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California is facing its worst drought in 1,200 years—and this might be the new normal. We're helping it and other states prepare for a dry future.

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As long droughts become more and more common, we're pushing farmers to embrace sustainable practices that increase soil health and use water more efficiently.

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We help cities jump the financial hurdles of green infrastructure projects.

Policy Solution

Our experts draw attention to the climate-change reality of storms, floods, heat waves, and drought—and push state and local officials to prepare for potential impacts.

Policy Solution

Climate change is bringing on more floods across the country. We're making sure people are prepared and pushing for infrastructure changes to protect drinking-water facilities, wastewater-treatment plants, and stormwater systems.

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What You Can Do

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As floods become more frequent and severe with climate change, protecting your home becomes even more crucial. Here’s how to assess your risk—and make sure you’re prepared for the worst.

5 ways city dwellers can spur climate action

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6 ways you can help keep our water clean

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Tell Trump: Don't abandon the Paris climate agreement!

Experts & Resources

Health Agencies Need Help Preparing for Climate Change
Juanita Constible

Public health officials in the United States have their hands full responding to climate-related disasters, and there’s no end in sight. In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, several southeastern states have public health emergencies due to sewage-laden floodwaters, debris covered in moldtoxic industrial air releases and chemical spills, and more. As the West burns, Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services is warning people about a “hideous brown [smoke] spiral of misery and despair.” At the same time, the Department must help cover the state’s fire suppression costs by proposing cuts to its own budget. And in San Francisco, health officials are investigating the recent heat deaths of three elderly people in order to develop better protection protocols.

The Texas National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard assisting a medical evacuee during Hurricane Harvey

Texas National Guard

The mounting strain on health agencies makes this news from Washington especially timely: The bicameral “Climate Change Health Protection and Promotion Act of 2017,’’ sponsored by Senator Ed Markey and Representative Matt Cartwright, “directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop a national strategic action plan and program to assist health professionals in preparing for and responding to the public health effects of climate change.” 

Fully implemented, this commonsense bill would have several benefits.

  • Boosting the capacity of state and local health agencies. The Act encourages federal scientists and agencies to more widely and effectively share their vast technical knowledge with states and localities. At the same time, the Act promotes local workforce development.
  • Science-based decision-making. The Act recognizes the established science that climate change is real and bad for our health. It also recognizes, however, that officials need continued research and data collection to develop the best solutions to climate-related health problems.
  • Helping the most vulnerable. Rising seas, increasingly frequent heat waves, stronger storms, and more widespread diseases threaten all Americans, but we won’t all be equally harmed. The Act emphasizes protection for the communities and populations most sensitive to climate change, including children, pregnant women, and people in poverty.
Hurricane Irma evacuees from St. Maarten, Puerto Rico

New York National Guard

This legislation offers critical help to the many state and local health agencies lacking funding, knowledge, and specialized skills to prepare for a future surge in climate-related health problems. In fact, the level of preparedness at health agencies seems to have dropped in recent years, with one study finding a decline from 2008 to 2012 in the capacity to engage in climate adaptation programming.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt made headlines after Hurricane Irma by saying it’s "insensitive" to mention climate change as disasters unfold. But public health agencies can’t wait for a mythical perfect moment to plan. That’s particularly true against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back health safeguards, reject established science, and weaken existing protections for communities in need. The Climate Change Health Protection and Promotion Act is an opportunity for Congress to support our hard-working health officials, and to make America a healthier nation—even as our climate gets hotter, wilder, and more dangerous.

California: America’s Climate Leader
Rhea Suh

The Golden State is stepping up its game to set the standard for powering our nation through 100 percent clean, renewable energy.

One of the many clean energy projects in California, this one in Kern County

Allan Der/Flickr

California is about to make history by leading the way to the future.

State lawmakers are poised to vote this week on a bill calling for all of California’s electricity—100 percent of it—to come from wind, solar, and other renewable sources by 2045. In our lifetime, in other words, our country’s largest statewide economy would be powered without fossil fuels and the dangerous pollution they emit.

