Hurricane season officially starts on June 1 and this week (May 24-30) is Hurricane Preparedness Week.  Warmer ocean temperatures and other climate change-related factors give hurricanes potentially deadlier energy and force.  While elected officials and local papers are now urging people in hurricane-vulnerable areas to prepare emergency kits with flashlights, batteries, canned food, and bottled water, what about the larger challenges we continue to grapple with?  What about the capacity of the built environment to withstand high winds and driving rain?  The availability and safety of temporary housing (recalling the FEMA scandal of formaldehyde-soaked trailers post Katrina)?  The effectiveness of evacuation plans and adequacy of escape routes?  What is the condition of critical infrastructure, such as dams, dikes, drainage systems and water pumps?  Are we truly prepared for hurricane season?  We doubt it. 

post by Anne Polansky

Prominent climate scientist Stephen Schneider of Stanford University is often on the speaking circuit, talking in plain language about the effects that climate change is having on society, and the urgent need to tackle these head on.  In 2005 he was a guest on the HBO talk show Real Time with Bill Maher to talk about hurricane Katrina and the relationship of global warming and hurricanes.  Referring to the research showing an equivocal effect on frequency but a fairly substantiated effect on intensity,  Maher quipped, “Did we put our hurricanes on steroids?”  Schneider likes the metaphor, and repeats it often.  Climate change obviously isn’t causing hurricanes—but a preponderance of evidence says it’s acting as a threat multiplier, as it does for other sorts of extreme weather. 

An authoritative report on this topic issued by the Climate Change Science Program, Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate, concludes:

Many extremes and their associated impacts are now changing.  For example, in recent decades most of North America has been experiencing more unusually hot days and nights, fewer unusually cold days and nights, and fewer frost days. Heavy downpours have become more frequent and intense. Droughts are becoming more severe in some regions, though there are no clear trends for North America as a whole. The power and frequency of Atlantic hurricanes have increased substantially in recent decades, though North American mainland land-falling hurricanes do not appear to have increased over the past century.  Outside the tropics, storm tracks are shifting northward and the strongest storms are becoming even stronger. (emphasis added)

President Obama declared May 24-30 to be Hurricane Preparedness Week, with these words:

Each year, hurricanes threaten the safety of American families in coastal and inland communities. These powerful storms can cause heavy rainfall, high winds, tornadoes, and storm surges, which can in turn bring severe flooding, power outages, damage to homes and businesses, and loss of life.

Awareness and preparation are critical to surviving and recovering from hurricanes. During National Hurricane Preparedness Week, I call on all Americans—including private citizens and those working in government, business, and the nonprofit sector—to plan ahead and help secure the safety and property of those who face advancing storms.

He urges Americans to make a family disaster plan, create and maintain a disaster supply kit, secure their homes, designate safe places to go during a storm, and asserts:

My Administration is committed to strengthening these efforts [of state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and the media] and is working every day to prepare for hurricanes and their potential impacts on everyone in the United States. (emphasis added)

Dozens of websites, like this one from Homeland Security, describe how best to prepare for hurricane season. 

CSW’s focus on overall “preparedness” for the myriad, often challenging, consequences we can expect as a result of global climate disruption centers on three fundamental questions: 

Are communities across the nation adequately planning and preparing for a climate that has already begun to depart significantly from that of the past?  If not, then what sort of help do they need from the federal government?  And, is the federal government currently sufficiently equipped and adequately organized to provide needed assistance?   

In the case of hurricanes and storms, a fair question is:

Are we doing all we can and should to minimize loss of human life, injury, property damage and destruction, even devastation of entire communities?   

So as hurricane season is upon us, just how well prepared are we?

The Department of Homeland Security issued a January 2009 report, The Federal Preparedness Report (3.8 MB download), which claims that the federal government has implemented more than 90% of the recommendations made in a comprehensive “lessons learned” report following the botched response to Hurricane Katrina.  The 2006 White House report, “The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned,” called for a transformation in the way the Nation provides for homeland security. It called for the establishment of a national preparedness system—a system of integrated plans, doctrine, guidelines, capabilities, training and exercises, evaluation, and improvement that links together the various homeland security partners.  While there is no doubt that we have come a long way towards making important improvements, we have a ways to go.  While we don’t know of any other comprehensive progress report gauging our level of preparedness in various vulnerable regions, there are a few indicators that shed light on our general lack of preparedness for hurricanes and storms.  A few examples follow:

1.  A May 23 article in PRNewswire, Houston,  New survey shows more than 60 percent of Texas Gulf Coast residents unprepared for the next hurricane, opens: 

“Despite the impacts of Ike, Dolly, Edouard and Gustav a few short months ago, a new survey conducted on behalf of Direct Energy suggests that Texans could do more to get ready for Hurricane Season. More than 60 percent of Texas Gulf Coast residents do not believe themselves to be well prepared for the next hurricane, and of those who do consider themselves to be moderately or well prepared, few have taken the necessary pre- and post-hurricane steps to be ready for Hurricane Season.”

The Texas Gulf Coast Hurricane Preparedness Survey was conducted by The Ampersand Agency on behalf of Direct Energy, a major energy provider to the Gulf Coast area and one of the largest multi-state providers of retail energy services in North America.

