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Emergency Managers Prepare for a Changing Disaster Paradigm

Are plans based on historical data out of date? Emergency managers and scientists discuss the impact of irregular storms and other natural phenomena.

In a large country with myriad natural threats, some responders are more experienced than others in handling certain types of disasters. Certain phenomena, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, typically don’t happen in some areas of the country.

But with a surge in the number of incidents declared as disasters by FEMA over the last 20 years, it’s become paramount for regions to plan for the unexpected, particularly when it comes to Mother Nature.

In 2011, tornado activity was observed in places that rarely see it, from Northern California to the East Coast and in between, leaving some residents in disbelief that the weather phenomena actually occurred there.

In addition, areas known for hurricanes and tropical storms are experiencing larger, more powerful weather systems. Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans in 2005, and while Hurricane Sandy wasn’t as deadly as Katrina, it was the deadliest in the northeastern U.S. in the last 40 years and the second costliest disaster in U.S. history. Hurricane Irene in 2011 was supposed to have been a “storm of the century” until Sandy hit.

Then there were the 1,000-year floods that hit Tennessee in 2010 and the devastating wildfires in Colorado last year, described as “freakish” by experienced firefighters. It all follows a pattern predicted in recent years by some experts who say the frequency and severity of storm activity are increasing, along with intensified wildfires, drought and more flooding, resulting from a warming climate.

Emergency management experts and sustainability planners say it’s important to begin planning for a changing paradigm, that plans based on historical data are out of date. So should there be a one-size-fits-all or all-hazards approach to disaster preparedness and response? Or should regions craft specific strategies for each type of disaster? Experts believe the prevailing approach is — and should remain — a bit of both.

According to Mark Ghilarducci, secretary of the California Emergency Management Agency, the state takes a holistic approach to disaster planning. Because the state is so large and parts of it are susceptible to different types of threats, he said California uses a collaborative process involving local governments and the private sector.

“We try to put emergency plans in place or countermeasures working with our local governments, our other state agencies and possibly the federal government,” Ghilarducci said. “Then we have a very robust preparedness program that ties to these efforts so that we make sure the community is involved and engaged to let them know what the risks are and how they can work to prepare themselves.”

From a local government perspective, Boston does the same thing. Rene Fielding, director of the Boston Office of Emergency Management, said her team goes through an annual hazard identification risk assessment of what threats could jeopardize the city. The team ranks the threats and then outlines steps to address them. But some unusual events are starting to crop up in those evaluations.

Fielding explained that the city had a tornado watch in 2012 for the first time in as long as she could remember. In addition, while Boston isn’t noted for earthquakes, the city has felt tremors in the past couple of years from temblors in both Maine and Virginia.

The magnitude 5.8 quake that struck Virginia on Aug. 26, 2011, took many by surprise and caused significant damage near the epicenter in Louisa County, Va. But its impact stretched all along the Eastern seaboard.

While the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) didn’t necessarily reassess or change the steps it takes in evaluating a disaster, its staff members did add something to their emergency operations plan following the quake: an earthquake annex. Brett Burdick, deputy state coordinator for administration of VDEM, said the department didn’t have one, since its major disaster concerns are floods and hurricanes.

The department now has a formalized earthquake plan in place, but Burdick said that it was written from the procedures they had implemented when the earthquake struck. So even without the documentation, Virginia’s procedures would be the same today as they were in August 2011.

While agency emergency policies and procedures are important, the tougher task for emergency managers is convincing the public that disaster contingency plans are needed for even the unlikeliest situations. Ghilarducci explained that keeping people informed and prepared is a major challenge across the board and it’s why California approaches preparedness from an all-hazards perspective.

“All you have to do is turn on the TV today and you’re bombarded with one crisis after another,” Ghilarducci said. “What happens is people tend to become numb … they want to put it out of sight, out of mind. We’re very sensitive to that.”

In addition, because the state is so large, Ghilarducci said his agency uses different times of the year to reinforce different types of disaster preparedness messages to the public. California annually re-evaluates risk factors for each area of the state during different seasons and keeps the public a part of those activities. Winter storms, floods and earthquakes all get specific months for targeted messaging.

Boston concentrates on teaching its citizens how to best prepare themselves to be self-sufficient for up to two days after a disaster. While Boston’s methods are familiar — promoting the need for a family emergency kit and plan — the city emphasizes making sure as many threats as possible are covered by activities it endorses.

