Climate Data Now Key to Disaster Preparedness, First Responders Say

Emergency response organizations like FEMA are using climate forecasts to prepare for the increase in weather-related disasters.

South Carolina experienced historic flooding in October 2015
South Carolina's epic floods in 2015 served as a vivid reminder of climate change's impact on extreme weather. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard via Flickr

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Climate change—and the extreme weather associated with it—is changing the way U.S. emergency response organizations operate, from how they spend their money to where they pre-position resources, a panel of military, emergency and climate science experts said Monday.

“We pay a lot of money to have our military prepared to do something we really don’t want them to have to do: go to war,” said Joseph Nimmich, deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Well, we also need a FEMA and national infrastructure to deal with those catastrophic events we hope never happen… but are inevitable.”

By using climate forecasts created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), FEMA has begun pre-positioning resources before a disaster strikes. FEMA is also now requiring state governments to incorporate climate change into their disaster mitigation strategies or risk losing out on billions of dollars of federal funds. The agency also helped develop new flood risk policy that mandates all federally funded projects—including FEMA ones—located in a floodplain be built higher and stronger than previously required.

Nimmich spoke alongside Richard Spinrad, the chief scientist for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Major General Robert Livingston of the South Carolina National Guard at an event hosted by the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C.

They were scheduled to talk last week about how climate change has complicated preparedness for an increase in extreme weather, but it had to be postponed because of: extreme weather. Winter storm Jonas dumped nearly 3.5 feet of snow on parts of the Mid-Atlantic region.

Natural disasters such as flooding, hurricanes, drought and snowstorms have become more frequent or more intense due to climate change in recent decades, the experts said. In the 1980s, the U.S. averaged 29 disaster declarations per year. That average jumped to 74 per year In the 1990s and 127 per year in the 2000s. Nimmich, Spinrad and Livingston said shifting demographics—more people moving toward the coast and waterways directly in harm’s way of most extreme weather—has also played a role in the cost and severity of recent natural disasters.

Extreme weather today “is literally biblical in nature,” said Spinrad. And because greenhouse gas emissions linger in the atmosphere for long periods of time, “we will have many decades to centuries of these continued [weather] patterns. It is a new normal, if you will.

“In terms of preparedness and response, intelligence is the currency of the realm. Climate projections are a piece of the puzzle as valuable as any communications intelligence, or first-person intelligence. Without them, we won’t have the full picture.”

The South Carolina National Guard has been activated 21 times since 2005 to respond with extreme weather, including last year’s historic flooding, Livingston said. A storm dumped 24 inches of rain in two days in some parts of the state after an already wet fall season.

“What I’m afraid of is given the extremes of weather we are seeing, we will see [storms like that] more often, and see it at a higher percentage,” said Livingston. “We timed mobilizations of people [in last year’s flooding] to ensure they could stay home as long as possible. That intelligence piece is very, very key.”

The biggest hurdle, the experts said, is getting people to listen to their warnings. This includes convincing local governments, businesses and homeowners to make buildings and infrastructure more resilient—and to evacuate when asked.

In Republican-run states like South Carolina, the challenge is particularly difficult because climate change is treated as a political issue up for debate instead of a reality that requires action.

“When we build back, we must build back knowing what is coming, the future climate scenario,” said Nimmich. “But in cases where we have repetitive losses, we have to ask, ‘how do I make you change?” Then you are getting into the culture of a person, how they live their lives, and that is very difficult.”