That’s setting the standard—and setting the pace.

California’s economy will kick out $2.7 trillion worth of goods and services this year, 14.1 percent of the U.S. total. If the state were a country, it would be roughly tied with the United Kingdom for the fifth-largest economy in the world, just ahead of France.

Visionary leadership, an unbridled belief in innovation, and an insistence on seizing opportunity, not just waiting for it, are fundamental to the California success story. The state has a chance to build on that record by passing this clean electricity bill, SB 100. Authored by  Kevin de León, president of the California state Senate, SB 100 also calls for an ambitious near-term target of 60 percent renewable electricity by 2030. And it would mandate 50 percent renewable electricity by 2026, four years sooner than the existing target.

Already on track to get more than a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, California is a global leader in the transition to cleaner, smarter ways to power our future. That leadership is paying off for Californians, more than half a million of whom now work to help us to become more efficient so we do more with less waste in our cars, homes, and workplaces; to get more clean power from the wind and sun; and to build the electricity transmission grid of tomorrow.

That kind of work is going to attract some $7 trillion in global investment over the next two decades or so. California has positioned its workers to thrive in that booming global clean energy market—like no other workers anywhere. And the state is leading the fight to protect future generations from the growing dangers of climate change, by shedding its reliance on the dirty fossil fuels that are driving this global scourge.

Climate change is taking a mounting and unsustainable toll on our people—through rising seas that threaten our coastal communities, mass extinctions, spreading deserts, and dying coral. It’s taking a toll through hurricanes, like Harvey and Irma, that are made worse as they linger over oceans heated by global warming and become more destructive due to rising sea levels. And it’s taking a toll through wildfires raging across Northwest forests that have turned to kindling in weather that is increasingly warm and dry.

If ever the nation needed climate and clean energy leadership, it is now. And yet, in Washington, we have President Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax” and is doing everything he can to turn back from the promise of clean energy, retreat from the economic opportunity of our lifetime, and condemn our children to a world of worsening climate chaos. Another bill pending in the California legislature, SB49, would protect the state from Washington backsliding on a host of environmental provisions.

Now, more than ever, we need California to lead, to show the path to more good-paying clean energy jobs, to innovation that makes us more efficient, and to leaving our children a livable world. That future is closer than it seems. The clean electricity bill will move us closer still.

Harvey Exposed Oil Issues We Must Address
Jacob Eisenberg

The catastrophe of Hurricane Harvey is now shedding light on how climate change – manifesting in the form of stronger and more intense weather events – can bring enormous destruction to communities. Because the region hit by Harvey also serves as a home base to much of the country’s oil industry and infrastructure, there is another story to be told about the how the storm is unleashing toxic pollution to land, water, and air. It is too early to tell the full extent of the environmental impact of the hurricane as many of the impacts to the region are still unfolding.

The storm caused the oil industry losses. But we’re learning more and more about damage to industry refineries, petrochemical plants, and transportation infrastructure which also endangers the health of the already-beleaguered population in proximity. We’ve learned of dozens of toxic air emissions events, oil spills, and other instances where oil industry assets released pollution. In the short-term, Harvey should serve as a wake-up call for industry’s need to prepare for more climate-related severe weather. But the storm showed how essential it is for us to move away from a system so reliant on petroleum, both because of local toxic impacts and its contribution to climate change.

Fossil fuel infrastructure in Hurricane Harvey's path as a Category 4 storm

Map by Kira Minehart

On the ground, the concentration of oil processing plants and infrastructure in southeastern Texas has helped add toxic chemical releases to the list of issues residents and evacuees are already facing. Within 100 miles of Harvey’s path as a Category 4 Hurricane, there were 33 oil refineries with the capacity to process a total of 1,926 million barrels of oil per day, 2,751 miles of crude oil pipeline, and 1,443 offshore oil and gas platforms. Too much of it failed to fully withstand the extreme conditions faced during Harvey. And when oil infrastructure fails, human health and the environment are put at risk.

Government officials and the news media made dozens early reports of instances where the hurricane has allowed toxic pollution to be released into the air and flood waters. Houston residents had complained of an “unbearable” chemical smell and almost three dozen air emission event reports by 18 facilities precipitated by Harvey have been submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). An air emission event is an instance in which refineries, chemical manufacturing plants, or other facilities have released more air pollution than they’re permitted.

Emissions events as of September 1st. Data: TCEQ

Map by Kira Minehart

In some cases, companies opted to “flare” gases. Flaring is intended to be used by refineries as an escape valve when internal systems fail. In a well-designed and operated refinery, the process gases are recycled back into the refinery to power it. However, when a refinery has to abruptly and unexpectedly shut down, or sometimes as the result of a malfunction, there are excess process gases that have to be disposed of quickly. In those cases, the gases are flared, which sends hazardous pollutants into the atmosphere.

Other facilities released pollution after taking damage from the storm. A set of ExxonMobil refineries leaked hazardous gases; one after the floating roof of a storage tank partially sank under Harvey’s heavy rains, while the other saw damage to a component that captures sulfur dioxide emissions. The latter of those refineries has also released oil onto a nearby road. A set of tanks damaged by the storm spilled 30,000 gallons of crude oil—a harmful release that we can only hope will be unique. And Skytruth, through analysis of recent satellite imagery, was able to identify onshore a handful of fracking sites where stored chemicals likely escaped into floodwaters, including one just 400 yards from a home. Fracking wastewater poses a variety of health risks to humans, including the ability to cause reproductive and developmental health problems.

Much of the pollution coming from oil industry facilities and infrastructure is toxic. Benzene, a carcinogen, was among the most common released into the air during Harvey, per TCEQ reports. But there are others that are known to be severely irritating to human respiratory and nervous systems released across the city. Similarly, the flood water has become, the New York Times described, “a sea of health and environmental hazards,” with a huge range of pollutants from oil infrastructure, superfund sites, and sewage.

It’s worth noting, however, that Hurricane Harvey’s impacts are not limited to the area touched by the storm. As described above, Southeastern Texas is the center of the oil industry’s refining and transportation infrastructure. The concentration of oil industry facilities is so high, in fact, that the Harvey-induced closure of oil refineries has reduced the United States’ total oil refining capacity by 24 percent at the worst point. Needless to say, the closures have started sending gasoline prices upward across the country. The shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline, which carries diesel and jet fuel from Houston to New York—40 percent of the South’s gasoline—doesn’t help matters. Where consumers and businesses need stability, the oil industry can only offer price volatility.

Hurricane Harvey will likely be counted among the worst natural disasters of our time. If policy makers truly want to address the underlying problem of climate change which creates these more intense storms—reducing oil production would be a great place to start.

We should continue pursuing policies to push higher automotive fuel efficiency, which reduces transportation sector emissions and buffers consumers against gas pump price volatility. Supporting a transition to electric vehicles through tax incentives and investment in EV infrastructure would go further, especially as our electric sector undertakes a parallel clean-energy revolution. And smart infrastructure planning can motivate citizens, particularly in urban areas, to take advantage of efficient public transportation options, walk, and/or bike more often. By reducing our dependence on oil, we can reduce the congestion of oil infrastructure in areas like southeastern Texas, where it will continue to threaten the health of Americans. Unfortunately, President Trump’s administration is working to curtail these very solutions.

There’s a process lesson here, too. President Trump’s administration has made regulatory rollbacks and the fast-tracking of energy and infrastructure projects a priority. But the President should think twice before attacking safeguards, like the Chemical Disaster Rule his EPA is delaying, put in place to protect Americans. And as he pursues a transportation bill, one of his legislative priorities, he should consider how it could be used to, among other things, shore up vulnerable infrastructure that places our communities and environment at risk.

