Compound Fluvial-Coastal Flood Adaptation

PI Philip Orton, Stevens Institute of Technology

Co-PI Franco Montalto, Drexel University 

Co-PI Marc Cammarata, Philadelphia Water Department 

Additional team members: Julia Rockwell (PWD), Korin Tangtrakul (Drexel), Kazi Mita (Stevens)

Funding agency/program:  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Climate Program Office, Coastal Ocean Climate Applications (COCA)/Sectoral Applications Research Program (SARP)

Project Period:  September 2019 to August 2021


Compound flooding is the combination of rainfall-induced flooding with storm surge induced flooding, and is currently inadequately considered nationwide in both flood risk assessment and forecasts. It is well-established that coastal floods are becoming more frequent, and the U.S. Northeast has seen a substantial increase in intense rainfall events in recent decades, likely as a result of climate change. In many U.S. cities, coastal and fluvial floods merge in estuaries, causing a compounded problem, and the coincident occurrence of extreme rain and surge is growing at many locations. However, little research has been performed to improve our understanding of compound flooding.

An ideal location to investigate this problem, Eastwick is a low-lying neighborhood in South Philadelphia situated near the Delaware River at the confluence of Darby and Cobb’s Creeks. It is in close proximity to the 1.2 km2 John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, two federal Superfund sites, a series of oil refineries, and the Philadelphia International Airport, and meets the EPA criteria for an Environmental Justice community, with a majority (76%) of its population being African American, and pockets of low income residents. Triggered by rainfall, coastal surges pushing up the tidal portion of the Delaware River, or some combination of the two, flooding has long been one of the biggest problems facing this community.

The proposed research will inform climate risk management and adaptation decision-making regarding flooding in Eastwick, and will be performed by researchers from two universities and the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD). The project will include four core areas of science, as well as a community engagement process, strong coordination with decision makers and a specific focus on two ongoing city planning initiatives. The core compound flood science research areas include flood modeling, extreme value analysis, climate-impact assessment, and adaptation benefit-cost analysis. The engagement process will consist of two community workshops, including collaborative design of flood adaptation scenarios and a socially-sourced validation of the flood modeling. Coordination with decision makers will occur through an advisory panel, project webinars, and the activities of our team members at the PWD.

The proposed research will strongly further NOAA and COCA/SARP interests relating to climate change. It presents a framework and detailed technical approach for addressing both the communication of risk and the economics of adaptation to compound flooding and climate change. An important additional component of the planned research is to compare our detailed analyses to simplified approaches, to improve the transferability of the work to other communities with similar challenges. The advancement of scientific understanding, prediction and communication of compound flooding will help enable effective decisions, and our development and dissemination of modeling, statistical hazard analysis and benefit-cost analysis tools will have a nationwide impact on resilience.


Eastwick is a low-lying community in South Philadelphia that floods frequently yet lacks sufficient information on flood risk or adaptation. It meets the EPA criteria for an Environmental Justice community, with a majority (76%) of its population being African American, and pockets of low income residents. The community is situated near the Delaware River at the confluence of Darby and Cobb’s Creeks, and in close proximity to the 1.2 km2 John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. Unfortunately, Eastwick also happens to be located next to portions of the Lower Darby Creek Superfund Site, increasing the health risks posed by any flooding that occurs in this area.

Flooding has long been one of the biggest problems facing Eastwick, the lowest-lying community in Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania, 2017). Eastwick’s floods can be purely due to rainfall, purely due to high coastal sea levels pushing up the tidal Delaware River, or they can be compound flooding (Moftakhari et al., 2017; Wahl et al., 2015), the merger of the two (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2014).  As such, the community exemplifies a common problem faced by low-lying coastal neighborhoods located at the downstream end of coastal urbanized watersheds found across the nation. Eastwick has been designated by FEMA as a Special Flood Hazard Area. In 1999, for example, Hurricane Floyd deposited 25 cm of rain in the Darby Creek watershed and pushed a 0.85 m surge up the Delaware River, creating such severe flooding that residents had to be rescued by rowboat.  After Hurricane Irene’s (runoff-induced) flood and just before Hurricane Sandy’s (surge-induced) flood, the Mayor called for a comprehensive solution to Eastwick’s flooding problems, yet to date no comprehensive mitigation plan for the neighborhood has been developed.

Compound flooding is currently inadequately considered nationwide in both flood risk assessment and modeling activities. Neither FEMA’s maps, nor NOAA’s forecasts address compound flooding because they address runoff-induced or surge-derived flooding separately (e.g., Corelogic, 2017a; Moftakhari et al., 2017; Orton et al., 2012). For example, Philadelphia is ranked as being the metro area with the 11th-highest hurricane storm surge risk in the US (Corelogic, 2017b), but that study did not account for rainfall. Flood modelers often either assume constant stream flow, if they are simulating surge-derived floods, or a static coastal water level if they are simulating runoff-induced riverine floods (e.g., U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2014). Holistic simulation and probabilistic assessment of compound flooding is thus essential to “risk characterization” and to “the development of innovative, applicable, and transferable approaches for decision making” in urban coastal communities across the nation (two key goals of the CSI program).

