Bringing together elected officials and coastal managers for coastal resilience

Story Map: Success Stories in the Making

The Coastal Counties Resilience Challenge invited rural, coastal counties in the Gulf of Mexico to form multidisciplinary teams and attend workshops focused on improving coastal resiliency. Teams were required to consist of at least one county elected official, one state or regional coastal manager and one local professional staff member with coastal management duties.

The workshops were hosted by the National Association of Counties (NACo), the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), the Coastal States Organization (CSO), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

During the first workshop, held October 15 -17, 2018 in Fairhope, Alabama, expert facilitators and practitioners guided teams to develop or improve plans and policies to protect and strengthen both their natural habitats and economies while addressing unique local challenges. It included panel discussions, skill-building sessions, small group exercises and team presentations. Following the workshop, each team continued to receive technical assistance and mentoring support.

The program culminated in the November 2019 workshop held in South Padre Island, Texas, which followed up on the progress made by the teams over the course of the year. Teams presented their accomplishments, identified opportunities for further collaboration, and received additional training by experts in the field. Speakers presented on the resilience topics that the teams identified as their most pressing needs: economic resilience, mitigation, community outreach and education, watershed planning, and the Community Rating System (CRS).

Conversational themes from the event included the importance of strategic partnerships, building trust, and meeting face-to-face; how communities can better accommodate their most vulnerable populations in preparing for and recovering from a disaster; and programs and resources that counties can use to enhance their resilience.

Four teams, from Harrison County, Mississippi; Santa Rosa County, Florida; Cameron and Willacy Counties in Texas; and Calcasieu and Cameron Parishes in Louisiana, were chosen to participate in the program. Each team’s unique situation, challenges, and objectives are described below.

Santa Rosa County, Florida

Population: 184,313 (as of 2019)

Team members: *

  • Cynthia Cannon, Senior Urban Planner - Santa Rosa County Development Services Center
  • Sam Parker, Commissioner - Santa Rosa County Board of County Commissioners
  • Brad Baker, Emergency Management Director - Santa Rosa County Emergency Management
  • Katie Wilhelm, Planner and Environmental Programs Coordinator - West Florida Regional Planning Council
  • Jerrick Saquibal, Chief, Bureau of Hydrology and Engineering - Northwest Florida Water Management District
  • Steve Rhodes, Local Manager, Santa Rosa County - Gulf Power
  • Tanya Gallaghar, GIS Coordinator - Santa Rosa County
  • Chris Verlinde, Santa Rosa County Sea Grant Extension Agent - Florida Sea Grant
  • Shelley Alexander, Environmental Programs Coordinator - Santa Rosa County
  • Karen Thornhill, Floodplain Manager - Santa Rosa County
  • Nancy Model, Grants Assistant - Santa Rosa County
  • Sheila Fitzgerald, Grants and Special Programs Director - Santa Rosa County
  • Shawn Ward, Fair Housing Coordinator - Santa Rosa County
  • Darryl Boudreau, Watershed Coordinator - The Nature Conservancy
  • Kerrith Fiddler, Assistant City Administrator - City of Pensacola
  • Whitney Gray, Florida Resilient Coastlines Administrator - Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Coastal Office

Partner: NACo

Santa Rosa County is one of the fastest growing counties in Florida. It serves primarily as a bedroom community for Pensacola and nearby Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base. The military and defense-related industry is a top economic driver, followed by tourism and agriculture. The county has a rich diversity of coastal resources and a significant amount of water resources, including the Blackwater, Escambia, Yellow, and East Rivers; Escambia, Blackwater and East Bays; and Santa Rosa Sound as well as the Gulf of Mexico. Altogether, the county has over 81 miles of rivers and streams and 100 miles of tidally affected shoreline.

Santa Rosa County is heavily affected by extreme weather and climate-related hazards. In terms of natural hazards, the county is most at risk for floods and hurricanes; it has been included in 12 natural disaster declarations since 2004. Floods in the county are attributed to riverine flooding, coastal surge, overland sheet flow and ponding. There is a high probability of flooding in the county, with at least one incidence of localized flooding annually. Older subdivisions are especially vulnerable since they were not built in accordance with current lot grading and finished floor elevations requirements, and they lack appropriate drainage infrastructure. Although the county has demonstrated a strong, ongoing commitment to flood mitigation, it faces resource limitations, substantial infrastructure needs, and urban runoff due to development.

The team’s original action plan was to determine their baseline vulnerability to hazards by conducting a vulnerability assessment and a Coastal Community Resilience Index (CRI) assessment. Following these assessments, the county hopes to use the results to improve their CRS rating and establish stronger private-public partnerships to pursue funding opportunities to reduce their hazard vulnerability.

