Resiliency in the Central United States

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The Central Region of the U.S. Experiences Floods, Tornadoes, drought and other natural disasters with increasing frequency.

WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s office locations central U.S.Figure 1 – WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s central region and office locations

This article is about resiliency activities in the WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s central region of the U.S. (see Figure 1). The central region is the part of the United States that is bisected by a big river (the Mississippi), adds two hours to a nonstop transcontinental flight, is home to farmers and ranchers and oilmen and more farmers, and has “towns” such as Chicago, IL; Indianapolis, IN; Minneapolis, MN; New Orleans, LA; and St. Louis, MO, popping up amid seas of wheat and corn and oil rigs. It’s quiet here, save for the occasional natural disaster of a drought, flood, fire, tornado, or small earthquake.

These types of disasters have been occurring long before the discussion of resiliency and climate change adaptation rose to prominence, but as the frequency and severity of these events appear to be increasing, a different response to rebuilding our communities is needed. A resilient community is one that can take a major disaster or crisis and turn it into a short-term inconvenience and a longer-term opportunity. Resiliency isn’t a new concept; rather it stitches together existing programs and strategies such as asset management, emergency response, design standards, technology tools, environmental considerations, public investment, and others, to prepare communities for physical and institutional infrastructure challenges due to a disaster. Resiliency planning focuses on fostering effective communication and coordination among existing responding government institutions and departments, and ensuring design standards that make our communities safer in the event of a disaster.

Resiliency Planning Frameworks

hazard mitigation and climate adaptation planningFigure 2 – Intersection of hazard mitigation and climate adaptation planning (source:

As noted, resiliency planning covers a multitude of issues, and there are a number of ways to respond and prepare. For example, hazard mitigation plans have been promoted by FEMA since 2000; sustainability, with its focus on environmental enhancement, is another approach for making buildings more resilient; and climate change adaptation plans are emerging as a new way to look at resiliency. There is overlap between these approaches but all aim to create better communities (see Figure 2).

Hazard Mitigation Plans

In 2000, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began promoting the implementation of plans for hazards (defined by FEMA as natural or man-made disasters). These hazard mitigation plans outline goals, objectives, and specific actions a community can take to reduce risk and future losses from hazards, and are required to be updated every three years. All 50 states and 5 territories have FEMA-approved plans and, as of March 2015, there are 12 states that have Enhanced State Mitigation Plans. This classification means that these states have demonstrated a comprehensive mitigation program and are eligible for additional funding in the event of a disaster. Five of these states are in the central region - Kentucky, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin1. At a local level, there are numerous local governments still in need of plans or updates (as of a September 30, 2014 FEMA assessment). Figure 3 is adapted from the FEMA assessment.

Climate Change Adaptation Plans

In terms of climate change adaptation:

  • A recent study by the Georgetown Climate Center2, an organization that works to strengthen state and federal climate partnerships, noted that three central region states (Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) are implementing state-led climate change adaptation plans.
  • In December 2014, Dubuque (IA), the Mid-America Regional Council (KS and MO), Minneapolis (MN), Oberlin (OH), and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians (MI) were all recognized by the Obama administration as Climate Action Champions3 for the work done on greenhouse gas reduction and adaptation strategies.
  • In 2008, the Chicago Climate Action Plan was adopted and, in 2012, the city reported that its greenhouse gas emissions were eight percent less than the 2005 baseline.

Many communities throughout the central region have floodplain management plans or emergency response plans, and some are developing plans that consider sustainability and livability as concerns. These plans help communities and states address some aspects of resiliency. Some planning has been done, but there are opportunities for WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff to contribute to and support resiliency efforts.

Resiliency Planning in the Central Region

WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s office locations central U.S.Figure 3 – Status of local mitigation plans in the central region (Status of Local Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plans, September 14, 2014)

This is not a full accounting of activity, but a review of some of the completed and on-going projects to address resiliency:

  • Parsons Brinckerhoff (now part of WSP| Parsons Brinckerhoff) worked with the Minnesota DOT on a systems level vulnerability assessment, prioritization process, and scenario-based adaptation analysis as part of the 2013-2014 Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Climate Resilience Pilot Program. The work focused on the issue of flash flooding; it was innovative in that it incorporated change in peak design flow and other engineering considerations in the vulnerability assessment, and included a cost/benefit analysis in the 11 step adaptation process.
  • The WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff St. Louis office has done extensive work for the Boone Hospital Center in Columbia, Missouri. The project incorporated sustainability throughout the designs of a new patient tower, parking garage, and campus site. An emphasis was placed on environmental stewardship, primarily through better stormwater management (native plants, on-site retention), strategies that help resolve community flooding.
  • After four hurricanes between 2005 and 2008 prompted Louisiana to focus on disaster response and resiliency, the state established the Louisiana Resiliency Assistance Program (LRAP), part of Louisiana State University. The LRAP team funds a variety of services to help communities recover from disaster, and in 2013 it assisted 30 communities with planning, training, and funding.
  • Louisiana also developed a Coastal Master Plan in 2012, after recognizing that the loss of 1,800 square miles of wetlands and natural coastal barriers since the 1930s had something to do with the amount of damage done to its communities and economic livelihood by hurricanes and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. This plan is being updated for 2017.
  • At the regional level, some metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) are beginning to address resiliency, but these responses vary.
    • The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) is incorporating resiliency and climate change adaptation into its long-range transportation plan.
    • The Association of Central Oklahoma Governments (ACOG) coordinates the region’s 911 emergency response phone system.
    • Other MPOs are addressing resiliency as a response to trauma.
  • CMAP is also assisting communities with preparing applications for the National Disaster Resilience Competition. Funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, this nearly $1 billion competition invites the 67 units of government that experienced natural disasters during 2011 to 2013 to compete for funds to help them rebuild and increase their resilience to future disasters.4
  • In September 2014, Cook County, Illinois, approved the largest multi-jurisdictional hazard mitigation plan in the U.S. to date. This is to address natural hazards that the county frequently experiences, like flooding, extreme cold temperatures, snow and heavy storms, which endanger lives, and damage and destroy property. The plan defined current conditions, assessed risks, and provided the policy direction for improvements. A total of 115 planning partners were involved in the effort, including 113 of Cook County’s 134 municipalities.5
  • Norman, Oklahoma, lies within what is called “Tornado Alley”, a geographic region where tornado activity is predominant. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) had the only Midwest session of its workshop in Norman - it’s a series on developing a disaster resilience framework. NIST, as part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is focused on developing standards for resilient building and infrastructure, so that communities can rebuild more rapidly and at lower cost. In addition, the University of Oklahoma has established the Resilience Development Institute.
  • The cities of Tulsa, St. Louis, and Chicago have received funding from the Rockefeller Foundation’s global ‘100 Resilient Cities’ initiative. The funding establishes a Chief Resilience Officer position in each city to lead the resilience efforts, and provides expertise to assist in developing strategies for each municipality to become more resilient. This also entails ideas for innovative public and private sector tools that can assist with implementing the strategies. The Rockefeller Foundation’s definition of resiliency is broader than just addressing infrastructure, it is also concerned with social stresses (inequality, crime, poverty) in communities.


Experience suggests that developing strategies to prepare for and mitigate the effects of disasters can save both money and lives. One analysis indicates that $1 of resiliency investment prior to a disaster can save $4 in recovery, repair, and rehabilitation costs post-disaster. Resiliency is an emerging issue and WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff is assisting communities in resiliency planning by providing innovation and expertise in the many infrastructure areas in which we work. Accessed March 12, 2015.



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