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Living the Dream: I Predict & Prevent Natural Disasters

“I see my role as a translator and an advisor – making sense of science and research so that it’s meaningful for decision making.”

By Livability on November 8, 2022

City of Baton Rouge City from the Louisiana State Capitol

Welcome to Living the Dream, a Livability.com series about people who made their big dreams a reality and the places and communities that made it possible. 

Colleen McHugh works as a Senior Adaptation Planner at The Water Institute of the Gulf in Baton Rouge, LA.

Name: Colleen McHugh
Occupation: Senior Adaptation Planner at The Water Institute of the Gulf
Location: Baton Rouge, LA

What does the Water Institute of the Gulf do?

The Water Institute of the Gulf is an independent, nonprofit, applied research institution that helps communities thoughtfully prepare for an uncertain future in the face of complex environmental and societal challenges – including climate change, sea-level rise, land loss, environmental degradation and increases in storm frequency and intensity. We do this by bringing together different disciplines of science, planning and policy research to help communities analyze, manage and reduce risks.

Why is Baton Rouge the best location for it?

Louisiana is at the forefront of flood risk and climate adaptation planning nationally and internationally. Much like the Dutch, we have built up the expertise here through necessity. We have experienced catastrophic events like Hurricanes Katrina and more recently Hurricanes Laura and Ida as well as regional disasters like the BP Oil Spill. And our coastal communities are experiencing the ongoing crisis of land loss.

In the face of these major challenges, Louisiana has developed one of the most comprehensive coastal protection and restoration programs, and the state’s coastal master plan is now looked to by other coastal states as a model. The state is also leading an effort to address inland flood risk at the watershed level through the Louisiana Watershed Initiative. And Louisiana just released the Gulf South’s first statewide Climate Action Plan this year. 

Baton Rouge is the epicenter of the water sector in Louisiana and has invested in nurturing this expertise. I didn’t grow up in Louisiana, but my love for this work and my love for this place has kept me here for a decade.

People gather around a table looking at a map at The Water Institute of the Gulf in Baton Rouge, LA.
The Water Institute of the Gulf

What does a typical work day look like for you?

A typical work day for me usually involves juggling a lot of different projects and tasks and switching on and off different parts of my brain – which definitely keeps me on my toes! It might include checking in with a city or state official who is our client on a planning project, leading a collaborative whiteboarding strategy session with colleagues to make sense of our findings or clarify our methods on a project, research and writing time, sketching out diagrams and infographics to translate our science to a broader audience, developing materials for stakeholder workshops, or meeting with partner organizations to discuss opportunities to collaborate. Every so often I get to meet with students in planning, architecture, real estate and landscape architecture programs about their work, and those are always fun days (if not as typical ones)!

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is working closely with public sector partners and community stakeholders who are doing the direct work of policymaking and project implementation. It’s really rewarding to see and be a part of how our science can be applied to real decisions and actions that can meaningfully make communities safer and healthier. I used to work in the public sector in New Orleans and so I have been on that side of the table and know some of the day-to-day challenges that our partners face. I see my role as a translator and an advisor – making sense of science and research so that it is meaningful for decision-making.

Colleen McHugh at The Water Institute of the Gulf in Baton Rouge, LA.
The Water Institute of the Gulf

What’s special about your career in Baton Rouge that wouldn’t be the same anywhere else?

The Water Campus in downtown Baton Rouge is a really special place and project. It’s a campus that hosts research scientists, water management professionals, contractors and others working in coastal restoration and sustainability. It’s a physical space for the water sector that has developed in Louisiana over the past decades. The Water Institute offices are on the Water Campus in an awesome modern building built on a historic dock right on the Mississippi River.

Across the street, Louisiana State University’s Center for River Studies conducts research on this huge state-of-the-art physical model of the Lower Mississippi River that can replicate the flow, water levels and sediment transport of the river. Next door to the LSU research center are the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority offices, the state agency in charge of the state’s coastal restoration and protection program. It’s really inspiring to go into the office and be surrounded not only by my colleagues who are experts in all these different fields of science, but also to be around other organizations that are leading water management work in the state and, increasingly, nationally and internationally.

Thinking about your work with public-sector partners and clients, what do you see as characteristics of especially resilient communities?

Resilient communities are informed about the risks they face today and in the future. This means having high-quality science and data on risks, but it also means translating the complexities of risk in ways that the public can understand and that matter to their lives. For example, understanding what living in a 100-year floodplain means in terms of your risk of flooding during the span of a 30-year mortgage. 

Not only do resilient communities understand their risks, but they make smart, risk-informed decisions about the future – from land use regulations and building codes, to affordable housing and transportation investments, to public health. 

And finally, I would say the most important characteristic of a resilient community is that it focuses resources on making sure that its most vulnerable community members are supported – on sunny days and during and after storms. Disasters expose and take advantage of underlying inequalities in communities. When the most vulnerable within a community are okay, everyone is okay. And taking care of people in normal times translates to being more able to get through the hard times. Resilience at its core is about supporting healthy, thriving and equitable communities.

Aerial photo of water areas worked on by The Water Institute of the Gulf in Baton Rouge, LA.
The Water Institute of the Gulf

What’s a project you’ve worked on in your time with the Institute that you’re especially proud of?

In February 2020 the City of Houston released its Resilient Houston strategy that provides a framework for action at the individual, neighborhood, bayou, city and regional scales. The strategy was developed in partnership with hundreds of diverse stakeholders over an intensive 16-month planning process that we supported the Chief Resilience Officer in leading. Hurricane Harvey’s impact on the region in 2017 was in many ways a wake-up call for Houston – a realization that the challenges facing the city are increasing in size, frequency and complexity and are further compounded by urbanization, climate change, economic reliance on the energy sector and social inequality. And continuing business as usual would only deepen Houston’s ‘tale of two cities’ —of those with resources and those left behind. The Resilient Houston effort was focused on transformative change so that all Houstonians can thrive in the face of future challenges. 

The final strategy outlined 18 goals and targets and 62 actions—each of which identified the partners, timeframe and steps needed to successfully achieve the larger goal. Since the plan’s release, it has served as a guiding framework for Houston’s response to the unanticipated threats of a historical winter storm in 2021 and the pandemic. And after two years, 59 of 62 actions are in progress or complete. Supporting all of these efforts has been a transformative shift towards a culture of collaboration and a breaking down of traditional silos in Houston – people are working together across departments and sectors to address the interrelated issues that are key to the city’s resilience.

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