Coastal communities throughout the U.S. are grappling with a looming crisis: helping residents understand and adapt to long-term flood risk. Much stands in the way of progress – the topic is complex, the conversation is emotionally fraught, and the risk is just far enough away to (seemingly) comfortably ignore – yet the imperative to act is enormous. CBI’s recent work with a small community just north of New York City suggests an approach that may hold promise: translating risk into the simplest and most personal terms possible and creating a safe space for neighbors to begin talking with one another about promising adaptation strategies.

Laying the Groundwork

Ever since Hurricane Sandy came barreling up the Atlantic Coast seven years ago, CBI has had the opportunity to work with a remarkable set of people in Piermont, NY, as they strive to make their small Hudson River-front community resilient in the face of rising seas and more intense storms.

We teamed with experts to help residents understand the science behind future flood risks. We worked with local leaders and emergency services to bolster emergency preparedness for “the next storm.” The village convened a standing task force to keep a spotlight on waterfront resilience issues. We met informally with residents in their living rooms to get a better sense of how they experience floods and think about future risks.

The efforts have made a difference, and the village has made more progress than many. But Piermont’s most vulnerable neighborhoods have gained little ground in having sustained conversations about longer-term options. In the fall of 2018, we decided to take a step into unchartered and risky territory: launching a year-long effort that would bring together residents from Piermont’s four most at-risk neighborhoods to face the most daunting challenges, including the potential for managed retreat away from the water’s edge.

An Innovative Approach

We knew an unprecedented conversation demanded an innovative approach. Working in close collaboration with New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s Hudson River Estuary Program, the nonprofit Scenic Hudson, and former state floodplain manager Bill Nechamen and supported by a grant from the American Arbitration Association’s International Centre for Dispute Resolution, our planning team put together an 18-month effort grounded in several unique strategies:

  • Recruiting and training a small corps of local residents (referred to as liaisons) to help organize and manage discussions with neighbors. This conversation will take time, and we wanted to build a local pool of residents skilled and willing to keep the conversations going over the long term.
  • Translating vague flooding forecasts into something more tangible and harder to ignore: an individualized assessment of flood risk – both for storm surge and the more periodic, certain-to-worsen high-tide flooding (also known as “nuisance” or “sunny-day” flooding) – for any interested resident.
  • Developing a personal risk tolerance questionnaire intended to help residents take stock of their unique situation (age, financial strength, commitment to place, etc.) relative to flood risk. Much like a survey one might fill out before meeting with a financial counselor, this questionnaire is intended to help residents think about adaptation options that might make sense given their unique situation and risk appetite.
  • Bringing together residents from the village’s most flood-prone neighborhoods to share their individual perspectives on risk and possible adaptation options. These conversations allowed them to be honest about feelings of grief and fear and begin to build a vision and action plan for their neighborhood. We started the conversation by talking first about a fictional resident facing flood risk, as it was a safer way for folks to get used to talking about the emotionally-charged issue. They soon moved into the nitty gritty of their own situations, and the liaisons took the lead on facilitating these latter conversations with their neighbors.

Emerging Learnings

The workshops were held just a few months ago, and it’s tough to meaningfully take stock of a conversation that will need to play out over years. The early indications are promising, as two of the four neighborhoods already have self-facilitated a new round of conversations. Their current focus is on sharpening their own neighborhood “asks” so they can start a discussion with their elected officials; one neighborhood is seriously considering buyouts and managed retreat. They have also voiced interest in lobbying county and state officials for funding and technical assistance that will support communities like their own needing to get serious about adaptation.

There are other emerging results and lessons learned to share:

  • Translating risk into the most simple and personal terms possible is essential. Much of this project was about making both flood risk and adaptation options as simple and personal as possible. By providing customized information on flood risk to any interested household, residents were able to understand – in the most personal terms possible – the risk to their families over the next 40 years.
  • Building relationships is essential to building a lasting team. By bringing residents from each neighborhood together in focused discussions, participants were able to talk more honestly about their fears and plans, build trust, and begin to gauge whether and how they might work together to move forward with adaptation strategies for their specific neighborhood.
  • Efficiencies are needed to make this process scalable. In a small community like Piermont, the level of personal interaction between residents and the planning team is doable. But, imagine shifting this dialogue to New York City or other larger communities, and the time and effort required to connect with residents quickly becomes untenable. The answer, we think, is not to find ways to skirt the personal approach; discussions around risk and possible loss of one’s home can’t be short-circuited. The challenge (and a good focus for future work), rather, is to pilot ways to share this information more efficiently.
  • Create an atmosphere that encourages candor. These are tough conversations. The future flood risks are sobering, the uncertainty around the risks is high, and there are few reliable, affordable, or even tested pathways to long-term resilience for residents facing risks from sea level rise. It takes very little for folks to disengage from the conversations (or not even walk in the door in the first place). Several aspects of our work in Piermont, in particular, helped to foster an atmosphere that encouraged and sustained candor among participants:
    • Breaking into small groups, by neighborhood, created a safer atmosphere for participants to discuss their fears and potential plans. Residents didn’t feel like they were in the spotlight.
    • Using local liaisons to facilitate discussion of serious issues helped make the conversation more “real,” more local, and less of a perceived threat.
    • An emphasis on solutions right from the start mitigated the overwhelming sense of dread residents can experience when faced with projections that show their home becoming uninhabitable in the not-too-distant future.
  • Partner with local leaders. To put it most simply, we could not imagine undertaking this work without the incredible partnership we had with village leaders. They were essential in helping us identify and recruit local liaisons; providing land use and building data that enabled us to prepare the property-specific flood risk data; and shaping training and workshop materials to ensure they were relevant to liaisons and workshop participants. At the same time, they were careful not to impose their vision on the process or participants. As a result, the effort was neither top-down nor bottom-up but, rather, an effective combination of the two, with the village nimbly showing leadership and a willingness to listen.

To be sure, there are no quick fixes for at-risk communities to tackle such tough challenges. But we believe that thoughtful testing of innovative approaches, grounded in strong partnerships, good science, and the strategies that we know help people navigate tough conversations, will slowly build more reliable pathways for communities to find their way to resilience.

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