 For example, because transportation and housing are essential infrastructure components that drive the regional economy, the San Francisco-Oakland community’s investments in housing and transportation resilience not only made those systems safer for residents but also increased the area’s economic resilience.92 In Grand Forks, officials and residents understood that water affects residents, downtown businesses, and farmers, among others. By developing a strategy that accounted for these interactions, these officials facilitated the recovery of Grand Fork’s downtown and improved quality of life in the community. In Greensburg, residents’ prudent stewardship of resources both lowered costs for homeowners and enhanced the community’s ability to withstand climate change and face future uncertainties.

These communities have learned that building resilient homes and infrastructure reduces the cost of future disasters and uncertainties by limiting the amount of damage that disasters inflict. Grand Forks faced a costly flood in 1997 but a relatively cheap one in 2006, which was attributable in large part to the flood mitigation infrastructure the community built after 1997. In San Francisco-Oakland, retrofitting the region’s lifeline infrastructure and housing stock will allow the region to recover significantly faster and with fewer lives lost than without these improvements. In Greensburg, linking resilience and sustainability has lowered the long-term operational costs of buildings and allowed the community to save money by conserving water and generating its own power.

A row of wind generators spread across a field, backlighted by the sky.
Declaring its wind resources valuable, Greensburg built a wind farm to supply energy to homes and businesses, becoming a 100 percent renewable energy community. Photo courtesy: FEMA/Steve Zumwalt
In each community, resilience strategies were strengthened through a process that promoted consensus among residents and stakeholders, coordination of individual and institutional actions, and an understanding of local assets and challenges. Deriving effective solutions involves “investing in all stakeholders… [who then] inform the plan through a consensus-building process,” says Ovink. He argues that rather than simply agreeing to a particular strategy, residents should be active participants in crafting it, and design can drive such a comprehensive and inclusive approach.93 Consensus among stakeholders and coordination among actors foster an understanding of the needs of the community and make implementation more practical. For example, San Francisco’s major housing retrofit law grew out of recommendations from CAPSS, the city’s 10-year citizen engagement effort. Grand Forks increased public support for the Greenway, as well as its scope and effectiveness, by actively soliciting resident input. In addition, Greensburg managed to get the entire town to discuss their ideas for the community’s future, which made enacting the town’s extensive sustainability measures possible. As Dixson says, “Don’t do exactly what we’ve done, but have a process in place to do what you want and what works for you.”94

These communities show that developing a resilience approach is a long-term, evolutionary process. San Francisco-Oakland is still working to seismically upgrade its infrastructure 25 years after Loma Prieta. “We’ve just learned a lot,” explains Johnson. “It’s taken lessons from other events.”95 Although major infrastructure elements such as the West Span of the Bay Bridge and Transbay Tube are stronger than ever, Johnson points out that they still could suffer damage during an earthquake. As a result, efforts to make the Bay Area’s infrastructure systems more resilient are ongoing. Similarly, Grand Forks waited years to see the benefits of its postdisaster response and is still developing new strategies to make the Red River Valley region more resilient to floods.96 And seven years after the tornado, Greensburg continues to work to become a sustainable, resilient community. A focus on long-term change is important and beneficial, argues Ovink, because “it gives the opportunity for a lot of stakeholders to actually start to own the new way of doing and to own the solutions.”97

As innovation, research, and experience accumulate, San Francisco-Oakland, Grand Forks, and Greensburg demonstrate the importance of having the capacity to develop policies that integrate relevant ideas with local resources and energies in a way that controls the costs of future disasters. Having a framework that strives for long-term resilience helps these communities continually adopt solutions that effectively and efficiently adapt to future changes, challenges, and opportunities.


