Adapting To A More Extreme Climate, Coastal Cities Get Creative In preparation for sea level rise, vulnerable cities are building infrastructure to protect themselves. But as a look at New Orleans and Philadelphia shows, the strategies are unique to each city.
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Adapting To A More Extreme Climate, Coastal Cities Get Creative

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Adapting To A More Extreme Climate, Coastal Cities Get Creative

Adapting To A More Extreme Climate, Coastal Cities Get Creative

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/473995512/474411604" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Coastal cities are looking for ways to protect themselves from extreme weather and rising sea levels. The U.S. has no set funding stream for this, which means that cities are often doing it alone. Now, a look at two of them, starting with New Orleans and Tegan Wendland of member station WWNO.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: On a sunny afternoon in New Orleans, Jeff Hebert stands in a swampy, green field.

JEFF HEBERT: One of the biggest challenges of the next several decades is going to be water - either too much of it or not enough.

WENDLAND: In New Orleans' case, of course, the problem is too much. Hebert is chief resilience officer for the city. His job is to help it prepare for disasters like hurricanes and rising sea levels.

HEBERT: You see a lot of driveways that are buckling, the streets that are buckling.

WENDLAND: But it won't look like this for long. The city is experimenting with pervious surfaces and water-absorbing parks. Small single-story ranch homes line the street in Gentilly, a residential area along Lake Pontchartrain. It was one of the worst-hit areas after Hurricane Katrina.

HEBERT: Over in this corner, you'll see a huge sports field that will be allowed to inundate underwater when it rains. You'll see a - almost a creek that will go through here.

WENDLAND: It will include water features in medians to reduce flooding, lagoons and a pond. That city just won a competitive $141 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build this resilience district. That's in addition to $2 billion in relief payments the city just received from FEMA. Robin Keegan helped the city apply for some of those grants. She works with GCR consulting and says, after Hurricane Katrina, the city faced some hard choices.

ROBIN KEEGAN: Every system had to be looked at anew because everything was broken, and we had to fix it.

WENDLAND: She says the reason it's getting federal and private money to come up with new ways to deal with water is because it's already been hit again and again. But not every city has the cachet or the same level of crisis that New Orleans has. I'm Tegan Wendland in New Orleans.

SUSAN PHILLIPS, BYLINE: Here in Philadelphia, those big checks from government and private entities aren't rolling in. I'm Susan Phillips from member station WHYY. On the one hand, the city isn't as vulnerable as New Orleans, but some of its neighborhoods are expected to flood from rising tides along the Delaware River. To pay for upgrades, it has to turn to its residents, who pay a storm water fee each month. For most, it's only a few bucks, but for others...

GINA RUCCI: So I get this bill for $300 and - I don't know - $30.

PHILLIPS: Gina Rucci operates Popi's, an Italian restaurant in south Philadelphia where, several years ago, she bought an adjacent property and turned it into a parking lot.

RUCCI: And I wasn't thinking about a water bill because there was no water on the lot.

PHILLIPS: But the city charges her for the water runoff from her parking lot. To reduce that bill, she recently found out about a program where the city encourages green infrastructure - things like rain gardens, tree trenches and green roofs.

RUCCI: Once your own ground here becomes permeable, that water's going to just sink.

PHILLIPS: Today, Rucci has cut her water runoff bill by 60 percent. So far, Philadelphia has built hundreds of green infrastructure projects in streets, parks and parking lots. And green infrastructure is cheaper, especially compared to more traditional engineering approaches, like building a large concrete tunnel to hold the extra water. Chris Crockett is an engineer with Philadelphia's water department in charge of planning for climate change.

CHRIS CROCKETT: We could - instead of doing these greener practices, we could just go and dig a hole to China and build a tunnel. But that has a huge carbon footprint.

PHILLIPS: And it's not just the carbon footprint that's a problem. That hole-and-tunnel approach would've cost the city's rate payers $10 billion dollars and taken decades complete. The thousands of rain gardens, green roofs and tree trenches will cost the city around $2 billion. For NPR News, I'm Susan Phillips in Philadelphia.

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