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Building Resilient Coastal Communities

In 2010, the United States Census Bureau estimated that nearly 30% of the U.S. population live on or near the shoreline. This number is steadily increasing as the trend of U.S. urbanization swells the coastal population: five of ten of the U.S.’s most populous cities and seven of ten of its most populous counties are located along the coastline. And as these populations continue to rise, so, too, are sea levels and potential risks.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the size and frequency of major storm events and nuisance flooding from high tides is on the upswing due to climate-related sea level rise (SLR), land subsidence, and the loss of natural barriers. High tide flooding – which causes public inconveniences such as frequent road closures, overwhelmed storm drains, and compromised infrastructure – has increased in the U.S. on average by about 50 percent in the past 20 years and 100 percent in the past 30 years.

As populations on the coast grow at rapid rates, major storms devastate coastal populations. According to the Wall Street Journal, during the 2017 and 2018 hurricane seasons alone, Hurricanes Maria, Irma, and Harvey caused $265 Billion in damage and took hundreds of lives. Increased density of population requires development, which ultimately resembles pouring concrete over marsh and wet lands; areas that previously absorbed storm water now do not. Furthermore, storms are slowing down due to lighter winds, which increases the amount of water that floods a city due to greater rainfall.

In addition to these large shocks, NOAA reports the insidious effects of nuisance flooding, a less publicized effect of SLR that has potential to weaken the fabric of communities through “public inconveniences such as road closures” and the financial burden placed on homeowners as they repair flood damage year after year.

In 2013, the Rockefeller Foundation pioneered the 100 Resilient Cities program, and defines urban resilience as “the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.”

Protecting coastal communities against major storms and nuisance flooding will require a major change in how federal, state, and local governments approach urban development and infrastructure. To survive, adapt, and thrive, communities will need to operationalize resiliency into their approach to community development and management.


Coastal communities face significant challenges from the effects of storms, flooding, and SLR that impact their community resiliency and disaster mitigation programs.

Aging Infrastructure

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, America’s cumulative GPA is once again a D+. Bridges are graded C+; dams, inland waterways, levees, and roads, received a D; and wastewater received a D+ for all U.S. infrastructure. The regularity of major storms, flooding, and impacts to the groundwater table has exacerbated problems with aging infrastructure, forcing communities to repair and replace infrastructure before its originally projected end of life, placing an undue strain on public coffers.

Engineers Elizabeth Chisolm and John Matthews reported their work and studies of underground piping after the hurricanes of 2005 in Louisiana in their article, “Impact of Hurricanes and Flooding on Buried Infrastructure.” After Katrina and Rita, shifting soil and bedding combined with uprooted trees and saturated soils caused major damage to water infrastructure in New Orleans, contaminating fresh water sources. Much of the water infrastructure remained offline for months. One of the mitigation measures outlined to prevent the disasters of Katrina from happening during future storms was keeping water infrastructure as maintained and current as possible to prevent damage during strong storms. Without the upgrades and maintaining of current infrastructure, hurricanes and stormwater have an even greater impact on human coastal populations.

Competing Interests

Coastal communities often have competing interests between residents and seasonal visitors, employers, industry/ports, tourism and recreation, traffic/parking demands, and environmental features. The World Bank reports that coastal and waterfront communities must make the best use of limited land while protecting critical natural resources from the potentially damaging effects of growth, which includes identifying a common set of overarching issues when managing growth and development.

Absentee Homeowners and the Politics of Infrastructure Investment

Demographics of coastal populations change when many homeowners occupy homes only during the seasonal months. In some cases, a sizeable percentage of homeowners are absent for much of the year. Research shows that homeowners are more likely to vote in general, and they support measures that improve their homes’ value. In some areas, nonresident homeowners can vote for local bonds and measures; Delaware, Connecticut, and New Mexico are the only states that allow non-resident property owners to vote in municipal elections. Nine other states allow non-residents to vote in other limited cases. The issue of expanding voting rights to non-residents is a real concern for coastal communities.

Interrupted Transportation Corridors

In addition to inundating homes, flooding can wash out roads normally protected by estuaries or barrier islands, rendering them unnavigable. Not only does this choke some residents off from the rest of the community, but it can also hamper emergency personnel from evacuating them in the wake of major storm events.


