Masters of (Dealing with) Disaster
Just 3 years after “Superstorm” Sandy slammed and slugged her way up the east coast of the United States, the ferocious Category 4 Hurricane Joaquin took a fortunate right turn, veering offshore. Before residents could breathe a sigh of relief, another system poured torrential rains down on seven states and caused massive flooding in North and South Carolina.
The storms and the flooding they caused brought the region’s emergency preparedness efforts into sharp focus with a single question: Are we ready? Communities across North America echo that sentiment as they face the continuing threat of drought, fire, earthquakes, rainstorms, rising waters, mudslides, tornados, and—yes—hurricanes.
Making sure communities are ready to respond to disasters—and later not just to rebuild but to increase their resilience—is the primary focus of Tetra Tech’s Emergency Management and Community Resilience practice. Its teams are populated by predictors—modelers and prognosticators—as well as planners, analysts, engineers, and technicians. They unpack all the stressors, learn the lay of the land, itemize the infrastructure, find and fix what is likely to fail, and identify ways to help avoid similar damage in the future. They know how to integrate complex assessment, impact, and damage information and use the results to help communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from whatever emergency comes.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”
Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote about preparedness sparked the formation of Philadelphia’s first fire department. Preventing fires and responding to them quickly when they start is cheaper, he remarked to the local citizenry, than standing by and watching them consume entire city blocks and neighborhoods, then having to rebuild what was lost. Assessing the potential for and consequences of natural and other disasters has come a long way since those days of horse-drawn, seesaw pumper wagons.
These days, hazard mitigation planning includes a palette of advanced technologies that Tetra Tech uses to help communities identify risks, characterize their potential impacts, and develop strategies to reduce or mitigate threats to people, property, and infrastructure. Pairing these analytical tools with communication, training, and planning programs makes for a powerful mix.
Getting ready for the worst
New York State learned some hard lessons from the last few hurricanes and is moving aggressively to improve its preparedness, response, and recovery efforts. Anne Cabrera, who leads Tetra Tech’s Emergency Management Initiative, says her team helps clients “think about readiness and response when it’s sunny and 72 degrees outside.”
“Besides being ready, we’re trying to compress the time between the event and the response and recovery,” Cabrera said. Tetra Tech is working with the 14-county Adirondack Regional Interoperable Communications Consortium, a state-funded effort to link first responders, public works departments, nongovernmental organizations, and government agencies on every level involved in emergency response and recovery.
“Integrating plans and building in continuity is the key,” Cabrera said, explaining that Tetra Tech works with communities to plan for water disruptions, power outages, cybersecurity threats, transportation infrastructure, and more.
Also in New York, Tetra Tech’s hydrology and hazard mitigation teams have been working together to model the impacts of large storms in the Catskill Mountains, where Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee blew out bridges and flooded thousands of buildings.
The team used the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Hydrologic Engineering Centers River Analysis System (HEC-RAS) model to reconstruct how flooding impacted the area during those events. They used the results to gain a better understanding of what future storms might be like and what communities can do to mitigate their effects.
The model gave our team a sense of where future flooding would be and where man-made influences were causing restrictions of the floodplain. The team looked at potential mitigation measures such as increasing the capacity of culverts and bridges, elevating or moving facilities, constructing berms and levees, and restoring the floodplains to balance the need to provide reliable protection from flooding, establish natural and sustainable riverine corridors, and maintain the unique characteristics of upstate New York communities.
We used the model to visualize and quantify the impact of flooding, and this helped local stakeholders make critical infrastructure decisions for long-term resiliency of their community.
In Philadelphia, our experts support emergency response options through training and exercises to keep first responders on their toes. Tetra Tech coordinated one of the largest response training events of summer 2015 for the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management—a mass casualty/mass decontamination exercise involving hundreds of first responders, volunteer victims, and agency staff.
Tetra Tech conducts similar exercises as far north as Nunavut, Canada’s largest, northern-most territory. Our team planned, organized, and facilitated a security emergency exercise at the Iqaluit International Airport, which is one of the many services we provide to the airport.
