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Dealing With Disasters Down Under

At a lavish state dinner thrown last month in the White House, the cooperative relationship between President Biden and the Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was clearly on display.

One of the main topics discussed by those two heads of state during their time together was climate change. Rising temperatures around the world may have been the impetus for Biden and Albanese to shake hands earlier this year on a special deal brokered behind the scenes at the G7 Summit. Both leaders have now gone public about managing a warming globe through fresh commitments to clean energy and hazard mitigation.  

Around the same time as that meeting, Dr. Gavin Smith, a professor with the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at North Carolina State University, and also a principal investigator at the Department of Homeland Security Coastal Resilience Center, arrived in Australia to carry out disaster-related talks with policymakers and practitioners throughout the coastal region.

Smith brought with him a portfolio of lessons learned over a thirty-year career in hazard mitigation, disaster recovery, and climate change adaptation. The purpose of his 18 lectures over a 21-day period was to share lessons with national agency officials, city staff, professional associations, and university faculty and students while also gleaning lessons from them.

Andrew Gissing, CEO at Natural Hazards Research Australia, led the coordination of meetings to explore lesson-drawing opportunities. Collaborative groudwork had been laid earlier this year as Cyclone Ilsa tore through the outback at the tail end of a particularly torrid wildfire season. The moment was opportune for Smith as he addressed members of parliament in meetings arranged by Gissing and his colleagues.

In addition to governing bodies, Smith met with several agencies and organizations, including the Australian National Emergency Management Agency and New South Wales Reconstruction Authority along with other municipal planners in Canberra and Queensland. Policymakers throughout Australia were keen to hear Smith’s take on managed retreat, to include moving homes and businesses out of areas vulnerable to sea level rise and coastal storms driven by climate change. 

Smith’s trip also involved a visit to New Zealand, where Dr. Wendy Saunders of the Earthquake Commission arranged to make his talks open to local officials, university partners, and the public. A key reason for his visit there was to explore how local communities and the national government are addressing climate change adaptation.

New Zealand’s shoreline spans 9,300 miles, which makes it the ninth-longest in the world. Communities on those coasts are subject to damage from earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfires, tsunamis, and cyclones. Smith understands this better than most. During his last visit to New Zealand in 2019, he happened to be studying the acquisition of hazard-prone properties in the Bay of Plenty region when the White Island Volcano erupted.

Smith has written extensively about buyouts a process by which the government purchases homes and businesses located in hazard-prone areas. He also knows about potential hurdles and consequences when the buyout process is implemented in a community.  Helping state officials respond to Hurricanes Floyd in 1999, Katrina in 2005, and Matthew in 2016 provided Smith with working knowledge on how to proceed when local leaders make land use management decisions under duress. His prior study on what worked in New Zealand after the catastrophic 2011 earthquake in Christchurch also gave weight to his recommendations made abroad.

That tremor triggered municipal actions that Smith cited as examples when speaking in cities like Auckland and Wellington. He described some of those moves as unilateral when explaining the idea of buyouts and how government bodies purchase properties as part of phased relocation efforts. Getting ahead of anything compulsory is generally better than resorting to peremptory alternatives according to Smith.

Avoiding those pitfalls means planning before disaster strikes, compensating property owners, and repurposing acquired land into community assets. Smith emphasized in talks that these actions are built on a foundation of good design and clear funding strategies that help to achieve broader community goals. He also noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has specific rules to govern buyout processes whereas New Zealand and other countries tailor their actions to each unique disaster.

Both approaches have advantages and limitations.

Efforts to refine the buyout process and apply the lessons from both approaches toward the evolving concept of managed retreat are at the crux of studies in which Smith is currently engaged. He and other subject-matter experts like Gissing and Saunders seem to agree that getting everyone on the same page about best practices for coastal resilience is a global imperative.

Multiple authors contributed to this article. 

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