Some notable excerpts from the article:

Of immediate pre-hurricane precautions, only about a third of respondents had a written family disaster plan. Fewer than half of those heads-of-households who consider themselves very well prepared say they have one, and less than a quarter of the moderately prepared or ill-prepared families have one. Although most have taken some precautions like having a vehicle in good repair with a full tank of gas, and ensuring that important household papers, like school records, house title and insurance records are in one place, Gulf Coast residents need the most education about home preparations – including unplugging major electrical appliances and turning off the water to their home.

“We found that more than 60 percent of Texas coastal residents do not unplug their washer and dryer to prevent power-surge damage or turn off their water to prevent flooding from broken pipes. In addition, about 88 percent do not remove fuses from their air conditioning systems to prevent damage,” said Dornan.

In post-hurricane preparations, survey results show that overall, only a quarter of residents had three days of non-perishable food or a first aid kit on hand, and only one in five had sufficient water stored for an emergency. Only a quarter of those over the age of 65 have a two-week’s supply of prescription medications in case of an emergency. Of the 11.5 percent who have an adult who will need special assistance beyond a family member to evacuate, more than 70 percent are not registered with 2-1-1 Special Needs Registry.

The survey also questioned residents on individual evacuation procedures. Only one in four residents said they would leave immediately during a voluntary evacuation. Seven out of 10 say they would leave immediately in case of a mandatory evacuation, leaving over a quarter waiting to see what the storm does or staying for the duration. Of those who would stay for the duration of the storm, residents were either those who considered themselves to be well prepared or least prepared.

“Our experience has shown that the bigger the storm, the more damage to transmission lines, which will leave residents without power for extended periods; even those who evacuate are likely to come back before power has been restored and we want to make sure they are prepared, ” said Dornan. “The most important message to those who reside in zones which are advised to ‘hunker down’ for the storm or residents who make the decision to stay for the duration of a storm is to ensure you have the appropriate amount of critical supplies such as water, batteries, non-perishable food items and prescription drugs. Regardless of whether you stay or leave, it is important to unplug appliances and electronics along with removing a/c fuses to avoid damage caused by power surges when lines and power is restored.”

The article also included some pertinent facts quantifying lack of preparedness along the Texas Gulf Coast:

      o Over 70% surveyed do not have a written family disaster plan
      o 15% of ages 18-34 and 23% African American respondents do not have a vehicle in good repair with a full tank of gas
      o 25% of the general population including seniors and Hispanics, as well as 45% of African Americans surveyed do not have hurricane insurance coverage
      o More than 40% of those surveyed do not secure their homes by boarding up or installing shutters. African Americans total more than 68%
      o 60% of those surveyed do not unplug the washer and dryer to prevent power surge damage
      o Over 60% do not turn-off water services to prevent flooding from broken pipes
      o Over 85% do not remove fuses from air conditioning system to prevent damage
      o Over 65% do not have a three-day supply of non-perishable foods
      o More than 80% of respondents do not have a fully stocked first-aid kit
      o Over 70% do not have a two-week supply of prescription drugs. 90% of ages 18-34 lack the needed supply of prescription drugs
      o Greater than 60% of those surveyed do not have one gallon of drinking water per person per day to last for one week
      o 80% do not have an emergency cash supply
* 30-50% of the Texas Gulf Coast general population will not leave until a mandatory evacuation is ordered

* 16% of the seniors and minorities on the Texas Gulf Coast will stay for the duration of a storm regardless of a mandatory evacuation order

* 15-25% of minorities on the Texas Gulf Coast need evacuation assistance beyond family or friends, yet more than 50% of those are not registered with 2-1-1 special needs registry

2.  Emergency housing

There are still tens of thousands of people residing in the “travel trailers” provided by FEMA after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita—the entire situation was a disaster, and is still disastrous for many.  CSW covered the formaldehyde scandal (here, and here).  FEMA is taking all the trailers back this month, even if their occupants are still rebuilding or have nowhere else to go.  Elderly people are taking refuge in abandoned buildings.  FEMA will either scrap or sell the trailers fire-sale style.  See coverage in the New York Times, US News and World Report, and elsewhere. 

3. Insurance

The insurance and re-insurance industries see hurricanes and earthquakes as two of their highest vulnerabilities, and everywhere, insurance rates are expected to rise precipitously as these natural disasters inflict more damage.  This in and of itself is not a bad thing:  in fact, insurance coverage can make it too easy for people to build on land too vulnerable to extreme weather, worsened by climate disruption.  One organization makes this point their main advocacy focus:

Americans for Smart Natural Catastrophe Policy is a national coalition made up of a diverse set of voices united to support environmentally?responsible, fiscally?sound approaches that promote public safety. The Coalition strongly opposes legislative proposals that encourage people to build homes in hurricane?prone, environmentally?sensitive areas by creating new programs that directly or indirectly subsidize their homeowner’s insurance.

This topic is in need of a thorough review, so that we are not inadvertently encouraging maladaptive behavior.

4.  Infrastructure

There are other important concerns:  the Army Corps of Engineers has not adequately considered climate change impacts in its programs and projects.  Water drainage systems are outdated and often not equipped to handle large overflows.  Many communications systems need to be upgraded.  A host of transportation related issues needs to be addressed, especially in the Gulf coast region (see an excellent CCSP report on this topic.) 

The nation needs a stronger preparedness focus to rise to the challenges climate change will continue to impose—better hurricane preparedness is just one of many challenges we face—but it’s one of the more important ones, given their potential deadliness and power to inflict immediate and long-lasting devastation and destruction.