How can states get the most bang for their disaster recovery buck?

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State and local governments whose locales are hit by hurricanes, floods, or other disasters, often are unsure which damage-prevention measures will yield the best results. And they’ve got limited dollars to spend on resilience. Now the National Institute of Standards and Technology has stepped in with an online guide to help local officials evaluate and compare possible projects. For how it was developed, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with NIST research economist Dr. Jennifer Helgeson.

Read more about the Economic Decision Guide Software (EDGe$) here.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dr. Helgerson, good to have you on.

Dr. Jennifer Helgeson: Wonderful to be here. Thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: Tell us this tools purpose, what were you trying to accomplish here?

Dr. Jennifer Helgeson: So really what our tool, the edges tool the economic decision guide software tool online, provides is a standard economic methodology for evaluating investment decisions that are required to improve the ability of communities to either adapt, withstand and quickly recover from natural technological and human caused disruptive event. So that was our goal.

Tom Temin: Well, how does it work? Say your town by a river, a hurricane could come through or let’s say a tornado could come through or the river could flood. And you might build a levee to keep the river out. Or you might what strengthen the barns? What kinds of inputs are needed to be able to know where to spend your money?

Dr. Jennifer Helgeson: So the edges tool really requires identification and then comparison of relevant present and future resilience, cost and benefits that would be associated with the capital investment. Things like a new levy, as you mentioned, then we look at that relative to maintaining a community’s status quo. So the benefits may include cost savings, or damage loss avoidance. In addition, we also ask the user to think a lot about potential co-benefits that might accrue on the day to day from an investment and resilience but aren’t totally dependent upon a disturbing event occurring, like a natural hazard.

Tom Temin: Got it. So how do you know what the costs are? I mean, you know what it costs to build or you can get bids to build a levy. But how do you know what the possible costs of not doing it are? Because you really don’t know which buildings are going to be swept away and which will be fine afterwards.

Dr. Jennifer Helgeson: So many of our users to date have experienced a disruptive event in their communities. So they have a sense of potential costs either from their own historic costs for losses avoided. In addition, in a number of the examples we provide, we really do encourage communities to look at similar communities and to use some of their evaluation. Also, a lot of expert elicitation to communities we’ve worked with today tend to have perhaps a contractor or an engineering firm that they work with regularly when they’re thinking through these issues. There are pretty good estimates out there. The advanced design of edges does allow the user to really think a lot about uncertainty. And that can be uncertainty in when an event might occur or the magnitude of that event, but there’s also uncertainty that can be inputted around the cost. So we do really encourage users if they have some uncertainty about budget, or the cost, or the loss avoided to also include those elements. So you really have a sensitivity analysis that takes that into account. That’s a great question.

Tom Temin: And you’re an economist and economists use models. Is there some kind of a model or artificial intelligence type of algorithm built into this tool? Or is it just a simple calculator? How did you build it?

Dr. Jennifer Helgeson: I do like the term calculator when when I think about edges, what we really like to talk about is this idea of the turbo tax of the economics of community resilience. So what we have here in edges is a technique for selecting these cost effective community resilience projects. And we do have a voluntary standard to ASPM that has been adopted. So what we’ve done is we took the process from our economic decision guide for valuing community resilience projects, and have automated it. So we really do have a super calculator. And really what we depend upon is the input some communities, so many communities are very different, their priorities vary greatly. And kind of the types of projects they really want to consider also vary quite a bit. So in taking this all into consideration, what we wanted to do was to have a calculator, as you mentioned, that could really handle input for very, very different types of communities. And that can span from something like a college campus as a community, or an entire nation as a community.

Tom Temin: Yeah, that was my question. If I’m the village of Podunk by the river somewhere, and I have 10,000 people, maybe in the farmers and you get the idea, versus New York City, for example, or Los Angeles, with this tool scale to the big cities, but also be useful to the Hamlets and Bergs?

Dr. Jennifer Helgeson: That is our intention. And that is what we are finding. At this point, some of the larger cities or communities might have more economic evaluation at their fingertips. They might have done some of this work previously, but in its inception edges in our economic decision guide process really is meant to pair with the community resilience planning guide that NIST developed about five years ago. And that depends largely on bringing together a collaborative planning team thinking through the priorities of the community, and then the options and alternatives they really want to think about by the time they get to using the edges tool. So in some ways, this might even be more useful to the smaller communities that have not considered this or might not have an economic development office that are already kind of considering some of these issues.

Tom Temin: So basically, this is aimed at helping them plan for their budgeting related to resilience. And then you really have to see what happens after a disaster to see if it all worked out.

Dr. Jennifer Helgeson: In an ideal case, if you are planning in a great way, right? You don’t have those losses. There’s not a disaster when the hazard occurs. So it can be very tricky in terms of resilience planning, because what you want are losses that are ultimately avoided because you’ve made a smart decision at the community level. So it is a very tricky thing about about working in this space and researching this space, but it is a planning tool that is to say as opposed to a response tool. Yes, this is very much about planning, some users might find that their community experienced an event and are now kind of in the recovery and the planning, period, going into thinking about a future event, but very much a planning tool, very much meant to be at the stage when a community has determined its priorities, what things they really want to approach. That ability to dovetail with considerations about other things like public work, thinking a little bit more about what the community planners and resilience officers and economic development budget offices would like to see in the community’s future. And then how that comes together with the resilient options the community has for planning

Tom Temin: And have you had much take up yet? Have any towns or cities or communities signed up yet and used it?

Dr. Jennifer Helgeson: So we went ahead and have only now released this version 1.0. That’s online platform independent about a month ago. But in using this process, one of our big users was the Delaware Department of Transportation, and a number of projects, they were doing to think about retrofitting roadways that were very, very vulnerable to coastal storms and some kind of sunny day flooding as well across State Route 1. That’s been one of our big users. And we learned quite a bit from that experience. Watching a collaborative planning team, think about this for a piece of road that would go through a number of communities, but then also coordinating to that, do team

Tom Temin: And as this goes on, and you get more feedback and data, would you be refining the calculator so that it’s more accurate in the future?

Dr. Jennifer Helgeson: That is the plan. And we really are at the stage where the tool is usable and is being used. But we’re seeking feedback on the interface. It has gone from an executable file to an online platform independent app, because of user feedback initially from the beta version, so we’re really seeking to learn and to understand the types of projects users are interested in. And then, of course, this is an iterative process. We’re researching, we’re learning. So the goal is to make the tool ever more usable and relevant.

Tom Temin: And who did the coding? Do you have a contractor or did NIST code jockeys do it?

Dr. Jennifer Helgeson: We have an in house team that has really come together to to code this and to translate the equations in economics from the Applied Economics Office to some really Excellent collaboration with Priya Lavappa. I definitely do want to give her credit for doing a wonderful job coding this many years ago. This started as a summer intern project, and some of my initial coding in Python. So it has come so far from that time. So it’s been a really nice collaboration across a number of teams within the Engineering Laboratory at MIT.

Tom Temin: Dr. Jennifer Helgerson is a research economist in the Applied Economics Office at NIST. Thanks so much for joining me.

Dr. Jennifer Helgeson: Been my pleasure. Thank you.