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Climate Change-Fueled Natural Disasters Necessitate New Approaches in Emergency Management Staffing and Coordination

Climate Change-Fueled Natural Disasters Necessitate New Approaches in Emergency Management Staffing and Coordination

Created: Thursday, December 28, 2023 - 14:01
Emergency Response & Recovery, General Security and Resilience, Natural Disasters

Two new resources, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Yale Climate Connections, highlight some of the most significant natural disasters and unusual weather phenomena of 2023. There are numerous lessons from the year’s many events, but one stands above the rest: increasingly frequent and extreme natural disasters and other emergencies of today necessitate organizations dedicate staff to better understanding, preparing for, and responding to them. The City of Buffalo, New York applied this lesson following a blizzard that overwhelmed its emergency response system a year ago.

The nine atmospheric rivers that dropped feet of rain and snow across California and other parts of the West Coast in early January constituted one of the most significant and surprising events in 2023, especially since much of the region had been enduring a multi-year drought (as a result, California is now drought-free for the first time in years). The year also experienced record warmth, with NOAA scientists stating there is a greater than 99% chance 2023 will be the warmest on record. Several heat waves and record temperatures accentuated the increasing warmth, including in Texas and portions of the Southwest. There were remarkable natural disasters and weather events in other parts of the world, such as in Canada where wildfires burned about 45 million acres, more than twice the previous national record (from 1995). And in Mexico, Hurricane Otis brought catastrophic impacts to Acapulco, where human forecasters and computer models predicted it would make landfall as a strong tropical storm with 70 mph winds. Instead, Otis’s peak winds increased by 110 mph in 24 hours; the storm made landfall just after midnight on October 25 as a Category 5 storm, with sustained winds estimated at 165 mph. As a result, Otis became the strongest and most damaging hurricane ever recorded along the Pacific coast of North America. The storm also has the second-highest intensification rate on record for the Western Hemisphere. Read more at NOAA and Yale Climate Connections.

What these and many other events and phenomena illustrate is that climate change is making natural disasters more frequent and intense, as well as more unpredictable. This necessitates cities and organizations, including water and wastewater utilities, strive to better understand, prepare for, and respond to the challenges. Dedicating and organizing staff to this purpose is of paramount importance, as Buffalo found following its experience with a deadly blizzard in December 2022. Buffalo and its residents are well-accustomed to severe winters and snow, but last year’s blizzard was extreme, bringing whiteout conditions and 15-foot snowdrifts that stranded even snowplows. In the city’s analysis afterwards, one problem was obvious: no one in city government was squarely focused on disaster preparations and responses. The city has since created and filled an emergency manager position as well as a fleet manager role (for overseeing the city’s snowplows and other emergency equipment). While the blizzard was a tragedy, the city’s experiences during it and the response afterwards underscore the growing importance of anticipating disaster risks instead of relying on hindsight to justify reforms. Hopefully other places and organizations will be motivated to do the same and close gaps in emergency management underinvestment across the nation. Read more at the Washington Post.