Additionally, by participating in the Coastal Resilience program, the team hopes to:

  • Balance population growth, economic development, and natural resource preservation in areas along the Escambia, Yellow and Blackwater rivers; tidally affected shorelines; and population centers, including the unincorporated coastal community of Navarre
  • Learn of new mitigation and adaptation techniques, economic diversification strategies, steps for building energy redundancy, consensus-building methods, and funding opportunities
  • Share their replicable efforts with similarly situated counties
  • Identify funding sources and regional partnerships to pursue, specific projects to implement, and potential improvements to coastal policies and plans
  • Identify locations that would benefit from nature-based infrastructure as an alternative to traditionally constructed seawalls and riverbank structures
  • Gain the ability to implement strategies and recommendations from the forthcoming Regional Climate Mitigation and Adaptions Task Force final report
  • Update the comprehensive plan, land development code, and flood mitigation plan to include state-of-the-art adaptation and mitigation techniques

Since participating in the program, Santa Rosa County has had several workshops on the topics of flood insurance, flood risk, and sea level rise, and participated in the CRI/CHARM Pilot Workshop. They also created a story map to share the accomplishments of their resiliency team and provide a platform for access to resilience tools, and are building a flood risk calculator that will identify vulnerable communities and assess flood insurance cost for rebuilding homes.

Calcasieu and Cameron Parishes, Louisiana

Population: 203,436 in Calcasieu Parish; 6,973 in Cameron Parish (as of 2019)

Team members: *

  • Laurie Cormier, Coastal Zone Manager - Calcasieu Parish Police Jury
  • Dennis Scott, Police Juror for Calcasieu Parish - Calcasieu Parish Police Jury
  • Ryan Bourriaque, Cameron Parish Administrator - Cameron Parish Police Jury
  • Myles Hebert, Coastal Zone Manager - Cameron Parish Police Jury
  • Alberto Galan, Assistant to the Administrator - Calcasieu Parish Police Jury
  • Jennifer Cobian, Assistant Director Division of Planning & Development - Calcasieu Parish Police Jury
  • Katie Armentor, Cameron Parish Administrator - Cameron Parish Police Jury
  • Kara Bonsall, Cameron Parish Coastal Zone Manager Administrator - Cameron Parish Police Jury

Partner: NACo

Watch the interview with Dennis Scott

Calcasieu Parish and Cameron Parish are located in the southwest corner of Louisiana, in a region known as the Chenier Plain. The Chenier Plain has a rich mixture of wetlands, uplands, and open water, and expansive coastal marshes bordering the Gulf coast; it is a popular destination for nature watchers, anglers, and hunters. Farming and cattle remain a major part of the region’s economy, along with chemical and refining industries. Currently, the region is experiencing the largest economic growth in the country, with $108 billion in economic development from natural gas plants. However, the parishes were impacted by several hurricanes – Rita, Ike and Gustav, and experienced many flood events over the past several years.

"I believe that education and awareness are the key to mitigation. I am a steward of taxpayer dollars, so I want to make sure that I am educated in all the systems that are out there, and look at our own specific geography and see how that would fit."

- Calcasieu Police Juror Dennis Scott

To address their vulnerability to coastal flooding, the team decided to participate in the Coastal Resilience program. Through the program, the team aims to:

  • Strengthen collaboration between several parishes
  • Make the case for long-term resilience planning
  • Investigate ways to capture the oral history of the area
  • Improve public outreach on resilience measures
  • Strengthen the implementation of zoning and land use plans

Their original team action plan focused on establishing a Southwest Louisiana Watershed Authority. The goal is to initiate a local watershed planning effort to feed into the state of Louisiana’s plan, starting with a series of regional meetings to engage surrounding counties that are not yet involved in the state’s watershed planning conversations.

As of November 2019, Calcasieu Parish is one of the leading parishes, if not counties, in the country in rain gauge coverage. They have over 120 rain gauges and expect to have 220 in the next two years. The parish is also conducting three-dimensional hydrologic modeling, and is one of only seven places in the world using Dynamic Adaptive Policy Pathways (DAPP). Adaptive planning is ideal for systems with uncertainty, allowing for different approaches in the future as the situation changes.

Harrison County, Mississippi

Population: 208,080 (as of 2019)

Team members: *

  • Patrick Bonck, Zoning Director - Harrison County
  • Connie Rockco, Supervisor, District 5 - Harrison County Board of Supervisors
  • Theresa Hydrick, Code Enforcement Director - Harrison County
  • Rupert Lacy, Emergency Management/Homeland Security Director - Harrison County

Partner: ASFPM

Watch the interview with Connie Rocko

Harrison County is the second most populous county in Mississippi. The county has two major military bases and a Naval Construction Battalion Center; its economy also relies upon the fish and shrimping industry, resorts, gaming, and tourism. It is home to the world’s longest man-made beach.

The county faces threats from tropical storms, hurricanes, tornados, heavy rain events, and riverine flooding. Altogether, the county has 26 miles of beach frontage along the Mississippi Sound (Gulf of Mexico) as well as numerous bays, bayous, and rivers, all of which pose a flood risk to property. Flash flooding is becoming more commonplace, even in areas outside of the mapped flood zone. Building regulations have not kept up with the rapid pace of construction, and the county is starting to see the impacts of upland development. Flooding now occurs with every significant rainfall. This area of the Mississippi Gulf Coast is also susceptible to algae bloom and freshwater intrusion.