For example, Fielding said that her team doesn’t necessarily teach people how to prepare for an earthquake or tornado, but instead it’s always pushing guidelines that can keep residents safe through all types of events, mirroring California’s all-hazards take on preparedness.

The August 2011 quake seemed to spur many Virginians to take the threat of earthquakes more seriously. Burdick said many residents took out earthquake insurance policies to help mitigate the cost of damages if another quake happens.

Glenn Pomeroy — CEO of the California Earthquake Authority, a publicly managed organization that provides residential earthquake insurance — said participating in an exercise such as the Great ShakeOut is a key to getting citizens in nontraditional earthquake zones to prepare for such an occurrence. The annual event puts participants across the country through an emergency drill as if an actual earthquake is occurring.

It seemed to work for Virginia, which took part in the Great ShakeOut in 2012. Burdick felt that the event put the preparedness factor front and center for many of the state’s residents.

“A couple million Virginians decided to participate in that, and they probably would not have done that before the earthquake,” Burdick said. “There is a decidedly heightened awareness among the community.”

Climate change is increasingly thought to be one of the culprits causing the uptick of severe and unusual weather phenomena. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) aren’t yet ready to state it as the cause, but said it’s a fact that arctic ice is melting and the sea level is rising, which leads to higher flood waters and more precipitation.

Thomas Peterson, principal scientist with NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, called greenhouse gases the “steroids” of the atmosphere, as they warm the air and increase the overall energy that produces storms.

“Since warmer air can hold more water vapor, we’re seeing an increase in absolute humidity around the world and greater potential for heavy precipitation events and some of the other events that are fueled by water vapor in the lower atmosphere,” Peterson said.

Thomas Knutson, research meteorologist with NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, confirmed that the intensity of hurricanes is trending upward. He said climate models are projecting warmer temperatures and some simulations have shown the number of Category 4 and Category 5 hurricanes increasing. Knutson gave “better than even” odds that the number of intense storms will increase in the future, but NOAA believes the overall number of hurricanes will remain relatively static or even decrease globally.

When asked whether the actual size of hurricanes is increasing worldwide, Knutson couldn’t give a definitive answer. While Sandy and Katrina were noted for being very large hurricanes, NOAA doesn’t have any long-term records of storm size to draw an accurate comparison. The best records available for land-falling storms date back to 1900.

Tornadoes were a tougher subject to tackle. Knutson said that if you look at just the raw records of tornado occurrences for the U.S. as a whole, the number is increasing over time. That data is misleading, however, because the ability to detect twisters has increased through technology.

“We don’t really know what tornadoes have been doing because the spurious trend is so large it swamps everything else,” Knutson said.

But whether the change is defined as climate change or something else, states are taking the threat posed by a warming climate seriously. Emergency managers have to be prepared for the worst.

California developed a mitigation plan in 2007 that’s updated every three years. The forecast effects of climate change on the state were added to the report in 2010. State representatives and an advisory team looked at scientific information and climate-related hazards and future impacts from those hazards. The hoped-for result is a hazard mitigation strategy that is coordinated and integrated among all the agencies involved in hazard mitigation.

Devising ways to educate the public on preparing for the unexpected or participating in emergency drills sounds easy, but it isn’t always cheap. That can be problematic, particularly in an era of shrinking government budgets.

Fielding said she considers tighter purse strings as an opportunity to be creative. In the past, Boston has partnered with the private sector to promote certain messages, and grant funding helps pay for other expenses. She also leverages those partnerships to get out messaging in fliers that can be sent in mailings, like a person’s water bill.

Boston also uses a section of the city’s website to promote ReadyBoston, a community preparedness initiative to educate and empower Bostonians about the hazards they may face and to encourage residents to prepare for all types of emergencies.

California also partners with various stakeholder groups, including schools and higher education institutions, to incorporate preparedness into students’ curriculum. The state has also harnessed the power of social media to stay connected with residents, while spreading the word about disasters and how to prepare for them.

“Social media is a very powerful tool, [and] it can change the outcome of a disaster situation,” Ghilarducci said. “Utilizing it in an appropriate way is very critical. Making sure it’s part of your toolbox is critical to be able to get your message out and also to help manage the expectation of the government’s response to an emergency or disaster.”

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.