Thinking outside the levee
Most disasters involve rising waters—with some estimates as high as 80 percent being flood-related. Constructing levees along rivers has always been a simple solution for flooding, but making levee improvements and repairs takes time. Tetra Tech is helping implement innovative interim approaches for flood management. The systemwide solution in Ventura County, California, involves a levee system with almost 5 miles of levees, groins, side drains, and bridge crossings.
After the USACE rated the levee as “unacceptable” in 2011, Ventura County officials brought in Tetra Tech to prepare an Interim Risk Reduction Measures Plan and study levee risk and other issues. Ike Pace and his team from Tetra Tech’s Irvine, California, office sorted through complex engineering, regulatory, and environmental issues, as well as stakeholder concerns in developing the plan’s interim actions. They included both structural measures (e.g., visual markers, stockpile materials) and nonstructural measures (e.g., a new flood warning emergency evacuation plan) to reduce flood risks while long-term improvements and repairs are developed and implemented.
“There’s always a lot riding on analytical studies that deal with public safety and property protection risks,” Pace noted. “You’re trying to help the client deal with a lot of complex issues and trying to ensure the highest degree of safety during a difficult period—the time between finding problems and fixing them. You need a team with a lot of varied skills and insights and good working relationships with everyone involved, both internally and externally.”
Sharpening response capabilities
Communities are finding that, when disaster strikes, preparedness pays off. Tetra Tech has developed unparalleled expertise in helping communities mobilize after an event—drawing on their plans, preparation, and training—and getting them the help they need. Our team of response experts brings agility, speed, focus, and balance sharpened by years of experience.
Tetra Tech partners with public agencies struggling to quickly organize emergency response, cleanup, and recovery efforts. Marshalling, deploying, and paying for massive efforts to deal with downed power lines, trees blocking traffic arteries, strewn debris, and clogged drainage channels are the first challenges. Accessing federal funding streams that cover the costs of disaster response that are tightly controlled and subject to high levels of documentation, accountability, and reporting is another.
Delving into the data
One of our strengths is helping local communities work with tools like Tetra Tech’s RecoveryTrac geographic information system- (GIS) linked automated debris management system and HAZUS, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) software for estimating potential losses from earthquakes, hurricane winds, and floods.
RecoveryTrac, which can account for every branch that blows onto streets and property, helps teams streamline the debris collection documentation process, minimizing the cost to our clients. The mobile system, which is compliant with USACE standards, virtually eliminates paper and data entry errors while helping clients manage the enormous volume of documentation.
When it comes to loss estimation, Tetra Tech’s Jonathan Raser says the company is among the leading users of FEMA’s HAZUS package. Tetra Tech uses the state-of-the-art GIS software to map and display hazard data and the results of damage and economic loss estimates for buildings and infrastructure. HAZUS also allows users to estimate the impacts of disaster events on populations. After the 2014 Napa County earthquake, Tetra Tech staff quickly stepped up to serve the county, using HAZUS to simulate the earthquake event and provide detailed damage estimates.
Laura Johnston, who works with Raser, is working with an internal Tetra Tech team to expand HAZUS’s capabilities to estimate losses for other events such as wildfires. “Fires are a huge issue in the west, and nobody else is actively pursuing those kinds of analyses right now,” Johnston said. “It’s all about building capability and capacity. We’ve been doing that for some time now.”
Getting into a little R and R (recovery and rebuilding)
Floods wash out infrastructure, tornados dance their path of destruction, and earthquakes devastate the landscape. Afterwards, the initial response begins to morph into the recovery and rebuilding stage. Maintaining an organized and aggressive sense of purpose and progress in the days, weeks, and months after an event can be much more challenging.
Bouncing back, ready for action
Recovery financing mechanisms drive local action after disasters; the key is making sure that resiliency plans interface seamlessly with available funding.
Tetra Tech helps lead efforts to direct funding to where it is needed most. John Mizerak works on community and economic development after disaster events. “We come in right after the disaster, facilitating public meetings and public sessions with the business community and with the residents, and discuss needs and identify priorities for investing recovery dollars.”
