Floods can be devastating for anyone who experiences one. Flooding impacts can be even more intense, however, for vulnerable populations. That includes people who live in poor housing conditions, lack transportation options or possess limited English skills that could hamper their understanding of emergency messages.
Through funding announced last month by the National Sea Grant Office (NSGO), Wisconsin Sea Grant is working with nine communities in northeastern Wisconsin to strengthen their resilience to flooding events by looking at who lives in the most flood-prone areas of a city. Those communities are Sturgeon Bay, Manitowoc, Two Rivers, Green Bay, Algoma, Sheboygan, Kewaunee, Oconto and Marinette.
Work on the new project, which begins this month and continues through the summer of 2024, builds on earlier Sea Grant–supported work using the Flood Resilience Scorecard: a comprehensive tool that helps communities to examine and evaluate their level of flood preparedness on a variety of dimensions.
Jackson Parr, a Sea Grant staff member who served as the J. Philip Keillor Flood Resilience–Wisconsin Sea Grant Fellow from April 2021 until May 2022, will be a key player in this new effort. He worked extensively with the Flood Resilience Scorecard and Wisconsin communities during his fellowship, drawing on his dual master’s degrees in public affairs and water-resources management.
Although Parr’s fellowship work included both coastal and inland communities around the state, the new project will focus more specifically on the Lake Michigan coast, from Sheboygan County northward.
Wisconsin Sea Grant is partnering with the Bay-Lake Regional Planning Commission and Wisconsin Emergency Management on this effort. Parr will work with David A. Hart, Wisconsin Sea Grant’s assistant director for extension; Adam Bechle, a coastal engineering specialist; and staff at the Bay-Lake Regional Planning Commission, including environmental planner Adam Christensen.
“Over the last year, I’ve worked with 16 communities,” Parr said, “and we’ve identified some common gaps across all communities in terms of flood preparedness and flood resilience.”
He found that no community had used spatial GIS (geographic information system) technology to pinpoint where priority populations – those most vulnerable to flooding – live.
This kind of detailed, granular analysis can lay the groundwork for keeping people safer, especially because two places very close to one another can have very different flood risks. Yet doing this GIS work can be challenging to communities for a variety of reasons, such as a lack of resources or administrative capacity.
“These communities are doing a lot of good work in addressing some disparities – just not related to flooding specifically, because that gets into a narrower area than most communities have the capacity to do,” Parr said.
In addition to the GIS work, other aspects of the funded project include running the Extreme Event game – developed by the National Academy of Sciences – in the communities.
“It’s a scenario of a storm event, and random things happen throughout the scenario, and participants have to think how they’d respond,” Parr said. “Then they do back-end reflection on that process.”
Game participants will include local officials and emergency-management staff, but they can also be residents who want to learn more about disaster preparedness and resilience in their community.
“We’ll assist in outreach efforts to communities about participating in the game, screen for underrepresented communities in those areas, contact necessary stakeholders, attain Extreme Event facilitator certification to facilitate the games, and provide local knowledge and mapping services for the team,” Christensen said.
Staff from Wisconsin Emergency Management will also get training in running the games so that they can do them in any Wisconsin community, giving the project a reach beyond the nine cities that are its main focus.
A third outcome of the project will be implementing a Plan Integration for Resilience Scorecard for participating communities. This assessment analyzes the variety of plans a community might have – for transportation, downtown revitalization, or parks and recreation, for example – and helps it to create consistent recommendations for floodplain management and disaster preparedness.
This integrated approach helps to avoid situations such as having one plan that says an emergency shelter should be located in a particular neighborhood, while another document prohibits that shelter location from a zoning angle, Parr said, as an example.
Taken together, the three main components of the project will help northeastern Wisconsin communities be better prepared to face challenges that may come their way, especially during a “perfect storm” event in which high Great Lakes water levels and extreme precipitation combine to cause significant flooding.
When asked about the biggest benefit of this project, Christensen said it’s the word “preparedness.”
“Preparedness so that, when an extreme event occurs, the participating communities will be ready to react in an effective and efficient manner that saves lives,” he said.
To find out more about the project, email Jackson Parr at [email protected].