Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

The Hagerty Advantage: Our People: Harrison Newton and Liz Foster

It is no secret; our planet’s climate is changing. Currently, much of the East and West Coasts are dealing with a record-breaking heatwave. Additionally, earlier this year, a massive ice storm, Winter Storm Uri, had widespread impacts across the United States, Northern Mexico, and parts of Canada. Moreover, many of the areas being impacted have never experienced weather events of this scale and magnitude before.

In order to properly prepare for, respond to, recover from, and mitigate against extreme weather events, it is important that climate change and disaster management be viewed through a holistic and interconnected lens – one weather event may create the environment for another one to occur. Today, two of Hagerty’s climate and resilience experts discuss their perspectives on the changing climate and how communities should be preparing today.

Tell us about yourself and how your career path led you to Hagerty Consulting.

Harrison Newton, Senior Managing Associate

I began my career in resilience as an outreach team leader, responding to a crisis caused by failing infrastructure – the release of toxic levels of lead in the drinking water in Washington DC. In partnership with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), I went door-to-door in DC’s impacted neighborhoods, educating families about the risk of contaminated water from deteriorating pipes and how they could mitigate it. I also led a task force that brought together researchers, local officials, and community leaders to rebuild lost trust, develop corrective legislation and reform the systems that failed to protect the public.

I then took the role of Chief of Environmental Health at the District’s Department of Environment, where I mobilized the city’s public health resources in response to large scale exposures caused by illegal demolitions and other similar events.

Later, I led the District’s suite of energy programs that supported residents experiencing energy emergencies and power loss. I was then selected by the City Administrator to launch the District’s first Resilience office, establishing a “Resilience Cabinet” – a body of agency leaders at the intersection of health, disaster readiness, transportation, housing and technology. We developed an executive-level strategy that aligned programs, plans and priorities in areas including climate action and preparedness, technology, and project financing.

Ensuring leaders, communities and scientists work together to build resilient systems is my life’s work. I am happy to bring that focus to Hagerty.

Elizabeth Foster, Senior Managing Associate

My career began with simple love of the outdoors and collegiate coursework in environmental science and policy. While I was a student, I assisted a youth-led urban gardening organization and earned my EMT certification; working in those capacities started me thinking about the connections between emergency management, holistic health, and climate change solutions.

Since then, I have focused on helping communities, governments, and businesses prepare for and manage the impacts of climate change. I’ve worked in multiple sectors in a variety of roles including as a business continuity specialist, advisor to a municipal government in the Philippines (through Peace Corps Response), and manager of technical assistance focused on development and land use strategies to improve urban resilience.

It has become clear to me through these disparate roles that building more equitable socioeconomic systems and climate-prepared infrastructure is critical to our future. I am excited to be at Hagerty where we offer a full suite of services to support communities through disasters and help them proactively adapt to the long-term consequences of climate change.

Given your professional experience with climate adaptation, mitigation, and resilience planning, how is climate change impacting the United States’ (US) infrastructure and what must be done about it?

The US faces a generational infrastructure challenge on at least two fronts. The first is the problem of aging infrastructure; bridges and roads are at the end of their life cycles, and older technology is vulnerable to the increasing disruptions of climate-related disasters. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates a 10-year U.S. infrastructure gap of $2.59 trillion. On top of those existing dynamics, more extreme weather events driven by climate change are causing increasing amounts of damage to existing assets.

Readying US infrastructure for climate change means reducing damages and preparing systems to function well during extreme weather events, so services are available when they are needed most. At Hagerty, we regularly help our Energy Sector clients create and practice response plans to support the continuation of critical services. An exciting area of innovation is considering how our day-to-day infrastructure, such as electric vehicles or community centers, can support disaster response and recovery in times of need.

The second generational challenge concerns the communities most likely to bear the worst impacts of unprepared infrastructure and climate disasters – minority communities with systemic underinvestment and high levels of poverty. These communities are already starting behind in the race to protect and prepare infrastructure, so going forward, they must be able to co-lead efforts to adapt to the changing environment and design the infrastructure that will define their neighborhoods – hopefully making their communities, and those surrounding them, more equitable.

Other critical solutions include implementing strategies like increasing renewable energy sources, low-carbon construction materials, and continued focus on energy efficiency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – the root cause of climate change – to lessen the chances of future worst-case outcomes.

Amidst a changing climate, what should communities be considering as they rebuild and recover after a disaster?

Rebuilding a community after a major or catastrophic disaster is a monumental undertaking, but there are unique post-disaster opportunities for improving long-term resilience. After Hurricane Michael (2018), the most powerful storm to impact North Florida in recorded history, Hagerty worked with Panama City, Florida to develop methodologies to prioritize and implement recovery actions that aligned with the City’s long-term vision. At least 25 of 33 recovery actions and 26 of the 39 redevelopment actions are in progress, in addition to the City’s management of the COVID pandemic.

Another best practice is to start recovery planning ahead of an incident. This helps alleviate the difficulties of working after a traumatic event and provides more time for community input. In Georgia, Hagerty is assisting 11 coastal counties in preparing disaster recovery and redevelopment plans that emphasize community resilience and incorporate long-term planning for natural disasters into state and local management processes. The completion of the plans for these counties will make Georgia the first state in the nation to have a completely resilient coast through recovery and redevelopment planning.

Communities can also consider spending recovery dollars on housing solutions that are both quickly deployable and permanent, so as to meet immediate needs and contribute to solving the greater housing affordability crisis. Hagerty was asked by the state of Texas to assess the potential of alternative recovery housing solutions such as 3D printed, modular, and prefabricated homes. We found that the industry construction and production capabilities are maturing rapidly, units are available with resilient technologies (wind-proofing, elevated foundation, mold-resistant materials, off-grid energy, etc.), and that these housing types can be a cost-effective solution in comparison to traditional temporary options.

Finally, there’s significant room for recovery innovation in how we scale up programs to support those without access to traditional sources of post disaster funding, such as insurance. Recovery can also be expanded to include supporting receiving communities that, while not directly impacted or eligible for federal assistance, provide housing and services for those displaced by a disaster.

Harrison Newton is a Senior Managing Associate at Hagerty Consulting. Prior to joining Hagerty, he spent nearly a decade in public service with Washington, DC. During his tenure with DC, he was responsible for establishing the District’s first Resilience Office, where he ultimately served as the Deputy Chief Resilience Officer responsible for promoting resiliency programs across various District departments and agencies. Additionally, Harrison also served as the Chief of Environmental Health at the District’s Department of Environment.

Elizabeth Foster is a Senior Managing Associate in Hagerty’s Preparedness Division. Prior to joining Hagerty, she served as a manager of technical assistance focused on development and land use strategies to improve urban resilience with the Urban Land Institute. Elizabeth also served as a Disaster Risk Reduction & Management Program Officer for the US Peace Corps in Amlan, Philippines supporting the municipality’s capacity to implement climate change adaptation and disaster management programs.