How to protect US communities from future disasters

If you lived in Mexico Beach, Florida or Paradise, California, you now know something that others might not. You know that for your community to survive a major natural disaster our nation must become more proactive in our efforts to reduce the devastating impacts of future disasters such as hurricanes and the wildfire.

The frequency and severity of natural disasters has increased dramatically. Changes in the climate have resulted in the now almost year-round threats from wildfires, hurricanes are becoming severe rain events causing unusual flooding events, and tornadoes have expanded their geographic reach outside of Tornado Alley.

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The collateral impacts of these changing storm patterns are reflected in the increasingly widespread damages and economic disruptions that we have witnessed in recent years. In 2017 alone, the United States spent an estimated $306 billion on disaster relief. 

The federal government climate report released last week notes that “the frequency and intensity of disturbances such as fire, insect and pathogen outbreaks, storms, and heat waves are expected to increase with higher temperatures and climate variability.”

Across the United States, communities are realizing that this rise in extreme events can no longer be ignored.  Communities are looking for ways to address these problems, for partners to help them strengthen their communities, and for leadership that will support action.  

We are answering this call and challenge communities to join us in making safer, more resilient communities. Twenty years ago, I had the privilege to lead FEMA in a nationwide community-based risk reduction initiative called Project Impact: Building Disaster Resistant Communities. 

Project Impact combined building a community partnership from all segments of a community including the private sector, that provided financial support, leadership, and guidance; local elected leadership; technical assistance from state and federal governments; and, seed money from a variety of sources. 

Over a three-year period from 1998 to 2000, 247 communities and over 2,500 local business partners joined the Project Impact initiative. This program saved lives and reduced recovery time and costs in numerous subsequent disasters.

In early 2019, Project Impact 2 will launch — this time backed by the private sector. This project is a nationwide campaign with the goal of engaging community leaders and the public to tackle future impacts of increasingly frequent and severe weather events and climate change.

This initiative will provide the vehicle to create a community coalition, establish a process and blueprint for action within the community, and facilitate access to resources to implement community risk reduction actions.

While we cannot prevent these events from happening, we can reduce the impacts of these events on the people, the institutions, the natural environment, and reduce the suffering of our communities. Initiatives that engage communities, like Project Impact 2, can have major impacts:

  • Create a community coalition to lead and support action
  • Reduce costs of future disasters and enhanced stability in the tax base 
  • Provide a vehicle to address community concerns associated with risk and highlight community process to collaborate to resolve risks
  • Reduce future economic and social disruption from disasters  
  • Economic stability and opportunity for economic growth and increased tax income
  • Identify opportunities for applying innovative, proven approaches to creating local funding sources

Initiatives like Project Impact 2 can mobilize the private sector and philanthropic funding sources to develop a blueprint for reducing impacts of future disasters. However, the federal government must also renew its commitment to support communities as they work to reduce risk. Our newly elected Congress ushers in a government that will be divided along party lines, but Americans from Southern California to the Florida Panhandle, and everywhere in between, can plainly see the value of these programs.  

Disasters do not recognize geographical or political boundaries and bipartisan support exists for disaster reduction activities. 

The time is now to protect our nation’s communities from future disaster events exacerbated by our changing climate and to reduce the impacts of future disasters on our people, our businesses, our environment, and our way of life.

We know we can do this because we have done it before in communities such as Tulsa, Oakland, Wilmington, North Carolina and hundreds more. We know we can change the outcomes and more than ever, we must.  

We owe it to the people who have lost their loved ones, their homes and their livelihoods.

James L. Witt is the CEO of Witt Global Partners and the former Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from 1993-2001 where he implemented Project Impact: Building Disaster Resistant Communities. Project Impact 2 is a partnership of Witt Global Partners, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties.