northeastern university seal

This post is a part of our series on private infrastructure resilience – or lack thereof – during major disasters. Learn more here.

In previous installments of this week’s blog series on leveraging Opportunity Zones to build infrastructure resilience, the Global Resilience Institute has examined several cases in which the failure or prolonged disruption of privately held infrastructure can pose serious – and expensive – challenges for the public. With all of our critical systems so in inextricably connected, local disasters can quickly cascade into national crises. For people located in disaster afflicted areas the reliance on private infrastructure means that their livelihoods and property are directly linked to the resilience of those systems. Fund managers across the country lining up to invest in the Opportunity Zones have an imperative to put money into projects that ‘bake-in’ resilience, both to protect their investments and to ensure that the communities they are located in and the workforce they depend on are not splintered when a disruption inevitably occurs.

New Orleans Post Katrina
An aerial view of flooded neighborhoods and businesses in downtown New Orleans taken Aug 31, 2005 (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Jeremy L. Grisham)

One of the most striking examples of the long term impacts of a lack of resilience on a community is the decimation of housing, both private and public, when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. According to The Data Center, the population of New Orleans was roughly cut in half a year after the storm damaged 70% of occupied residences. This led to the largest housing operation in US history, organized by FEMA, and subsequent lawsuits when this logistical challenge led to numerous health problems associated with the temporary housing. This isn’t a short term problem; FEMA housing was used for seven years after the hurricane. Ten years later, the population was only about 80% of its pre-Katrina levels, and a study from the National Institute of Health found that among those that moved back, many were living further from the downtown area likely due to the lack of affordable rental housing. Communities still have yet to recover and reform in the areas impacted by Katrina.

RELATED |  North Carolina’s private dams create large public problem

Housing is not the only challenge to community continuity after a disaster; residents and families must also be able to return to work or else they will be forced to relocate. In 2016, the Fort McMurray wildfires burned almost 1.5 million acres in Alberta, Canada. Though relatively little damage was done to the oil producing infrastructure itself, workers were not receiving income during the prolonged shut-down of operations. This was compounded by the evacuation of Fort McMurray and delays in insurance payments which led to a slower reentry and recovery of the area as a whole. This can have a much larger long-term effect than the immediate challenges to resuming daily operations. At a workshop hosted by GRI in September 2017, a representative from a major employer with headquarters in the Pacific Northwest explained that if infrastructure recovery was delayed after a major disaster, such as a 9.0 earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, the company would have a duty to its shareholders to relocate. If several major employers were to reach the same conclusion, it would devastate the local community and economy as well as limit the local resources available to rebuild.

RELATED |  Lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy on the cascading consequences of fragile fuel supply

Investing in resilient infrastructure does not only help community members, but rather everyone with a stake in that community. If housing and businesses remain operational, there are existing funds and resources to rebuild from within the community, rather than relaying heavily on government help. Further, the owners and operators of even unaffected infrastructure systems retain more of their user base. Opportunity Zones are providing an incentive to invest in the communities that are currently the most fragile; making those investments resilient benefits everyone involved. Wise investment on the part of the Opportunity Fund managers can be used to bolster critical infrastructure and provide communities with more resilient homes, more reliable utilities, and greater social capital. At the same time, the businesses and projects that they invest in will become less susceptible to failure and just as importantly, ensure steady support and workforce from the communities they rely on.

To learn more about Opportunity Funds, read the first installment in this series of blog posts:

As disasters increase, Opportunity Zones could turn the resilience investment tide