Climate Change Demands New Paradigm for Disaster Management

As climate change makes catastrophic events like Hurricane Ida, the Caldor and Dixie fires in California, and prolonged drought in the southwestern United States more likely and more severe (and recovery more costly), we need an overhaul of how we prepare for and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Hurricane Ida approaches Louisiana


NOAA’s GOES East satellite, August 30, 2021

As climate change makes catastrophic events like Hurricane Ida, the Caldor and Dixie fires in California, and prolonged drought in the southwestern United States more likely and more severe (and recovery more costly), we need an overhaul of how we prepare for and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

At all levels of government, we’re making decisions that fail to account for what the future looks like. We site and design mass transit, highways, sewage treatment systems, power plants, and all kinds of other costly infrastructure assets with little or no regard for whether these systems will be able to function decades from now. We also continue to build homes and businesses in areas that are prone to flooding, vulnerable to wildfires, or at risk of running out of water.

There is no single silver-bullet solution to this problem, but there are many things that governments should do to help the nation get ahead of the ever-steepening curve of climate-fueled disasters.

Make climate-informed decisions and adopt climate-smart policies

Every single day, local, state, and federal governments make decisions about where to build, how to build, and what will be built. It’s the exception, rather than the rule, when those decisions take into account the future impacts of climate change or contemplate a future that looks different than the past.

In the run up to Hurricane Ida’s landfall, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told National Public Radio, “We need to anticipate what we think these storms might be 10 years from now, 20 years from now, not just here on the coast, but you're seeing it with the wildfires in the West too.” That’s exactly right—but we’ve barely started doing this.

In fact, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which is administered by FEMA, is one such program that fails to factor climate change into its decisions. The NFIP is responsible for providing insurance as well as establishing land-use standards, mapping flood risks, and provision of assistance to reduce flood damage—all of which should account for the impacts of climate change. However, while the NFIP was intended to reduce the nation’s long-term exposure and vulnerability to flood disasters, it now utterly fails to recognize one of the biggest long-term drivers of flood risk—climate change.

One program that deserves a shout-out for incorporating future conditions into decision making is the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, newly reinstated by the Biden administration, which my colleague Joel Scata just blogged about here. The standard requires all federally funded projects to factor in an additional margin of safety for flood risk and, in coastal areas, account for future sea level rise. Put in place by President Obama, rescinded by President Trump, and reinstated in May by President Biden, it is the type of clear-eyed, climate-smart decision making that should be replicated throughout federal, state, and local government.

Learn from past mistakes, instead of repeating them (over and over and…)

The United States lacks a systematic way of investigating a disaster, learning from our past mistakes and successes, and applying those lessons before the next disaster occurs. But the nation has a very successful model for learning from past tragedies, in the form of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The time may have finally come for establishing a National Disaster Safety Board.

Like the NTSB, it would be empowered to conduct credible independent investigations of disasters, the response and recovery operations, and the factors that contributed to a hazard, like a storm or wildfire, becoming a full-blown disaster. Fortunately, there’s support for such a plan, and legislation has been introduced by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) and Reps. Katie Porter (D-California) and John Garamendi (D-California.). Under that legislation, a National Disaster Safety Board would also be charged with assessing the disproportionate impacts of disasters on low-income communities and people of color.

Just as the NTSB helped drive improvements in airline and aircraft safety in the United States, a National Disaster Safety Board would catalyze changes to disaster management and its findings would undoubtedly accelerate climate adaptation efforts. The Board’s findings would also likely jump-start local, state, and federal initiatives to improve building codes and standards, improve land-use decisions, and ensure more just and equitable access to federal disaster assistance.

Lake Mead has dropped to its lowest levels in history due to a prolonged drought that has gripped the Colorado River basin.

Credit: Image by Madison Buening from Pixabay,

Invest heavily in emergency management capacity and hazard mitigation efforts

We can dramatically reduce the harms and impacts of climate change—the number of people displaced, lives lost, and property damaged—through climate-smart investments, plans, and projects. But it takes people with expertise to develop plans, design and manage projects, and administer programs. We are lacking that expertise and capacity in so many places around the country, particularly in communities that are predominantly people of color, lower income, rural, or tribal governments.

