This post is part of CPR's From Surviving to Thriving: Equity in Disaster Planning and Recovery report. Click here to read previously posted chapters.
By the end of the 2017 hurricane season, the American people were reeling from the impacts of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. The press documented the familiar cycle of compassion, frustration, and anger. As people suffered for days, weeks, and months in communities that were flooded, without power, and in need of food and other basic supplies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the White House, and other agencies once again emerged in the role of villain for their failure to respond with adequate speed or resources, a failure with particularly deadly consequences in decimated Puerto Rico.
Assigning blame and holding the federal government to account for these victims’ suffering is an important step in learning from past mistakes. But alone, it is not enough. We also need to look at the institutions, laws, and policies that could better prepare our communities to withstand the inevitable storms of the future.
The toxic releases that followed Harvey, the 12 nursing home residents who died from stifling heat in Florida after Irma, and the thousands of deaths and second-largest blackout in world history that Puerto Rico suffered in the wake of Maria all illustrate how developing real resilience requires that agencies outside the resilience/adaptation silo take climate and disaster risk seriously as part of their missions. In addition to improving traditional methods of disaster response, we need to plan ahead of time. Through preparation and adaptation, we can achieve resilience.
This chapter introduces the topics covered in chapters that follow and explains how the policies, activities, and recommendations they highlight can help promote equitable resilience by improving our planning and disaster preparedness, better protecting health and safety, and promoting social equity.
All Hands on Deck — Before Disaster Strikes
We need to think more systemically — not just about the federal government, but about the role of state and local governments as well, and of agencies not typically considered relevant to disaster preparedness. Employing this wider lens, it is clear that there are important roles for all levels of government in developing and implementing policies that promote resilience in advance of the increasingly intense storms that climate disruption is causing. These roles fall to a broad array of different agencies — not just the usual suspects to whom we look post-disaster.
Disaster preparedness and planning
The federal government obviously plays a key role in building and maintaining levees and dams and in setting standards for rebuilding in the wake of disaster. The National Flood Insurance Program has enormous impact on decisions about development and rebuilding along vulnerable areas of our coasts. But there are less visible requirements that play an equally important role, like the standards and impact analysis required for all infrastructure built with federal funding under past executive orders, agency-specific policies, and the National Environmental Policy Act. And the federal government provides essential funding and information about climate change impacts, weather, facilities with hazardous chemicals, and strategies for adapting and responding to new threats. The reliability of the electricity grid and its resilience to disaster is determined by laws, policies, and decisions made before disaster strikes.
State and local governments, too, play a significant role in shaping communities in ways that determine their vulnerability to hurricanes and other disasters. Local governments bear responsibility for local stormwater infrastructure and for ensuring that it can function in the face of rising sea levels. Land use planning by local governments, often under the umbrella of state comprehensive planning mandates, determines whether new development and rebuilding is permitted in vulnerable areas and what types of activities are allowed in areas subject to storm surges or frequent flooding. Public information offices play a key role in helping to spread information and educate residents in advance of disasters. In turn, these functions help protect residents and responders not only from flooding and other more visible harms from storms, but from exposure to toxins from flooded industrial sites.
The legal system can also shape our ability to prepare. Holding emitters accountable under common law torts could provide funds for necessary adaptation measures. And interpretations of the Constitution’s takings clause, which requires compensation if government takes or drastically impacts property, could affect the degree to which local and state governments can control development of vulnerable areas.
Public health and safety measures
The most obvious impacts caused by storms like Harvey, Irma, and Maria are the immediate loss of life and harm to property from wind and flooding. But a storm’s longer-term impacts can be equally devastating, if not as dramatic. Lack of access to medical care, food shortages, exposure to sewage and other toxins in floodwaters, and the mental health impacts of the experience can leave a community and its residents scarred in ways less likely to grab the headlines. Hurricane Maria’s thousands of deaths did not all occur from the storm itself; they occurred as the ongoing lack of electricity and access to food and medical care led to otherwise preventable deaths. Remedying these effects and avoiding them in future storms may require resources and agencies outside the usual disaster preparedness and response chain of command and visionary thinking that looks beyond business as usual, toward a better life for all.
Less visible resources — like social capital within a community — can also affect outcomes and determine a community’s resilience. Where neighbors have a strong sense of community before a storm hits, residents tend to help each other, sharing resources and information to benefit all.
As Rob Verchick, one of this chapter’s authors, states elsewhere: “Catastrophe is bad for everyone. But it is especially bad for the weak and disenfranchised.” We know that vulnerability to disasters is strongly affected not just by the strength of the storm, but by the resources of those it strikes. Hurricane Maria provided a poster child for the disparities: Puerto Rico’s run-down electricity grid was unable to withstand Hurricane Maria. Hurricane Katrina highlighted disparities on the mainland: Some New Orleans residents without the means to flee found themselves rescued from rooftops and housed in the Louisiana Superdome while others drowned in the floodwaters.
Avoiding such disparities in disasters means addressing economic and environmental disparities before disasters strike. Yet, guidelines or building codes requiring expensive flood-proofing measures, like elevating homes, installing shutters, or other steps, could be beyond the reach of low-income households. The ultimate adaptation measure — retreat from vulnerable areas — could prove particularly challenging for poorer residents in search of scarce affordable housing. And, because poor and of-color communities are disproportionately located close to industry, hazardous waste sites, and sewage treatment plants, they face heightened risks when these sites are damaged by disasters. We cannot achieve our goal of sound disaster preparedness if we ignore social equity.
What Should Be Done?
Mainstreaming resilience and adaptation
Improving communities’ resilience to hurricanes and other disasters requires that accounting for climate and other disaster risk become part of every agency’s mission, whether federal, state, or local. It can’t be only FEMA or, at the local level, the public works department, that assesses climate risks as part of every decision. Agencies whose missions include public information, solid and hazardous waste disposal, public health, land use planning, and social services all must improve their abilities to factor in the realities of climate and disaster when executing their missions.
Mainstreaming equity concerns
Achieving equitable adaptation will require that agencies also mainstream social equity. When government entities impose new requirements to improve resilience, they should consider equity impacts and provide resources to comply. Programs providing community resources for disaster preparation should prioritize resources for low-income communities that would otherwise lack the resources to prepare. And mainstreaming equity is not only about financial resources; it includes modes of participation and communication. Adaptation planning should include historically marginalized communities, and information about risks and preparation should be communicated to and through community-based organizations by the people and in the languages most trusted and heard within local communities.
Adopting a multi-level governance approach
Mainstreaming adaptation and equity is not an exclusively federal, state, or local responsibility: We need all hands on deck. Many of the relevant programs already function on multiple levels, with federal agencies imposing requirements and dispensing funds to state and local entities, which in turn have discretion to shape their own programs. The players at each of these levels have the opportunity to mainstream adaptation, disaster resilience, and equity. To the extent that some communities might resist adaptation planning or fail to account for social equity, federal and state requirements to incorporate these parameters may be necessary. Moreover, many state and local governments are likely to lack the resources to adequately prepare for future climate impacts. Federal and state resources, both expertise and financial, will be essential.