What is coastal resiliency, and how do cities swiftly and effectively cultivate it?
That is the leading question for Dale Morris, chief resilience officer for the City of Charleston, who has devoted nearly two decades to studying and shepherding groundbreaking flood risk management techniques for cities like New Orleans, Galveston, Houston, Norfolk, and other flood-prone communities across the globe.
To accomplish resiliency, Morris believes communities must embrace interdisciplinary collaboration, creative problem-solving and an uncanny commitment to open-mindedness. Fundamentally, it takes a whole-of-government approach.
An emerging, dynamic field, a career in resiliency does not offer a standardized academic or professional path. Instead, resilience officers must glean from the field's limited but growing aggregate knowledge and their varied backgrounds to address some of the nation's most gripping, complex challenges.
Morris holds a master's degree in international law, economics and theory and brings unique leadership experience in public policy and economics to his resilience role. His career, which began in the U.S. Air Force, quickly pivoted to Capitol Hill, where he worked as a legislative director and press secretary. Morris then dedicated more than two decades to shaping fiscal policy as the congressional liaison and senior economist at the Netherlands Royal Embassy.
In his role at the Royal Embassy, Morris was introduced to a career in climate resilience.
"I was a senior economist doing macroeconomic tax, trade and budget work. Then Hurricane Katrina happened, and the Dutch government asked, 'how can we help?' They came to me, 'why don't you run with it?' I'm not an engineer, but I knew about zoning and planning, so I was invited to try."
Seven weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, Morris traveled with a Dutch team of flood mitigation experts to New Orleans to assist local and federal agencies with post-disaster redevelopment. For Morris, witnessing the destruction and the city's vulnerabilities illustrated the urgent demand for proactive, effective resiliency.
"It was a moment where I felt a shift in my career. From this point on, I transitioned from solely looking at economic policy to leveraging my economic background to work on climate change, adaptation and flood risk mitigation."
With the support of the "world's best minds" in urban water management, Morris studied and designed integrative strategies tailored to the city's complex flooding challenges. The effort — now known as the Dutch Dialogues — attracted the attention of other cities across the country, including Charleston.
"It was an interesting development in the diplomatic world. We were pulled into so many cities, and it became very clear to the Dutch that not only could they teach something about their approach, but they could also learn something from America's extremely dynamic conditions."
Since taking on the job as Charleston's second chief resilience officer last year, Morris has leveraged his experience co-founding and leading the Dutch Dialogues and helping to create and later working at the water planning nonprofit, The Water Institute of the Gulf. He began tackling the city's most formidable flood risks, including storm surge, sea level rise, and tidal and stormwater flooding. The job, which puts him at the heart of these challenges, has strengthened his passion for the work.
"When you work at the city level, you really get to know the people and see flood impacts on neighborhoods. You're not in a helicopter. You're on the ground. You see increasing vulnerability because of climate change and sea level rise. The impact on drainage systems, tidal systems, stormwater, streets, people's lives, and people's homes motivates you to do something."
Among Morris' top projects is the Charleston Peninsula Coastal Storm Risk Management Study, a four-year study led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that has closely examined coastal storm risks on the peninsula. The study, scheduled to formally conclude this year, proposes several key features to reduce storm surge risk, including a perimeter storm surge wall, nonstructural measures and living shorelines. The project may progress to the next phase, known as pre-construction, engineering and design, if it receives congressional authorization and appropriation.
"How can we — the Corps, city and our design staff, and possibly some outside consultants — work together through the design process to develop the best solution for the city while ensuring the project works within federal regulations? That's the puzzle," said Morris. "The Charleston District staff have been open, and they've listened. They know this place, and they live here, and that's extremely valuable for projects like this."
In addition to partnering on the federal feasibility study, Morris is also forging the city's first-ever comprehensive, integrated water plan, which analyzes localized flood risks throughout the city and identifies tailored solutions. The 18-month initiative formally kicks off this August.
"The plan will help us understand flood-related risks and identify opportunities where gray and green investment will be needed over the next 25 years. The analysis will also help us better understand nature's water management systems and discern opportunities where Mother Nature can help us along."
While water is one of Charleston's most pressing challenges, it is also one of the region's most defining qualities, Morris said, making the city a special place worth preserving.
"My favorite thing about Charleston is the water. When I drive across the bridges, through neighborhoods, or over the marshes, and the sun is coming up or going down, and the water is reflecting over the water, it's aesthetically soothing. There aren't many places more beautiful than this."