Climate Change, Resilience and Fairness - How Nonstructural Adaptation Can Protect and Empower Socially Vulnerable Communities on the Gulf Coast

Utilizing case studies from extreme flooding events, this paper synthesizes lessons learned, hazard mitigation strategies, and best practices in adaptation. The focus is on nonstructural adaptation strategies such as disaster planning and mitigation, and property buyouts. The best practices for implementing nonstructural adaptation strategies are also discussed with respect to impacts on, and solutions for, vulnerable communities. The paper is grounded in three case studies of flooding events that each caused widespread damage, occurred across a range of demographic and socio-economic conditions, and involved both structural and nonstructural post-disaster adaptation strategies.

Review nonstructural strategies that could support adaptation within frontline communities. 

Nonstructural adaptation strategies include risk assessments, pre-disaster planning and risk mitigation, developing post-disaster recovery strategies, implementing floodplain regulations and obtaining flood insurance, implementing land use regulations or zoning ordinances, and educating the public about the risk from natural hazards. While having similar risk reduction goals, the case studies illustrate how these strategies differ depending on the geographic location, topography, and socio-economic circumstances. 

The report describes flooding disasters and adaptation strategies in case studies on:

  • Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and its impacts in Louisiana and Mississippi;
  • the 2008 Midwest floods and the impact in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and
  • Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and its impacts along the East Coast. 

The New Orleans case study found that nonstructural adaptation strategies and pre-disaster mitigation plans were “incompletely conceptualized by state and local governments and local communities and incompletely implemented.” The report describes some of the obstacles to planning and pre-disaster mitigation strategies, and why some vulnerable communities did not take advantage of funding available to develop pre-disaster plans.

The case studies highlight best practices for implementing and administering nonstructural adaptation strategies in vulnerable communities. For these communities, minimizing the time for implementing disaster relief programs and disbursing aid is crucial. The report details some strategies for supporting at-risk communities during disasters:


  • Develop a targeted communication strategy for reaching out to vulnerable communities
  • Protect vulnerable communities from being preyed on by unscrupulous disaster entrepreneurs and contractors
  • Ensure that vulnerable communities qualify for federal assistance from the outset of the program
  • The nonstructural adaptation strategies of flood-proofing by elevation and voluntary property buyouts and acquisitions are discussed in detail as related to each case study. 

Elevation as Flood-Proofing
 This section gives an overview of the benefits and concerns of elevation, and describes the elevation programs in Mississippi and Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina, noting the particular impact of these programs on vulnerable communities. This section offers lessons learned from and best practices for implementing the elevation strategy - as well as additional case studies:

- Case Study: Mississippi’s Homeowner Assistance Program

- Case Study: Louisiana’s Elevation Grants In Louisiana, homeowners interested in elevating their properties could obtain financial assistance through three programs: the Road Home program, the HMGP, and the NFIP Increased Cost of Compliance program.

Voluntary Property Buyouts and Acquisitions While voluntary property buyouts provide long-term protection against flooding and sea level rise - they don’t always align with local communities or residents’ expectations. The report describes this controversial strategy - and examines the buyout and acquisition programs implemented after the 2008 floods in Cedar Rapids and Superstorm Sandy.

- Case Study - Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Cedar Rapids’ Voluntary Property Acquisition program was established after the 2008 Flood, in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Iowa State Homeland Security and Emergency Management, U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the River Corridor Redevelopment Plan consultant group.

- Case Study - New York and New Jersey: In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, and Superstorm Sandy, the New York and New Jersey both implemented voluntary buyout programs. However, New Jersey’s policies favored rebuilding and remaining on coastal lands while New York’s policies favored voluntarily moving away from vulnerable areas.



Publication Date: April 2016

Related Organizations:

  • Center for Progressive Reform


Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Best practice
  • Case study

States Affected:


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