Article Features By Casey J. Day

How police can better plan for sea level rise

Casey J. Day is the chief of police for Fortuna and a recent FBI National Academy graduate. He can be reached at

As we voyage into future decades and the threat of rising sea levels grows, how we collaborate and plan will be vital to how we weather this new reality. This is particularly true for police departments. In climate-related emergencies, police play vital and multifaceted roles. They can help organize evacuations, conduct search and rescue operations, disseminate critical emergency information, distribute aid, and generally maintain public order and calm.

To carry out these efforts, a strong partnership with other emergency services and government agencies is essential. However, this cross-department collaboration may mean forgoing traditional top-down emergency planning in favor of participative scenario planning, which can include a wider range of stakeholders. Participative scenario planning encourages broader collaboration with the public and various interest groups. Its inclusive approach helps ensure diverse perspectives and concerns are considered, leading to more comprehensive and accepted plans and more resilient communities.

This unique type of planning lets leaders gain insights into local needs and values, increases public support for plans, and fosters a sense of shared responsibility for the future. It can also enhance transparency and trust between government and the public, making it easier to implement and sustain policies and projects.

Prior planning prevents poor outcomes

Law enforcement organizations face significant challenges when responding to sea-level rise emergencies. Some, such as limited resources and strained budgets, are familiar. Other challenges are more systemic, including inadequate emergency training and limited or damaged infrastructure. 

Hurricane Katrina is a poignant example of a significant failure to plan and collaborate. The federal government noted, “At the most fundamental level, part of the explanation for why the response to Katrina did not go as planned is that key decision-makers at all levels simply were not familiar with the plans. … This lack of understanding of the ‘National’ plan not surprisingly resulted in ineffective coordination of the federal, state, and local response.”

In contrast, California’s wildfire mitigation and management strategies have helped quell many disasters. Although we have yet to see the equivalent of say, the Camp Fire, when it comes to sea level rise, we are already experiencing more frequent and severe storms. If we want to prevent a catastrophic loss of life and property during the next round of winter storms, we need to start looking at the future today.

What the challenges of sea level rise look like

Climate change has accelerated the melting of glaciers and ice sheets. That runoff goes into the ocean, which then causes sea levels around the globe to rise. This warmer seawater acts as a conduit for more warm water, which takes up a larger area than colder water. And it only has a few places to go — most of them dry. There’s a chance that, by the end of the century, Earth could be ten degrees warmer, further locking in sea level rise and increasing its impact.

What do inches of water, compounded by several decades, mean for cities? California’s coastal land alone accounts for over 800 miles of at-risk real estate. Cities can expect devastating natural disasters, property damage, loss of critical infrastructure, and tragically, loss of life. Other climate change-related disasters, like storms and earthquakes, will only worsen and complicate the sea level rise.

This is not a hypothetical future. Humboldt County is on the frontline of these intersecting crises. The region’s frequent tectonic shifts, earthquakes, and accelerated rates of sea level rise can provide a glimpse at what may lie ahead in other communities.

“In the event of an emergency, it’s really difficult for people to get out [of low-lying communities] and the frequency of flooding will only increase,” said Dr. Laurie Richmond, a co-chair and founder of the Cal Poly Humboldt Sea Level Rise Institute, which works with flood-prone communities in the county.

Based on data from the California Ocean Protection Council, the water in Humboldt Bay will rise as much as a foot by 2030, two by 2050, and three by 2060 — twice as fast as the rest of the coast. The area has also been home to more than 30 major quakes over the past 100 years.

In December 2022, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck the region at 2:34 in the morning. Homes and businesses swayed with the quake and the ground rolled and growled in symphony with alarms reminiscent of wartime bomb-raid sirens. Homes were removed from their foundations. Bridges and roads were damaged and deemed too hazardous and closed to all public use. 

Aftershocks — 180 just in the first day — went on for days, with violent storms that flooded and infiltrated the region, causing landslides and land sinking. To the unenlightened visitors in town, the area may have felt like ground zero of the apocalypse. 

The region’s comprehensive planning proved critical to emergency response efforts. Various groups played key roles in the county’s planning and response efforts — including local government agencies, community organizations, other first responders and public safety personnel, infrastructure departments, environmental experts, academic experts, and state and federal agencies.

This collaborative approach allowed officials to effectively leverage resources, expertise, and support to address the multifaceted challenges posed by the disaster. By involving diverse stakeholders and coordinating efforts, local officials were able to tailor emergency response strategies to the specific needs of the community, enhance resilience, and mitigate the impacts of the disaster.

What does participative scenario planning look like?

Local regions contain a multitude of natural hazards, and a one-size-fits-all approach to planning will fail. Coastal communities should plan for sea level rise in ways that make sense for their landscape and threats. Nonetheless, law enforcement organizations and local communities can follow some overarching principles.

Top-down planning models normally encompass the identification of at-risk areas, the development of response plans, the training of personnel, and collaboration across a broad spectrum of stakeholders. Participative scenario planning can build higher levels of sophistication into those plans. It can help communities better understand potential changes and their impacts, enabling them to craft action plans tailored to their specific needs. This approach fosters proactive decision-making and collective ownership of strategies, ensuring that communities can better adapt and thrive in the face of uncertainty.   

Don’t limit yourself to the typical set of public agencies, community organizations, service providers, and residents. Creative individuals with innovative ideas can greatly enhance the process. Reach out to artists, technologists, futurists, community activists, and storytellers. Artists, for example, can help design better signage. Technologists and futurists can inform communities about emerging technologies that might prove helpful in the long run.

Addressing the very real threats of seawater intrusion, managing the risks of mega-storms and flooding, and preparing for waterborne diseases requires coordination with other stakeholders. By embracing creativity and diverse perspectives, scenario planning can become more dynamic, inclusive, reflective of local needs, and crucially, minimize damage and save lives.  

Several organizations can serve as a template for participative scenario planning, including the Cal Poly Humboldt Sea Level Rise Institute. The institute uses many components of participative scenario planning to work across sectors to develop equitable, sustainable, and community-centered climate action plans.  

The institute works with a range of partners on an equally expansive range of issues. Richmond is particularly proud of its ongoing work with the Wiyot Tribe, Humboldt Water Keepers, and others to map out which hazardous waste sites are most susceptible to sea level rise. Much of the Wiyot Tribe’s land is vulnerable to sea-level rise.

Many of their projects and reports are accessible online. “For a little group that doesn’t have any funding we kind of got a lot going on,” Richmond said.

Turning the tides of uncertainty  

Time and time again, flooding has proven to be one of the world’s most catastrophic natural disasters. The implications for communities and law enforcement professionals charged with protecting them will remain bleak if sea level rise and compounding phenomena are ignored. The degree to which our society plans today will undoubtedly play a role in future outcomes. Although perhaps more costly in the short term, inclusively planning for and understanding how to mitigate sea level rise will pay off in the long run.