Hurricane Harvey was worse than a worst-case scenario. But, as Times columnist David Leonhardt put it, “the severity of Harvey…is almost certainly related to climate change,” which means the United States could see more storms like it. Hopefully we can use this experience to better prepare our systems for the next one.

Hurricane Harvey Hampers Mental Health Care
Juanita Constible

More than half of the 40 million American adults with a mental health condition don’t have access to care at the best of times. When you add the challenges of a disaster like Hurricane Harvey—flooded roads, closed hospitals, and unexpected water rescues—it’s likely some people will go weeks without their medication or other treatment.

Anyone can suffer symptoms of depression, anxiety, or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a major storm. Thousands of survivors of the epic 2016 floods in Louisiana still struggle with eating, sleeping, and making decisions a year later. People with symptoms before storms, however, are more vulnerable to worsening illness after floodwaters recede. For instance, surveys before and after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012 found older adults with pre-hurricane depression had higher rates of post-hurricane PTSD. Similar results were found after Sandy in first responders.

FEMA

The good news is that a sense of neighborhood trust and togetherness can help reduce disaster-related PTSD symptoms and related fall out. For example, nearly a quarter of Hurricane Katrina survivors in one study had difficulty getting enough food five years after the storm. People with mental health distress were 1.6 times more likely to report food insecurity, and those with PTSD were nearly 1.9 times more likely. High social support and a sense of community, however, helped protect the Katrina survivors from food insecurity—whether they had mental health issues or not.

That’s where local organizations come in. NRDC is proud to partner with groups like Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services and Bold Louisiana, who have local knowledge and expertise and are deeply connected to their communities. You can support neighbors helping neighbors here.

You can also be on the lookout for Hurricane Harvey’s mental health impacts among people who live far from flooded communities. Twelve years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, images of the ongoing disaster in Texas have been enough to intensify what some experts call “Katrina brain.” Hundreds of thousands of Katrina victims didn't return home to Louisiana or Mississippi after scattering across the country. No matter where you are, you could have someone in your life who is experiencing flashbacks.

Whether you have been directly impacted by Harvey or are just scared and anxious about what Harvey tells us about future climate-related disasters, it’s important to seek help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America of Greater Houston are great places to start. 

Wake-Up Call for Climate Action from Houston to Mumbai
Anjali Jaiswal Kim Knowlton

Co-Authored by Henry Ruehl, NRDC Energy Fellow

Cities across the globe from Houston to Mumbai have been ravaged by catastrophic floods. In the United States and South Asia, this summer has combined record-breaking temperatures and heatwaves with unprecedented rainfall levels, and the human and economic toll has been severe. More worrisome still, climate change is increasing both the frequency and severity of extreme weather events like extreme rains, which can result in flooding, and heatwaves. It’s likely that terrifying rains, flooding, and coastal storm damage like that seen in Hurricane Harvey and this year’s monsoon are set to become more common in the future. This summer, heatwaves and floods are a wake-up call for immediate action on climate and disaster preparedness to protect our communities and public health.

I-45 is flooded, with the Houston skyline in the background.

Reuters

With dozens of lives lost, chemical and pathogen-laden floodwaters swamping much of the Houston area, and vast areas still likely to be uninhabitable for weeks or months, Harvey is estimated to be the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history. AccuWeather estimates the full economic cost of the hurricane to be $190 billion—as much as the cost of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined. The United States has lost 1% of its GDP, and its fourth-largest city has been devastated.

The damage and death tolls in South Asia have been even more staggering. Communities in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh are suffering from the worst monsoon in decades. Over 1,200 people have died with numbers rising, and the economic damage is commensurately severe. Mumbai’s largest hospital was knee-deep in water. One third of Bangladesh is underwater, for example, and nearly 1.5 million acres of farmland in the country have been damaged or washed away outright. All told, over 41 million people have been affected by the flooding. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged $78 million in relief for victims, but the cost for replacing millions of homes, businesses, and other buildings will likely be many times greater.    

These calamities demonstrate that cities worldwide are desperately in need of stronger disaster preparedness and climate resilience strategies. Hurricane Harvey has been estimated to be a 1,000-year- storm—in other words, a storm of Harvey’s magnitude could hit the western Gulf only once, on average, every thousand years. Yet it follows just twelve years after Hurricane Katrina, which itself was a 400 to 500-year storm. Rising global temperatures are increasing the amount of rain that drenches us in the heaviest storms, and making heat waves more frequent and intense.

As climate change continues to fuel these types of extreme weather, it is critical that communities take steps to strengthen climate resilience and disaster preparedness. Heatwaves and floods call for programs like early warning systems, improved infrastructure, inter-agency coordination, more funding for emergency personnel and supplies, and raising public awareness, which are all crucial to increasing resilience to extreme weather events. Unregulated urban growth that paves over and develops flood-prone areas can compound flooding when deluges strike. Zoning codes and urban planning can make the most of natural flood protections and avoid developing flood-prone areas. This is especially critical for coastal cities, because rising sea levels can heighten storm surge and flood larger inland areas.

For heatwaves, simple, cost effective measures, such as providing more shade, drinking water, and cooling centers, are proven solutions to limit the impact of extreme heat on communities. Thankfully, many communities have already been working to improve climate resilience and disaster preparedness programs. For example, over 30 cities and 11 states in India are working on early warning systems for extreme heat, Heat Action Plans, developed in partnership with NRDC.   

As storms, heatwaves, and other extreme weather events become more frequent, communities must adapt and plan for them. This year’s monsoon will not be the last, nor will Harvey be the last hurricane. Climate resilience strategies and disaster preparedness mechanisms can help us to limit the damage that extreme storms wreak, and are essential to saving lives.

Mumbai streets flood with rising waters.

Getty Images

NRDC in Action
Trading Coal Plants for Solar Farms in India
Senior attorney and India program director Anjali Jaiswal leads a small team that’s accomplishing big things in one of the world’s most polluted countries.

Indian workers install solar panels at the Gujarat Solar Park.

Ajit Solanki/AP

When President Trump announced his intention to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, he singled India out, claiming (falsely) that, under the accord, the country of 1.3 billion could “double its coal production by 2020” while “we’re supposed to get rid of ours.” But the reality is that India has made a bold commitment to move away from such dirty fuels and toward a clean energy future, making huge strides in the global fight against climate change. Since 2009, NRDC has been working with partners there to encourage that transition as part of its India program, spearheaded by senior attorney Anjali Jaiswal.

Jaiswal, who was born in India and moved with her family to the United States when she was a child, joined NRDC in 2001. After six years in the Water program and a stint on the Litigation team, she was selected by NRDC founding president John Adams and immediate past president Frances Beinecke to lead the organization’s efforts in India. Though based in San Francisco, Jaiswal was thrilled by the opportunity to also work in her native country again, having studied environmental science there in the 1990s and, more recently, worked with local nonprofits in New Delhi through a Fulbright program. She looked forward to applying her India experience, both personal and professional, as well as her background working on local environmental issues in California, to her new role.

© Rebecca Greenfield

“Anjali’s vision, which has proved to be very, very effective, was to work with people and institutions on the ground in India who are known and respected,” Beinecke says. “That’s been the model since we started, and it’s really worked well.”

Jaiswal points out that India ranks as the third-largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases, behind the United States and China, but in terms of per capita emissions, it lands far down the list at 128th. The United States, by comparison, is 12th, and the average American uses 10 times as much energy as an average Indian, Jaiswal notes. “What India is trying to do is really hard,” she says. “It’s building out an economy, increasing prosperity, and bringing millions of people out of poverty while fighting climate change.”

