Panel Paper: Policy Learning and Political Context: Analyzing Responses to Colorado's Extreme Flood Events of 2013

Friday, November 7, 2014 : 8:50 AM
Enchantment Ballroom E (Hyatt)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Elizabeth A Albright, Duke University and Deserai A. Crow, University of Colorado, Boulder
One of the most damaging natural hazards, flooding annually causes billions of dollars in damage, response, and recovery losses for U.S. communities. As populations increase in flood prone areas, communities are becoming more vulnerable to floods. The locus of flood management has shifted from the federal to the local level and communities are now more responsible for making decisions about the adoption of flood-related policies. Globally, flooding is predicted to increase as climate changes and communities continue to build in floodplains, setting up the potential for long-term challenges.

Local-level processes drive decisions about mitigating future flood risks, such as if, how, and where to rebuild, as well as changes in zoning practices and public outreach programs. Because of their potentially recurring nature, floods offer an opportunity for communities to learn from and adapt to these experiences with the goal of increasing resiliency through reflection, modification of former policies, and adoption of new policies. By following the response to the September 2013 floods in Colorado communities, this study will investigate if, how, and why communities successfully learn from extreme events to increase resilience and decrease vulnerability to future floods.

Successful response to extreme floods may be due to policy learning – changes of beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and goals – in response to new information and experiences. This learning can lead to adaptation of local policies to increase the resilience of communities faced with risk from extreme events. Past studies indicate that transparency of policy processes, changes in resource availability (financial, public opinion, expertise, etc.), type and extent of damage, stakeholder participation in decision processes, and beliefs about the causes and consequences of the problem (i.e. the flood) may determine the success of policy learning in a community. By analyzing these variables across seven flood-affected communities in Colorado’s three hardest hit counties, this study furthers our understanding of the factors that can help aid in policy learning, leading to long-term recovery and community resilience. The seven cases are analyzed using community planning and decision-making documents, interviews with elites and stakeholders, and surveys of both elites and community residents. The findings suggest that the type of damage can have a powerful effect on the degree of transparency and public participation of recovery processes. They also suggest that damage influences public opinion in ways that are important to understand in order for communities to successfully recover from an extreme event.

As natural hazards – from wildfires to floods and hurricanes – levy increasing damage on communities, whether due to human development patterns or environmental factors such as climate change, it is vital that we understand the factors that contribute to policy learning and increased resilience. The findings from this study have significance to scholars of natural hazards and policymaking, but also to those working in the field of recovery and adaptation. These are grand challenges globally and locally, and this research contributes to our understanding of these processes and drivers of change.

Full Paper: