FEMA’s Disaster Preparedness Plan Is a Disaster for the U.S.

Hurricane Irma making landfall in the lower Florida keys on September 10, 2017

Source: NASA

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the federal agency primarily responsible for funding community rebuilding in the aftermath of a large-scale disaster, has removed any reference to climate change, including sea level rise and extreme weather, from its just-released strategic plan.

Meanwhile, the United States is still recovering from last year’s devastating floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. The damage costs for these disasters is $306 billion dollars and counting. A bill that will mostly be footed by federal taxpayers. As the climate changes, catastrophic storms and major heatwaves and droughts (i.e. wildfires) are expected to occur more frequently in the coming decades, further straining federal resources.

However, FEMA’s strategic plan, while touting the importance of risk reduction and the responsible management of tax-payer dollars, blatantly avoids acknowledging that climate change is a significant driver of the increasing risk and cost of the natural disasters that FEMA seeks to address. This omission is a notable departure from FEMA’s previous strategic plan, which asserted that the agency “will also ensure that future risks, including those influenced by climate change, are effectively integrated into the Agency’s risk assessment resources and processes.” Overlooking climate change’s effect on extreme weather and other natural disasters in preparedness planning is foolish, but purposefully choosing not to acknowledge the existence of climate change is not only irresponsible, but dangerous.

FEMA is acting like a man who has laid out steps to decrease his risk of a heart attack, but refuses to account for the daily bacon double cheese burger that is part of his diet.

Climate Change-Fueled Extreme Weather is an Extreme Threat

Organizations, like the World Economic Forum (WEF), acknowledge that climate change is one of the planet's foremost threats. The WEF’s Global Risks Report 2018 ranked extreme weather, natural disasters, and a collective failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change as the greatest and most likely risks facing humanity in the next 10 years. And the United States’ Fourth National Climate Assessment has found that climate change is already fueling more extreme storms.

Hence, FEMA’s failure to acknowledge a main driver of these kinds of worsening events will likely be a dangerous and costly decision. Like the man that fails to reduce his risk of heart attack because he purposefully chooses to overlook his daily diet of cheeseburgers, FEMA will fail to make the nation better prepared for catastrophic storms because it is deciding to ignore a significant contributing factor to the increase in catastrophic storms. 

Underscoring this point is that extreme weather events have caused billions of dollars in disaster-related damages in the United States. In the 2017, sixteen weather-related disasters, each exceeding $1 billion in damage, occurred in the United States. Hurricane Harvey, alone, has likely cost $125 billion in damages.

As this graphic demonstrates, the number of these events and their associated costs has steadily increased.

Source: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (2018). https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/

This trend will likely continue to increase as climate change continues to load the dice when it comes to extreme events.

FEMA’s Strategic Plan Commits a Strategic Error

FEMA’s failure to acknowledge the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise and more extreme weather, is an omission that completely undercuts the goals of the strategic plan. In the document, FEMA outlines plans for building preparedness and readying the nation for catastrophic disasters. For example, FEMA did indicate it wants to invest in more “pre-disaster mitigation, and encourage actors at all levels to better reduce their risks." These are laudable goals. However, FEMA, under a section about "Emerging Threats," only cites cybersecurity and terrorism, making no mention of climate change and its associated impacts. Such an omission renders any aspirations to increase disaster preparedness meaningless. This glaring omission by FEMA sets the nation up to continue to spend billions of dollars on disaster recovery without every addressing the contributing factor of the problem.

And ignoring the problem does not make it go away. FEMA will continue to help communities rebuild after every major disasters. However, FEMA’s choice to pretend climate change does not exist will ensure those communities remain vulnerable.

About the Authors

Joel Scata

Water and Climate Attorney, Water Initiatives, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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