While the Gulf Coast and the Northeast struggle with flooding and power outages, it’s easy to forget that wildfires are still raging in the West.
It’s a taste of a future when simultaneous disasters grow more common, according to the latest global report on climate science. Hurricanes, wildfires and torrential rain that triggers flooding are all amplified by heat, and the planet is getting hotter. Emergency managers are preparing for that future right now. They’re hoping to speed up the pace of disaster response and also move people and critical infrastructure out of harm’s way.
Craig Fugate, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says it’s clear to him that natural disasters are happening more often. “I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. I can remember when FEMA had really big disasters maybe every four or five years. Not every year. Certainly not multiple [disasters] in one year,” he says.
Government statistics show that in the 1980s, there were fewer than four billion-dollar disasters driven by extreme weather annually, on average. The past five years have seen more than 12 such disasters each year. The damage totals are adjusted for inflation.
That has happened as the planet has warmed by almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit compared with the late-1800s. Average temperatures could rise another 2 degrees by 2100, and even more if countries fail to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.
Scientists generally avoid blaming climate change for a specific event like Hurricane Ida, since similar hurricanes have also occurred in the past. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change instead adopts the language of probability. It says, for instance, that rainfall so heavy that it used to happen just once every decade in the pre-industrial era is now likely to occur 30% more often, and 70% more often in a world that has warmed by 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The storms will also grow more intense.
The frequency of extreme heat waves could also jump more than fivefold, according to the report. Heat waves and drought can dry out the land, making it more vulnerable to wildfire.
Erin Coughlan de Perez, a researcher at Tufts University’s Feinstein International Center, who also works with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, says emergency managers around the world are focused on that future. “It’s a big deal, right? If your job is disasters, and disasters are becoming more frequent, you’ve got a problem.”
The first problem is simply shortages of people and money. Coughlan de Perez saw this a few years ago when a big flood was predicted for Bangladesh at a time when international aid agencies were focused on the war in Syria.
“People were saying, ‘You know, you might have a forecast for flooding in Bangladesh, but we really can’t divert our attention right now,’ ” she says. “Which was really kind of scary. And you see this all the time.”
Also, one disaster quickly disappears from the headlines when the next one hits. As a result, people who still need a lot of help getting back on their feet can feel abandoned. Fugate says that’s a danger right now for communities in Louisiana that were hit by hurricanes just last year.
“I was getting messages from people saying, ‘I hope they don’t forget about us. We have not rebuilt, and we still have places that haven’t been repaired,’ ” he says.
Fugate and others say that the quickening pace of natural disasters demands changes in emergency response. For one thing, recovery efforts have to move faster, to keep up.
Samantha Montano, who teaches emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, says that some aid currently gets slowed to a crawl by complicated paperwork that’s supposed to prevent waste and fraud. “Obviously that’s important, but when those measures prevent people from getting the help that they need, then something is wrong and something needs to change,” she says.
Even more important, they say, is acting ahead of time to get people and critical infrastructure out of harm’s way. “We’ve got to reduce the impacts” of extreme events like hurricanes, Fugate says. That can mean upgrading building codes, requiring sturdier buildings and, in some places, burying power lines. Those measures can be expensive. Persuading people to move out of flood zones can be painful. But Montano says such measures can avoid more pain down the road.
Extreme weather by itself isn’t the problem, she says. “It’s when that hurricane comes ashore and meets a community that is living in poverty or doesn’t have strong-enough building codes or doesn’t have enough boats to do search and rescue — that’s when it becomes a disaster,” she says.
Coughlan de Perez says communities all over the world are trying to do this. But it’s really hard to get ready for the dangers of a warming world “because we haven’t seen it, right? So our past understanding of the world, based on our lived experience, is no longer a good predictor of our current risk and our future risk.”
But with sea levels rising and hot summers turning forests into kindling, many people are realizing that places they thought were safe may now be vulnerable.