In the past year, a number of flood events have ravaged communities all over the United States --South Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland, Texas x2, Louisiana x2. All while recovery has been ongoing in Louisiana, Texas, Detroit, New York, New Jersey, and others. And that’s just flooding! Texas and Oklahoma have ongoing tornado recovery. California and other parts of the west have had ongoing wildfires. Zika response is picking up and apparently cockroaches have started flying around New York City.
The size of these disasters ranged from impacting a few towns to entire counties. From hundreds of homes damaged to hundreds of thousands. The death toll, fortunately, has remained relatively low, largely because of the thousands upon thousands of water rescues conducted across the country.
Often when people think of climate change they imagine an apocalyptic world. Where the statue of liberty is drowning and hurricane after hurricane slams into the Gulf Coast states. Sure, decades from now this will be the case but we can’t deal with that right now because we have climate change induced disasters happening now. All of this unprecedented flooding, all of these unprecedented droughts, all of this unprecedented heat… this is what we have in store in the interim. The ongoing internet joke is that 2016 is just a bad year, that David Bowie died and the world unraveled. This isn’t just 2016. The clock is not going to strike midnight on December 31st and send us traveling back in time to a better year. These disasters are the new normal.
Constant flooding, droughts, and heat waves across the United States (not to mention the rest of the world). People who have flooded before will flood again. And, people who have never flooded will flood. But what concerns me is not necessarily that more or less water will fall, it is that the systems that we have in place to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from these events do not have the ability to deal with so many disasters at once.
The “emergency management system” in this country does not have the capacity (in terms of resources, knowledge, and coordination) at any level to address all of the needs. The government does not, the private sector does not, and nonprofits do not. The reasons for this would fill an entire book.
It is difficult to think about mitigation and preparedness because these disasters have been happening so fast that we are in a constant state of "response" (i.e., response and recovery). The response to these disasters have gone kind of okay, frustrating for the people involved, but okay. Yes, the responses could be more efficient and effective but ultimately people are rescued and temporarily sheltered and fed. I would continue to argue that the biggest mess is in recovery.
Once a disaster does happen local communities find they do not have recovery plans. That they don’t have people with disaster recovery experience to even know what needs to be done. People either don’t have insurance or the insurance companies sneak their way out of paying up. If federal help is offered and if you are able to dedicate 10 hours a day for months on end to jump through hoops, you still won’t get enough to fix your house. Your extended family has also likely been affected, but even if they haven’t they probably have limited resources to help you (see: current US economy). Then you turn to the nonprofits. The local nonprofits have probably been impacted themselves, have little to no disaster experience and don’t know where to start, let alone have the resources to do so. So the national groups come in but they’re stretched thin across the country (and the world in some cases). Most of them are already talking about "volunteer fatigue" and "donation fatigue". So even when they have the expertise, they don’t have the funding, staff capacity, or volunteers. Ultimately those affected have to form their own groups if they're going to make it through.
I wouldn’t say the “emergency management system” in the United States has never been perfect but for most disasters (definitely not all, but most), especially smaller ones, the system has functioned in a way that hasn’t given me anxiety. In the past, it has seemed that the “emergency management system” just wouldn’t work when there were big disasters (think Katrina, Sandy). That was definitely a problem, and definitely a concern but the realization that this system is so easily taxed is a MAJOR problem that needs to be immediately addressed. There is an urgency to make changes to this system but what those changes are have not been thought of nor agreed upon. And, it’s also not clear how such changes would ever be implemented.