In fact, FEMA itself sometimes lacks the capacity to effectively manage disaster response and recovery efforts. This is particularly true when FEMA is required to manage simultaneous catastrophic disasters, as has been necessary multiple times in recent years, most notably in 2017 when Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria hit within weeks of one another. State and local governments also often lack the capacity and expertise to effectively plan and prepare for disasters and manage the post-disaster response and long-term recovery, much less proactively plan and implement projects to reduce their vulnerability to future disasters.

NRDC has recommended several actions to begin to address these capacity shortages. Now that Congress is preparing to make necessary and overdue investments in infrastructure and to address the threats of climate change all around us, we have an important opportunity to make a down payment on expanding that capacity even further. It’s time to make that happen, as it’s clear that the nation’s emergency management and hazard mitigation capacity isn’t keeping pace with climate-fueled disasters.

The Caldor Fire quickly spread and crossed the Sierra Nevada's continental divide.

Credit: CalFire photograph, August 29, 2021

Acknowledge that everyone won’t live where they are today

This is one of the most difficult and uncomfortable subjects, but it’s a reality right now as people have fled from areas hit by Hurricane Ida and massive wildfires in California, many of whom may never return home permanently. Last year, disasters displaced 1.7 million Americans, even as the COVID-19 pandemic made it increasingly dangerous to leave the security of one’s home.

As the climate continues to warm, more people will be displaced. As many as 13 million Americans could see their homes inundated by six feet of sea level rise by the end of this century. Along the nation’s rivers and inland floodplains people may need to move out of increasingly flood-prone areas as extreme precipitation events increase. Add to that future displacements from wildfire, water scarcity, and extreme heat, and it’s evident that we are, “now at the dawn of America’s Great Climate Migration Era,” as Alexandra Tempus said in her recent New York Times op-ed.

As I have written previously, our current methods of providing assistance to relocate out of areas prone to disasters are not capable of scaling up to meet the challenge before us. The programs that FEMA relies upon to provide such assistance can take years to facilitate the purchase of someone’s home.

The Government Accountability Office, not known for pushing wild, outside the box ideas, has called for the federal government to create a climate migration pilot program. And that seems like an extremely reasonable place to start.

Flood waters in Lumberton, NC following Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

Credit: FEMA, Photo by Jocelyn Augustino - Oct 12, 2016

Finally, we need a coordinated, all-hands-on-deck, federal climate adaptation strategy

President Biden has signaled his commitment to fighting climate change and assembled an all-hands on deck response to the crisis, largely focused on reducing emissions and addressing the root cause of climate change. This must be a priority, but the administration should also put in place one person to lead and coordinate climate adaptation work.

Daniel Kaniewski, former Deputy Administrator for Resilience at FEMA, has urged President Biden to designate FEMA as the lead agency for climate adaptation. That would certainly send the proper signal, but FEMA’s programs and authorities may not be up to the task. Many of the agency’s own legal authorities are notably silent on climate change, like the National Flood Insurance and Stafford Acts. FEMA has clear authority to mobilize federal resources and agencies after a major disaster is declared. But it’s authority to lead the nation’s climate adaptation efforts would rest upon the President’s desire for other agencies to follow FEMA’s lead, which could easily change with the next election. Still, it could be a workable solution.

I think we should create a a Federal Chief Resilience Officer, housed in the new White House Climate Office. Many states and local governments now have chief resilience officers, who are usually vested with the authority to pull agencies together and coordinate government efforts. Combined with the creation of similar positions at each federal agency, you’d have the requisite people in place to advance climate adaptation in a whole of government approach. Of course, this approach might suffer from the same problems of making FEMA the lead agency. What we really need is for Congress to give clear statutory authority to a Federal Chief Resilience Officer with clear responsibilities.

The nation has its work cut out for it to respond to the growing pace of disasters, which are influenced by our changing climate. As my NRDC colleague, Mary Heglar, said this week, “Hurricane Ida and Caldor Fire are not ‘previews of climate change.’ They are the view,”. The impacts of climate change are not some far off theoretical possibility, they are here and now. The time has come for our actions to reflect that reality.

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