In 2005, Harrison County was hit by Hurricane Katrina. The storm had the largest recorded tidal surge – 28 feet above sea level. Very few structures in the path of the storm surge survived. The storm damage and displacement of people from their homes affected the entire county.

In 2018, to prepare for future disasters, Harrison County updated its building codes, requiring two feet of freeboard above current FEMA Base Flood Elevations, and prohibiting the use of fill to increase ground elevation. While this would not protect houses from another storm along the lines of Hurricane Katrina, it does protect most houses from average flooding. Participating in the Coastal Resilience program helped the county to strengthen its building codes and explain the need for updates.

The team’s original action plan was to develop improved flood vulnerability maps for the county using newly available data. The maps will include unincorporated areas, which were not covered in past mapping efforts. Identifying assets and infrastructure at risk for repetitive damage will help Harrison County recover services for its citizens more rapidly in the event of a flood. The county hopes to use the new maps as an outreach tool to raise public awareness about flooding, particularly the importance of purchasing flood insurance (even for homeowners residing outside of the official FEMA flood zones). The county also wants to enhance their stormwater regulations.

Information from the workshop gave the county a clear vision of what policy updates are needed and ideas for how to present their ideas to the public. They now have a public information officer on staff for the first time (outside of on an as-needed basis during hurricanes). According to Harrison County District 5 Supervisor Connie Rocko, this experience has helped them reach across the aisle to learn the importance of each department, and work together to make the county more resilient.

Cameron and Willacy Counties, Texas

Population: 423,163 in Cameron County; 21,358 in Willacy County (as of 2019)

Team members: *

  • Joe Vega, Cameron County Park System Director
  • Eliberto Guerra, Willacy County Commissioner, Precinct 1
  • David Garza, County Commissioner for the eastern-coastal areas of Cameron County
  • Graciela Salinas, Director of the Emergency Services District
  • Jessica Rodriguez-Gracida, Willacy County Community Development Specialist
  • Gilbert Torres, Licensed Paramedic - Willacy County EMS

Partner: CSO

Watch the interview with Eliberto Guerra

Although Cameron County is significantly larger in population than Willacy County, the counties share much in common. Both counties have barrier bar islands with shores along the Gulf of Mexico. These islands provide protection for the bay system and the mainland when tropical storms hit, and are home to many fish and bird species. The counties also both strongly rely on an agricultural economy.

Willacy County has a navigational port, which services crews that provide supplies and maintenance for offshore oil production rigs. It is also home to many recreational fishing boats that fish the bay area and the deep sea. Cameron County has extensive investments located on South Padre Island in the form of the county park system. Tourism is a major portion of the area’s livelihood, and on holidays the tourist population can swell to nearly 100,000.

Willacy and Cameron County also share common challenges. Both communities have low elevation above sea level and flat topography with extremely poor drainage. They are susceptible to tidal surge during tropical storms, severe beach erosion, and flooding due to high tides and heavy rainfall. Hurricanes can greatly reshape coastal landscape in the region.

More than one-sixth of Cameron County’s total assessed valuation is located on the vulnerable South Padre barrier bar island. When large storms hit the island, they tend to cause major property damage. Since Willacy County is the pathway for floodwaters when heavy rains occur in Hidalgo County, it can also bear the brunt of flooding from rainfall to its west.

Although the counties have limited resources, they make use of partnerships to better serve their residents. For example, the counties cooperate in housing and transportation projects. Because of the history of cooperation between the counties and their shared common interest in preserving the coastal environment, they formed a team to join the Coastal Resilience program.

The counties decided to attend the workshops to gain the ability to plan for major storms and the educational resources to confront coastal erosion, protecting the assets that make their communities unique. Both counties are working on hazard mitigation plans to address beach erosion, dune protection, flood mitigation, wildlife protection and preservation, coastal evacuation, asset protection, and post-disaster recovery. They seek to improve their infrastructure, drainage systems, and development planning to reduce their risk of flooding and tropical storm damage and lower the cost of flood insurance.

Their original team action plan was to develop a 5-year multi-county coastal resilience strategy for flooding and erosion to: identify existing data and gaps, prioritize shared issues, and coordinate on ongoing and future studies and projects to manage risk. The team plans to use the resilience strategy as the foundation for a lasting coordination framework between the two counties on common issues, including joint applications for mitigation funding opportunities.

The team is also enthusiastic about the development of responsible ecotourism. Using their coastal area for recreation rather than residential subdivisions, they can lower the potential for social, property, and economic damage resulting from storms while protecting the unique landscape. By managing beach erosion, protecting the dune system, and creating a hazard mitigation plan, the counties can better protect their residents, wildlife, and environment, preserving their economy’s best asset.

* Team members' job title/affiliation may have changed since the resilience challenge.

Story Map: Success Stories in the Making


See more Success Stories from the Guide for Elected Officials