Wave of the Future – Reflections for Resilience Planning Following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

11 Sep 2017 02:53 PM

Devastating storms and floods around the world lead to questions concerning how governments can prepare for future resilience.

The recent footage of the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas, deadly floods in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Nigeria, and the record-breaking Hurricane Irma cutting a swathe through the Caribbean and into Florida once again highlights the vulnerabilities faced by millions around the world to extreme weather events.

With the increase in the strength and frequency of hurricanes, typhoons and flooding becoming more apparent, questions arise about the effectiveness of resilience planning in local, national and international contexts.

Much has been written about the change seen in the main threat from large storms of this type. Where previously strong winds were most feared and caused the largest amount of damage (and, in some instances, this is still the case), the record rainfall produced by Harvey is representative of the shift towards water overtaking wind as the primary cause of damage and loss of life.

Indeed, instances of extreme flooding recorded around the world have been increasing in occurrence, and thousands of people die every year in these storms.

Evidence suggests that this increase is the result of climate change. Warming seas fuel the development of tropical storms. It is difficult to ignore the link between the rise in global sea temperatures and the increase in both storm intensity and frequency, even when taking into account the difficulties in studying Earth’s climate with its various parameters and feedback effects.

However, some still refuse to be swayed by the evidence. For example, Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the US, last week stated that, as Hurricane Irma was approaching Florida, it was not the time to talk about climate change.

This has all fed into the global debate on climate change which, while always controversial, has reached new heights following President Donald Trump’s intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Harvey is representative of the shift towards water overtaking wind as the primary cause of damage and loss of life

Despite widespread opposition around the world, this decision was a clear statement that the Trump administration does not believe in human-caused climate change. While it is likely that part of this decision is the result of economic protectionist tendencies within the US, it is not the only example of disbelief in climate change coming out of the White House.

The danger of such a view is that it will be increasingly difficult for both US federal agencies and local areas to procure the funding necessary to provide everything from prevention measures to emergency response and rebuilding in the aftermath of an event.

Storms that were once considered once in a 100-year event are now occurring much more frequently, stretching already limited resources. Lack of sufficient funds will mean not only that responses will fall short, but also that there are less available for mitigation measures, particularly if planning is based on past evidence rather than future predictions.

Whatever the outcome of the debate, and whatever the international community agrees needs to be done to combat climate change, it is clear that there needs to be a shift in thinking regarding how to plan for and mitigate the effects of extreme weather events.

Increasing the effectiveness of early warning systems has been shown to limit the number of lives lost, as it can lead to timely and full evacuations of the most at-risk areas. Yet early warning systems will be most effective when they result from clear evidence that takes into account the link between warming seas and increased hurricane formation.

Overuse or the building over of natural floodplains reduces the ability of the landscape to absorb excess water, thereby exacerbating the effects of heavy rainfall

Early warning can also allow for plans to be put in place regarding the protection of critical infrastructure sites to ensure, as far as is possible, uninterrupted access to power and water, as well as limit the potential for accidents.

This is particularly relevant following the fire at a chemical plant in Texas that was caused by the failure of the backup power supply. Such secondary effects can cause environmental damage and again, we may see more examples as bad or lacking building regulations and emergency procedures are all that stand in the way of wind and water.

There is evidence that certain practices within both urban and rural planning intensify the flooding seen after particularly heavy rainfall. Overuse or the building over of natural floodplains, either through farming practices or development such as housing, reduces the ability of the landscape to absorb excess water, thereby exacerbating the effects of heavy rainfall.

This is one of the reasons put forward for the intensity of the flooding in Houston, and supports the claim that the natural disasters were not the hurricanes themselves, but rather the damage exacerbated by human practices.

Understanding this can not only assist local planners during clean up and reconstruction, but also provide an important lesson for rapidly urbanising areas in the developing world, particularly those in the Caribbean and South and Southeast Asia that regularly find themselves in the paths of tropical storms.

The instances of extreme weather events may well continue to increase, but understanding the threat and strong resilience measures can limit the dangers posed to lives and livelihoods. However, while Trump continues to deny the existence of climate change, it is unlikely that US policy will see any moves towards the prevention of, and mitigation against, future disasters.

Lack of US leadership may also prevent any real reduction in global carbon emissions, thereby making more difficult the goal of keeping the average global temperature increase to below 2oC above pre-industrial levels. Unfortunately, as a result, the scenes we have witnessed in the past month will become all too normal.

RUSI and Loughborough University will be exploring these issues as part of the forthcoming Resilience Conference scheduled for 20–21 September 2017. Alexandra Stickings tweets at @Ali_Stickings