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Global Cities Get Help Preparing for Natural Disasters and Extreme Weather

May 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Judy Woodruff reports on a $100 million initiative to better prepare 100 cities around the world for natural disasters and extreme weather, both natural and man-made. Judy Woodruff talks to Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, and Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado about the importance of making more resilient cities.

GWEN IFILL: Now: helping cities better prepare for natural disasters and extreme weather.

Judy Woodruff has the story

JUDY WOODRUFF: The damage caused by major weather events in recent years has often been enormous, costly, and led to bigger problems, cities and towns flooded by Superstorm Sandy, electrical power grids taxed beyond their capacity during extreme heat waves, and the flooding caused by both Hurricane Katrina and the levees themselves that were not adequately designed for the storm.

Scientists say no one disaster linked with climate change, but they also say some may be linked with climate change and the rise in greenhouse gases. Last week, the government reported that carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas, has reached its highest levels in human history.

Now the Rockefeller Foundation is hoping to spur cities to create new plans to better adapt to the times and to make them more resilient when disaster does strike. The program will allocate $100 million dollars to 100 cities around the world over the next three years.

We look more closely at that with Judith Rodin, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, and Miami’s Mayor Tomas Regalado.

For the record, the Rockefeller Foundation has been a NewsHour underwriter.

Welcome to you both.

Judy Rodin, to you first.

Tell our audience what you mean by resilience.

JUDITH RODIN, Rockefeller Foundation: Resilience is really the ability to withstand shocks more effectively and to rebound more quickly.

So it’s a capacity that can be learned. It’s built into individuals, to communities, to systems and institutions. And in this era, where we don’t know where the next shock, the next type of storm is going to come from, but we know pretty certainly that it’s going to happen. Building in the ability to withstand is really a huge preventative effort and very, very needed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have heard so much about sustainability, about preserving the environment, and yet just a few days ago, we heard the carbon dioxide levels are at their highest numbers in human history.

Does this suggest, what you’re doing suggest that the fight to keep the environment from going off the deep end is really over and now it’s about surviving the worst?

JUDITH RODIN: No, not at all.

And so this starts with the assumption that we have to continue sustainability and mitigation strategies. But it also understands the reality, and once-every-hundred-year storm becoming once-a-week storm somewhere, that so much of climate change that’s already occurred is leading to these huge shocks, huge storms, wind, hurricane, tsunami.

And cities are going to have to adapt to that at the same time that they’re building their excellent and overdue sustainability and mitigation strategies as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are some examples, Judy Rodin, of what cities need to be thinking about and doing?

JUDITH RODIN: Well, cities need to build redundancy. They need to build in the capacity to wall off a piece of a system if it fails, so that the entire system isn’t taken down.

Let’s use a smart grid. As I worked on the commission, chairing the commissioner for Gov. Cuomo in the recovery of New York State from Superstorm Sandy, we looked at putting in — and the governor is recommending this — smart grid technology.

And it really does youth both sustainability and resilience principles, because it takes energy from any source, traditional sources, as well as alternative energy sources, and it uses whichever one is both most available and the lowest cost at any single time through a very complicated monitoring system.

And then it’s also able to draw from geographically any part of the system. So if one part goes down, it can draw from another part. So there’s a delinking in the networking, as well as redundancy in the system that really does create the resilience that the electric — that the electricity system is going to need going forward in every city.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mayor Regalado, as mayor of the huge city of Miami, what does an initiative like this mean to you? What would it mean for Miami to be the recipient of one of those grants? What kinds of things would you be able to do that you can’t do now?

MAYOR TOMAS REGALADO, Miami: Well, I think it’s important for Miami, and I think it’s a great program.

Miami checks all the boxes, because we are on the coast. Construction has been wild. And we have, like, 70,000 people living right on the edge of the water. So the storm surge, the storms will affect — you know, we live on the edge from June to November. That’s hurricane season, and we haven’t had a hurricane since Katrina and Wilma, but we remember those.

And, so, what do we do with that money? Well, number one, we could have one person, one office dedicated year-round to look at the way to outreach and get through the people and especially to invest in technology. So, when we have a storm, the first thing that happens here in Miami is the electricity goes off. And then we can use that technology to reach out to our first-responders and all that.

The fire department is the agency in charge of responding to emergency, as you know, and they are in charge of our emergency system. But they have to do other things throughout the year. So, if we could have one office, one person and some money for technology, it will be fantastic, because we will be always prepared.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mr. Mayor, just staying with you, what about the idea — people have looked at something like this and they say, well, that’s typically the function of government, not of the private sector, not of a nonprofit, a foundation, to be doing this.

How do you feel about accepting money like this from a foundation, if you were to receive it?

TOMAS REGALADO: Well, you know, there is a new normal now in the United States. After the economy went back, cities have to cut budgets. And it’s — unfortunately, but that that’s the way it is.

So the new thing is to partner with the private sector. And I think that it’s important that foundations like the Rockefeller foundations will understand that governments do need help for a specific reason. You know, we are not — we don’t want a million dollars just to add it to the general fund, but for a specific something, going outside our general budget.

It will be fantastic. And I think that the people would appreciate it, because it is there as a buffer to warn them, to inform them, and to tell them that we are always ready during the year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Judy, go ahead.

JUDITH RODIN: Judy, this is not just to replace government.

Certainly, this is not enough money to even imagine doing that. The role of philanthropy is to be leverage and risk capital. And, here, there’s going to be billions of dollars in infrastructure that are necessary in cities like the mayor’s around the world.

And our goal is to help and give the technical assistance and the support, so that the cities can really access private sector capital that right now is sitting on the sidelines waiting to invest in this kind of infrastructure in public/private partnerships.

The mayor has just done a brilliant one in the Port of Miami. And so he knows what the example is, but we have been struck. Even knowledgeable mayors around the United States don’t yet know the kinds of technical and policy framework that might be best for their cities to crowd in the private capital and make them partners in building resilient infrastructure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s a fascinating venture getting under way right now.

Judith Rodin, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, and Mayor Tomas Regalado, the city of Miami, we thank you both.

JUDITH RODIN: Thank you.


JEFFREY BROWN: And, online, we have a roundup of how escalating natural disasters have affected communities across the country.