Climate change in your town, how to mitigate its effects, where to start, and the software to figure it out
WT Interview with Atkins Global, SNC-Lavalin Climate Team advising FEMA
May 25, 2022
"For a long time, communities have really struggled to understand how climate change will impact them. The folks at Atkins are working on providing tools, and providing answers to that question, to make it easier to know what to do (today) about climate change in the future."
"We tend to think about the (climate) resilience of organizations, counties, and countries, but it’s really about people, about individuals and their basic needs.
WT: Welcome to each of my guests, go ahead and tell us what you do, Phetmano, you can start.
Phetmano Phannavong: I am a Senior Project Manager with SNC-Lavalin. I have about twenty years of experience in water resources engineering projects and program management, here in the US, particularly on flood policy and programs. I have been supporting US Federal, State, and local governments, particularly Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on many tasks related to the national flood insurance program, among other things. Thank you for having me today.
Stephen Bourne: I am a Project Director at Atkins (Global). I am the Lead Architect on our product called City Simulator, which is a software tool for creating “digital twins” of communities and evolving them into the future to look at what impacts climate change is going to have. It’s really a tool designed for communities to understand what actions they can take to make themselves more resilient in the future.
Daphne Martin: I am based in San Antonio, Texas. I work on the External Communications team for Atkins/SNC Lavalin. I help to coordinate interviews like this, send out press releases and just make sure that we’ve got consistent messages going out, and that the right experts are talking to the right media.
WT: This group helped FEMA develop its flood strategy, is that a correct statement? What part did you help to develop?
Phannavong: I think you mentioned the press release, the FEMA Building Code Strategy, that’s what FEMA announced last week. It is a strategy to get all FEMA programs and policies aligned when talking about building codes. Building codes talk about not just flooding but other natural disasters, earthquake, and wind. Broadly, when we talk about climate resilience, and resilience in general, (building code strategy) is one tool, getting all the programs aligned within the agency, talking about one message, the same strategy from the federal out to the state and local (levels).
WT: When I read FEMA about Climate Change, whether flood or fire-related, they seem to talk about “protect, accommodate and retreat”. Is that what you are working on for FEMA, the idea, “should you be here?”, or “should you leave in the first place?” How does this apply to building codes?
Phannavong: Taking a step back, I want to highlight one document released recently, the FEMA 2022-2026 Strategic Plan. This is even broader than the Building Code Strategy, the new five-year strategic plan to talk broadly about emergency management, before, during and after a natural disaster. This is talking about all disasters, and how we can prepare the states and local communities in preparing for climate impacts.
WT: Can you tell us a couple of examples of how a building code is impacted by something like this?
Phannavong: Well, (building code) is focused on flooding, there are multiple flood provisions in the building code.
Building code adoption is (at) the state and local levels. At the Federal level, FEMA’s role in the US is to incentivize, through grant programs.
FEMA policy with giving grants is that if they provide (funding) to rebuild public facilities, they have to be built to the latest building codes
Some communities, county, and city levels adopt differently. Some communities did not even have the latest or even modern building codes. It’s that kind of effort that FEMA tries to incentivize, encouraging state and local (governments) to look at the latest information, the latest data, and to be specific on floods.
As you may know, FEMA produces a flood hazard map throughout the country. The building code has requirements and regulatory flood elevation.
WT: Would this updated building code, with the modelling and suggestions have made a huge difference in Houston, when the temperature dropped severely for several days and people were dying? Would this have made a difference in Houston?
Phannavong: Yes. I don’t know exactly what codes they currently have, but yes, that would be helpful if they had the codes to help the design professionals to look at (all) parameters, for flood, for energy, for property management. There is a lot of design criteria in the code.
It’s not just the International Code Council that produces modern codes every three years. With FEMA, in general practice we promote the highest standards, if the modern code can be upgraded to add even more protection, (FEMA) can do that, and go above and beyond. Code organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), among other code and standards organizations, update their standards every year based on the latest technology and climate change data. We want to promote this and keep up with the latest version.
Bourne: I think it is important to note that Atkins is one company in a joint venture called STARR II that serves FEMA. FEMA is our top client, we have hundreds of employees working for FEMA to assist them with things like building codes, but also through supporting research, to figure out which direction the building codes need to go, to provide the most protection. That’s the part I am with, I work tangentially with the building code changes.
You mentioned the cold snap in Houston. That’s an example of something that the research community is just starting to get a handle on, in terms of climate change impact. The idea is that the gradient of temperature between the poles and the equator is changing. As a result of that, the jet stream that essentially holds the cold air up in the northern latitudes is starting to not do that, from time to time. (We) are starting to get cold snaps in the southern locations where we didn’t before.