Prioritizing disaster mitigation and tenets of resiliency, such as storm water management best practices, into community development and infrastructure improvements helps protect critical assets, ecosystems, local economies, and vulnerable populations.

Communities can build strong partnerships that support the common goals of protecting industry, tourism and recreation, neighborhoods, and vulnerable populations from shocks and stressors. Various stakeholders – including industry groups, community, groups and all levels of government – can work together to enable meaningful resiliency.  

Land Use Policy

Implementing innovative and resiliency-oriented land use policies can ensure that communities are more prepared for disaster. Many land use policies developed in the 1970s, such as allowing homes and businesses to be built directly on the waterfront, have proven hazardous as climate change and SLR threaten the integrity of these buildings.

While total retreat from the shoreline would certainly help solve the problem, it is neither practical nor would it be politically viable. There are, however, many land use policy tools that could help incentivize building away from shorelines or ameliorate existing flooding issues.

For example, community policy-makers could incorporate tenants of resiliency into comprehensive plans or zoning ordinances. Project Flood Resilient Infrastructure and Sustainable Environments, or FloodRISE, at UC Irvine seeks to activate innovative technology developed by their engineers to mitigate flooding and help areas along the U.S.- Mexico border develop resilient coastlines by gathering flood risk data on a parcel-by-parcel basis. They then couple the data with local resources and communications. By sharing and compiling the data in this binational approach, residents and municipalities are better prepared for flooding. Furthermore, leadership and planners have clear information for infrastructure and resiliency planning.

Operationalizing Resiliency into Capital Planning

Coastal communities can take a more active approach with capital planning and budgeting by incorporating resiliency into day-to-day planning and project prioritization. By developing a more robust decision-making process that includes resiliency metrics and indicators, communities will achieve a more robust and flexible system for budget decision making and optimizing service delivery. Such programs would provide decision makers with a more comprehensive approach to addressing acute shocks and chronic stressors and the impact of resilient investments rather than recovery.  

Workforce Development Training

Communities can implement workforce development training programs to train local citizens to implement sustainable and resilient strategies such as storm water management practices. Incorporating workforce training into green infrastructure practices helps promote economic growth and increase sustainability and resiliency – a win-win for communities.

In Columbus, Ohio, workforce development between Columbus State Community College and One Water Ohio proposed a Green Infrastructure Training Curriculum to empower people to understand solutions for effective storm water management. Green measures, such as creating rain gardens, infiltration trenches, green roofs, and permeable pavements, reduce runoff. With incentives to reduce fees levied by utility companies, these training programs empower small business owners to assist the process of reducing impervious areas.

Critical Asset Management

As a first step for community resilience, it is important to identify and prioritize critical assets such as energy and/or industrial facilities, police and fire stations, hospitals, transportation hubs, schools, and others. Once critical assets are identified, resiliency strategies should be developed and prioritized to help communities decide which capital programs should be implemented and in what order to most effectively protect these assets from storms and flooding. In early 2018, Greenville, South Carolina published a Stormwater Asset Management Policy geared toward protecting assets in place and provided building and developing strategies to reduce the flooding impact on key structures.  

Regional Cooperation

Storms do not adhere to city limits and cause damage indiscriminately. When neighboring local and county governments of at-risk areas work together, they are more effective in ensuring the continued resilience of the entire region. This can take many forms. For example, cities that share key infrastructure can also share budgets. Cities and counties can also pool resources and create connections with organizations and municipalities of their region to develop studies and other solutions to identify ways to improve environmental, economic, and infrastructure resiliency.

One such organization, The Alliance for Regional Collaboratives for Climate Adaptation (ARCCA) in California bridges the gap between urban and rural areas of regions to improve resistance to climate change. They support initiatives that encourage regional leadership to invest in resilient infrastructure and create the systems needed to adapt to climate change and develop coastal resiliency. They partnered with the Georgetown Climate Center to implement their work on regional resiliency across the U.S.

