a planner of the county," said Milelli, whose 31-year emergency management career ends in January when he plans to retire in Wisconsin - far away from hurricanes.

To help combat storm destruction, the Gulf Regional Planning Commission in Mississippi focuses on hurricane preparation as well as planning and redevelopment.

"We're certainly well aware of the dramatic impacts of climate change and also the need for looking outside of our localized area when we're starting to talk about the impacts of climate change," said Elaine Wilkinson, the commission's executive director.

The commission is working to build bridges that withstand high winds (similar to the effects of an earthquake), and building up seawalls to match the roadbed.

After Hurricane Katrina, the commission took an extra year to engineer its long-range transportation to plan for major storms. Transportation planning is important to ensure safe evacuation, she said.    

Wilkinson was also involved in a U.S. government study on how global warming could affect the nation's coastal transportation systems. The study, which just released its first phase for scientific review, concluded that with climate change, the sea level is rising and the land is sinking, according to a National Public Radio news report.

Listening to scientists provided a good opportunity for Wilkinson, who said scientists must share global warming findings with people who can effect change.

"We need to find a way to bring the scientific data into the planning process," Wilkinson said. "That's something that'll challenge us. But we're very much in need of information to make some good decisions."


Ask the Question

Working with science, King County integrated global warming policies into its government.

In October 2005, the county sponsored a conference to understand Washington's climate changes in the coming 20, 50 and 100 years, and identify approaches to adapt to climate change predictions.

The Climate Impacts Group (CIG), along with King County, developed conference materials, including Pacific Northwest climate change scenarios. CIG, which is funded by Washington University's Center for Science in the Earth System in Seattle and by NOAA, explores climate science with an eye to the public interest in the region. The group is one of eight NOAA teams that assess regional climate change in the United States.

From the conference, the CIG and King County established a relationship and jointly wrote Adapting to Global Warming - a Guidebook, to be released this November following a peer review process.

As a resource for regional leaders, the guidebook outlines King County's global warming approach, addressing its water supply, wastewater and floodplain management, agriculture, forestry and biodiversity. The county approved an aggressive levee improvement plan and adopted a climate plan in February that includes a two-page outline for the King County Office of Emergency Management to revise its strategies given projected climate changes. 

In the guidebook, the CIG tells how scientists can communicate climate change information to emergency managers and policy leaders. But government officials are also responsible for opening the dialog.

Elizabeth Willmott, global warming coordinator for King County, stepped into her position upon its creation in January 2007, and works to coordinate projects, ideas and information related to the county's climate change mitigation and preparedness plans.

"What we suggest simply," Willmott said, "is that regional leaders ask the climate question, 'How is climate change going to affect my region?'"

Just asking, she said, can plant the issue in people's minds. 

Though weather seems to be telling us something about how climate change will impact our future, there's uncertainty in many circles about what to do to prepare and how to mitigate its consequences.

ICF's Holdeman said we must focus on finding global warming's regional effects and work to lessen them now.

"We end up being so reactive as a society, and certainly the United States is," he said. "We don't address issues - like Social Security or Medicaid. Everybody knows it's a problem, but we're not going to do anything about it until it's staring us in the face, and there's a trillion dollar deficit."

It's up to emergency managers, he said, to spread the word and ensure global warming consequences are known. 

"For emergency managers themselves," Holdeman said, "if we're not talking about it generally and trying to educate elected officials about it and the hazards, then you're counting on them to stumble on it as an issue."

Jessica Weidling  |  Staff Writer