Tetra Tech supports communities in starting the recovery and rebuilding process by helping them access block grants and other funds. Our experts can identify nontraditional sources of public funding that can be used for disaster recovery—from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funding to state and local programs, including money available for green infrastructure, sewer, water, and transportation projects.
Hitting the hard stuff
Tetra Tech has years of experience in the “softer arts” of planning, analysis, communication, funding development, and coordination. But the company’s roots also include decades of the kind of hard engineering and infrastructure installation that makes rebuilding real. A case in point: the Pearl Creek flood in Saskatchewan, Canada.
In July 2014, nearly 8 inches (200 millimeters) of rain fell in Saskatchewan in less than a week, overwhelming a bevy of culverts, bridge crossings, creeks, and rivers. The subsequent flooding prompted 79 communities to declare states of emergency, with 150 eventually applying for disaster assistance. Record high water levels caused widespread damage to property and public assets. The water moved homes and cabins off their foundations.
Roadways were hard-hit, particularly the Pearl Creek crossing on Highway 22, where a 10-foot (3-meter) culvert tried in vain to handle more than 1.3 million cubic yards (1 million cubic meters) of water. As Pearl Creek ponded up behind the culvert to eventually more than 45 feet (14 meters) deep, the road embankment began to erode. When the creek overtopped Highway 22, 130 feet (40 meters) of fill joined the roiling flow headed downstream.
The Saskatchewan Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure turned to Terry Schmidt and his regional transportation team at Tetra Tech. “We were able to meet the client’s objective of having the highway reopened to traffic before winter,” Schmidt said. “In a little over 6 weeks, we completed an engineering assessment of the hydrology of the area and a geotechnical assessment of the foundation, and produced a detailed hydraulic and earthwork design for a 2-kilometer grading project (about 1.2 miles) to reconstruct the 14-meter embankment (about 45 feet) with a new culvert.”
In a little over 100 days, the highway reopened to traffic. Tetra Tech proposed and obtained approval to deliver the project through a design-build approach, which significantly shortened the overall delivery schedule and allowed the highway to be reopened several weeks earlier than if the project had been delivered through the traditional design-bid-build method.
Putting it all together
Building back better is the goal of Tetra Tech’s resiliency development menu of services, which incorporates the full range of assessment and planning tools used in preparedness, response, and recovery activities. Superstorm Sandy sparked serious thinking about how to replace damaged infrastructure in a way that would prevent or lessen future similar impacts. The storm affected 24 states, with losses particularly high in New Jersey and New York, where 59 people died. It caused massive flooding of streets, airports, tunnels, and subways. Thousands of homes were destroyed, nearly 20,000 airline flights were canceled, trains were stopped for several days, and 6 million homes lost power.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is responsible for the airports, tunnels, bridges, marine and ferry terminals, subway system, bus terminals, and major real estate development across metropolitan New York City. The Authority estimated its total infrastructure losses at $2.2 billion. That estimate included flooding at the World Trade Center site; complete inundation of the Port Authority Trans-Hudson—PATH subway connecting New York and New Jersey; closure of the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels; and shut downs at LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy (JFK) International, and Newark-Liberty airports. The losses included damage to vital infrastructure systems (e.g., power transmission, access roads, container terminal equipment, stormwater drainage, and water and sewage facilities) and significant losses in operational revenue for the Authority and its tenants.
Tetra Tech was retained to perform infrastructure assessments and recommend mitigation measures for the Authority’s storm recovery and mitigation program. Tetra Tech’s Michael Bomar, who headed up the project, and his team faced the challenge of quickly getting up to speed at 16 different Authority facilities across both states. They then identified mitigation measures and built consensus across a diverse group of dynamic stakeholders—four Authority departments, FEMA, environmental regulatory agencies, and the applicable state (depending on the project location). They accomplished this for more than 50 different projects across the 16 facilities. On completion of the infrastructure assessments, different mitigation concepts began to emerge and were vetted with a focus on future storm surge protection for the most critical infrastructure elements—pumps, controls, electrical service and switchgear, fire protection, communications, backup power, mechanical equipment, access roads, seawalls and bulkheads, and buildings.
