Flood Resilience Planning – A Starting Point for Critical Infrastructure Protection

In our busy day-to-day lives, few of us think about the critical infrastructure that makes our way of life possible. We don’t recognize the interconnectedness of the roads we drive on, the places we work and learn and which provide our medical care, or the facilities that power all those places. And rarely, if ever, do we imagine what we would do without them.

In 1996, the United States established a national program for what it defines as “Critical Infrastructure” – that which is “so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety.” These include the infrastructure our communities rely on every day, such as public works, transportation networks, our healthcare infrastructure, and the networks that support financial services.

The program anticipates many kinds of risk, the most common being natural hazards including earthquakes, tornadoes, and floods. While it can be difficult to predict where a tornado might strike or when the next big earthquake will occur, flood risks are knowable. In Indiana and elsewhere in the United States, communities can use floodplain mapping data to identify where critical infrastructure is in harm’s way and take steps to protect it.

Challenges in Protecting Critical Infrastructure from Flooding

Flooding is one of the most common natural hazards in the United States and causes many millions of dollars in damages to infrastructure each year. While most communities, particularly those in flood-prone areas, understand the importance of flood control and hazard mitigation plans, they may not be aware of how their planning fits into the larger context of critical infrastructure protection. Understanding the connection between all the different types of infrastructure in our communities combined with the fact that so much of it is privately owned can make comprehensive protection difficult.

Flood resilience planning can be an excellent starting point for protection because it takes critical infrastructure into account and provides a framework for communication and coordination between public and private stakeholders. Flood resilience planning focuses on developing strategies to reduce flood risk in the long term through better land use planning and the development of standards and ordinances that go above and beyond minimum protection.

Protecting Critical Infrastructure from Flooding Begins with Planning

Critical infrastructure protection begins with threat and vulnerability assessments to identify the infrastructure at risk and the severity of their risk. However, the risk that flooding imposes may be more obvious with some types of infrastructure than others.

With regard to new facilities, the best way to mitigate risk is avoidance. Today, municipalities focus on local-level requirements and have often adopted ordinances based on the one percent annual exceedance probability (AEP) flood (also known as the 100-year flood) elevation to guide the approval of new infrastructure projects. However, these protections may no longer be sufficient, particularly for critical facilities. Consider that most of the critical infrastructure currently in harm’s way is vulnerable because the ordinances that were in effect at the time it was constructed were not always sufficient to protect against the more frequent and more intense rain events that are increasingly common today. Likewise, ordinances today that are based on the one percent AEP floodplain may not afford the protection we will need in the future.  In fact, the most recent guidance documents suggest that critical facilities should be placed outside the 0.2 percent AEP (500-year) floodplain or – at a minimum – should be protected to that level.

For existing vulnerabilities, relocating the facility offers the most protection, but it is also the most expensive option and often isn’t possible. Relocation usually occurs only after a disaster makes rebuilding elsewhere more cost-effective than flood-proofing the existing structure.  However, in many cases flood-proofing an existing critical facility may be the only feasible choice.

Thinking About Critical Infrastructure in Broader Terms

While a community’s hazard mitigation plan may address the protection of hospitals, drinking water facilities, wastewater treatment facilities, and other critical public facilities, what happens when flooding shuts down one or more of the community’s major employers for an extended period of time putting large numbers of residents out of work?

This scenario became all too real for the residents of Columbus, Indiana and the Cummins Engine Facility, one of the area’s largest employers. In the aftermath of the 2008 flooding in south-central Indiana, which caused more than $100 million in damages to its Columbus facilities, workers weren’t able to return to their jobs for about a month.  Hoping to avoid repeating that experience, Cummins implemented flood resiliency planning and the plant is now protected to the 2008 flood level (a level even higher than the 0.2 percent AEP flood level at the site).

Critical Infrastructure Protection Doesn’t End When the Plan is Complete

As noted earlier, flood resilience planning provides a starting point for critical infrastructure protection. Without a doubt, communities that develop flood resilience plans will have a solid foundation for more comprehensive protection. However, having a plan is not enough. Engaging public and private facilities early in the planning process and helping them be more proactive in their facility resiliency planning will lead to more successful planning and provide more protection for the critical infrastructure on which we all depend.

The frequency and magnitude of floods – especially here in the central United States – , threatening ever-greater losses in our communities. Flood losses described in financial terms cannot begin to describe the human cost inflicted by flooding in our communities such as job losses and displacement, interruptions in the utilities their homes and businesses depend on, and difficulty in accessing the healthcare facilities in their neighborhoods, to name a few. By planning for critical infrastructure protection now, we can reduce these costs, helping to ensure that the next big flood doesn’t become the next big disaster.