Related Information:

A Dutch Approach to Flood Resilience

  1. Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. 2013. Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Strategy: Stronger Communities, A Resilient Region, Washington, DC, 33; Walsh et al. 2014. “Our Changing Climate,” in Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, J. M. Melillo, Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and G. W. Yohe, eds., U.S. Global Change Research Program, 21; White House Office of the Press Secretary. 2014. “FACTSHEET: National Disaster Resilience Competition,” 14 June press release.
  2. Andrew T. Carswell, ed. 2012. The Encyclopedia of Housing, Second Edition, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 185; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “U.S. Population in the Coastal Floodplain” ( Accessed 2 December 2014.
  3. Corydon Ireland. “Rising Seas, Imperiled Cities: Coastal regions must prepare, and Boston is a case study,” Environment@Harvard 3:2, 3.
  4. Edward H. Field and Kevin R. Milner. 2008. “Forecasting California’s Earthquakes—What Can We Expect in the Next 30 Years?” United States Geological Survey, 1.
  5. John K. McIlwain, Sara Hammerschmidt, and Molly Simpson. 2014. “Housing in America: Integrating Housing, Health, and Resilience in a Changing Environment,” Urban Land Institute, 12–6.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Thomas M. Brocher, Robert A. Page, Peter H. Stauffer, and James W. Hendley II. 2014. “Progress Towards a Safer Future Since the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake,” United States Geological Survey, 1; United States Geological Survey. “Historic Earthquakes: Santa Cruz Mountains (Loma Prieta), California” ( Accessed 1 October 2014.
  8. Field and Milner; City and County of San Francisco. “Earthquake Safety Implementation Program” ( Accessed 1 November 2014; Applied Technology Council. 2009. “Here Today—Here Tomorrow: The Road to Earthquake Resilience in San Francisco, Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety,” 52:2, 6.
  9. Interview with Patrick Otellini, 15 October 2014.
  10. Lifelines Council. 2014. “Lifelines Interdependency Study I Report,” 20.
  11. Interview with Patrick Otellini.
  12. United States Geological Survey. 2005. “Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country: Your Handbook for the San Francisco Bay Region” ( Accessed 31 October 2014.
  13. Bernard J. Feldman. 2004. “The Nimitz Freeway Collapse,” The Physics Teacher 42, 401.
  14. Tom Shantz. 2014. “Loma Prieta’s Impact on Bay Area Bridges,” presentation at the 11th Annual Northern California Earthquake Hazards Workshop, February.
  15. California Department of Transportation. 2014. “Seismic Retrofit Program” ( Accessed 5 November 2014.
  16. Shantz.
  17. SPUR. 2010. “After the Disaster: Rebuilding our Transportation Infrastructure,” 7.
  18. Bay Area Rapid Transit. 2013. “BART Sustainable Communities Operations Analysis,” 4; Bay Area Rapid Transit. “Total Annual Exits FY1973 - FY2014” ( Accessed 5 November 2014.
  19. SPUR 2010, 13–4.
  20. California Department of Transportation. “The Retrofits of the West Span” ( Accessed 14 November 2014.
  21. California Department of Transportation. “SAS Maintenance Travelers,” Accessed 1 October 2014.
  22. Bay Area Rapid Transit. “Earthquake Safety Program” ( Accessed 1 October 2014; Email Correspondence with Laurie Johnson of Laurie Johnson Consulting, 3 December 2014.
  23. Michael Durkin, Charles Thiel Jr., James Schneider, and Teri de Vriend. 1991. “Injuries and emergency medical response in the Loma Prieta earthquake,” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 81.5: 2143.
  24. Interview with Laurie Johnson, 9 October 2014.
  25. SPUR. 2012. “Safe Enough to Stay,” 3.
  26. City and County of San Francisco. “Earthquake Safety Implementation Program”; Applied Technology Council. “Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety,” 11.
  27. Interview with Patrick Otellini.
  28. City and County of San Francisco. 2011. “CAPSS Earthquake Safety Implementation Program: Work Plan 2012–2042,” 8–9.
  29. Ibid; Interview with Laurie Johnson.
