Caribbean
Overhead view of a row of damaged structures in the Bahamas from a Coast Guard Elizabeth City C-130 aircraft after Hurricane Dorian shifts north September 3, 2019. Hurricane Dorian made landfall Saturday and intensified into Sunday. U.S. COAST GUARD PHOTO BY PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS ADAM STANTON.

The Pace of Disaster Is Accelerating. Are We Ready?

The impacts of rising sea levels and increasing climate instability may force hard choices in the years to come.

This week, Hurricane Dorian battered the North Carolina coast, knocking out power across wide swaths of the Southeast and spawning dozens of smaller tornadoes in its ragged skirts. The storm saved most of its damage for the Bahamas, where Prime Minister Hubert Minnis is calling the wreckage caused by Dorian a “generational devastation.” But although the US was spared the brunt of the storm’s wrath, Dorian will inflict steep costs on US states, cities, and towns in its wake.

One of Dorian’s impacts that may force hard choices in the years to come: the damage done to decades’ worth of “beach nourishment” projects, designed to keep sand (and valuable coastal real estate) from washing out to sea. The full extent of the damage may not be known for weeks, but experts have dubbed Dorian a “beach eater,” potentially undoing billions of dollars of investment in efforts to stop coastal erosion in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas in one fell swoop.

In light of rising sea levels and increasing climate instability, pumping sand into eroding beaches may be a Sisyphean task, doomed to be undone with the next big coastal storm. As storms like Dorian become fiercer and more frequent, communities and governments at all levels are increasingly facing hard – and expensive – choices. Can we plan ahead to protect homes, businesses, and infrastructure from climate change-related destruction? How do we decide which areas to protect, and which to abandon to accelerating disaster? And who should pay the costs?

Rising Seas, Rising Costs

Putting a price tag on preparing for climate change isn’t easy. But experts who have tried to quantify the issue tend to agree: The costs will be far beyond what we are currently prepared to pay.

A recent feature in Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School for Forestry and Environmental Studies, took a deep dive into the issue of coastal protection. Reporter Jim Morrison found a common theme across the US: city after city facing billions of dollars’ worth of investment needed to protect human life and property from rising seas, and no clear way to foot the bill.

While the threats to these cities are growing as climate change intensifies, what is not clear is how to pay for projects needed to protect tens of millions of people and trillions of dollars of property. Conservative estimates of the capital investments needed to combat rising seas and worsening storms run into the hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming decades.

A group known as the Center for Climate Integrity, which is seeking to force corporate polluters to shoulder the lion’s share of the costs of climate-related disaster prevention, recently published a study totting up the costs of building seawalls to protect US coastal communities. The total price tag, according to the authors: $400 billion, a figure that does not include other climate resiliency measures like moving flood-prone homes and infrastructure or investing in disaster responsiveness.

While coastal states like Florida and Louisiana face the heaviest burdens, the study estimates New York’s share of those costs at $17.4 billion, of which just $2 billion is the cost of protecting New York City. The Hudson Valley also faces the threat of sea level rise and worsening storms. Thanks to the estuarine Hudson River, which rises and falls with the ocean tides, the impact of rising seas is already being felt far inland.

Four of the 10 New York State counties facing the steepest costs for seawall protection are in the Hudson Valley: Westchester, Ulster, Dutchess, and Rockland. While the estimated costs for protecting upstate counties are smaller than those for the New York metropolitan area – for instance, $259.4 million for Ulster County – the per capita costs of protection can be much steeper. The study estimates that it will cost roughly $1,446 per person to protect Ulster County’s roughly 179,000 residents from rising seas, compared to $232 per person in New York City.

Compare the costs to different communities on a national level, and even wilder inequalities emerge, with costs to protect rural coastal communities running into the millions of dollars per person. In communities that are the most expensive to protect, residents may have to face the unthinkable, the authors write:

This study identified many small communities where the costs of protection exceed $100,000 per person, and hundreds where the costs of protection exceed $10,000 per person. Managed retreat may become an option in these locations but is controversial due to the social and psychological difficulties associated with removing people from their homes.

Resilience: A Priceless Commodity

The numbers are daunting. Building infrastructure to resist climate change would involve levels of public investment not seen in generations. But protecting communities from climate change is not simply a matter of having the right infrastructure. Resilience – the innate ability of a community to heal after a disaster – is much more than bricks and mortar, and there are many things that communities can do that do not come with a massive price tag.

People who live in risky environments develop the expertise they need to survive and rebuild, writes Emily Gallagher for Pacific Standard. Coastal Mainers are good at weathering snowstorms. Midwesterners know what to do in tornado season. As the climate shifts, and new hazards develop in communities that are unprepared for them, maybe we need to share our regional expertise around more, she writes:

In light of our growing understanding of changing demographics and weather, it’s important to gather the weather expertise we already have all across the country and share it with the areas that might be the most vulnerable if and when a disaster strikes.

This could mean going to Southern Arizona and asking how people there mitigate heat stroke. What building materials do they use? How have they created resilient workforces so that construction workers don’t stand outside on a 115-degree day? How does the city handle high-risk populations, such as the elderly? Passing along such knowledge to cities in the Northeast that are just starting to experience rising, and more dangerous, temperatures could be extremely valuable.

Another underappreciated aspect of climate resilience: environmental regulations – and not just big-ticket efforts to protect sensitive habitats, but ordinary things like zoning and building codes. Brian Gerber and Melanie Gall write in Pacific Standard:

Consider hazard mitigation — the use of tools such as building codes or land use planning to reduce the amount of harm that might occur during a disaster — and how it is connected to other phases of disaster management. The strength of risk reduction steps, such as safer local land use practices, directly affects emergency response and long-term recovery phases.

For example, if a community prevents residential development in a floodplain, when flooding occurs, evacuation or rescue operations are not needed, the costs of recovery are reduced, and so on.

Waffle House in Bowling Green, Ohio. Wikimedia Commons

Disaster response is often seen as the domain of officials: government agencies, fire departments, ambulance squads. But some of our best models for how to function during a disaster come from unlikely places. Consider Waffle House: the humble breakfast chain that has gotten storm recovery down to such an exact science that even FEMA looks to them to gauge the severity of a disaster.

To people like Daniel Hahn, director of safety for the Santa Rosa County School District in the Florida Panhandle, a Waffle House opening its doors after a storm, cooking up plates of smothered hash browns and buttery waffles, is more than just a symbol of economic recovery.

“It means the community has hope,” he said. “It means that the power is most likely on in that particular area, it means you have a place to eat, which is always good for first responders and locals. It means things might actually be all right. It’s like the sunrise after the storm.”

When the worst does happen despite all our preparations, we can rely on our most precious community resource: each other. Disaster experts find over and over again that the natural human response to disaster is not chaos and violence, but focus and altruism. Arkady Martine, a science fiction writer and public planner, writes for Tor.com:

Humans do not, under the pressure of an emergency, socially collapse. Rather, they seem to display higher levels of social cohesion, despite what media or government agents might expect…or portray on TV. Humans, after the apocalypse, band together in collectives to helpone another—and they do this spontaneously. Disaster response workers call it ‘spontaneous prosocial helping behavior,’ and it saves lives.

What is your community doing – or not doing – to prepare for natural disaster? We want to hear from you.

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