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City resilience

Sandia analyzes effects of rising sea levels in Norfolk

Analysis method available to cities that want to become more resilient

In Norfolk, Virginia, an East Coast city that’s home to important seaports, catastrophic flooding could damage more than homes and roads. A new study from Sandia assesses how much the city, its region, and the nation would suffer in damages to lost economic activity if it does nothing to address rising sea levels.

In partnership with the City of Norfolk’s Resilience Office and 100 Resilient Cities (100RC), pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation, Sandia analyzed the risk to important assets, quantified their value and helped Norfolk prioritize the most effective ways to stay resilient in a natural or manmade disaster.

Sandia created an Urban Resilience Analysis Process to help reframe the conversation in Norfolk regarding flooding and demonstrate how the long-term benefits of mitigation outweigh the short-term costs associated with it, systems scientist Robert Jeffers (6921) says. The city and region are now taking new approaches to handle the resilience challenges posed by rising tides and water management.

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A holistic framework

The process, now available to other cities, is a holistic framework. It includes key elements of Sandia’s critical infrastructure modeling and simulation tools, risk consequence assessment, and systems analysis expertise to show cities the most effective investments they can make to become more resilient, Robert says. The report also shows individual cities how their resiliency affects other cities in their region, the nation, and the world, he adds.

To prove the analysis process works, Sandia analyzed Norfolk’s vulnerabilities in the face of a nor’easter, a storm that blows in from the northeast and brings severe coastal flooding, erosion, and hurricane-force wind, along with economic damage. The work was done in partnership with 100RC, which currently works with a global network of 67 cities to better prepare communities like Norfolk to withstand natural or manmade disasters, recover more quickly, and emerge stronger.

“Sandia Labs provided Norfolk with an invaluable level of expertise and technical support through this partnership. The systems analysis they produced gave the city new data and insights into the value and interdependencies of its economy, as well as the relative strengths and vulnerabilities of its infrastructure,” says Amy Armstrong, director of city relationships for 100RC. “This data and analysis will be crucial in Norfolk’s future planning efforts, and it is my hope other cities in the 100RC network are also able to take advantage of this sophisticated analysis to help make them more resilient to the inevitable shocks and stresses they will face.”

Since 2001, Sandia has conducted consequence analyses at a national scale at the Department of Homeland Security’s National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center (NISAC), jointly housed at Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories. DHS created NISAC to assess the impacts of a variety of threats to the nation’s critical infrastructures. The research foundation built by NISAC made it possible for Sandia to build its detailed analysis of Norfolk’s infrastructure, Robert says.

Report identifies risks to infrastructure

“Recently, a lot of people have come to the realization that cities are where the rubber meets the road,” says manager Eric Vugrin (6921), who leads Sandia’s 100RC work. “It’s the cities that have the governance and operational responsibility to get things done.”

In the first step of the Urban Resilience Analysis Process, Sandia experts work with city personnel, utility and industrial representatives, and emergency planners to identify potential disasters and infrastructure critical to the city. That initial step will inform later decisions about investment priorities, Eric says.

Then decision-makers identify acute and chronic problems for the city and develop resilience metrics to measure the effectiveness of different solutions. In Norfolk’s case, Sandia estimated direct economic losses to local businesses and indirect losses to local, national, and international businesses.

While such analyses would take into account multiple scenarios and infrastructures, Sandia’s report was limited in scope to show what such a process can do for cities. Sandia looked at four critical infrastructures — electrical power, telecommunications, transportation, and its fuels — and the economic damage that would result from disrupted services in Norfolk and the region.

Analysis can detail city’s national, global importance

Sandia researched the effects of a 100-year flood in three scenarios of net rising sea levels of 0, 1.5 and 3 feet and created maps at a resolution of 10.9 yards (10 meters) to show how far inland floodwater would reach. Experts then overlaid electrical substations, roadways, telecommunications centers, and fuel infrastructure to show the flood’s impact, Robert says.

The analysis focused on the Norfolk International Terminal, one of the nation’s busiest ports; and Lambert’s Point Pier 6 Coal Terminal, the largest and fastest coal transport facility in the northern hemisphere. Pier 6 and two other coal terminals in the region account for about 40 percent of all coal exports from the

US  and about 70 percent of coal shipping capacity on the eastern seaboard, Robert says.

Norfolk is “critical to coal transportation nationally and globally, particularly for coal blended for metallurgical uses, such as steel production,” Robert says.

By providing cities like Norfolk with data to quantify their national and global importance, Sandia helps them build their cases for obtaining funding to pay for infrastructure investments, Eric says.

Quantifying impacts helps cities prioritize

The Regional Economic Accounting Tool developed by Sandia found that regional direct and indirect economic impacts in the four days following the flood ranged from $354 million to $606 million, depending on which of the three scenarios the model used, according to the report. Indirect economic impacts might include disruptions to the regional supply chain or losses to businesses dependent on infrastructure and related businesses that suffered flood damage.

“The city itself might not be able to afford all the flood mitigation they require, but if you look at the national security and national economic implications, the performance of the city of Norfolk is important and there may be national incentives to help them build resilience into their city,” Eric says.

Norfolk Chief Resilience Officer Christine Morris adds: “The opportunity to work with the experts at Sandia on the development of an Urban Resilience Analysis framework provided the city of Norfolk with an incredible opportunity to better understand how to prioritize investments. Giving cities access to world class analytical talent like Sandia is exactly what is needed to build resilient cities.” 

While Norfolk’s report was limited in scope to show how the concept worked, such analyses can be applied to any disaster, for example, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, cyberattacks, power outages, or terrorist attacks. And, cities can choose to analyze any number of critical infrastructures or solutions, the researchers say.

Eventually, Norfolk can determine the most cost-effective investments by plugging in a variety of solutions or combinations of solutions into the model, which will simulate the economic outcome of each choice, Robert says.

With more research and development, Sandia aims to improve the analysis tool and make it more user-friendly for cities, Eric says.

“City planners don’t have time to learn the sophisticated mathematical models in the tool,” he explains, “so Sandia is asking how we get to the point where we can simplify this framework and hand it over to the cities for their use.”