Public Release: 

Planners aim for coastal growth in all the right places

Texas A&M AgriLife Communications

HOUSTON -- When it comes to helping coastal communities be more resilient to weather hazards, ideas don't need to be sandbagged, experts say.

That's why the Federal Emergency Management Agency has granted $750,000 to a program that already is experienced in working with city leaders along the Texas coast and other Gulf states.

"We're the first cooperating technical partner in this region that FEMA has funded to go in a new direction with community outreach," said Steven Mikulencak, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service program specialist with the Texas Coastal Watershed Program.

Mikulencak said whereas FEMA previously had contracted with state agencies and others for technical needs such as mapping, the new project aims specifically at reaching out to municipalities before a storm in order to devise ways to prevent loss to lives and property through better planning and overall community improvement.

A tabletop electronic tool known as CHARM, Community Health and Resource Management, is used to visualize the impact of various planning choices. It will be part of a $750,000 grant managed by the Texas Coastal Watershed Program. (Photo courtesy of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service)

A tabletop electronic tool known as CHARM, Community Health and Resource Management, is used to visualize the impact of various planning choices. It will be part of a $750,000 grant managed by the Texas Coastal Watershed Program. (Photo courtesy of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service)

"People tend to think about hazards in terms of emergency response," said Dr. John Jacob, AgriLife Extension specialist and director of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program. "This is more about 'deep' resilience long-term. It turns out that those things that improve a community's quality of life -- things like walkability and more parks and vibrant spaces -- will also make a community more resilient in terms of coastal hazards and any number of other problems."

The project, which is jointly administered with Texas Sea Grant at Texas A&M University, includes three components: county resiliency support, training for city leaders and a digital scenario mapping workshop for citizens and officials. It is part of FEMA's Community Engagement and Risk Communications program for Region 6, which includes Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. Initially, the project will target municipalities in eight Texas coastal counties, Mikulencak said.

For the community resiliency support, the project will help communities identify municipal planning options -- including community design -- that mitigate coastal hazards in order to pair those with state and federal resources, he said.

In addition, the five-course training segment will include instruction on legal and regulatory issues for city planning, as well as policies that can reduce risks for floods and other hazards, while building a better community, Mikulencak said. The growth scenario planning workshop will teach people how to use a hands-on tabletop electronic tool known as CHARM, Community Health and Resource Management, to visualize the impact of various planning choices.

Also, as part of the grant, CHARM will be expanded to include online data aimed at ultimately making the tool more useful throughout FEMA's Region 6, Mikulencak said.

"This is going to allow communities -- on very short notice -- to be able to develop their own customized planning scenario mapping application and do 'what ifs' tests of growth to understand the risks of flooding and storm surge and other things," Mikulencak said. "That's because planning isn't just one issue. It's a balancing of tradeoffs to accommodate growth and bring in new people, parks and recreation, flood mitigation, transportation and employment. All these things come together in planning."

The team will be working with communities one-on-one to get a better understanding of what their priorities are in terms of planning, development and growth, Mikulencak said. That information will be used to prepare a score or framework for the coast, which in turn will enable them to align better with state and federal resources for those priorities.

"And FEMA will be in a better position to respond to the actual needs of the community," he added.

"Coastal growth in all the right places" is the operative term, Jacob said.

"If we are putting homes in the wrong place, this is not a good practice," he said. "If we can avoid a hazard to begin with, that changes the equation for response and recovery, and it changes the need for expensive infrastructure projects. Our niche, in looking at resiliency from a planner's perspective, is really about good policy and good planning choices and educating communities about the risks."

"This is a great new role for Extension, but it is one we were made for, " Dr. Doug Steele, AgriLife Extension director, said of the grant. "Extension is already engaged in the communities throughout the state. We have a tried-and-true model of involving university and other resources in the service to the people of Texas, and this project will help take use to a new level for engaging urban people in the 21st Century."

Dr. Pamela Plotkin, Texas Sea Grant director, said the project will build on work begun in the Corpus Christi area.

"This is an outstanding example of partnerships among organizations with similar goals. The project will further strengthen the Sea Grant-Land Grant relationship and build a new bridge to FEMA," she said.

The Texas Coastal Watershed Program is a joint effort of AgriLife Extension and the Texas Sea Grant Program.

For more information, contact Mikulencak at 281-218-6128, smikulencak@tamu.edu or see http://cerc.tamu.edu.

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