Disasters are getting worse and we need a new plan

Disasters are getting worse and we need a new plan
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I couldn’t seem to turn on the TV this week without being inundated with coverage of the ongoing floods and tornadoes in the Midwest. The dearth of other content is not just due the doldrums of the sports and political seasons — things are genuinely getting worse on the disaster front. Much worse.

The horrible scenes of twister damaged homes across the Midwest and continuing flooding along the entire Mississippi River merely displaced the stories on recovery efforts from the Hurricanes Maria, Irma, Harvey, Michael as well as the Camp Fire and other drought enflamed disasters in California and the Western U.S. 

The Fourth National Climate Assessment predicts more frequent and severe storms, longer and more severe droughts, and the continued and likely accelerating rise of sea levels. All of this will only add to the challenges faced by states, counties and municipalities that are on the front lines of these disasters and to the taxpayers who foot the bill for the hundreds of billions in recovery and rebuilding costs.

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The Government Accountability Office found that the increasing frequency and scale of disasters as well as the federal government’s role in funding recovery and flood and crop insurance, make climate disaster a high risk for federal fiscal exposure. GAO reported that the federal recovery efforts alone have cost nearly half a trillion dollars since 2005. To put that spending in context, it represents approximately $4,000 out of the pockets of every American family. Congress will either have to put our nation further into debt or shift the burden to our taxpayers. Addressing climate change is not only an environmental imperative, it’s critical to our nation’s economic security.

It is clear that we have learned a lot about how to respond to, and recover from, major disasters. In the past 40 years. federal agencies, state and local governments, and the extensive network of volunteer organizations such as the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity and the Cajun Navy deserve much credit for their growing ability to save lives and help rebuild communities. 

It is also clear that just getting better at response and recovery will keep us on the defensive, always playing catch-up. More importantly, the focus and investment post-disaster does little to keep us safe in the first place. We have to retire the old approach that we can just come in after the storm or fire and rebuild — even if we rebuild stronger. Ask anyone who lost their home, business, community or especially a loved one to one of these disasters. They will tell you that as appreciative as they are for the world-class support from governments and volunteers, it’s small comfort for the trauma and years of personal recovery they face. We need to get ahead of the curve by investing in resilient communities and infrastructure so fewer families have to live in devastation.

Congress is beginning to address this. While some members seemed locked in a partisan fight that is keeping funding from storm and fire ravaged communities in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and California, Congress did add a program in the 2018 Disaster Recovery Reform Act that shines a ray of hope on efforts to be more proactive in disaster mitigation. The creation of a National Public Infrastructure Pre-Disaster Mitigation fund, which FEMA plans to implement through a new program called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities allows FEMA to invest in communities before a disaster strikes. Research by the National Institute of Building Sciences found that just building to the current resilient building codes returns 11 times the cost of the initial investment. FEMA’s new program will allow several hundred million dollars in resilient investments to move forward each year without having to run the congressional appropriations gauntlet, but this is really just a small start.

FEMA’s new pre-disaster fund represents only six cents for every dollar spent on reactive recovery. We need to help communities rebuild, but we also need to be serious about investing to make our communities safe from the coming storms, fires, and other climate threats. While construction to current resilient building codes is the right answer for new construction, it doesn’t address the vast balance of structures built on codes that are old and don’t address the new science and technology of climate resilience. We need to invest in fixing or replacing our failing infrastructure and ensuring that all new construction is resilient to future risks — or we will face this problem all over again.

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This doesn’t mean that the federal government alone shoulders the entire responsibility. A successful resilience strategy will only work if we bring both the public and the private sectors into the fight. Resilient building codes are one example, but we also need to value and incentivize resilient investments for everyone.

There is a silver lining to our climate challenges — economic growth. Americans are very good at innovating and building and we can leverage our need to be more resilient by growing the economy with good resilient and sustainable jobs. Some of these jobs are found in building, upgrading and maintaining our new and existing infrastructure to make it resilient to the increasing risks from a climate-impacted world.

Not only can we put Americans to work building our resilient future, we can take the lessons we learn in that effort and export it to the rest of the world. This is an approach that works for all Americans and provides a strong economic as well as environmental future for people in all parts of our nation and the world.

This is what we did to become world leaders in democracy, agriculture, manufacturing and technology in the previous centuries, and we can do it with climate in the 21st century. Climate change is real and addressing it is literally an opportunity we can’t afford to ignore.

Josh Sawislak served as a climate and resilience official in the Obama White House, HUD and the president’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. He conducts research and provides strategic guidance on sustainability and climate resilience issues for corporations, governments and NGOs.