Planning to enhance resilience in Orange Beach

By: Melissa Schneider / Published: May 05,  2014

Believing that “forewarned is forearmed,” the City of Orange Beach teamed with the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Social and Environmental Research Institute (SERI) to assess vulnerabilities to climate-related threats to the coastal Alabama community.

Since storms and other weather events, part of life on the Alabama coast, are expected to increase in frequency and intensity as a result of climate change, Orange Beach wanted a plan. In July 2012, they brought elected official together with planners, resource managers and stakeholders to blend local knowledge with climate science in a local community planning effort. The seven-hour meeting was facilitated by Seth Tuler and Thomas Webler of SERI to employ the Vulnerability and Consequences Adaptation Planning Scenarios (VCAPS) process. This interactive process integrates local knowledge with climate science to create “influence diagrams” that link local climate stressors, consequences, vulnerabilities and potential management options to prepare the community for the inevitable challenges of late summer storms and the intense rainfall events that impact the northern Gulf coast year-round.

The process involved information provided by locals, with process guidance from the SERI facilitators. Each diagram started with a climate stressor, like “heavy rainfall.” Local participants identified outcomes associated with that stressor, like “runoff” and “infiltration.” Causal chains were developed from initial outcomes in logical series, like, “groundwater infiltration,” then “elevated groundwater,” and then “flooding of buildings and low areas.” Consequences (effects of the outcomes impacting things people care about) exert some sort of loss to things people value (e.g., “wet wallboards, carpets and floors, then “property damage,” and then “legal costs”).

Then they looked at factors, or vulnerabilities – like the duration of wetness – that could make the area more or less vulnerable to stressors, outcomes, or consequences. For instance, would the duration of wetness make things better or worse? Answers were added to the diagram on participants’ recommendations. The more detailed the causal chain, the easier it was to identify and envision possible management actions. For each object in the diagram, participants were asked questions like: What needs to be done to prevent or mitigate this? What is the best way to perform this action? Who should address this action?

A completed VCAPS diagram provides the building blocks needed to adapt to and manage different scenarios likely to occur during storms or weather events. The Orange Beach process resulted in a Workshop Report with diagrams for Heavy Rainfall and Severe Coastal Storms that summarized information, knowledge, and experience from community members; identified issues for further exploration or data needs; and stimulated thought and conversation about management of consequences by those charged with hazard management.

It also led to an update of the Orange Beach Emergency Operations Plan.  Participant evaluations expressed great enthusiasm for the process and its value to planning, and comments included:

  • Real-time diagramming supported understanding and sharing of information.
  • The process helped to keep the participants focused on the process as opposed to personalities and contrasting viewpoints.
  • Self-generated scenarios were more credible.
  • It placed relatively few demands on the time or resources of local officials
  • I really enjoyed it. Meetings are so dull. And this is fun!
  • VCAPS provided a valuable framework for effective and important planning for coastal Alabamians, for whom resilience is a necessity.

*Tom Herder is the watershed coordinator at the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program.*


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