Problems in the country loom large—200 million Indians don’t have reliable electricity, and the devastating effects of climate change are already wreaking havoc across the country. The key, Jaiswal says, has been to focus on building relationships and creating realistic, human-centered, scalable solutions.

Solar panels have made a big difference in Tinginaput, India.

© Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos Pictures/Dept. for International Development

“We’re a small, lean team, but our impact is much greater than our size,” Jaiswal says. In the eight years since NRDC’s India Initiative was founded, the team of seven (along with other NRDC experts) has worked with partners to launch several projects that address the country’s public health, energy, and climate challenges. One focus is to strengthen climate resilience among some of India’s most vulnerable populations, such as slum communities, outdoor workers, pregnant women, and children.

For example, the team has devised a revolutionary—and increasingly popular—heat-preparedness plan and early-warning system for heat waves. “It's a great example of how we’ve been able to take the work to scale,” Beinecke says. “It started in Ahmedabad, but now there are 11 states and 30 cities in India that have adopted the same model.” Beinecke adds that the project’s success is due in large part to Jaiswal’s knack for developing strong partnerships with NGOs in India.

Jaiswal has also worked with local partners on an innovative finance model to help nearly 43,000 saltpan farmers in the remote, scorching desert of Gujarat (also home to her father’s village) gain access to clean energy and improved living conditions. One local group, the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), founded by the inspirational Ela Bhatt in 1972, has been instrumental in helping the farmers replace expensive diesel-powered pumps and generators with solar panels, allowing the farmers to save money while helping to bring about a more sustainable future. In the two years since the project began, Jaiswal has seen nearly 500 solar installations crop up across the salt flats.

Saltpan farmer in the Gujarat Desert

© Bhaskar Deol

On a trip to Gujarat earlier this year, Jaiswal and Beinecke sat with a family in their tent while the mother explained how the project is enabling them to send their young children to school for the first time. “You felt, wow, you’re really having an impact on the lives of people who live in very meager circumstances to improve their standard of living and their quality of life,” Beinecke says. “That these three or four children sitting with us were going to be able to have a different future was very inspiring. It was fantastic.”

The India Initiative has also helped introduce energy efficiency standards for buildings that will set a strong precedent for new construction in rapidly developing cities: As of 2014, only 30 percent of the buildings projected to exist in India by 2030 had been built. It’s an exciting thought for Jaiswal and Indians alike, who are eager to see the country develop with climate solutions in mind. “It has changed so rapidly, and people are really seeing how things can get better in India,” Jaiswal says. “India is a technology-loving country, with a lot of people helping to develop solutions we use every day, and these climate solutions can make life better and grow the economy.”

Jaiswal was impressed with India’s commitment to renewable energy development before the Paris Agreement, and she remains so now. “When we started in India, the country was producing 17 megawatts of solar energy—that’s very little,” she says. “We’re talking gigawatts in terms of amounts now.” One gigawatt of energy can power 544,000 Indian homes a year. Over the past three years, India quadrupled its solar capacity to 12 gigawatts, and it will add another 10 in 2017. The country is also ramping up wind energy production as part of its goal of installing 160 gigawatts of solar and wind power by 2022.

India’s ambitious commitment to renewable energy will be central to helping the country reach its Paris climate accord goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 33 percent to 35 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. But India’s formal commitment wasn’t necessarily a sure thing during negotiations back in late 2015. The country took the lead in fighting for an equitable agreement for developing countries—not because, as Trump thinks, it wants to increase its coal production, but to make it work for its population’s immense needs.

“Paris showed us that we can develop an international structure that works for countries around the world—not just rich countries,” Jaiswal says. “In order for it to work, it has to be designed for everyone.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called failure to respond to climate change “an immoral and criminal act.” Accordingly, “we’re seeing India really stepping up,” Jaiswal says. “India is investing in clean energy technologies and innovation while folks like Donald Trump are investing in our grandfathers’ technologies.”

