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Disaster Planning and Climate Change

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Fall may have arrived, but it hasn't brought an end to the great drought of 2012. My home state of Nebraska has been hit hard, with nearly 98 percent of the state still experiencing extreme or exceptional drought. Friends and family have told me that cities have restricted water use, farmers have plowed their crops under, and ranchers have thinned their herds. Tens of thousands of acres have caught fire across the state, and fire departments have had to ask for emergency increases in property taxes to cover the cost of fighting the flames.

Residents of the Great Plains are no strangers to erratic weather, but this year has been hotter and drier than any in recent memory. We could chalk it up to a one-time anomaly, except climate change is loading the dice and making these arid conditions more and more likely. Scientists say climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like drought, heat waves, downpours, and intense storms.

These are troubling trends, but they offer an opportunity. If we know more intense weather is coming our way, we can plan for it.

Today, NRDC and the National Wildlife Federation are calling on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to require states to consider climate change when they draft their disaster mitigation plans. Accounting for climate change will help states invest their money more wisely and protect more people, homes, and businesses from extreme weather.

FEMA offers funds for state projects to reduce vulnerability to future storms, heat waves, wildfires, and droughts. Right now, the agency doesn't ensure that states factor in climate change to these plans, despite the fact that other federal agencies--from the Environmental Protection Agency to the CIA to the Pentagon--have acknowledged the dangers of global warming.

The last time most states filed disaster mitigation plans was in 2010, and a lot of extreme weather events have happened since then. In 2011, America experienced 14 disastrous weather events that created over a billion dollars in damages each--an all-time record. Taken together, extreme events cost our country at least $55 billion in 2011. This year has delivered another round of extreme events, from record-breaking heat waves to freak storms and devastating wildfires. Purdue economist Chris Hurt estimates the cost of the drought alone could rise to $77 billion.

Failing to plan for the growing intensity of weather events puts our families and communities at greater risk. In the disaster mitigation plan Texas submitted to FEMA in 2010, climate change is only mentioned in relation to sea level rise. Yet in 2011, Texas suffered the worst one-year drought in its history, and nearly 20 percent of all public water systems in the state had to be placed on water restrictions. Texas's 2010 plan greatly underestimated the costs of drought - summarizing projected losses of $325 million, mostly in crop damage. In fact, the Texas AgriLife Extension Service estimates that the 2011 drought caused $7.62 billion in damages, breaking the 2006 record of $4.1 billion.

Planners can't prevent these kinds of weather disasters, but they can help residents prepare for them. If you know your state is prone to drought, and if you know climate change will make those droughts more intense, you can expand water conservation, water reuse and efficiency practices. Green infrastructure--things like pocket parks, grassy swales, and permeable pavement--helps capture rainfall and recharge groundwater supplies. The state of Maryland anticipates climate change will reduce its snowfall and increase its droughts. Fortunately, it has passed legislation requiring new development and redevelopment projects to use green infrastructure --a strategy that provides multiple benefits to water quality and water supply.

States also are taking proactive steps to protect against the hazards of too much water. Last week, California passed legislation authorizing the State Coastal Conservancy to address climate change's impacts, including sea level rise and storm surges, on coastal resources.

Many state agencies across the country are already planning for climate change. Now it's time to include that same foresight in state disaster mitigation plans. Preparedness--rather than damage control--is what inspired Congress to pass the Disaster Mitigation Act in the first place. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) described the bill's value by saying:

Too often, we think of disaster assistance only after a disaster has occurred. For the very first time, we are authorizing a program to think about preventing disaster-related damage prior to the disaster. We believe that by spending these small amounts in advance of a disaster, we will save the federal government money in the long-term.

NRDC believes that by including climate change in these plans, we will save even more federal money and make our communities even more resilient.

This blog is cross-posted on NRDC's Switchboard.

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