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Money, Climate Change and Disaster Management

2017 was the costliest year for weather- and climate-related disasters. Will the trend continue?

Whether just an unlucky year or a result of a warming climate, 2017 with its three hurricanes and devastating wildfires, was the costliest for weather/climate related disasters with an estimated $306 billion price tag.

So how do we pay for it, and if it’s a trend, how do we continue to pay for natural and man-made disasters that seem to be increasing either in number or intensity?

“The country is really not prepared to deal with large-scale disasters, and we keep repeating the same mistakes in response or failure to prepare,” said Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness.

Redlener said the nation needs a “serious conversation at the political and budgetary levels,” on resilience and how to fund these and future disasters.

The nation endured 16 weather- and climate-related disasters that cost $1 billion or more each in 2017, resulting in 362 deaths. A common refrain is “Get used to it,” as trends suggest more of the same.

Redlener said that science is increasingly providing the evidence that global warming is the cause of more frequent and intense storms and that the question of global warming is being resolved. But that’s not going to be the impetus for increased resiliency or funding.

“Science rarely prevails over ideology in politics,” Redlener said. “That’s the sad fact of it, and scientists keep thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll do this research and publish it, and everybody will be convinced. Just doesn’t ever work that way.”

Rob Dale, regional planner at Ingham County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in Michigan and a former meteorologist, shies away from calling recent events the new normal. He says weather is “random” and often the results of storms on populations of people involve luck or unluckiness.

“My concern is when we say this is the new normal, next year we might not get any hurricanes that make landfall and I’m afraid people will stop doing what they need to be doing.” He said his bigger concern is people building where they shouldn’t.

“Regardless of where or why, it comes back the fact that we’re using a method for recovery funds that’s probably not going to be effective regardless of future [climate] changes,” Dale said. “We’ve got too many people living in cities, that it just takes one tornado [to do a lot of damage]. And if that city gets hit [there can also be] a lot more damage to a neighboring city that has lower population.”

Redlener said it will take advocacy and hardcore politics to get new strategies for investing in resilience, but he doesn’t see that in the current political dynamic. “I think we’re going backward. We’re going to have to pay for them, but we’re in an environment where we’ve just done a trillion and a half dollars of tax cuts to corporations and the well-off individuals.”

The damage from Hurricane Harvey in Texas may exceed $150 billion, the tab in Florida from Irma will be in the tens of billions and the damage in Puerto Rico will be at least $150 billion. Redlener said the bills will get paid somehow, but that there will be “pushback” and that will lengthen the recovery processes.

Redlener cited as examples of failure to prepare properly, the recovery effort in New Orleans after Katrina, where levees were rebuilt to withstand Category 3 storms. “Why not build up to level four or five?” Redlener asked. “It was all about money and politics.”

He called the inability to send the military and Department of Defense into Puerto Rico to help was a failure. “FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services have worked hard, but the problems are too big for them.”