Jaiswal and the India team are determined, now more than ever, to foster India’s newfound leadership role on climate, and she stresses just how motivating the idea of reducing poverty and promoting economic prosperity is for the country. “While there are many challenges, development is skyrocketing in Asia. Innovation and the spirit of wanting to build a brighter future are very much part of the culture that exists in India right now.”

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Hurricane Harvey: Another American Deluge
Rhea Suh

As we lend our immediate support to Gulf Coast communities, we must also protect people from such future disasters by addressing infrastructure, safety measures, flood policies, and climate change.

People in Houston are evacuated on rescue boats as floodwaters from Harvey rise, August 28, 2017.

David J. Phillip/AP

In just three days, more rain fell on the Texas Gulf Coast than what flows out of the Mississippi River in three full weeks. Tiny Cedar Bayou got 51.9 inches, the most ever measured for a single storm in the continental United States. Hundreds of thousands of people were washed out of their homes, and more than 32,000 huddled in makeshift shelters. In the words of the National Weather Service, “This event is unprecedented and all impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced.”

From left: Tammy Dominguez and her husband, Christopher Dominguez, at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center, where nearly 10,000 people are taking shelter after Harvey; evacuees fill Max Bowl, in Port Arthur, Texas.

From left: Michael Ciaglo/Houston Chronicle via AP; Kim Brent/The Beaumont Enterprise via AP

This is an American disaster. It demands an American response. We stand with the people of Houston and of the region—and with their need for national-level emergency aid and long-term recovery support. This support must be both effective and equitable and must reduce the prospect that this kind of suffering will be repeated, in Houston or anywhere else.

One thing we learned from Superstorm Sandy, five years ago this fall, and Hurricane Katrina before that, is that local communities are central to the success of any plan for emergency assistance, short-term aid, and long-range recovery. These groups with boots on the ground will need our support, and we encourage you to give it.

Because right now, they are the ones who remain in harm's way. A small ocean of water engulfs the Houston region, creating unimaginable damage and loss. Much of the water is laden with a toxic mix of chemicals seeping from area refineries, chemical plants, and abandoned industrial and waste sites. Strange smells sweeping through the area underscore reports of air pollution emissions from the refineries that dominate the region and explosions at one chemical plant. We don’t know how much has been released because air monitors have shut down, but press and local reports estimate the number in the millions of pounds of volatile organic compounds, like benzene, and other nasty chemicals. 

Flint Hills Resources oil refinery near downtown Houston on Tuesday, August 29, 2017

David J. Phillip/AP

Much of the water contains sewage from flooded municipal treatment plants. Public health officials are warning residents to stay out of the floodwaters. And there are drinking water concerns, too. Houston has been on a precautionary boil order, and there are fears that other drinking water systems could be compromised. 

Even after the storm has passed, the danger is unabated. 

And as people return to water-damaged homes, they face a high risk of living with mold, which can aggravate asthma, allergies, and other respiratory ills. After Katrina, Sandy, and other disasters, we saw communities blighted by these issues―along with contaminated sediments, debris left standing, and continued lack of services that threatened public health long after the floodwaters receded. Those are conditions that should not be repeated but will be hard to avoid after a disaster of this scale. Resources will have to be made available fast and without the rancorous debates that followed Superstorm Sandy. 

As we’ve seen in past disasters, low-income communities and people of color tend to suffer disproportionate exposure to these dangers, often without receiving adequate care. Proximity to the sources of the contaminants, lack of information, and poor access to protective measures or the resources to just up and leave until the dangers are gone all conspire to make the impacts even more burdensome to these communities. That’s why, again, the needs of these communities must be front and center in the days and weeks to come.           

Of the roughly 800,000 households in Houston, fewer than one in six has flood insurance. That means a lot of people won’t have money to repair or rebuild. Even those who do will find it extremely difficult to receive federal aid that might help them move to higher ground. Some 43,000 families were on the wait list for affordable housing in Houston. That list is likely to grow, as local housing costs rise in response to the lack of supply, and if communities don’t quickly move to replace lost housing for low-income residents, a recurring problem after a flood disaster.                    

