A man looks at a flooded area from a helicopter

Recovery and Resilience: New Research on Exploratory Scenario Planning for Disasters

By Jon Gorey, May 9, 2024

When heavy rains unload on Beaumont, Texas—which is to say, pretty often, in this small Gulf Coast city 80 miles east of Houston—flash flooding can turn the underpasses beneath train tracks and bridges into unpassable, sewage-laden lakes, as pump systems get overwhelmed.

It’s a citywide issue, but it’s especially problematic in Beaumont’s historic South End. Ringed on three sides by heavy industrial facilities—including a 2,400-acre ExxonMobil refinery and chemical plant, the 100-acre Port of Beaumont, and a facility that holds thousands of rail cars—such inundation can essentially leave residents and workers stranded in the neighborhood, with no way out.

“We’ve always had an issue where our underpasses flood, and so we’re trapped without access to emergency medical facilities,” says Christopher Jones, founder and director of the South End Charlton-Pollard Greater Historic Community Association. “During events like Harvey or Imelda, we’re trapped within that industrial horseshoe.”

The prospect of getting stranded by an everyday downpour creates anxiety for residents, as well as tangible health hazards. “Our streets fill up with sewer and rainwater, and there’s no cleanup that happens afterward, whether it’s from the city or the state of Texas,” Jones says. “Then that sewage matter dries up and becomes an airborne pathogen that we breathe,” along with other pollutants, such as limestone dust, sulfur, and petrochemical byproducts produced or transported nearby. Indeed, between the dangerous chemicals in nearby rail cars and refineries, its hurricane-prone location, and the increasing frequency of extreme heat waves, flooded roadways are hardly the only disaster-related risk facing the Charlton-Pollard neighborhood.

So when Jones heard about a request for proposals issued by the Lincoln Institute’s Consortium for Scenario Planning (CSP), he proposed a series of exploratory scenario planning workshops that would gather ideas and input from community members, city officials, emergency agencies, and local businesses, to formulate and prioritize resilience strategies.

The review committee found the Beaumont proposal unique and compelling for a couple of different reasons, says Heather Hannon, associate director of planning practice and scenario planning at the Lincoln Institute. “It’s the first community organization awarded through this process,” Hannon says, as opposed to a municipal department, planning agency, or research team. What’s more, the proposal specifically focuses on the “dual-threat landscape” of both natural and man-made disasters.

The neighborhood is well aware of the “escalating risks posed by climate change, industrial accidents, and other man-made hazards,” Jones explained in his proposal. “Our community’s proximity to a dense concentration of industrial operations elevates the risk of chemical spills, industrial explosions, and air quality emergencies, in addition to natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, and severe weather events.”

Jones says the old housing stock in his neighborhood isn’t very suitable for sheltering in place, whether it’s during a storm or a chemical spill. “My neighborhood dates back to the 1800s, and many of the homes here are, if not the same age as ExxonMobil, a little bit older.” Many of those homes lack the kind of weatherization upgrades—insulation, storm windows, air sealing—that would better protect them from storms and air quality issues.

“I definitely want my neighbors to have the opportunity to not only weatherize their homes, but to be able to seek safety and shelter inside of their homes if there’s anything like an explosion from ExxonMobil,” Jones says. When a series of chemical explosions rocked a TPC plant in nearby Port Neches in 2019, “We felt it—we smelled it,” Jones says.

“So if we were to experience something like, God forbid, a big waste of benzene, everybody here is [in serious trouble], because they don’t have the knowledge or adequate facilities to shelter in place,” he adds. “And that includes schools that are in our area, businesses in our neighborhood, elders . . . that, to me, is our starting point for our resilience.”

Smoke from an explosion at a chemical refinery in Texas
Aftermath of a series of explosions at a TPC Group chemical plant in Port Neches, Texas, in 2019. The initial blast was felt up to 30 miles away, and the explosions caused $153 million in offsite property damage. Credit: US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

The South End Charlton-Pollard project is one of five that the Consortium for Scenario Planning has chosen to support in response to the RFP. From Colombia to Canada, each project will design exploratory scenario planning workshops focused on disaster recovery and resilience. The awardees will have the opportunity to present and describe their work in early 2025 at the annual Consortium for Scenario Planning conference.

Awardees are tasked with designing workshops that use exploratory scenario planning (XSP) to help members of their community—which could be a neighborhood, city, or entire region—explore disaster recovery and resilience strategies. Applicants were encouraged to address both one-off disasters as well as those that are part of a larger cycle of “cascading hazards, where the effects of one disaster bleed into or cause another”—such as droughts that contribute to wildfires or landslides, or floods that destroy homes and then trigger sanitation crises.

In addition to the XSP workshops that the South End Charlton-Pollard Greater Historic Community Association will design and conduct in Beaumont, CSP selected four other proposals to support:

  • Building off its recent completion of a participatory climate risk assessment, the Rural Municipality of Piney in Manitoba, Canada, will use a seven-step XSP framework to develop workshops and educational resources to help the region better prepare for a spectrum of disasters, particularly wildfires.
  • Casa del Sur/Encuentro in Santa Fe, Argentina, will focus on building resiliency awareness among vulnerable citizens, who have been affected by both record floods and record lows of the Paraná River, urban heat, and fires in the past two decades.
  • A team from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, will develop a framework for rural communities to plan for and adapt to sea level rise flooding and increased storm flooding impacts, using rural Virginia as the target audience and a special emphasis on nature-based features.
  • A team from the Urban Mapping Agency, BuroDAP, and Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, Colombia, will conduct XSP workshops with a special focus on vulnerable communities and informal settlements facing flood risk in the urban peripheries of two major cities—Policarpa in Cartagena, and the Tunjuelo River floodplain in Bogotá.

All five projects, scheduled to be completed by May 2025, were selected as part of an annual RFP process managed by the Consortium for Scenario Planning. Past projects have focused on housing affordability (2023), changing food systems (2022), climate strategies (2021), and equity and low-growth scenarios (2020).

To learn more about all Lincoln Institute RFPs, fellowships, and research opportunities, visit the research and data section of our website.

Jon Gorey is staff writer at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Lead image: A member of the Coast Guard inspects flooding in Beaumont, Texas, as part of a search and rescue mission after Hurricane Harvey. Credit: Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Giles/US Coast Guard/US Department of Defense.