This is in the realm of research, it’s not confirmed, it’s just a hypothesis.
(It could be) we have to adjust the insulation requirements in the building codes to ensure that a Texas property if hit by temperatures like that, won’t get dangerously cold.
WT: You developed the city simulator with an incredible amount of detail, can you tell us what that was like to develop, and how it works?
Bourne: Important to note, that City Simulator is not a FEMA product, this is an Atkins project. We started developing it in 2010-2011 with a program our CEO was running at that time, called “Future-Proofing Cities.” City Simulator is the tool that grew up out of that program.
The idea is you create a digital twin of a city or county. (We) include people, infrastructure, buildings, and as much detail as we can get into it. We simulate climate change hitting it from present-day to the year 2100. Through that, we can start to understand not just in general how the temperature and rainfall happen, but we can see what impacts will happen on the ground to individual people as these changes occur.
So, City Simulator becomes a very powerful tool for understanding: one, vulnerabilities; two, we can add adaptation and mitigation measures, and test them in “what-if” scenarios.
In terms of mitigating transportation, it means things like elevating bridges, so the roadway does not get over-topped when flooding occurs. It means elevating houses, so in a flood, they are not flooded. Buy-out programs, FEMA participates in these, the idea is that if a home is repeatedly getting flooded, they just buy it out and relocate the residents to a safer location.
All those different adaptation and mitigation options you can lay out in the digital twin, then run it out over the century and see the return on investment (based on) the resilience we are adding.
WT: You did a hard study in Boulder, can you tell us about that? Simulators often point out things we didn’t see coming. What were some of the climate effects that were different than expected?
Bourne: That’s right, we did a City Simulator for Boulder, Colorado, with the County of Boulder Department of Transportation, so it was focused on transportation.
The principal result, we found we could really isolate the top ten disruptors of the future, meaning the bridges and culverts where future flooding is really going to disrupt traffic in Boulder.
We could quantify how much traffic will be disrupted by the failure of pieces of infrastructure, rank them and then address the top three.
What we found doing a study like that, including incentivizing people, and distributing funding across the County to flood-proof their houses, we found that fixing only three bridges solved more problems than any other scenario, simply because of how the transportation system works.
Without doing that simulation and study, you really can’t get to this kind of conclusion. It’s very convincing when you fill out a grant application! The proof is that Boulder County was funded to redesign and elevate those bridges, a project underway right now.
WT: When I talk to City Managers, I often ask in interviews what is being done to prepare for climate change, and I get back awfully generic answers: “Oh yes, we have established a climate committee to look at this”, and then nothing happens, and no one follows through.
From your points of view, should City Managers be on this a whole lot more than they are? I see here, that levels of poverty, education and income data are needed. Do you need a huge task force from a city to gather all the information into the software? Is the volume of input maybe why City Managers are not moving to use (City Simulator) as fast as they maybe should be?
Bourne: Barriers to entry, yes. One of the high-level requirements we set for this tool when we built it was, that we need to be able to do this study in a twelve-month period, in the same time period a city would do their Master Planning process. It needs to be able to be done for the same budget as a Master Planning process.
The only way we could do that, without blowing the budget, is to leverage previous studies. We are simulating flooding, not reinventing the wheel; we use FEMA’s existing flood models, pulling results from (the models) at the locations of interest. We are standing on the shoulders of previous investments, and making those investments produce a better return.
In the end, the Boulder study was a twelve-month project. There is a bit of a heavy lift in terms of the city participating. We insist that all the stakeholders get involved in the process. Addressing climate change is not something you can do with just the City Planning department alone, we need everybody on board: the Dept of Transportation, Utilities, Planning, and the Mayor. All have to be in agreement before the needle gets moved and something gets done.
Phannavong: I want to share my experience working with cities. Early on, about ten years ago when media and communities first started talking about the impact of climate change, we knew something was coming, but it was hard to understand the science and the data back then.
The challenge in the cities is to connect science to the practice. There is a big gap there. I think it’s getting better, to understand how much and how fast all these numbers are changing. Sea level rise, we know it’s rising, but what are we talking about, one foot, three feet?
There is a lot of uncertainty about the future, especially for the smaller communities. They need help to make it simpler; to the level of a number, what number are we talking about? What sea level do our engineers have to design and plan for?
City Simulator makes it easier for them to make a decision. There are a lot of variables, and a lot of parameters to think through. Having a tool to help communities decide, I think will go a long way, otherwise, it is difficult to incorporate all the data.
