Harvey Should Be a Wakeup Call for States
Hurricane Harvey is a disaster of epic proportions that exceeds all previous expectations of the flooding that can accompany a storm. While it will be one of the largest flood disasters in the nation's history, it's not the only "unprecedented" flood event that's happened in recent memory. In 2016, floods in Central Louisiana and in North Carolina from Hurricane Matthew exceeded historical precedents, as did flooding in South Carolina from Hurricane Joaquin in 2015 and other major floods that have occurred in Texas in recent years. One could add other examples without much effort.
States have an obligation to anticipate and prepare for natural disasters, but most states fail to consider the possibility of floods, storms, and other natural disasters that are without historical precedent. Nobody can predict the future, but there's ample information available about how climate change can affect the frequency or magnitude of certain natural disasters. States should use this information to prepare for a future where disaster may be more frequent and unprecedented storms are increasingly possible.
Every five years states are required to update their hazard mitigation plans and submit them to FEMA for approval. In these plans states are supposed to anticipate the potential for future natural disasters and the actions they can take to reduce their vulnerability. But most states rely solely on historical information to determine the kinds of disasters they should prepare for and the potential magnitude of those disasters.
That is a problem, because climate change makes floods, droughts, hurricanes, and extreme weather events more likely or have greater potential to cause damage. But if states don't factor this into their risk analysis, they will not anticipate these events. It's difficult to address vulnerabilities to a disaster you didn't anticipate. It's akin to driving a car down a highway using only your rear view mirror. That strategy works okay, as long as the road ahead looks like what's behind you. But if there's a turn in the road, you'll never see it coming. Climate change is that turn in the road.
In 2015, FEMA put in place a requirement for states to begin factoring future conditions into their hazard mitigation plans. Wisconsin was among the first states to submit its plan to FEMA for approval and it accounted for how the frequency and magnitude of natural disasters may change in response to climate change. More importantly, they laid the groundwork for how they will prepare for and address vulnerabilities that more frequent or larger events in the future.
But most state plans don't think about the future and how it may differ from their past experiences with natural disasters. The State of Texas's most recent plan was adopted in 2013 and suffers from this shortcoming. The same can be said of most other states' plans, which were adopted prior to FEMA's requirement to factor in climate change and other changes in future conditions. Looking only at historical data leaves a state blind to the possibility that future storms may present new challenges and expose new vulnerabilities.
In 2018 thirty-two states will update their hazard mitigation plans to comply with FEMA's updated guidelines. Fourteen others will do so in 2019. (see Table below for schedule of state plan submittals)
States need to seriously consider how natural disasters may change in frequency and magnitude in the future, as it may lead them to different conclusions about the mitigation actions they should take, as well as influence many other decisions about land use, development, and how to design and site critical infrastructure. The recent draft of the National Climate Assessment makes it very clear that the nation will be increasingly exposed to natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, droughts, etc., and we need to plan accordingly. States, communities, and yes, the federal government, need to account for these changing risk profiles, if they're going to avoid loss of life, damage to property, and loss of critical community services.
FEMA needs to make states assess these risks, because it is the federal government that bears most of the financial burden for responding to natural disasters, not the state and local governments. Between 2005 and 2014, the federal government spent $278 billion on disaster assistance, most of it for floods and hurricanes. Those costs will continue to climb—unless we plan accordingly and take actions to reduce our vulnerability to disasters in the future.
We can anticipate sea level rise and the potential for extreme weather events that increase the likelihood of floods, droughts, and wildfires. And we should be planning accordingly. In the realm of natural disasters, you should plan for the worst, but hope for the best. But you can't plan for a disaster you didn't anticipate. States would be wise to look at the results of Hurricane Harvey and the multitude of other flood disasters the nation has experienced in recent years and take note—just because something hasn't happened before, doesn't mean it won't happen in the future.
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