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Sustainability team studies how cities survive mega storms

Meteorologists are calling Hurricane Joaquin a 100-year storm.
50 researchers from ASU investigate how cities endure major storms like Joaquin.
mazing how fast storms of the century are happening,” said David Swindell
October 6, 2015

At least 15 people have been killed, 11 dams have collapsed and more than 70 miles of a major interstate highway closed as Hurricane Joaquin hit the Carolinas in what meteorologists are calling a 100-year storm.

“Amazing how fast storms of the century are happening,” said David Swindell, director of Arizona State University’s Center for Urban Innovation.

It has been 10 years since Katrina broke the levies of New Orleans and three years since Sandy flattened the coastlines of New York and New Jersey. With record-strength disasters becoming the new normal, scientists are digging into finding ways cities can survive them.

Swindell is part of a team of 50 researchers from 15 institutions led by ASU professors to investigate how cities can endure and bounce back from storms like Joaquin, Sandy and Katrina.

The Urban Resilience to Extreme Weather-Related Events Sustainability Research Network (UREx SRN) — a unit of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability — aims to find flexible solutions and educate officials about what gaps in their systems need to be filled.

This week, Charles Redman, professor in the School of Sustainability who leads the team, is visiting storm-lashed New York City; Syracuse, New York; and San Juan, Puerto Rico, to meet with civic officials.

“In New York in particular they’ve taken this seriously,” Redman said. “Our approach on this project is to transfer thinking from fail-safe to safe-to-fail.”

Six New York hospitals and nursing homes flooded during Sandy. They all had emergency generators, but the generators were in the basement. Moving them to an upper floor is a fairly simple and low-cost solution.

“The resilient part is when these things happen, make them not disasters,” Redman said.

Clark Miller, a senior sustainability scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability, is co-leading a team tasked with producing bold new ways for changing how cities build to meet violent storms.

“Our job is to work with cities to help them think about strategies for taking the knowledge and insight and networks being built through the UREx project and putting them to work on behalf of making the city more resilient,” Miller said. “The challenge the cities are going to have is that they have a lot of infrastructure built already. They don’t have the money to rip that out and start again. … How do they live with infrastructure they’ve already got?”

Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana
Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana Photo By: US Air Force via Wikicommons

Nationally, hard infrastructure — dams, river levees, buildings, electrical grids and the like — has all been built with a climate model at the core of its design.

“That model is based on — generally speaking — 30-year averages of the weather,” Miller said. “When they designed the hurricane protection system in New Orleans, they built it based on 75 years of data, for a hurricane that would occur once every hundred years.”

New Orleans’ flood-protection system pre-Katrina was designed based on a 1955 study with outdated climate data.

“The city didn’t know its protection had been built around an outdated model,” Miller said. “As time passes, those stats will become more and more useless. … We’re going to have to shift climate from a static to a dynamic variable. Three 500-year storms have hit the Midwest in the past 20 years. That’s not normal.”

Green solutions will be one tool offered by UREx, but not the only tool, Redman said. Residents should benefit from solutions as well.

The project isn’t about telling people they can’t live in hazard zones. Oceanfront homes on eastern Long Island were rebuilt after Sandy, but not on the dunes where they used to be. They were rebuilt a few hundred yards in back of the dunes, with a lawn or a pool or tennis courts in front.

“I like that,” Redman said. “That open space is an amenity.”

Finance is a factor in the UREx project.

“It’s great to have good science, but if you can’t pay for it, you can’t implement it,” Swindell said.

When Sandy crushed lower Manhattan, it flooded nine subway tunnels. Only two of the lines have been fixed to date, according to Swindell.

“The problem they ran into was in not just fixing the infrastructure, but in building in some preventative measures,” he said.

Insurers wouldn’t cover the new infrastructure, so the City of New York created a reinsurance company — its own insurer, in effect. The reinsurer sold bonds. If water in certain locations exceeds a certain height, that triggers the spending of the bond money. Assuming there is no breach of the specified level, the bond buyers get their principal back and 4.5 percent over the Treasury rate. The bonds have a three-year lifespan.

“If you lose, you lose it all,” Swindell said. “You’re betting against Mother Nature. … There’s some risk, but it’s been a really popular tool. … You’re spreading the risk to the private sector.”

It’s the first time this has been done for public property, not private property, according to Swindell.

“It’s an old tool used in a new way,” he said. “The trick — and this is where it gets a little tricky — is calculating what that risk is. Am I buying catastrophe bonds on the San Andreas Fault? Or am I buying a catastrophe bond for a tornado in Phoenix?”

The UREx project, which comes the National Science Foundation awarded $12 million, will last for five years.