In Florida, multiple counties organized to sign the Southeast Regional Climate Change Compact to both prepare for and prevent climate change in the region. The ambitious goals of combining infrastructure resources, reducing emissions and impact, and tackling a multitude of resiliency goals, like addressing stormwater runoff, preparing for rising oceans, and addressing the secondary issues of resiliency, like social inequality, have brought mayors, scientists, and leaders together to discuss the Compact in yearly summits. These regional organizations, with powerful local resources and leadership, make connections and build solutions for the unique resiliency issues in coastal areas subject to droughts, hurricanes, and flooding.


addressed in a myriad of ways. The following coastal resiliency success stories showcase how knowledgeable planning and innovative strategies benefit coastal communities to reduce risk and manage critical infrastructure resources.

Texas Coastal Resiliency Study: A Regional Approach to Protecting Critical Assets

APTIM developed the Texas Coastal Resiliency Study to identify resiliency strategies across nearly 20 counties along the Gulf Coast of Texas stretching from Beaumont to Brownsville. Multiple local governments collaborated to identify critical assets most vulnerable to storms and flooding and recommended capital projects to mitigate potential damage to vulnerable infrastructure. These potential projects were then categorized according to risk based on an assessment of coastal storm impacts on vulnerable critical infrastructure. The categorized projects were then compiled into a document that can be used to aide communities in fast-tracking the application process in the event of a future storm.

Living Shorelines: Coastal Restoration to Protect from Storm Surge

The APTIM team works with all levels of government to provide comprehensive coastal restoration services including beach and dune restoration, coastal structures, and inlet management and navigation. Recently, the team worked with Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) of Louisiana to restore the Shell Island barrier island in Plaquemines Parish. The restoration of this large-scale barrier island will help absorb storm surge and protect the coastal communities of the Parish.

As part of this project, the APTIM team dredged approximately 10 million cubic yards of sediment and restored 460 acres of beach, dune habitat, and 435 acres of marsh habitat.

Promoting Economic Revitalization through Stormwater Management

The Ohio Creek Watershed includes two historic neighborhoods in Norfolk, VA which are especially vulnerable to flooding. To help protect residents of these neighborhoods, the City of Norfolk received a nearly $112 Million Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC) for transformational coastal improvement projects. The City selected APTIM to provide program management and oversee the design, environmental, and technical assistance teams. As part of this work, APTIM helped developed three water management strategies to protect residents from future flood events and promote neighborhood connectivity and economic revitalization.


U.S. coastal communities are experiencing larger and more frequent storm events and flooding than ever before, and the growth of the already populous coastal regions makes these communities even more vulnerable to flooding. Aging infrastructure, competing interests, and poor land use policies of the past present significant challenges. Yet, communities that implement effective resiliency opportunities and build strong partnerships between governments, community groups, and industry can mitigate the long-term effects of flooding and provide an unequalled quality of life along our country’s coastlines.



U.S. Census Bureau. Coastline Population Trends in the United States: 1960 to 2008. Issued May 2010. https://www.census. gov/prod/2010pubs/p25-1139.pdf

NOAA. NOAA Technical Report NOS CO-OPS 073: Sea Level Rise and Nuisance Flood Frequency Changes around the United States. Issued June 2014.

National Ocean Service, NOAA. What is High Tide Flooding? Issued June 2018.

Office for Coastal Management, NOAA, Fast Facts, Hurricane Costs, html

American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). 2017 Infrastructure Report Card,

Can Non-Residents Vote in Local Elections Where They Own Property?

Welch, Craig.

Dapena, Kara.

Schwaartz, John.



Jordanna Z. Rubin, LEED A.P. O+M, Envision SP is Director of Resilience and Sustainability Solutions at APTIM and has 20+ years experience focused on resiliency and sustainability program design and implementation. Her expertise also includes Smart City applications, residential programs, redevelopment services, green infrastructure, sustainable solid waste management, and resilient power.

Anastasia Roy is a Client Program Manager at APTIM with 10+ years of experience launching and managing resiliency and energy efficiency programs in the New York City metro area.

APTIM assists clients with identifying private and public funding and managing grants to offset the costs of their resiliency efforts. Resiliency services assist clients with strategies to strengthen local socio-economic conditions and include vulnerability and impact assessments, risk mitigation strategies, cost-benefit analysis and loss modeling, economic, social and environmental analysis, climate impact analysis and adaptation principles, infrastructure assessments and asset management, and sustainability planning and low-impact development.


Director, Resiliency Solutions, APTIM

ANASTASIA ROY Client Program Manager, APTIM

APTIM. Expect the Extraordinary.