  30. City and County of San Francisco, Office of the Mayor. 2013. “Mayor Lee & Supervisors Sign City’s Mandatory Seismic Retrofit Program For Soft Story Buildings,” 19 April press release; Sarah Karlinsky. 2013. “San Francisco Passes Landmark Earthquake Retrofit Law,” SPUR Blog, 24 April.
  31. Interview with Patrick Otellini; Applied Technology Council. 2009. “Here Today—Here Tomorrow: The Road to Earthquake Resilience in San Francisco, Earthquake Safety for Soft-Story Buildings,” 52:3, 23.
  32. City and County of San Francisco. “Seismic Retrofit Financing” ( Accessed 1 October 2014.
  33. City and County of San Francisco. “Soft Story” ( Accessed 1 October 2014.
  34. SPUR 2012, 10.
  35. Applied Technology Council. “Earthquake Safety for Soft-Story Buildings,” vii, 9, 19; City and County of San Francisco, “Soft Story.”
  36. Interview with Laurie Johnson.
  37. Interview with Patrick Otellini.
  38. Lifelines Council, vi, 11, 22, 25.
  39. Bay Area Rapid Transit. “Earthquake Safety Program Technical Information” ( Accessed 2 December 2014.
  40. Port of San Francisco, “Request For Proposals: Earthquake Vulnerability Study of the Northern Waterfront Seawall” ( Accessed 2 December 2014.
  41. Interview with Patrick Otellini.
  42. David Fettig. 2012. “A historical look at floods in the Ninth District,” FedGazette (January); City of Grand Forks. 2007. “Grand Forks Flood Timeline”; U.S. Government Accountability Office. 2009. “Experiences from Past Disasters Offer Insights for Effective Collaboration after Catastrophic Events.”
  43. City of Grand Forks. “Grand Forks Flood Protection Facts” ( Accessed 8 August 2014; R. Halliday & Associates. 2009. “How Are We Living with the Red? Report to The International Red River Board,” Appendix 2, 6.
  44. City of Grand Forks. 2007. “Grand Forks Greenway”; Julie Rygg. 2014. “Art Fest week is finally here!” blog, 10 June ( Accessed 1 October 2014.
  45. North Dakota Emergency Services. n.d. “North Dakota Response to the 1997 Disasters,” 2, 24; City of Grand Forks, “Grand Forks Flood Protection Facts”; U.S.Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Grand Forks Flood Protection Facts”; City of Grand Forks. 2007. “Rebuilding.”
  46. James Fraser, Rebecca Elmore, David Godschalk, William Rohe. 2003. “Implementing Floodplain Land Acquisition Programs in Urban Localities,” The Center for Urban & Regional Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 17–20; Government Accountability Office, 50.
  47. Interview with Tom Dennis, opinion editor at the Grand Forks Herald, 6 October 2014.
  48. City of Cedar Rapids. 2009. “A Vision for Cedar Rapids Flood Recovery: Building a Better Community”; City of Cedar Rapids. “A Season of Progress: Flood of 2008 One Year Progress report.”
  49. City of Cedar Rapids. “Growth Reinvestment Initiative” ( Accessed 18 October 2014; Iowa State Legislature. “SB 532” ( Accessed 18 October 2014; City of Cedar Rapids. 2011. “City of Cedar Rapids’ Flood Mitigation Program Application Executive Summary,” 1.
  50. Phil Davis. 2006. “Who needs downtowns, anyway?FedGazette. (September).
  51. Charles E. Adie. 2001. “Building Economic Vitality into Disaster Recovery,” in Holistic Disaster Recovery: Ideas for Building Local Sustainability After a Natural Disaster, Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center University of Colorado. Boulder: Diane Publishing Co., 15.
  52. Internal Documents provided by the City of Grand Forks; National Park Service. 2005. “Downtown Grand Forks Historic District Registration Form.”
  53. City of Grand Forks. 2007. “Grand Forks Milestones”; Davis.
  54. Aldie, 14–7.
  55. Davis; City of Grand Forks, Assessment Department. 2014. “Annual Report,” report for Grand Forks City Board of Equalization, 9–10.
  56. Davis.
  57. Aldie, 14–7.
  58. Interview with Tom Dennis.
  59. City of Grand Forks. 2011. “Year 2040 Land Use Plan,” 11.
  60. Internal Documents provided by the City of Grand Forks; City of Grand Forks. 2007. “Rebuilding.”
  61. Interview with Tom Dennis.
  62. Ibid.
  63. North Dakota Emergency Services. “North Dakota Response to the 1997 Disasters,” 2.
