Municipal and private sector leaders from across North America shared their experience recovering from natural disasters and the effort to increase urban resiliency in the aftermath as part of a panel discussion at CERAWeek on Thursday.
The session titled Urban Resilience in a Changing Climate brought together a number of officials, including Lara Cottingham, Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of Houston who spoke on how the city recovered post Hurricane Harvey.
Panelists each discussed how their areas have been affected by storms of increasing frequency and intensity and other natural disasters. All agreed that how today’s cities prepare for such disasters, recover quickly and increase their resiliency will determine their long-term fate.
Cottingham said following Harvey, every decision made in Houston’s City Hall is viewed through the lens of resiliency. She said major weather and environment events “change how cities do what they do. It’s not a Houston specific issue, nearly every city around the world faces something, from floods to fires.”
Still, the most difficult time to make a resiliency plan is as you’re dealing with a major event, Cottingham said. “Your first reaction is to go back to normal and do what you were doing, but it’s our job to help ensure this doesn’t happen at such a level again.”
Gil Quiniones, president and CEO of the New York Power Authority, said that, following Superstorm Sandy, his state has taken significant steps toward changing how government officials, utilities and even residents react to a major weather event. The state bought out homes in flood prone areas of Long Island and Staten Island, elevated substations in flood zones and changed codes and standards to make the power grid able to withstand winds in excess of 140 miles per hour. In one example, the Long Island Power Authority spent $700 million to restore power to its customers in a little over two weeks following the storm. Since then, the agency has spent another $730 million hardening and modernizing its infrastructure to sustain the next storm.
“Superstorm Sandy really fundamentally changed how we think about resiliency, from readiness to response,” Quiniones said.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi spoke about a major flood that affected his city six years ago. Calgary sits at the confluence of two rivers at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. In the early morning of June 19, 2013, Nenshi was informed the city was just hours from a devastating flooding event. He called for the evacuation of 100,000 people in vulnerable areas—the largest peacetime evacuation in Canadian history. The decision proved wise and probably saved many lives.
“It’s our job as public servants to make sure we are ready,” Nenshi said.
John Berger is the CEO of Houston-based solar energy company Sunnova, which provides residential solar service to more than 65,000 customers across the U.S. and its territories. Sunnova was already serving roughly 9,000 customers in Puerto Rico before Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017. Sunnova’s distributed solar fared well in the aftermath, but Berger said his company learned a lot from Maria and invested more in battery storage after the storm to limit downtime for customers.
“Maria was a catalyst for changing the global energy business,” Berger said.
The panelists agreed cities large and small should heed the warning of a changing climate where virtually no place is immune.
“We live during the first time in human history where the majority of human beings reside in cities,” said Nenshi. “Increasingly, urban problems will be human problems, and if we don’t get resiliency right, we are dealing with a major human problem.”