When a record-breaking 2008 flood ravaged the Central School in Ottawa, Illinois, inflicting irreversible damage on the structure and leaving more than 400 students without a school building, Michael Sutfin was still finding his footing as the City of Ottawa’s floodplain manager. Sutfin, a longtime Ottawa building and zoning official, was appointed as floodplain manager only the year before, after a series of yearly floods wreaked havoc on the city’s stretch of riverside land. Though contention built up around the issue of whether to keep the school at the same site or relocate, the best next step ultimately seemed clear to Sutfin: Buy and demolish the building, take the school and its students far out of the vulnerable area, and rebuild the Central School at the city’s highest point.
This wasn’t the first time Sutfin and the city’s floodplain management team would chip away at the structural history of Ottawa to anticipate major flooding, nor would it be the last. The team’s flood plan hinged on a buyout program that the city initiated in the 1990s, offering home and business owners in high-risk areas a way out of the increasingly dangerous floodplain.
Over a span of fifteen years, the City of Ottawa purchased more than 80 buildings to open up the floodplain, and since 2009 developed a Flood Commission and extensive flood threat recognition and response planning. The buyout program was at times met with opposition: Some locals accepted flooding as part of the culture of living in a river town, and some found it painful to part with the memories attached to the buildings that the city would buy and often replace with green space. Though Sutfin’s popularity as floodplain manager saw a steady decline, he stood his ground—with an eye fixed on the next big flood.
In early June, Sutfin and the City of Ottawa took home the grand-prize Judges’ Choice award from Solution Search’s third contest, “Reducing Our Risk: Innovation in Disaster Preparation.” Ottawa and a handful of other organizations, including the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, Restore America’s Estuaries, American Littoral Society and University of New Orleans–CHART received top prizes at the Solution Search award ceremony atop the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Finalists made their way to the ceremony from different corners of the country, representing a range of unique strategies for handling extreme weather events. All ten, however, share a common goal: helping American communities become better prepared for weather-related disasters.
Extreme weather events have physically and financially devastated American communities throughout the country’s history. Hurricanes have wiped out massive chunks of southern and eastern coastline, drought has swept through the Corn Belt and West Coast, and tornadoes have torn Midwest towns apart. From 1980 to 2010, there was an average of three to four weather events per year that caused at least $1 billion in damage. In 2012, natural catastrophes alone killed 349 people and caused more than $60 billion in damage. Each Katrina and Sandy shakes Americans awake to the daunting reality that the U.S. is not doing enough to prepare for large-scale weather disasters.
I think the contest is a motivator unlike any other.”
Katie Carpenter of the Cedar Hill Foundation
As dark as the collective American experience with extreme weather has been in the past, bright spots in disaster risk management can be found, if you know where to look. For Rare, making meaningful strides in disaster preparedness starts on a small scale, by tapping into innovative ideas tucked away at the local level. Rare’s online initiative, Solution Search, crowdsources and celebrates proven local solutions in conservation and development, and gives them room to grow.
Solution Search launched “Reducing Our Risk” to not only hand monetary prizes to organizations for their smart solutions in disaster risk management, but also to provide finalists with a public platform and a chance to engage in dialogue with equally driven peers in their field. “I think the contest is a motivator unlike any other,” said Solution Search speaker Katie Carpenter of the Cedar Hill Foundation at the ceremony’s finalist workshop. “Some people are pushing a very large rock up a very steep hill. They need that assist. They need another person on their team. Today we saw a lot of different project managers get positive feedback from their peers.”
In the lead-up to the “Reducing Our Risk” award ceremony, Rare brought the project managers from all ten finalist organizations together to bounce ideas around, practice pitching their efforts to different stakeholders, and speak to experts in risk management.