Tetra Tech created and implemented a FEMA-compliant assessment process for the projects in 5 short months, incorporating site visits and interviews and drafting scopes of work involving the different Authority departments and other engineering consultants. In addition, review comments were meticulously tracked and reconciled, detailed cost estimates were developed, requests for additional information were addressed, and mitigation scopes were successfully incorporated into FEMA Project Worksheets. Bomar and his team provided weekly briefings to the Authority’s staff on Tetra Tech’s progress. To date, more than $200 million in mitigation measures have been identified for the Authority’s recovery plan.
Bomar said mitigation measures were initially presented as a menu of options for the multiple Authority facilities and care was taken to incorporate input from the staff at each facility. “You have critical facilities for the residents and economy of one of the most vibrant cities in the world—everything from the Holland and Lincoln tunnels to JFK and LaGuardia to the largest port complex on the east coast of North America with five major shipping and container terminals,” he said. “We made a sincere effort to get to know the staff at each facility, honor their input, and then articulate our recommendations accordingly. We had to tailor our recommendations not only to work technically but also to fit and be accepted at each site—for example, for a variety of reasons, what may be preferred at JFK might not be acceptable at LaGuardia.”
Cosentini, A Tetra Tech Company, has expanded our post-Superstorm Sandy portfolio into the commercial arena with multiple resiliency projects in Lower and Midtown Manhattan and Jersey City, New Jersey. Our team completed a hardening feasibility study for a large, waterfront office building in New Jersey. The building’s ground-floor mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems were significantly damaged by the storm.
The team, led by Josh Zweback, looked at 100- and 500-year proposed advisory base flood elevations and Superstorm Sandy flood elevations to determine the best course of action to protect the systems—raising, hardening, or relocating them. They examined electric service, fuel oil pumps, domestic water pumps, fire pumps, a new telephone room, the fire alarm system, and security systems.
By evaluating a series of diagrams, plans, and sections, our team identified the best options for building systems based on scope, cost, and feasibility. Our recommendations included relocating and raising system components related to domestic water and fire protection, the fuel oil system, and the fire command center. Extensive study found that the commercial electric service could be left in place by implementing protection measures for the building’s backup generator plant.
“These resiliency efforts help retain existing tenants and attract new ones,” Zweback said. He explained that tenants would be able to return to the building sooner after future events because critical infrastructure would be protected or easily and quickly replaced so that the building can be reoccupied safely.
“The lessons learned from Sandy and from other extreme weather events assist us in better planning for disaster and for basic building design,” he said. “Planning for life safety, business operation continuity, and property protection is common to all buildings—but choosing the appropriate resiliency measures for clients based on their specific business need and local conditions is extremely important.”
Resilient people, resilient communities
Raser and Johnston point to the post-Sandy efforts in New York and New Jersey as key indicators of what the future holds for emergency management, community resilience, response, and recovery. “Preparing for events and building back better is what resiliency planning is all about,” Raser said. “And the agencies are really thinking about how to involve people.”
Tetra Tech’s Cynthia Addonizio-Bianco pointed out that the New York Rising project “was unique as it worked with members of the community to focus and prioritize needs.” Instead of a planning process driven by local officials, Addonizio-Bianco and her team helped committees evaluate options for their communities. Our team prepared community reconstruction plans for 11 New York communities affected by Hurricanes Irene and Sandy and Tropical Storm Lee under the New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program, which was launched through the New York State Housing Trust Fund Corporation.
“With New York Rising, the plans were developed by committees of residents—they were instrumental in the planning process,” Addonizio-Bianco said. “The committees used Tetra Tech’s technical and community development expertise to create implementable plans. The residents were invested in the sustainability of their communities and provided a unique perspective on their path forward.”
After everything is said and done, preparedness, response, and recovery all come down to helping people get their lives back. And that is what Tetra Tech has been doing—from disaster drills and planning exercises to coordinating response actions, community reconstruction planning, and hardening infrastructure—we are helping communities throughout the emergency management life cycle so that they can look forward to a brighter future with as little disruption as possible when disaster strikes.