This discussion on natural disasters is the third in a 5-part series that reviews potential solutions to change the course of our Democracy, toward high national alignment and contentment that also drives high economic growth. The series reviews ideas for a unifying national vision to address our most pressing problems; Washington, income inequality (including healthcare and immigration), natural disasters, physical infrastructure and education.
Whether or not you believe climate is changing, that humans are contributing to warming temperatures, or that we can mitigate climate going forward, the U.S. is experiencing more frequent, more severe and more costly natural disasters, as is the rest of the world. According to the UN’s disaster-monitoring system, America, China and India suffered the greatest number of natural disasters between 1994 and 2015, measured as earthquakes, storms, floods or heatwaves that caused at least 10 deaths, affected more than 100 people or prompted the declaration of a national emergency. Since 1970, those types of disasters have more than quadrupled to around 400 a year worldwide.
The National Weather Service, NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), tracks U.S. weather and climate events that have great economic and societal impacts. Since 1980, the U.S. has sustained 241 weather and climate disasters where the overall damage costs reached or exceeded $1 billion (including adjustments based on the Consumer Price Index, as of January 2019). The cumulative cost for these 241 events exceeds $1.6 trillion.
There were 14 billion-dollar disasters in 2018, impacting every region of the U.S. The average annual number of these disasters, 15 from 2016-2018, have been more than double the long-term average (6.2 from 1980-2018).
The combined costs of the 2018 disasters was $91 billion, the 4th highest since 1980 (2017 was $312.7 billion). The average annual cost of these disasters over the last 3 years exceeds $150 billion, over 3 times the $42.8 billion (CPI-adjusted) long-term average ($42.8 billion from 1980-2018).
Not only is the number of extreme weather events increasing, the U.S. is more vulnerable and exposed to natural disasters than in the past, due to population and economic changes.
- Americans are more concentrated in high risk areas. Seven of the 10 largest metropolitan areas are on or near the coast, accounting for more than 60 million people living in areas prone to hurricanes, torrential rains, wildfires and earthquakes. Another 5 million live on islands like Puerto Rico and Hawaii, which are even more vulnerable. By 2040, these 10 metropolitan areas will add a whopping 16.7 million more people.
- Aging infrastructure wasn’t designed for today’s extreme weather. Dense populations need advanced, large-scale infrastructure, since failures can be catastrophic (think levees during Katrina). Unfortunately, a significant portion of aging U.S. infrastructure, designed based on the standards of over 50 years ago, is not keeping pace with growth, nor is it enough for what’s required to deal with today’s more extreme weather. 70% of the 90,580 dams in the U.S. will be past their average lifespan in 2025.
- Concentrated, “just in time”, global supply chains are more vulnerable. Many critical goods, like pharmaceuticals and fuels are produced overseas or in a single geographic area or even in a single facility, making disruption more likely. In fact, the 30 most critical pharmaceuticals, such as insulin for Type 1 diabetes and heparin for blood thinning, are all produced in whole or in part abroad. At the same time stockpiles are exceptionally low for most goods. Increasingly quick and reliable transportation leaves little reason for hospitals and other industries to spend on storage of goods. There’s simply no margin for error.
- Most Americans can’t fund an emergency. Half of all Americans cannot fund $400 for an emergency without using a credit card or borrowing, both of which can be limited during a disaster (not to mention ATM access). Minorities, which are growing faster in major cities, tend to be poorer and even less able to handle emergencies.
Can the U.S. afford to continue to react to ever increasing and more costly natural disasters? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to proactively plan for mitigation before disaster strikes? A 2018 report by the National Institute of Building Sciences found that for every dollar spent on federal disaster mitigation, $6 is saved in recovery. Preparedness planning and mitigation spending are the most important things government, the private sector and individuals can do to improve America’s response to natural disasters.
- Local, state and federal emergency management agencies need to emphasize risk reduction in planning and funding. Go to your community’s website or town hall to find out how prepared officials are where you live.
- Local agencies should conduct more frequent and accurate hazard assessments to better size funding needs and prepare citizens. Ask your community leaders for their assessment to see if it’s realistic. Make sure aging infrastructure is addressed.
- Emergency mitigation and response funding needs to become more transparent and public, including stockpiles of critical necessities. Businesses, citizens and the press need to hold local, state and federal governments more accountable for disaster planning.
- Government needs to coordinate more with the private sector, who may be better equipped to plan for, respond to and fund local emergency management and response. The private sector has an enormous stake and should have comparable skin in the game.
- Development must consider disaster impacts – infrastructure should ensure resilience (e.g., power lines buried in ice prone areas or placed above ground in flood prone regions) and extremely high-risk building should be prohibited (paving wetlands that absorb flooding, developing flood plains, building in forest lands, etc.).
- Individual citizens need to be prepared, since all too often government help may be significantly delayed or lacking. Everyone needs to have a plan, an emergency fund, if possible, and stay informed by setting up emergency alerts. Go to the federal government’s emergency and disaster preparedness site or https://www.ready.gov and your state’s preparedness site for detailed planning information.
We can all demand more from our federal, state and local officials when it comes to disaster planning. Let’s start today. Be the change.
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