ASCE Report Prompts Philadelphia to Step Up Flood Risk Management Efforts

October 3, 2014
Robert G. Traver, chair of ASCE’s Task Committee on Flood Safety Practices addresses the media with the findings of the Flood Risk Management, Call for a National Strategy report. Photo Credit: Barbara Whitten

Among the greatest challenges the U.S. faces today is recognizing the magnitude of risk posed by flooding and motivating the public and decision makers to make the investments required to reduce that risk. In light of that challenge, outlined in its recent report Flood Risk Management, Call for a National Strategy, the ASCE Task Committee on Flood Safety Practices urged communities to aggressively move ahead with making emergency preparations, strengthening existing flood-protection systems, and finding new ways to reduce present and future vulnerability to flooding.

The question is this: Is anybody listening?

Yes, in fact. Spurred by the report, the City of Philadelphia’s Water Department has decided, with the help of other city agencies, to develop and implement a flood risk management strategy for the city.

“The water department has been working for the past 10 years on what we call storm-flood relief projects in the sections of the City of Philadelphia where we have experienced flooding,” explained Joanne Dahme, general manager of Public Affairs for the Philadelphia Water Department. “So we reached out to Rob [Traver, Ph.D, P.E., D.WRE, F.ASCE, chair of the TCFSP] and said, ‘What do you think about working with the City of Philadelphia?’ We would love for Philadelphia to be a case study and one of the first communities in the U.S. to take this report and develop it into a strategy for our city.”

Added Philadelphia Water Commissioner Howard M. Neukrug, P.E., Hon.D.WRE, “Philadelphia, as are cities across the nation, is dealing with a new kind of flooding. This flooding is characterized by an intensity and volume usually associated with tropical storms. [In the past,] these events were periodic and memorable. But today, they have become all too common and often result in damage to properties and natural areas.

“The ASCE report serves as a good template for Philadelphia as we launch our own Flood Risk Management Task Force. The process used by ASCE took a national focus [but] one that we will adopt and shape into our own Philly-centric strategy to better protect and preserve our citizens and city.”

With the help of ASCE’s task committee, the Water Department organized a summit on flood risk management for the City of Philadelphia September 22-23 in downtown Philadelphia, as the first step in developing a flood risk management strategy for the city. In attendance were 25 city officials representing Parks and Recreation, City Planning, Licenses and Inspections, the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, the Office of Emergency Management, Streets Department , the Office of Sustainability, and the Water Department. The summit was conducted in conjunction with the official public release of the ASCE Flood Risk Management report. Also playing a vital role in the summit were ASCE task committee members Traver; Billy Edge, Ph.D., P.E., D.CE, Dist.ASCE; Carol Haddock, P.E., M.P.A., M.ASCE; Lawrence Roth, P.E., G.E., D.GE., F.ASCE; and John E. Durrant, P.E., M.ASCE, ASCE’s senior managing director of Engineering and Lifelong Learning.

No Longer an Era of Engineering Problems Away

Rob Traver (Howard Neukrug)

Robert G. Traver, right and Howard M. Neukrug, Philadelphia Water Commissioner, kick off the Summit on Flood Risk Management for the City of Philadelphia. Photo Credit: Barbara Whitten

Traver, Edge, Haddock, and Roth kicked off the summit with a presentation on the lessons learned – and not learned – since Hurricane Katrina, exploring what is happening in other areas of the U.S. and presenting an overview of what it costs the U.S. to do nothing to prevent flooding.

“The clear message we heard is that this is no longer the era of engineering problems away,” says Chris Crockett, deputy commissioner of Planning & Environmental Services for the Philadelphia Water Department. “We really need to be honest and open and communicate to the public to make sure that they understand how to respond to these events. We are going to have to make sure that the public understands that there is no silver bullet and some of these solutions will take a long time. [We need] to let them know, ‘Here is how you are going to have to protect yourself in the meantime.’”

Two other key messages that came out of the presentation were the need for the Water Department to partner with other city agencies and the need to move from reaction to prevention of flooding.

Need for a Systematic Approach

John Durrant Closing Remarks

“The thing that impressed me the most was how the other [Philadelphia] city agencies were there and willing to participate on how the city is focusing and providing attention to this issue,” observed John Durrant. Photo Credit: Barbara Whitten

Each of the 8 agencies in attendance gave a presentation on what they saw to be their role in dealing with flooding. “We thought this was a very good opportunity to get a sense of what everyone’s perceived responsibilities and operations are in relation to flooding,” notes Dahme. “It also exposed some of the gaps that we have in communications and knowledge about what some of the other city entities are doing.”

On the second day of the summit, participants split into 2 breakout teams to begin outlining a roadmap to develop both a task force and a flood risk management strategy for the city.

“We recognized that we don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of what is happening in all of our neighborhoods. So our homework assignment is for all the city agencies to develop a list or matrix identifying our current programs, what funding is involved, what we are doing for prevention and planning, and what we do for recovery,” recalled Dahme. “The reoccurring message was that we certainly [need] a systematic approach, which we don’t have today.”

“The entire approach can be overwhelming,” added Crockett, “but the first thing we agreed to do was make sure all the knowledge is shared [among all the agencies]. And the second thing was to all get on the same page as to how we are going to communicate, what we are going to communicate to the public, and when. Those first two things alone will probably help set us on the right path.”

The summit ended with a commitment on the part of all the agencies in attendance to be part of a Philadelphia Flood Risk Management Task Force. That task force will develop and implement a flood risk management strategy, which may also be expanded to include the private sector, including the real estate and insurance industries. While the city will be looking to consult with local civil engineers, they also see ASCE as a good resource for information.

“The thing that impressed me the most was how many city agencies were there and willing to participate and how the city is focusing and providing attention to this issue,” observed ASCE’s Durrant. “But one thing they recognized is that there is an enormous amount of work ahead for an effective flood risk management strategy.”

Crockett summed things up this way: “I think this summit was a great way to start. It really got all the agencies organized around this issue and moved us in a direction to start being proactive and [becoming] the city of the next century, not the city of the last century.”

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