  64. Federal Emergency Management Agency. 2007. “Long Term Community Recovery Plan: Greensburg and Kiowa County, Kansas,” 27; Stacey Swearingen White. 2010. “Out of the Rubble and Towards a Sustainable Future: The “Greening” of Greensburg, Kansas,” Sustainability 2:7, 2310; URS Group, Inc. 2007. “Tornado Damage Investigation Greensburg, Kansas,” 24 October, for Federal Emergency Management Administration; Bimal Kanti Paul and Deborah Che. 2011. “Opportunities and challenges in rebuilding tornado-impacted Greensburg, Kansas as ‘stronger, better, and greener,’” GeoJournal, 76, 93.
  65. BNIM Architects. 2008. “Greensburg Sustainable Comprehensive Master Plan,” 6; White, 2310; Institute for Sustainable Communities. “Case Study: Greensburg, Kansas, Rebuilding Green in the Wake of Disaster,” 7.
  66. Interview with Bob Dixson, mayor of Greensburg, Kansas, 14 October 2014.
  67. BNIM Architects, 17, 51; Institute for Policy & Social Research. 2007. “Kansas Statistical Abstract 2006,” 504.
  68. U.S. Census Bureau. 1992. “Table 2. Summary of General Characteristics of Households and Families: 1990,” General Population Characteristics, Kansas; U.S. Census Bureau. 2002. “Kansas: 2000 Summary Population and Housing Characteristics,” 8.
  69. Paul and Che, 93, 101; White, 2311; Federal Emergency Management Agency, 26; U.S. Census Bureau. 2003. “Kansas: 2000 Summary Social, Economic, and Housing Characteristics,” 22; 2000 Census.
  70. Paul and Che, 102.
  71. Interview with Bob Dixson.
  72. Interview with Daniel Wallach, executive director of Greensburg Greentown, 19 September 2014.
  73. Interview with Bob Dixson; American Planning Association. 2012. “Podcast and Slideshow: Rebuilding Greensburg — Four Years of Progress.”
  74. BNIM Architects, 5; Interview with Bob Dixson.
  75. Interview with Daniel Wallach.
  76. Ibid.
  77. City of Greensburg, Kansas. 2007. “Pertaining to LEED Building Standards,” Resolution No. 2007-17.
  78. Interview with Daniel Wallach.
  79. Interview with Michael Estes, owner of BTI-Greensburg John Deere Dealership, 10 October 2014; U.S. Department of Energy. 2009. “Rebuilding it Better BTI-Greensburg John Deere Dealership.”
  80. Greensburg Greentown. “Sustainable Building Database” ( Accessed 18 October 2014.
  81. Lynn Billman. 2009. “Rebuilding Greensburg, Kansas, as a Model Green Community: A Case Study,” U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, iv, 48.
  82. Ibid; White, 2305; Paul and Che, 104.
  83. BNIM Architects; Federal Emergency Management Agency. 2007. “Long-Term Community Recovery Plan.”
  84. BNIM Architects, 110.
  85. Greensburg Greentown. “In Depth Case Studies: 5.4.7 ARTS CENTER (5.4.7 ARTS CENTER)” ( Accessed 18 October 2014; Greensburg Greentown. “In Depth Case Studies: Kiowa County Court House” ( Accessed 18 October 2014; Greensburg Greentown. “In Depth Case Studies: Kiowa County Schools” ( Accessed 18 October 2014.
  86. BNIM Architects, 12.
  87. National Renewable Energy Laboratory. 2012. “Rebuilding it Better. Greensburg, Kansas High Performance Buildings Meeting Energy Savings Goals,” 4, 10; Emily Schlickman. 2009. “Wind Farm Officially Coming to Town,” Greensburg Greentown Blog, 23 April ( Accessed 31 October 2014; Catherine Hart. 2010. “Thousands Make Wind Farm a Reality” Greensburg Greentown Blog. 14 May. Accessed 31 October 2014.
  88. Interview with Bob Dixson.
  89. U.S. Census. “Employment Status,” 2008–2012 American Community Survey; Thomas J. Fox. 2013. Green Town USA: The Handbook for America’s Sustainable Future, Hatherleigh Press, 161–9.
  90. Email correspondence with Bob Dixson, 10 November 2014.
  91. Interview with Henk Ovink, senior advisor to the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, 19 October 2014.
  92. Lifelines Council, vi, 11, 22, 25.
  93. Interview with Henk Ovink.
  94. Interview with Bob Dixson.
  95. Interview with Laurie Johnson.
  96. The Red River Basin Commission. 2011. “Finding Long Term Flood Solutions Together: Report to State and Federal Officials on a Comprehensive Plan of Flood Strategies for the Basin of the Red River of the North 2009–2011.”
  97. Interview with Henk Ovink.


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