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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ASU expert weighs in on the pros and cons of new Trans-Pacific Partnership

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the largest regional trade agreement in history
TPP will be widely seen as a crowning jewel of an achievement for the president.
The TPP will cover a collective gross domestic product of nearly $28 trillion.
October 7, 2015
A photo of Michael Bennet, an expert on the Trans Pacific Partnership
Michael Bennett doubts that the newly agreed-upon Trans-Pacific Partnership will be a great boon to American workers. Photo by: Deanna Dent/ASU Now

After years of closed-door negotiations and growing uncertainty about its likely passage, the United States, Japan, Canada and nine other Pacific Rim nations reached agreement earlier this week on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This represents the largest regional trade agreement in history, pulling together nations that represent two-thirds of the global economy.

If approved by Congress, the controversial and potentially groundbreaking deal also provides President Barack Obama a significant triumph in his final year in office — a fact sure to make its ratification more difficult, particularly in a presidential election year.

Though the accord’s passage would end thousands of tariffs now placed on American exports, ASU expert Michael Bennett doubts that it will be a great boon to American workers.

“The TPP will likely accelerate many of the employment and income trends that have been evident in the United States post-NAFTA,” said Bennett, an associate research professor in ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, a lecturer in law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and an associate research professor in ASU’s Risk Innovation Lab. 

Bennett also weighed in on other aspects of this trade accord, including its economic impacts, political challenges and pre-ratification battle “tremors.”

Question: Do you think the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is good news? Why has there been so much controversy about this new deal?

Answer: There are two main reasons for all the polemics surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). To begin, the trade agreement is arguably the central element of the Obama administration’s global-trade agenda. If it passes, the TPP will be widely seen as a crowning jewel of an achievement for the president. Naturally, this possibility incenses many of the administration’s Republican adversaries, and that bloc of resistance is incredibly imaginative, effective and vociferous in expressing its resistance. In addition, the negotiation process has been largely shielded from public scrutiny. If not for WikiLeaks’ distribution of draft documents starting in 2013, the public would know next to nothing about the details. Even though the Obama administration has defended this strategy as necessary for effective negotiations, critics rightly decry its black boxing. 

Q: What will the impact of the TPP be for U.S. trade?

A: The United States will probably benefit overall, if we look solely at projections for trade in gross terms. Sober economic forecasts suggest a non-trivial increase on the order of tens of billions of dollars per year, and that does not even include the trade stimulus that will likely occur in the other 11 countries. But the gains will very likely not be uniformly distributed across the economy. As described by those with access to it, the TPP is primarily a services-centric treaty. Accordingly, we should expect the trends we’ve witnessed in our economy over the last 40 years to accelerate, particularly with respect to capital flows, relocation of manufacturing bases, and ascendancies of financial, legal, technical and knowledge-based services.

Q: What industries and what countries will benefit the most?

A: Electrical engineering, chemical engineering, bioengineering, pharmaceuticals, software development, boutique international legal advising particularly in the realm of contracts, intellectual property laws and geographical indicators, global cinema, music, architectural design and the art advisory industries — these are the types of domains in which we should expect to see the greatest impacts. Because of reductions in protectionist trade barriers, New Zealand’s dairy producers are poised to benefit from greater access to North American markets. And international arms manufacturers and dealers should see a significant boost, too. TPP’s outward-looking dimension is economic, but its quieter goal is the strengthening of Pacific Rim allies, relative to China, which is the great absence in the TPP negotiations. Armaments are always an important element in such grand strategizing.

Q: There has been concern voiced about how much this will cost the U.S. in the way of jobs.  What do you think will be the impact for U.S. employment and income?

A: The TPP will likely accelerate many of the employment and income trends that have been evident in the United States post-NAFTA. If Mark Twain were still with us, he would certainly be skewering this New Gilded Age. Unfortunately, reports of his death turned out to be accurate.

Q: How quickly could this be finalized, and when do you expect to see impacts from this?  

A: Ratification in the U.S. — if it happens — could occur in early 2016, perhaps a bit earlier. But since the final form of the pact’s text has not been released, it is difficult to forecast how Congress will respond. Add the already-simmering 2016 presidential election to the mix and most predictions become worthless, save one: This gargantuan deal — which would cover a collective gross domestic product of nearly $28 trillion and a third of global trade — won’t induce acquiescence; its political significance is monstrous in magnitude. As with other ambitious geopolitical gambits, however, effects precede actualization. We can already feel tremors — pre-shocks — as a result of TPP.   Multinational corporations; local and regional unions; politicians of various stripes in all the would-be signatory countries; Chinese reformers straining to nudge their country towards an American-style free market; and any number of sophisticated academic, financial, regulatory or criminal institutions gambling on the so-called “pivot to Asia.” All these actors are smart enough to know preemptive speed almost always wins.

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now