Between 2005 and 2014, the federal government spent more than $278 billion on disaster rebuilding and recovery efforts―most commonly for floods, the nation’s most frequent and costly form of natural disaster.

To fix the problem, we put in place the Federal Flood Protection Standard in 2015, which requires better planning and protections for flood-prone infrastructure built with federal funds. Unfortunately, just as Harvey was beginning to stir in the Gulf of Mexico, President Trump rescinded those standards, part of what he called a “disgraceful” permitting process. It didn’t take long for Harvey to show the folly in that. Now it’s time for Congress to demand a more responsible approach.

There are a bevy of additional very big issues laid bare by this disaster. They will all need to be addressed once we have begun to get communities along the Gulf back on their feet.

We have to make our cities more sustainable to avoid some of the infrastructure issues that further complicated Harvey’s impacts on Houston. We have to address the safety risks associated with private facilities, like refineries and chemical plants, and their health impacts on neighboring communities. We have to fix this country’s flawed flood policies, and fast, to stop putting Americans in harm’s way. And most fundamentally, we have an obligation to protect current and future generations from the growing dangers of such disasters made worse by climate change. That’s what we’re committed to at NRDC, for the people of the Gulf and for us all.

Harvey Should Be a Wakeup Call for States
Rob Moore

Photo courtesy of NOAA, www.nnvl.noaa.gov

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.

State Expiration Date
VA

14-Mar-18

MO

28-Jul-18

DE

8-Aug-18

FL

23-Aug-18

AR

12-Sep-18

IA

17-Sep-18

NM

18-Sep-18

CA

29-Sep-18

WA

30-Sep-18

IL

3-Oct-18

MA

9-Oct-18

WV

16-Oct-18

PA

17-Oct-18

TN

17-Oct-18

MS

18-Oct-18

SC

18-Oct-18

AL

20-Oct-18

HI

20-Oct-18

NV

21-Oct-18

TX

21-Oct-18

ME

24-Oct-18

AK

25-Oct-18

NC

26-Oct-18

KY

28-Oct-18

NH

29-Oct-18

ID

31-Oct-18

MT

31-Oct-18

AZ

11-Nov-18

VT

16-Nov-18

KS

27-Nov-18

NY

17-Dec-18

CO

30-Dec-18

CT

7-Jan-19

OK

9-Feb-19

ND

13-Feb-19

MN

19-Mar-19

UT

19-Mar-19

RI

26-Mar-19

GA

30-Mar-19

LA

1-Apr-19

SD

17-Apr-19

IN

22-Apr-19

MI

22-Apr-19

NJ

24-Apr-19

OH

12-May-19

NE

18-May-19

OR

23-Sep-20

WY

25-Feb-21

MD

24-Aug-21

WI

30-Nov-21

Territories Expiration Date
American Samoa

20-May-20

Guam

24-Jul-19

Northern Mariana Islands

7-Oct-19

Puerto Rico

2-Aug-21

Virgin Islands

2-Jul-19

Blog Post

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced yesterday afternoon a change in its requirements for State Hazard Mitigation Plans that NRDC has been advocating for nearly three years. These plans, which states develop in order to prepare for future natural disasters, must now consider the projected effects of climate change on hazard risks.

Blog Post

Earlier this month, NRDC got encouraging news from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) about its intentions to update its guidance for state hazard mitigation planning: the agency will be revising the guidance to more explicitly require state governments to consider the impacts of climate change and prioritize preparedness.

Blog Post

Wisconsin has earned a reputation for eschewing climate science and the potential impacts of climate change under Governor Scott Walker’s administration. But a plan finalized by the state’s Emergency Management agency in December and released this week is pleasantly out of step with that pattern.

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