After Irma we need to build better cities

NASA video shows 10 days of Irma in 30 seconds
NASA video shows 10 days of Irma in 30 seconds

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NASA video shows 10 days of Irma in 30 seconds 00:49

Michael Bociurkiw is a writer and development professional who has worked on emergencies on several continents, most recently as a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)This seems set to be a record year for severe weather events in North America.

Climate change naysayers may have a tough time defending their positions, since much of the extreme weather is being blamed on unusually warm ocean waters and dry conditions.
According to the NGO Practical Action, floods have become the most common type of natural disaster -- impacting on average about 250 million people each year.
Those numbers can be reduced if everyone agrees that coastal urban areas need to adopt a mindset promoted in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami: to "build back better."
    The approach has yielded incredibly positive results in countries previously hit by natural disasters, such as Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
    For example, areas such as Haiti that are disaster prone now have pre-positioned stocks of emergency supplies -- like vaccines and drinking water -- for when such disasters strike.
    It would mean building resilient schools and hospitals that can withstand strong earthquakes and ocean surges. If carried out properly, it means disaster-prone areas already have capacity and expertise -- on location and where it is needed -- after the disasters have done their damage.
    I first heard the term "Build Back Better" when working as a UNICEF emergency communications advisor in Pakistan after the 2005 South Asian earthquake. The devastation from the earthquake was so severe that most government infrastructure was destroyed.
    While its difficult to replace lost human capacity overnight, it is possible to rebuild communities to a standard that is more resilient to severe weather events. That approach needs to take hold now in the places devastated by Hurricane Irma.
    One of the best policies implemented after the Indian Ocean tsunami was to relocate communities away from vulnerable coastlines. While this idea might be a hard sell to people who rely financially on fishing, tourism or maritime activities, it's a policy that saves lives during storm surges and killer winds. This strategy has been successfully implemented along the coastlines of Sri Lanka.
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    Of course there's more to "building back better" than just building flood resistant infrastructure and relocating people away from the shoreline. How do you convince impoverished families from cutting down hillside trees that once absorbed water and prevented flash flooding?
    In 1991, I saw firsthand the immense devastation on the Philippine island of Leyte after flash floods killed hundreds of people. At the peak of the flooding, waters rose by seven feet in 15 minutes, according to a 1992 report by the Manila Observatory's Environmental Research Division.
    It was a wretched scene, with hundreds of bloated bodies piled up in dump trucks. It turned out that years of illegal logging had depleted the hills so badly that heavy rains no longer had any resistance, allowing for a massive wave to form.
    The big question in the wake of Irma is this: How can we convince homeowners and businesses in flood-prone areas like Miami Beach to move away from the coastline? By documenting "blue sky flooding," climate-change evangelist Al Gore has already shown how disaster prone an area like Miami is as ocean waters rise.
    During a recent visit to Miami-Dade County -- much of which lies at sea level or just above -- I had a good look at the flood-alleviation infrastructure that more than $100 million in taxpayer money has brought.
    Wealthy neighborhoods such as the Sunset Islands in Miami Beach have new, powerful drainage systems and elevated streets. And yet heavy rains create temporary lakes and blocked roads. Just yards from the Miami Beach Convention Center I saw large pools of standing water in a park -- perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying vector-borne diseases.
    It's a fact that sprawling urbanization has paved over much of the natural drainage areas that used to exist in places like Miami and Houston, which recently saw severe flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. That needs to be reversed.
    Unless urban planners and governments adopt a "build back better" approach after these last set of disasters, there will almost certainly be more flooding, more property loss and, sadly, more loss of life.
    Governments can start by enhancing preparedness for future disasters. Why not invite UN agencies and the aid industry to share lessons learned from the field with local, state and federal agencies? Why not help integrate their findings into recovery and rebuilding measures in the US?
    Building back better isn't just some feel-good slogan dreamed up by the aid industry. It's a sensible set of disaster risk-reduction principles that needs to be incorporated immediately by communities prone to disasters -- including those in the developed world.