WT: Of the hundreds of interviews we do here,e when I ask cities if they are getting prepared for climate change, most of the time what I hear is, “Yes, if we experience flooding, we will get on that”. I don’t hear anything about poverty, the fact that the impoverished will be affected more. I get a lot of generic responses, “We’re not near a water body, so (climate change) won’t affect us.” I wonder if we could work together to offer City Simulator to small towns or mid-sized towns. Not to be too pushy, but there are fires, there are extreme hot winds, and extreme cold winds because the gulf stream is moving, would it help for us to reach out and offer?
Bourne: Yes, for me anyway. I have done these City Simulator applications across the US and Canada. One truth that pops out every time is that climate change is local and very specific to the community. You do not find the same conclusions in one community as another. It’s difficult to use a broad brush, you have to do the specific work for each city, and find its vulnerabilities and risk points. In some places we find the city is already resilient, there can be good news, it’s not doom and gloom all the time. In some cases, we find surprises!
WT: Give us an example of a surprise from the City Simulator software.
Bourne: A positive surprise, I will start with that. We have a sister software called Seaport Simulator. We applied to Transport Canada and got a grant for the Port of Prince Rupert, in BC. The idea behind it was to find out how resilient the Port is.
We are simulating cargo containers going from Asia through the Port and to Chicago and Montreal over the next eighty years. One conclusion we found, again, from the latest research, was that projected tropical storm activity in the northwest Pacific actually decreases. So, specific to that Port and those shipping lanes, we found it gets better, a positive surprise for them.
Similarly for tidal range, the sea level rise expected is point two metres (.2m), so not much compared to other places in the world. The tidal range they deal with normally on a yearly basis, the difference between high and low tide is something like eight metres. So, .2m projected sea-level rise -- they are ready for this. (Climate impacts) are not going to be a business-stopping event at Port of Prince Rupert.
You don’t necessarily know these things as a matter of fact. You have to do one of these studies and understand it, and say what if this thing we are counting on, like sea level, changes? Sometimes you find out you are already resilient. Of course, you need to continue to be vigilant and always be improving your resilience, but it can be a positive discovery sometimes.
Phannavong: To add to what you just asked, I just want to step back. When we talk about resilience, a lot of organizations CEOs, and countries will come up with their own version of the definition, of what resilience is about.
I think we all agree the general concept of resilience is for a system to be able to bounce back after a shock or stress, or disaster.
More and more, we need to be concerned with the basic human needs to be met first, having concern for the most vulnerable in the disaster, before we (talk about) bouncing back.
More and more in the US, in Canada and around the world too, there is a change in the conversation of climate impacts and equity. I think these terms go hand in hand now. In fact, President Biden issued an Executive Order earlier this year to focus on US federal agencies' programs and policies, and how they address equity.
WT: Can you tell my viewers, what equity means in the face of climate change?
Phannavong: In broad terms, every community has a different capacity to bounce back from the climate impacts. Different communities or individuals may require different kinds of help, and different levels of assistance to bounce back.
You talk about the small communities, maybe they need more help. We can’t just look at policy and programs in a similar way for all communities. We have to be more nuanced.
Let’s say if you are going to give out assistance, grant programs, maybe you prioritize to the communities that need more help and offer technical assistance for the communities that don’t have staff to put the grant application together because they probably can’t compete with the bigger communities, the more sophisticated communities.
WT: Right, is it similar to what happened in New Orleans parish, where people did not have the budgets to hire the big-time consultants to apply for these assistance programs?
Phannavong: Right now, FEMA has many programs to start talking about technical assistance, to provide the communities technical assistance so they don’t have to go after funding to hire consultants or hire employees just to make the applications. Big communities have their own sophisticated GIS data to analyze, and the small communities are still using spreadsheets.
WT: Everyone must be able to access the same information. If I am in a tiny municipality, and I want to look at flood data, and gulf stream movement, I need money to access the Esri databases, is that what you are getting at?
Phannavong: Yes, the same information should be available to everybody, at the national level, state, or local level, we should be able to provide easy access for all, useful information for them to utilize.
WT: So for a town or city that wants to use City Simulator, would you have a general cost or timeline?
Bourne: It is designed to run along the same timeline as a municipal Master Planning process, typically a twelve-month process. We at Atkins are the ones building the digital twin for you and running the scenarios, so it does require the services of an Atkins expert team to do the project.
WT: Thanks so much for doing this, this is one of the best interviews I have done on climate change in a long while. Thank you, Daphne, for setting this up.
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