Parks and Natural Disaster Preparedness

May 1, 2013, Department, by Joel Pannell

When public-service agencies are identified as first responders for emergencies and natural disasters, park and recreation departments are not often thought of as being near the top of the list. Increasingly, however, parks and public land agencies are starting to play an essential role in emergency preparedness and disaster response. This is especially true for events related to natural resources and land management, such as floods, hurricanes and other extreme weather events. As critical components of protective infrastructure, parks should be seen in a new light — as essential investments for the public good, which are therefore deserving of funding and stewardship. This is a new element to advocacy for parks, but it may prove to be one of the most compelling reasons for elected officials to support park and recreation expenditures.

Unfortunately, we now live in a world where both the frequency and intensity of natural disasters are increasing. The costs of responding to such disasters and rebuilding damaged infrastructure has made every community start to look more seriously at how they can prepare for the unthinkable and who and what they need for effective response.

Communities across the country are looking at better ways to incorporate emergency preparedness and disaster response into long-term planning, especially in terms of green infrastructure solutions, that is, the use of natural systems and resources to slow and stop the destructive force of damaging stormwater. Communities that have been hit or those that are likely to be hit are developing better long-term plans for protecting developed infrastructure, particularly through use of natural systems, and more efficient means of responding and recovering from the damages that floods, storms and other events leave in their wake. They are finding that parks and public recreation lands can play an important role in both preparation and response strategies while at the same time providing many benefits when they are not defending against storm events.

Last October, Superstorm Sandy devastated the northeastern seaboard, resulting in nearly 150 deaths, destruction or damages to more than one million homes and businesses, and an estimated $70 billion in damages in New York and New Jersey alone. Proponents of using natural systems to defend against such extreme weather damage noted that shoreline areas protected by natural or manmade dunes avoided total destruction and suffered significantly less damage.

In the aftermath of Sandy, dunes along the New York and New Jersey coast proved their incalculable value in protecting shorelines in those coastal towns that had protected their dunes or committed to long-term rebuilding projects. By and large, these areas were spared much of the major damage seen in neighboring communities that did not have protective dunes. The dune barriers consisting of sand and vegetation served as soft sea walls that still protected many communities along the coastline even as they were breached and, in some cases, completely flattened. After Joe Vietri, director of coastal and storm risk management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, toured the damaged coastlines that took the brunt of the hurricane’s 12- to 14-foot storm surge, he was quoted in The New York Times in December 2012 as saying, “The difference was dramatic for areas with vital and healthy dunes systems, which did better than those that did not.”

As communities recover from the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy, many are reconsidering their views on dunes. For the most part, it is prohibitively expensive to build such dunes on private land. Realistically, they must be built on public land, and in fact, it is the only way states and the federal government will share in the costs of building them. Some homeowners and local governments in New York and New Jersey had opposed the construction of dunes, citing concerns over loss of oceanfront views and property values. They also spoke up about the potential loss of privacy due to signed easement agreements allowing public access to private beach areas, as required by the Army Corps of Engineers in order to use public funds on dune construction and other coast-protection projects. This view, characterized by some as choosing ocean views over ocean protection, has drawn heavy criticism from many, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. At a recent Long Beach, New Jersey, meeting, he stated, “I want to make it very clear to you that we are building these dunes, whether you consent or not,” in reference to the state’s plans for a new system of protective sand dunes along the entirety of the 127-mile Jersey shore.

Aside from dunes, there are numerous other ways in which parks and recreation agencies prove to be an essential community resource in preparing for, and recovering from, disasters and other threats. Many public park and recreation agencies throughout the country manage flood-control dams and stormwater retention basins. Floodplain lands are often acquired as public parks and programmed for conservation and passive recreational use. For example, the City of Mesa, Arizona’s Parks, Recreation and Commercial Facilities Department (PRCF) operates and maintains 133 ponds, wetlands and floodway areas that serve not only as stormwater retention areas, but also as parks that are available for public use. Many of these parks provide opportunities for open sports field play, playgrounds, paths, picnic pavilions and more. Maintenance of these properties is funded through an Environmental Compliance Fee that is charged to all utility customers in Mesa on a monthly basis. Created in 2006, this fund has provided supplemental funding for the PRCF Department. Previously, all maintenance, utilities, inspections, etc. were covered by the general fund. Since the establishment of the Environmental Compliance Fee fund, all associated costs were shifted to this restricted source, freeing up General Fund dollars to be spent in other areas of park maintenance and operations.

Park and recreation agencies also play an essential role in responding to damage caused by extreme weather events and natural disasters. Many agencies provide support or even take a lead role with other city departments and agencies in providing temporary shelter and emergency-care services for affected residents in community centers or other park and recreation facilities. Park and recreation personnel sometimes arrange for the acquisition and transportation of food assistance to affected areas following a major disaster. They are often extremely resourceful and well-equipped to respond to emergency situations with heavy equipment, trained forestry personnel, trucks, boats and other specialized equipment that is valuable in first response. Equally, park personnel have unique knowledge of their community’s infrastructure, so they often support first responders in their efforts to reach affected citizens by clearing fallen trees, debris and other barriers.

The critical role of parks and recreation in emergency preparedness and disaster response should be emphasized to the public and to elected officials. Parks and recreation departments are essential service providers and an invaluable resource when disaster strikes and our communities need us most.

Joel Pannell is NRPA’s Outreach and Advocacy Specialist.