Storms are getting stronger. So how do we adapt?
Sep 10, 2021

Storms are getting stronger. So how do we adapt?

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Tech can help cities and homeowners understand their flood risk.

Friday marked the statistical peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, which has already been a very active and destructive one.

We’re continuing our discussion with Paul Robinson about how tech can help us cope with flooding. He’s executive director of RISE Resilience Innovations, a nonprofit tech accelerator in Norfolk, Virginia.

It supports a wide range of startups that are focused on climate resilience. Some aim to train up a workforce that’s ready to do flood-resistant construction. Others incorporate data to try to prevent flooding. Yet others try to aid our adaptability, like developing apps that predict and monitor flooding and map it in real time. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Paul Robinson: Drivers trying to get to work or get home from work don’t really know the best way to go, and [that] often leads to cars getting lost in flooded roads, that sort of thing. So we have run a challenge to get companies providing road closure information into the Waze app in order to provide guidance to drivers. It’s intended to work on any other platform, so we’re testing it out here, and it goes on to other coastal communities.

Paul Robinson poses for a headshot in a green, collared shirt.
Paul Robinson (Courtesy Mike Herron)

Jed Kim: Can you tell me a little bit about one of the companies that’s working on prevention of flooding?

Robinson: One of the challenges we ran was to help cities get an idea of what’s called the first-floor elevation — that gives an estimate for a given flood level of how many properties, how many buildings are going to be flooded to the point where they may become either uninhabitable or require a large insurance claim. To get that first-floor elevation measurement is very costly and time-consuming to do for each building, so we worked with our local cities here to cover the whole city, get all of the properties’ first-floor elevations in a way that wasn’t so time-consuming and costly, and to do it with maybe artificial intelligence, machine learning. We got three companies right now who are working on demonstration projects, and there are all different approaches.

Kim: And if a building has this kind of information, that they are at risk of flooding, what would they do with that?

Robinson: Well, so what the city can do is they can integrate the information with the flooding threats, as well as some knowledge of the building and building mitigations and recommend to the resident or the property owner certain mitigations that may make that building more resilient. Perhaps it needs flood vents or it just needs to raise its air-conditioning unit or its [heating, ventilating and air conditioning]. Those sort of things, they may seem sort of un-high tech, but they’re really important, particularly if it saves the building and the building can be returned back into service quickly and cheaply.

Kim: Why the focus on adapting to flooding? Is it too hard to address the root causes?

Robinson: That’s a very good question. And really we’re not in the business of building flood walls around cities that costs hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars. Those projects take a long, long time. Our sweet spot has become figuring out what we can do with our current city infrastructure over the next two to five years. Now, having said that, a lot of the technologies that we are supporting will make future resilience implementations cheaper, more efficient and installed faster, so we can help down the road. But we really want to help cities adapt and be able to work better now and react to flooding and sea-level rise.

Kim: You can do it a lot faster.

Robinson: I should say, to clarify, what we’re doing is not in place of the big resilience infrastructure projects. We’re not saying you don’t do those. We’re saying that’s not our bailiwick. We want to do what with what we have now, what the city has now, try and do it smarter with some improvements.

Kim: How much time do you feel like you have to get these technical solutions in place?

Robinson: So there’s really a couple of time scales here. If we talk about sea-level rise, things are going to change here over the next 30-40 years. But then you look at [Hurricane] Ida, and that was in the space of a week. The sooner we get things in place, the better. And I don’t think there’s a date certain for that. But I think if we can help these communities manage and survive over the next two to five years, I think we’ve done our job, and then the bigger infrastructure will start to be put into place.

Kim: And not to put too much pressure on you, but these are getting worse all the time. We need you.

Robinson: I know they are. They are getting worse. There’s only so much I can do. But I think this shows how humanity adapts. There’s a picture that I sometimes show in my presentations and a picture of Chicago around about the turn of the [20th] century and there’s horses everywhere. I mean, it’s just packed, and they were having a big problem with the waste from horses as well as the horses themselves. And then there’s a picture 15 years later, not a horse in sight. But then you had cars. Humanity adapts, they change, maybe with a whole lot of different problems, but who knows what things will look like in five years’ time? I’m sure it’ll be quite different.

A crowded street in Chicago can be seen bustling with horse drawn carriages. A man on a carriage rides towards the photographer.
In December 1937, vendors and traders occupy a Chicago street on market day. (Keystone/Getty Images).

Related links: More insight from Jed Kim

I included a link Thursday to a story about the Forerunner app, which helps municipalities figure out their flood risk. Turns out that’s another RISE-funded startup. Didn’t catch that Thursday.

Foreign Affairs has a piece from Alice Hill of the Council on Foreign Relations. She said we’re past the point of only mitigating climate change and well into needing to adapt to its realities. Part of that, she said, requires intentional action from the federal government. She makes the case for Congress to create a climate adaptation commission. Her piece includes this terrifying nugget: “[O]ne in three Americans currently live in a county that has been damaged by a weather disaster in the last three months.”

If you’d like to get an idea of what a flood-resilient home looks like, the city of Boston has a page with suggestions for what you might do with your home. It’s part of the Climate Ready Boston initiative. One suggestion is to elevate your home at least two feet above the levels of a 100-year flood. It’s not easy or cheap — it involves pouring a whole new foundation. You can also move mechanical equipment out of your basement. Also, if you don’t have the ability to raise your house, you might consider filling in your basement with gravel. There are some easier things you can do, but it’s pretty clear that tough decisions are coming all around.

The recent flooding in New York City brought flashbacks of Hurricane Sandy. There was a key difference, though. Sandy’s flooding came from storm surge, as water overflowed riverbanks. The recent flooding came from rain. And because of that, a lot of the defenses that were put up after Sandy were powerless against the water. MIT Technology Review points out the problem of pavement: lots of hard surfaces keeping rain from soaking into the ground. Instead, it pours into sewer systems that aren’t equipped to handle so much volume. That’s where we get deadly basement flooding. Fixing things will take lots of time and money. In the meantime, the article says, floods will continue to kill.

More cities are turning to green infrastructure to reduce those hard surfaces. Things like bioswales, green roofs, rain gardens all help rain soak into the ground closer to where it falls. If you’d like to hear more about green infrastructure, I’m including a link to an episode I reported for the In Deep podcast. Give it a listen, if you’re not too sick of me already. I’m here all next week, by the way.

And of course, Molly and the rest of the tech team here have been covering adaptation to climate change for years. Check out the fantastic coverage stream called “How We Survive.”

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer