By Huck Fairman
How bad is it? Three years ago, the NY Times reported, FEMA had been managing 27 “major disasters” around the country, with a staff of approximately 10,000. Recently the number of disasters has doubled, not counting the pandemic, but the FEMA staff has only increased by a third.
Last week’s hurricane, Isaias, was the ninth such storm in the Atlantic this year – the earliest ever for such a string. And we are at just the beginning of hurricane season, which normally extends to the end of November.
Most local readers are now familiar with global warming. They understand that with carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions trapping solar heat in our atmosphere and oceans, thereby changing climates, the results are: increasing heat powering extreme weather and storms; alternating in some locations with droughts, and in others, with floods and sea level rise; as well as wild fires, power outages, and destruction to infrastructure, buildings and homes.
One seldom mentioned impact will come from smoke produced by wildfires, which on top of COVID-19, can threaten those suffering from lung conditions.
Another seldom mentioned repercussion from the climates we are changing is the fact that we have entered a period of sustained and elevated risk to regions and communities. This means that not only are warming oceans and atmosphere regularly, generating extreme weather, we are finding it more difficult to recover from the disasters they bring. We no longer have the time, nor the allocated resources, to prevent, repair or rebuild. We have not, in a number of cases, recovered from the previous impacts before the next storm or flood arrives. Three years ago, Hurricane Harvey marked the beginning of this succession of storms that has not ceased.
FEMA has been called upon to step in where and when state and local governments are overwhelmed. But we are finding that this after-the-event approach is no longer sufficient.
What then to do?
A former FEMA administrator advises that the real solution to these now-recurring situations is not to enlarge FEMA, but for local governments to impose stricter building codes that would enable structures to survive floods and storms, but also to restrict building in vulnerable areas. These improvements would reduce the numbers having to evacuate their homes – and reduce the numbers then exposed to the virus. The administrator is concerned that the public has “hazard amnesia” in its disregard for preparing ahead.
A secondary repercussion is rising insurance rates coupled with insurance companies’ financial inability to provide sufficient payouts. This development cannot only have an impact on individual families but on the companies themselves. And as this spreads, it can have a destructive, limiting effect on the economy.
A social scientist at the Union For Concerned Scientists, also reported by the Times, attributed part of the blame to President Donald Trump’s politicizing the work of agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Weather Service. The current administration has also overseen the cutting of their budgets, when, with many citizens relying on the information they provide, these services need to be well-funded.
Additionally, among other largely unacknowledged impacts from our changing conditions, is that minorities have been disproportionately hurt by the twin disasters of climate change and the pandemic. And so, in all of these cases, the severity of the situations needs to be identified and prepared for. Not to do that will only allow them to get worse.