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August 24, 2015

Storm clouds on the horizon: Are we ready for the next Katrina?

August 24, 2015

In previous posts in this series, I focused on the opportunity for reflection that comes with the 10-year milestone of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. In particular, I have talked about how Katrina has forced us collectively to realize that disasters are caused as much by social, economic, and political stresses as they are by natural hazards like hurricanes—if not more so.

The one obvious link between social and economic conditions and natural ones that I haven’t discussed yet is climate change—that is, that human activity is affecting the planet’s climate system through greenhouse gas emissions.

The nature of the next storms

The scientific evidence is unwavering on this natural reality, regardless of its cause: warmer temperatures, higher sea levels, and more extreme precipitation events are all effects that roll off our tongues at this point. In the United States, temperatures have increased almost 2 degrees over last century.

Increased rain and snow storm intensity and frequency in the Northeast and rising seas in the coastal Southeast require finding ways to live with more water. Droughts in the Southwest mean findings ways to live with less. The storms and floods will affect everyone, as will the heat stroke, property damage, displacement, food insecurity, and drought.

Leaving aside what we can do to stop these catastrophic processes, are we at least preparing for them?

National infrastructure systems like transportation networks and energy grids already go underfunded—and these are used on a daily basis. Disaster defenses like levees and sea walls that are put to maximum use once a century (for now) receive even less attention. This neglect occurs despite agreement across partisan ideologies that better defenses protect lives, reduce suffering, and cost less in the long run.

Political leaders—including 2016 presidential candidates—should certainly be thinking about ways to improve the performance requirements of protections, support research and development of cost-effective but multifunctional protections, and simply fund infrastructure itself. This core function of government benefits everyone.

Who gets caught in the storm?

But, as we know from our disaster lessons, households with special challenges are at a disadvantage. This is true even when we focus only the acute shocks like hurricanes and tornadoes. Physical ability, location, and of course income are all factors that determine how you will be affected, by how much, and how soon.

Adaptation strategies will vary by region, just like the effects of climate change. But national strategies are possible, especially when we look at people who could be in the same boat (pun intended).

For disadvantaged communities, additional attention needs to be paid to:

  • Improving the mitigation planning required by FEMA to better address and engage low-income, physically challenged, and limited-English proficient residents.
  • Providing higher quality, timely, and more accessible data regarding specific vulnerabilies, such as flood maps.
  • Developing better communications tools for low-income homebuyers and renters about their home’s disaster risks
  • Funding more pre-disaster mitigation across the board, including regions that recently suffered from disasters but also those that are now more likely to face them.
  • Considering voucher assistance to supplement the changes to the National Flood Insurance Program that decrease its affordability.
  • Promoting property owner disaster retrofitting programs with insurers and public safety organizations that result in decreased insurance premiums that are monitored and evaluated for compliance and equity, like how energy-efficiency retrofit and weatherization programs were developed with utilities. (San Francisco’s “soft-story ordinance” pioneered in this effort.)
  • Encouraging community organizations to become involved in educating residents about their options before a disaster, and in tracking residents’ needs during and after.

Who should be paying attention to the weather report?

Political leaders, like most people, probably try not to think about disasters until they strike. But the time for preventive over reactive policy is now. The presidential candidates haven’t mentioned their emergency management platforms, and likely won’t unless a major disaster occurs this year (though previous statements suggest their thinking on the subject). But to make the math work for any plan that incentivizes mitigation of risk, leaders need to accept the risks as they are, and as they will be.

Katrina taught us how to manage disasters better. Katrina’s milestone gives us a chance to look forward and start asking what we will do to prepare for disasters better, too. 

Today, The Atlantic marks the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by bringing together hundreds of people for a meaningful and productive dialogue. This event has been organized with Urban Institute experts who have studied the Katrina recovery effort and its effects on the changing national approach to disaster policy ever since—an approach that increasingly considers social, economic, political, and environmental perspectives. Please tune in here to watch the live broadcast beginning at 10 am EST.

This post is the last of a four-part series commemorating the 10-year milestone of Katrina’s landfall on Gulf Coast. Previous posts focused on ongoing challenges in New Orleans and in current disaster management.

Ed Mendel, of Palm Beach, Fla., surveys a wrecked neighborhood in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans Thursday, Sept. 29, 2005. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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