Staff photo by Tim Barber/ Heavy rains in February raised the Tennessee River on the stairstep riverfront as the gas light torches, lower right, can be seen nearly submemerged from rapid downstream flow.

This year, our region has faced many unforeseen disasters. From a pandemic to tornadoes across the tri-state area, these unpredictable events caused extensive physical and economic damage. While it is often difficult to predict exactly when catastrophe will strike, we know they will happen. That's why we must prepare as a region to be resilient.

One perennial risk here in Chattanooga is flooding. From the brick and mortar shops of South Pittsburg's Cedar Avenue, to the rural highways of Soddy-Daisy, flooding has destabilized communities and shuttered businesses. Nationally, flooding has cost taxpayers $845 billion in the last 20 years, the most of any other disaster response. It is no longer enough to just respond. We must adapt to be resilient.

When disaster strikes, states and cities rely on the federal government to support a full recovery. That money usually goes toward projects that rebuild the same road, bridge, school, or other public structure that was damaged, without pausing to consider how we can adapt those facilities to prevent future damage. As a result, taxpayers are on the hook for rebuilding infrastructure that will inevitably get flooded again.

To avoid this, we must factor the natural environment into our planning processes, setting a standard for longer-lasting infrastructure and lower recovery costs.

Already, the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS) requires federal agencies to consider current and future risk when taxpayer dollars are used to build or rebuild in flood plains. Recently, Rep. David Price, D-North Carolina, and Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-New York, introduced the bipartisan Flood Resiliency and Taxpayer Savings Act to update FFRMS to better protect infrastructure, allowing decision-makers to use sound data to invest in infrastructure that will last.

A recent poll by the Pew Charitable Trusts found 85 percent of Americans endorse improving design standards of flood-prone, federally funded structures and 83 percent want upgrades to roadways to withstand flooding.

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Through Thrive's Cradle of Southern Appalachia conservation priority model, our data team at the UTC's IGTLab has identified seven natural corridors in our region that serve as resilient anchors for our communities. By implementing a focused strategy to protect these corridors, we can protect the people and towns of this region and avoid the cost of recovery and rebuilding.

Several local leaders already are designing proactive, innovative approaches to the resiliency challenge. In addition to Thrive's conservation blueprint, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke has launched a bold vision. The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency is in the process of creating a resiliency plan for the area's transportation systems. The nonprofit green|spaces offers community and business-focused programs that incentivize and encourage sustainable living. And our partners in the VECTOR transportation research office at Vanderbilt are researching port resiliency that will affect barge and pipeline transport on our region's river corridors.

There is no "one-size-fits-all" strategy for natural disaster resiliency in our cities and towns. Proactive decisions made with sound, location-specific data, and strong leadership can help build strong communities that last for future generations.

Natural disasters are not going anywhere, but we can rise to the challenge.

Bridgett Massengill is the president/CEO of Thrive Regional Partnership, a 501(c)3 that inspires responsible growth through conversation, connection, and collaboration in the tri-state greater Chattanooga region.

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Bridgett Massengill