Hurricanes, wildfires, and drought: US finds itself battling climate disasters on several fronts

Homes near Norco, Louisiana, are surrounded by floodwater as chemical refineries continue to flare the day after Hurricane Ida hit southern Louisiana on August 30, 2021.
CNN  — 

Hurricanes, wildfires, floods, heat waves, and drought wreaking havoc on much of the United States paint a picture of a nation in peril. Region by region, the country faces compounding disasters.

Against the backdrop of the Gulf Coast picking through the rubble of Hurricane Ida’s catastrophic aftermath, the Caldor Fire has torched nearly 200,000 acres in California and prompted mandatory evacuations for tens of thousands of people in the popular tourist destination of South Lake Tahoe and other areas nearby.

Meanwhile, Tennessee is also facing remnants of Ida as anxiety runs high for residents still reeling from last week’s deadly flooding. Simultaneously, for those who stayed to ride out the storm in Louisiana, many will be experiencing searing temperatures that could potentially be dangerous without air conditioning due to downed power lines and uprooted trees that could have provided shade from the heat.

And in concert with the South’s compounding heat advisory, the West is also facing an unrelenting drought that has led to water shortages in vast swaths of the region. Throughout all these disasters, the Covid-19 pandemic persists.

As the climate crisis accelerates, experts say that not only will these extreme weather events become more severe and more frequent, but that emergency response and recovery efforts will also become more challenging. James Elliott, professor of sociology at Rice University, said systems need to rapidly improve to address current and long-term issues.

“If you look at disasters across the country over recent decades, there’s almost always stuff going on simultaneously, but what’s changed is the intensity of impact, in part due to climate change but also due to increased development in harm’s way,” Elliott told CNN. “So the way to improve is to think about long-term solutions to these long-term problems.”

With emergency resources stretched thin, Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said that the recovery process tends to feel like a “second disaster” for residents seeking assistance.

“When you arrive at a situation like we are currently in, where you have every single state dealing with the pandemic response and then you add in these other more acute disasters along the Gulf Coast, out West, and even in the Midwest, there starts to be fatigue that sets in or starts to put a strain on the system,” she told CNN.

Montano, who was on the ground doing volunteer recovery efforts in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Katrina that pummeled Louisiana in 2005, said that the federal government often fails to lead recovery and emergency response efforts during the aftermath of tragic events like Hurricane Maria in 2017, which left more than 4,600 dead in Puerto Rico, and the deadly 2018 Camp Fire that obliterated the entire town of Paradise in California.

With extreme weather events intensifying and national agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) still facing debts from previous catastrophes like Hurricane Harvey, the accumulation of disaster work and mitigation response needed is piling up and becoming more urgent.

In July, President Joe Biden met with seven governors in the West to discuss how states are responding to wildfires and how the federal government can help. During the virtual meeting, he acknowledged that the nation’s resources are almost at capacity, citing the “urgent action” needed to address impacts of extreme heat, drought and wildfires.

“Our resources are already being stretched to keep up,” the President said. “We need more help, particularly when we also factor in additional nationwide challenges, the pandemic-related supply chain disruptions and our ongoing efforts to fight Covid.”

FEMA has historically borrowed from the Treasury Department to pay claims from disasters. As of August 2020, FEMA’s debt has ballooned to $20.5 billion despite Congress erasing a $16 billion debt from Hurricane Katrina in October 2017 to pay for more hurricanes including Harvey, Irma and Maria. According to the US Government of Accountability Office, the financial status of FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program could potentially worsen unless changes are made.

Elliott said federal money is ultimately for rebuilding communities, but many residents – particularly people of color – still question where the money is going: “So the question is rebuilding for whom and to what end,” he added, noting the social disparities that tend to come out of the long recover process.

Regardless of the agency’s debt, Montano said that the NFIP still has multiple issues such as the inaccuracy of flood maps, incentives structure, as well as premium costs. Emergency response programs also pose barriers that exacerbate underlying social inequities, particularly for low-income residents and communities of color who tend to be the hardest hit by disasters.

“The starting point here is understanding that not everyone is affected equally when a disaster happens,” Montano said. “We tend to see lower-income communities, communities of color, be located in more physically vulnerable areas, have less resources for mitigation or preparedness measures which can be quite costly, and so they tend to take the brunt of those impacts during the response.”

Similar barriers can be seen in wildfire-impacted areas in the Western states, where low-income communities may not have access to transportation to flee the fires. Fires spread faster and are typically harder to predict than hurricanes, making rapid emergency response more challenging. And much like hurricanes, the recovery process can be quite onerous, particularly for residents who have lost important documents and paperwork such as proof of homeownership, which FEMA typically requires to qualify for assistance.

In California and Nevada, residents were fortunately quick to respond to evacuation orders triggered by the enormous Caldor Fire. Still, many worry that they may no longer have homes to return to once the fire passes and evacuation orders are lifted. As the planet rapidly warms, fire experts are witnessing larger and more destructive fires burning out West, which are dramatically changing unique landscapes like the Tahoe Basin

“Historically, we’ve used the terms such as anomaly, unprecedented, or extreme to describe the wildfires that we have seen burn throughout the state over the last 20 years,” said Cal Fire Chief Chris Anthony. “These terms are no longer appropriate given the clear trends associated with drought, changing climate.”

A key finding in the recent state-of-the-science United Nations report on climate change concluded that the likelihood of “compound extreme events” is growing as temperatures increase. And that seems to ring true each year as the US reckons with record-shattering extreme weather events that challenge and strain government finances and emergency resources.

When federal assistance fails, Montano said non-profit organizations and volunteers tend to step up. In Louisiana, for instance, many volunteers from across the country came to help rebuild the state’s most impacted areas during Hurricanes Katrina and Laura. But given the compounding events of the heat wave and the pandemic making conditions more dangerous on the ground, local residents may be left to fend for themselves.

“It’s one crisis after another,” she said. And many are still left behind.

Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy and professor at Texas Tech University, said it’s because most policies are based on the past – from the drought of record to where the 100-year flood zone is located.

But when it comes to emergency preparedness, she said policymakers need to start looking at long-term solutions including slashing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and building climate resiliency instead of focusing on the past.

“It’s as if we’ve been driving down the road looking in the rearview mirror, where we’ve been using the past as a guide to the future,” Hayhoe told CNN. “But today, the climate of our planet is changing faster than any time in human history, and we are on a curve that is unprecedented.”