Coastal Cities Must Adapt To Rising Seas, And Pay The Price

Apr 11, 2016

The city of New Orleans just won an award for its efforts to adapt to climate change. The American Planning Association says the city’s resilience strategy sets a model for others dealing with the same challenges of rising seas and extreme weather. Coastal cities across the nation are trying to develop models like it, but there’s no dedicated federal money to do so.

Philadelphia has pioneered a lot of those “green” urban practices. WWNO’s Tegan Wendland collaborated with a reporter there to see where the two cities are finding the money to improve their aging infrastructure.

On a sunny afternoon, Jeff Hebert stands in a wide, open field on Mirabeau Avenue in Gentilly. Small single-story ranch homes line the street. Many are neat and tidy, re-built after Katrina, but the ground beneath them is moving. The streets and driveways are buckling from subsidence.

Subsidence is something Hebert thinks about a lot. He’s Chief Resilience Officer for the city. His job is to help it prepare for disasters like hurricanes and rising sea levels and the natural sinking of this delta landscape.

The city is using this neighborhood to experiment with solutions - like pavement that lets water through and parks that absorb heavy rains. It’ll include water features in medians to reduce flooding, lagoons and a pond. In January the city won a $141 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build this “resilience district.”

That’s in addition to $2 billion in post-Katrina relief the city finally got from FEMA.

Robin Keegan helped the city apply for some of those grants. She works with GCR Consulting and says Katrina created a mandate for new approaches. “Every system that we had in place had to be looked at, because everything was broken and we had to fix it,” says Keegan.

She says New Orleans continues to get federal and private money to come up with new ways to deal with water. Because its problems are still national news, it’s seen as a testing ground. She says, “I think that New Orleans is identified as a place that has gone through that thinking and is actually setting up the best practices and the models.”

But not every city has the cache, or the same level of crisis, that New Orleans has. In Philadelphia those big checks from government and private entities aren’t rolling in.

On the one hand, the city isn’t as vulnerable as New Orleans. But some of its neighborhoods are expected to flood from rising tides along the Delaware River. To pay for upgrades, it has to turn to its residents, who pay a storm water fee each month. For most it’s only a few bucks. But for others, like Gina Rucci, it can get expensive. Rucci operates Popi’s, an Italian restaurant in South Philadelphia, where several years ago she bought an adjacent property and turned it into a parking lot. The city charges her for the water run-off from her parking lot, based on the amount of impervious pavement on her property.

She says when she first got a bill for $330 she was surprised. “I wasn’t thinking about a water bill because there was no water on the lot,” says Rucci.

A rain garden at Poppi's restaurant in Philadelphia absorbs runoff from the parking lot.
Credit Susan Phillips / WHYY

  To reduce that bill, she recently found out about a program where the city encourages “green infrastructure,” which includes things like rain gardens, tree trenches, and green roofs. “Once your own ground here becomes permeable, that water is… only going to sink. And that’s what you need it to do.”

Today, Rucci has cut her bill by 60 percent. “This is the water company taking the money I just sent them and giving it back to me,” says Rucci.

So far Philadelphia has built hundreds of green infrastructure projects across the city in streets, parks and parking lots.

And green infrastructure is a lot cheaper than any traditional engineering approach...which often involves building a large concrete tunnel to hold extra water. Chris Crocket is an engineer with Philadelphia’s water department, in charge of planning for climate change. 

“We could, instead of doing these greener practices, we could just go and build a hole to China and dig a tunnel, but that has a huge carbon footprint,” says Crocket.

It’s not just the carbon footprint that’s a problem, that “hole and tunnel” approach would have cost the city’s ratepayers $10 billion and taken decades to complete. The thousands of rain gardens, green roofs, and tree trenches will cost the city just $2 billion.