For People’s Choice Award winner Mark Brehl of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project (FWPP), the support system FWPP brought back from engaging with other finalists was overwhelming. “For me, the greatest value of Solution Search is knowing that other people are going through similar processes in their own communities,” says Brehl. “Even though their projects may be vastly different, we still all have a community that we hold dear, that we’re working to support.” Brehl finds reward in “just knowing that whatever issues we face, I have a network of people in other areas that may have a different view than me, that can help provide some insight and give me something to think about that I may not have considered in my own little world.”Mark Brehl and the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project work to protect the Flagstaff, Arizona community from severe wildfire and post-fire flooding. Flagstaff experiences wildfire every month of the year, with a number of those fires consuming vast tracts of forest and communities in their path. In turn, wildfire can reduce the land’s organic matter to ash, creating hydrophobic soil and paving the way for post-fire floods as seasonal monsoon rains arrive. As severe wildfire and flooding sweeps over the area, the people of Flagstaff and surrounding communities may face injury or death, evacuations, smoke, home loss, and crippling individual and citywide financial loss.
In 2012, the Flagstaff community voted to approve a $10 million bond supporting the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project. The project is a partnership effort between the city, state and the Coconino National Forest created to reduce the risk of fire and flooding in the rocky terrain of the Rio de Flag and Lake Mary watersheds. “Our project is only a couple of years old, but in reality, we’re standing on the shoulders of all those that have done so much before us in the last 20 years,” says Brehl.
FWPP has treated hundreds of thousands of acres of forest both within and adjacent to the city in the past decade, and the wildfire that passed through those treated areas was safely suppressed with minimal damage. FWPP’s goal is to create a more resilient forest, better protect the firefighters that battle each severe event, and help communities adapt to withstand a large fire. “In many cases, we’ll allow fire to do what it did naturally, where it’ll help reinvigorate the forest ecology and maintain the structure and functions of our forest,” says Brehl.
For Brehl, the mere recognition that FWPP is on the right path in managing a longtime threat to the Flagstaff community is a win in itself. “It gives me hope, that what we’re doing is the right thing and people are watching,” says Brehl. “Hopefully they can take what we’re doing and be inspired, and use that for their own communities’ benefit.”
Coming out of his experience with Solution Search, Judges’ Choice winner Mike Sutfin shares the same optimism about scaling up, as he moves to expand Ottawa’s flood risk strategies to other flood-prone communities. Sutfin’s confidence in the City of Ottawa’s ambitious buyout program and open floodplain is backed by the city’s consistent resilience against record flooding in recent years. After the City of Ottawa bought and demolished buildings to clear out the floodplain, the city’s planning measures were tested by an all-time record flood in 2013. This time, the landscape had changed.
The new open floodplain embraced the river and resumed its natural function. Ottawa’s planning left the city’s hospital, schools and wastewater treatment facility relatively unharmed and saved millions in potential financial losses. “It’s scary, when we think about all that we went through and all the years of work,” says Sutfin. “And now, we have these huge open spaces and we can kind of smile and look at them, when the water comes up and goes down. It’s not a big deal anymore. It has changed the history of our community.”
Illinois State Senator Sue Rezin quickly took notice of Ottawa’s resilience in the 2013 flood. Since then, Rezin and the City of Ottawa have put together a regional coalition on flood risk management with 20 communities in five different counties. “Now, we can move this forward by setting up a model,” says Sutfin. “Get this thing on paper, and replicate it. Get different legislative districts on it, and let them know: Here’s how we did it, and here’s how you can do it.”
For Sutfin, Solution Search provided refreshing perspective from new allies in risk management. “This might be the most powerful networking tool I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Sutfin at the finalist workshop. “Just the people I sat with this morning have offered more out of the box creative ideas and contact information than I’ve had in the past maybe eight years. I’ve got some serious new ideas moving forward, on how I’m going to get these communities to buy into this.”
Rare’s greater hope in holding the Solution Search “Reducing Our Risk” contest is that proven solutions like Ottawa’s floodplain project and Flagstaff’s forest restoration work can find their way into more communities across the country. Americans are looking for answers: A recent survey of 200 local governments by the University of Michigan identified that more than 80 percent of American citizens want access to relevant disaster risk reduction strategies, and more than 70 percent want to know how other local communities are implementing solutions. With help from collaborative efforts like Solution Search, those answers may not be as far from reach.
Solution Search: Reducing Our Risk judges include former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, The Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore, former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, and the leaders of MunichRe America, TransRe, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Evangelical Environmental Network, and the Robertson Foundation. This contest’s partners include Evangelical Environmental Network, MunichRe, Rare, Save the Children, The Nature Conservancy and TransRe, and its sponsors are The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.