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3 Lessons for Building Community Resilience to Severe Storms

Cape Hatteras, North Carolina

I live in Miami – a few blocks from the bay, behind a small strip of mangroves. In recent years the city has become the poster-child for climate change and extreme weather events. I grew up, in-part, in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, an ephemeral coastal barrier island. I suppose you could say I’m a sucker for beautiful, vulnerable places, as apparently so many of us are. The lure of the coast is real. More than 40 percent of the U.S. population lives in coastal counties in the U.S. – a number expected to grow in the coming decades.

"I’m a sucker for beautiful, vulnerable places, as apparently so many of us are. The lure of the coast is real."

When you live in Miami and work on climate change issues, the barrage of dire headlines with our city notoriously mentioned can at times make your daily grind feel more like a fool’s errand, regardless of the important – often unsung – progress we’re collectively making. But, what is frequently missing from the narrative is that Miami is not alone in our risk.

What Hurricanes Harvey, Florence, and Michael have laid bare is that communities sitting literally hundreds of miles from the coastline are, too, at risk from the impacts of hurricanes and extreme weather. Communities far north of the tropical waters where these systems originate are also not in the clear, as we saw with Hurricane Sandy. Two “1 in 1,000 year” rainfall events devastated inland community Ellicott City, Maryland in the last two years alone. A confluence of poor urban planning and the effects of climate change on full display and with tragic consequences. 

While the correlation between climate change and the frequency of Atlantic hurricanes is still an ongoing scientific inquiry, we know that a warmer atmosphere and waters means the intensity of hurricanes is increasing with climate change. And, we know these events will continue to occur not only in coastal areas, but inland, too.

So, how should we respond?

1. We must build a culture of resilience that puts people at the center, particularly our most vulnerable.

Hurricane Katrina was perhaps the most bleak and raw exposé of how existing inequalities, segregation, and disparities are exacerbated during a disaster. Building more resilient communities means we must address the systemic inequality that leads to communities of color being at greater risk when these events do occur.

Research and experience alike demonstrate that social cohesion is core to strengthening climate resilience, and critically so for limited-income communities. We must find ways to continuously build relationships, trust, and partnerships between local government and the communities they serve. We must find ways to better account for, and integrate, these social networks within our emergency management systems, and continue to support and value the capacity that community-based organizations have as integral stakeholders in building community resilience.

A just recovery process means not simply “returning to normal.” It means seizing the unique opportunity presented by a major disaster to get a ‘redo’ on the underlying policies and practices that led to disproportionate disaster impacts in the first place. This requires developing a post-disaster plan that lays out the community’s vision for redevelopment thoughtfully and inclusively before the disaster occurs – and we’ve been working with the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact to support our region in improving these plans.

2. We must build smarter, with redundancy, and in consideration of the whole suite of societal cost-benefits.

After Hurricane Andrew decimated southern Miami-Dade County in 1992, Florida strengthened building codes, but the code varies across the state depending on historical storm events and the likelihood of a future event. At the time, it was argued that stronger code would be too costly for the entire state. But we’ve seen how more stringent building codes not only protect property loss in extreme weather events, but have a multitude of co-benefits for climate resilience as well, including reduced energy use, emissions and energy costs, as well as public health benefits. All told, they’ve been shown to reduce loss by 72% in the state and result in $5 of savings for every dollar invested. Across the Panhandle, in the wake of Hurricane Michael, communities are feeling the unfortunate consequence of the decision to not enact standardized code across the state. There is opportunity to build smarter and learn from this misstep moving forward.

Likewise, communities can reduce physical risk and costs by participating in FEMA’s Community Rating System, which can reduce flood insurance premiums by as much as 45 percent through specific actions, such as using nature-based solutions, like protecting and restoring natural systems to attenuate flood risk. This kind of action can not only reduce flood vulnerability, but improve water quality, provide valuable greenspace, and store and sequester carbon.  

Further, communities can take advantage of Community Development Block Grants Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program to invest in strategic, cost-effective risk reduction opportunities. In fact, in a bipartisan vote, the U.S. Senate just recently passed the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018, increasing and providing a dedicated stream of federal investment in pre-disaster mitigation.

And, we can build greater redundancy into our critical infrastructure systems, so that when a disaster does occur, we can bounce back faster. Through the deployment of distributed energy technologies—like solar, battery storage, combined heat and power, and microgrids—we can enhance reliability of critical services and operations during and after a disaster, improve efficiency, and reduce emissions during normal operations.

3. We must build support at all levels of government for carbon reduction.

Finally, in addition to our efforts to build resilience and adapt to more extreme events – some of the impacts of which are assuredly already ‘baked in’ based on emissions already in the atmosphere – we must stay laser-focused on aggressive emissions reduction. People too often think of adaptation as a mitigation substitute, two potential methods to prevent the same suffering. They are neither mutually exclusive nor equivalent. Adapting is already extremely expensive, and becoming increasingly so the longer we wait to reduce emissions, and arguably just as politically treacherous to do equitably.

If there was any doubt, the recent IPCC report release made abundantly clear just how ambitiously we must act to limit warming to spare catastrophic effects. What was also clear from the analysis was just how little time we have to do this work, that it will require all-hands on deck, but also that the ability to do so is within our reach – both technically and economically. There is no time to waste, and no community that can be left out in forging a new vision of normal.  

"What was also clear from the analysis was just how little time we have to do this work, that it will require all-hands on deck, but also that the ability to do so is within our reach – both technically and economically."

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