Proposed study and objectives

The overriding objective of the proposed research is to inform climate risk management and decision-making regarding flooding in Eastwick. The proposed research activities will be integrated into two ongoing community planning initiatives: (1) the City-wide Flood Risk Management Task Force which was first convened in 2015 “to address the circumstances of flooding as it impacts various Philadelphia neighborhoods” including Eastwick (PWD, 2017a) and (2) the Lower Eastwick Public Land Strategy (LEPLS), a planning effort that has developed and will now begin to implement a vision for Eastwick’s vacant and publicly-owned land (RDA, 2017). Our interactions with the Task Force will be facilitated principally by project partner Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) with Co-PI Joanne Dahme and PWD project manager Julia Rockwell, while our interaction with the LEPLS (Figure 1) will be through our partners at Keystone Conservation Trust and the Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition.

Flow Chart 3a

Figure 1:  Diagram of the proposed COCA/SARP project (top) as well as the timeline of projects with which the study would connect or leverage (bottom).


The research team will improve an existing dynamic model of compound flooding in Eastwick developed by the project team and use it in conjunction with ongoing and proposed new stakeholder activities in several inter-related ways. The land use strategies developed by the LEPLS team will be incorporated into the model domain, ensuring that future climate impacts and adaptation scenarios respond to the community’s expressed aspirations and goals regarding local land cover and land use. New workshops planned by the project team will be used to validate retrospective model simulations with local knowledge regarding the location, timing and severity of historical flooding in the community (a “social validation”).  These workshops will also source community-guided green and grey flood adaptation measures across the watersheds and waterfronts (e.g. Figure 2). The efficacy of these measures for mitigating flooding will be quantified with dynamic flood modeling of historical and synthetic flood events across a wide range of return periods (e.g. Figure 3). Damage computations for flooding and benefit-cost ratios will be computed using improved city data within FEMA’s HAZUS software.


Figure 2:  Co-PI Montalto and his students listening to community leaders with Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition (EFNC) at last year’s flooding workshop.

These activities will be coordinated through and at times conducted during regularly scheduled meetings of the City-wide Task Force, minimizing the time commitment that our engagement activities will have on local stakeholders, while also ensuring participation of a diverse and representative group of intended beneficiaries in the research. This synchronization will ensure that the research outputs are both timely and germane, given other planned activities in this dynamic community.

In this way, we will test innovative, broadly applicable approaches for flood modeling, flood risk assessment, benefit-cost analysis of compound flood risk reduction scenarios. Key contributions of the research to the science of climate adaptation and engagement will be: a) an evaluation of the proposed stakeholder-engaged modeling approach as a means of communicating complex probabilistic, multi-source flood risks to a vulnerable community, b) development of a workshop framework that can be used to explore the advantages and disadvantages of alternative adaptation strategies under a wide range of compound flood risk scenarios.


Figure 3: Example of modeled flooding (shaded water depth in feet) for a synthetic storm event with Hurricane Sandy’s Delaware River water levels combined with Hurricane Irene’s Cobbs-Darby streamflows.  Eastwick spans the top-right to the center-right.



Corelogic. (2017a). Storm Surge Inundation vs Freshwater Flooding Report.   Retrieved August 8, 2017, from

Corelogic. (2017b). Storm Surge Risk Report.   Retrieved August 9, 2017, from

Moftakhari, H. R., Salvadori, G., AghaKouchak, A., Sanders, B. F., & Matthew, R. A. (2017). Compounding effects of sea level rise and fluvial flooding. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(37), 9785-9790.

Orton, P., Georgas, N., Blumberg, A., & Pullen, J. (2012). Detailed modeling of recent severe storm tides in estuaries of the New York City region. Journal of Geophysical Research, 117, C09030. doi: 10.1029/2012JC008220

PWD. (2017a). Citywide Flood Risk Management Task Force.   Retrieved August 9, 2017, from

University of Pennsylvania. (2017). Researchers and Residents Explore ways Eastwick Floods and Ideas for Mitigation.   Retrieved May 19, 2017, from

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (2014). Eastwick Stream Modeling and Technical Evaluation Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia District, North Atlantic Division.

Wahl, T., Jain, S., Bender, J., Meyers, S. D., & Luther, M. E. (2015). Increasing risk of compound flooding from storm surge and rainfall for major US cities. Nature Climate Change, 5(12), 1093-1097.



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