This is the last in a series of posts on extreme weather events in the United States. Part 1 described the reactions of key political leaders. Part 2 detailed the "perfect storm" of increasing weather extremes combined with decreasing government ability to respond. This post discusses what communities can do to help themselves.
In the United States and much of the rest of the world, a climate-related train wreck is in the making. Extreme weather events are increasing, while weak economies and budget deficits are undermining the capacity of national governments to respond.
In the U.S., the infrastructure we've built to protect people from natural disasters is aging. Some of it is proving tragically inadequate to handle weather events now routinely described as biblical, unprecedented, historic, record-breaking and not seen before in our lifetimes.
Given the probability that the severity of today's weather is a result of global climate change, we must anticipate that weird weather will continue, ranging from the slow strangulation of drought and shifting isotherms to the rapid trauma of floods, hurricanes, tornados and wildfires.
Do communities have any defense? The short answer is yes. There are some things the federal government can do to reduce our risk. There's also a lot communities can and should do on their own.
At the top of the federal government's agenda should be the goal to stop digging the hole we need to climb out of. Federal subsidies that promote greenhouse gas emissions should be repealed. So should federal programs that directly or indirectly encourage development in hazard areas. Everyone has ideas for how the billions of dollars of taxpayer oil subsidies should be redirected, but there's urgency and poetic justice in using the money to help localities protect themselves from the consequences of carbon fuels.
Congress should increase rates in the National Flood Insurance Program to bring them up to market standards, a reform already approved by the House. There should be a "three strikes and you're out" rule for federal disaster assistance to people who insist on living in defined hazard areas.
President Obama should champion adequate funding to help communities become more resilient. The president's plan to create jobs by repairing public schools has obvious merit, but better school buildings are not as high a near-term priority as public safety.
The administration should use lessons learned from the last century of disaster-prevention efforts in the United States to help inform other nations' disaster mitigation plans. Some of the mistakes that have made us more vulnerable here -- from the degradation of ecosystems to overreliance on structures -- are being replicated in developing countries.
The insurance industry also can do more to promote local resilience. It should use projected climate impacts in addition to past weather-related losses to determine its rates. Its rate structure should reward the people and communities that practice effective climate mitigation and adaptation. And the property-casualty and health insurance industries should educate their policyholders on ways to reduce their vulnerability to the physical and health impacts of climate change.
However, the best advice to everyone in harm's way -- you, me and the people next door -- is to take control of our own safety. To paraphrase Aesop: Mother Nature favors those who help themselves. Here are some suggestions:
Rethink Our Relationship with Nature
Job No. 1 is to change the way we think about our interaction with ecosystems.
The thinking behind our strategy for dealing with natural disasters is exemplified by the National Flood Control Act of 1936. It deployed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to tame the nation's rivers. The dangerous mindset represented by that 75-year-old law remains at the core of national policy today. Between its lines is the conceit that we can control and out-engineer natural systems, that it's our birthright to live where we please, and that we can destroy ecosystems without consequences. The law codifies the idea that when people and nature conflict, the burden of change is on nature.
It's time for a new paradigm: when people and nature conflict, it often is safer, more effective and more sensible to change the behavior of the people.
Job No. 2 is to restore the natural systems that at one time reduced the number and severity of weather-related disasters, and did it for free. Wetlands can be rebuilt; hillsides can be replanted; riparian ecosystems can be restored.
Relatively low-cost ways to recapture ecosystem services include natural drainage swales, rooftop gardens, tree plantings and permeable surfaces to reduce runoff during storms; constructed wetlands to store and treat water; shade trees to reduce inner-city temperatures, air conditioning costs, carbon emissions and heat-related fatalities; and strategic landscaping to channel summer breezes and block winter winds.
Measures like these don't require an act of Congress and cost only a fraction of building and maintaining dams and levees.
During the Clinton Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) promoted the marriage of sustainable community development and livability with disaster mitigation. In 1997, FEMA launched a program called Project Impact, which provided seed money for local partnerships to create "disaster resilient communities." By 1999, nearly 200 localities and more than 1,000 businesses had signed up.
FEMA should revive Project Impact (another good use for redirected oil subsidies), but communities needn't wait. They can follow the example of Tulsa, Okla., where businesses, civic organizations and local government have created a not-for-profit organization called Tulsa Partners to improve the city's resilience. Nationally, local officials, engineers, civil organizations and environmental groups have created the Natural Hazards Mitigation Association to share best practices on building community resilience.
Get Safe by Getting Out
A major factor in the loss of life and property from extreme weather is the growth of human development in hazard areas. Fifty-three percent of Americans live in coastal counties, a 47-percent increase since 1970. Another 14 million Americans are expected to live on the nation's coasts by the end of this decade.
Forty-three percent of Americans live in counties with levee systems. Some communities are tired of the costs and dangers of relying on structural flood control and are taking the bold step of moving people out of hazard areas.
For example, Valmeyer, Ill. relocated from the floodplain and rebuilt on higher ground after it suffered billions of dollars in damages during the Mississippi River flood of 1993. The Village of Gays Mills, Wis. decided to move its most vulnerable buildings to higher ground after back-to-back 500-year floods in 2007 and 2008.
Leaving a riverside or coastal hazard area does not mean its economic value will be lost. Hazard areas can be turned into park land and open space, or can be equipped with recreational facilities that are relatively inexpensive to repair.
Communities should implement tough standards for new construction in hazard areas that are harder to define than floodplains. We can't evacuate America's coasts or ban construction in tornado alley, but buildings can be better designed and constructed to withstand high winds and storm surges. Buildings subject to high winds can be equipped with safe rooms -- the modern version of the old storm shelters.
Good Neighbor Compacts
Hydraulics cause whack-a-mole effects along rivers and coasts. One community's efforts at disaster mitigation can reduce or increase the danger to its neighbors upriver or down. An effort to stop beach erosion at one spot on the coast can make erosion worse in another.
One option is "do-no-harm" compacts with neighboring communities in the same bioregion. Under these agreements, each community assesses the impacts of its actions on the safety of others and takes no action that increases its neighbors' risks. Even better are "do-some-good" compacts in which bioregional neighbors collaborate on watershed restoration and other measures with mutual benefits.
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If there is a silver lining in the train wreck between budget crises and natural disasters, it's this: our safety now depends on local self-reliance and a deeper understanding of the natural systems in our communities. That would be an evolutionary shift from where we are today.
We can't stop the extreme weather events now in the pipeline because of climate change. In fact, we should anticipate that they will get worse. But if we build stronger and wiser communities, we might still build a stronger nation.
Bill Becker is a senior associate at the London-based sustainability think tank E3G and at Natural Capitalism Solutions in Colorado. This post is excerpted in part from articles he wrote for the current issue of the Crisis Response Journal and next January's issue of the journal Solutions. For more information on how to assess and manage climate risks, see the E3G study "Degrees of Risk."