How the City of Fort Collins is Making Community Resiliency a Reality

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“Our city’s leaders believe that assessing and improving resilience offers assurance to our citizens, businesses, and other stakeholders that our community will be stronger and a better place to live.”

(Getty Images)
Guided in part by a new resilience planning guide, the city of Fort Collins, Colorado, has made a commitment to consider the impacts of policies and regulations on the economic, environmental and social health of the community. (Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Fort Collins, Colorado, Mayor Pro Tem Gerry Horak.

Fort Collins has learned some valuable lessons about resilience owing to its exposure to extreme weather events that reinforced our vulnerability to the forces of nature, including climate change. These events have reminded us just how important planning can be in confronting potential disasters. Heeding the warnings, we are in the midst of comprehensive resilience planning efforts and taking actions to improve the quality of life and avoid the loss of lives and livelihoods. Our efforts also may help other communities in dealing with natural, technological, and human-caused hazard events that could become disasters.

Why Communities Need Greater Resiliency

In 1997, a devastating Spring Creek flood killed five people in our community.

In 2012, the High Park Fire on the edge of our community was recorded as the third worst fire in the state in one of the hottest years on record.

One year later, the community – and entire region – experienced flooding of biblical proportions with 12 inches of rain in two days. We normally receive about 17 inches a year. The wildfire scarring from the 2012 fire exacerbated the impact of the flooding in 2013. Fortunately, we had taken action after the 1997 flood; Fort Collins upgraded culverts, built pre-sedimentation basins to separate particulates from raw water before it entered the water treatment plant, and integrated our Flood Management Plan with strong local regulations. Those efforts paid off. We sustained only minor property damage after the 2013 event, despite its magnitude.

In 2014, a study showed that the number of our extremely hot days has increased over 20 years. It revealed that Fort Collins had experienced twice as many 90-degree days in the past 14 years as it had in the previous 39 years – a wakeup call for how the city and our citizens will need to adapt to a changing climate.

resilience_plan_500x1250Fort Collins is Taking Action

Clearly, we needed to do something to deal with prospects of future weather- and climate-related challenges that put our community at greater risk.

“We learned many important lessons from the 1997 Spring Creek flood that devastated our community,” says Mike Gavin, Emergency Manager for the City of Fort Collins and Battalion Chief for Poudre Fire Authority. “We worked hard to mitigate future impacts by improving our processes and infrastructure, but must be vigilant to reduce risk when possible. The more tools we have, the more versatile we will be when something happens. From different resiliency and risk management models, we’ll pick and choose new methods or upgrades for components and systems to assist continuous improvement,” according to Gavin.

All communities rely on an evolving and interconnected network of buildings, energy, communications, transportation, and water and wastewater systems. Because of the high cost of recovering from disruptions and disasters, the need for communities to be more resilient is not just a local issue, but is also important at the regional, state and national levels.

Communities that are more resilient experience less physical, financial and psychological impacts from events – and they have a shorter and smoother recovery. Our city’s leaders believe that assessing and improving resilience offers assurance to our citizens, businesses, and other stakeholders that our community will be stronger and a better place to live. It’s part of the “resilience dividend.”

Building on previous steps to reach the next level, in 2016 Fort Collins was one of only 12 areas selected by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to receive a Regional Resilience Assessment. This planning process considers impacts and mitigates risks to our buildings and our critical infrastructure from natural, technological and human-caused hazards.

Multiple partners are involved to assist Fort Collins through this process, including:

  • DHS Office of Infrastructure Protection
  • Idaho National Laboratory
  • Larimer County
  • Colorado State University
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

Working with NIST

Unifying this process, Fort Collins is using the NIST Community Resilience Planning Guide for Buildings and Infrastructure Systems in a pilot program to develop a long-term resilience plan. We are among the first to test the full NIST six-step planning process.

A sample of how a community might use the NIST guide.
A sample of how a community might use the NIST guide to assess the recovery time of its critical facilities.

The NIST process is intended to help communities by:

  • Setting performance goals for vital social functions, like healthcare, education and public safety, and supporting buildings and infrastructure systems – transportation, energy, communications, and water and wastewater.
  • Recognizing that the community’s social and economic needs and functions should drive goal-setting for how the built environment performs.
  • Providing a comprehensive method to align community priorities and resources with resilience goals.

This vision fits Fort Collins’ commitment to the triple bottom line – to consider the impacts of policies and regulations on the economic, environmental and social health of the community. Working with our partners on this project we expect to obtain a complete characterization of the community’s built environment, dependencies among social services, and identification of prevailing hazards. This should lead to the development of long-term goals for improving community resilience and an action plan with identified strategies and periodic progress evaluation. Importantly, this plan will be integrated with our other community planning efforts.

We don’t expect overnight miracles, and our resources are limited. We know that resilience takes place over time. Fortunately, hazards are not an everyday occurrence, and actions to improve resilience can offer immediate dividends beyond resiliency. That’s why we are planning now and moving forward in ways that reflect our community’s priorities. The NIST Guide is a very helpful tool for doing just that.

Click here for more information about the NIST process.

Gerry Horak is Mayor Pro-Tem in Fort Collins and a member of the NLC Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee. He can be reached at ghorak@fcgov.com.