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The Crucial Factor in Planning for Community Disasters: Climate Change

New federal guidelines make it clear that new hazard mitigation plans should factor in the likelihood of extreme weather events. Here are four recommendations for preparing for the future impacts.

Flooding in Pajaro, Calif.
Flooding in Pajaro, Calif., on March 12, 2023, after water from an atmospheric river storm broke through a levee along the Pajaro River, inundating homes and businesses in the river valley and leaving thousands of people without shelter.
(Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group/TNS)
From more severe hurricanes to more frequent heat waves, worsening extreme weather events across the United States are forcing state, county and city leaders to take action. As they work to safeguard residents from potential disasters, building resilience must be at the top of their list.

In April, new guidelines from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) went into effect for how states and local governments should craft their hazard mitigation plans — including how to incorporate the effects of climate change. This is a crucial requirement, one deemed so important that if a community does not include climate effects in its hazard mitigation plan it may not be able to access federal disaster recovery funds if it is hit by a climate-related event such as inland or coastal flooding.

As emergency managers and other public officials work on the next iteration of their communities’ hazard mitigation plans — especially in places where current plans expire this year — they will need to keep the new FEMA guidelines front and center in their efforts. The guidelines certainly square with our own experience working on hazard mitigation planning (Thomas Hughes) and climate science and resilience (Thomas Wall). With all that in mind, here are four recommendations for better understanding extreme weather projections and preparing for future impacts:

Leverage forward-looking data: Because the climate is changing, the past is no longer an ideal predictor of the future when it comes to hazard mitigation. Instead of focusing only on areas hit by natural disasters previously, communities should also consult projections of how climate change will drive extreme weather events in years to come.

Historically, climate data has been too expensive or too complex for communities to use. Now more free, easy-to-use tools are becoming available to help states and communities better understand and prepare for climate-related hazards. FEMA, AT&T and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, for example, have created the Climate Risk and Resilience Portal (ClimRR). The portal gives community leaders free access to localized data about future climate risks, including factors like temperature, rainfall, wind and drought conditions.

Get granular with your analysis: Climate-related extreme weather events don’t just vary from historical disaster patterns; they also vary geographically, including across a particular region. That means broad climate projections typically don’t allow local leaders to take meaningful action. It’s one thing to know that temperatures are rising, but to reduce community vulnerability, leaders need to know how much temperatures will rise locally, how temperatures will change at different times throughout the year, and which areas within a community will see temperature increases. With this kind of granular information provided by the ClimRR tool, communities can ensure that limited resources are directed to the most at-risk areas.

Focus on vulnerable populations: When it comes to assessing a community’s vulnerability to climate-related hazards, threats like rising temperatures and growing flood risk are one part of the equation. But it is important to also look at community characteristics. For example, extreme heat is especially dangerous for older individuals and people with socioeconomic disadvantages. In the event of a heat wave, community leaders need to be ready to deploy resources like cooling centers, with particular attention to areas with vulnerable populations.

Consult a wide range of stakeholders: Assessing and addressing climate risks is a team effort. To effectively integrate the effects of climate change into hazard mitigation plans, local officials should engage a broad spectrum of relevant stakeholders. They include other public-sector experts, such as city planners and heads of first responder agencies; private-sector leaders, including from vital sectors like power generation, telecommunications and health care; and community/neighborhood organizations that know the needs and challenges of local residents. Establishing a full picture of climate-related risks requires understanding how the work of all these stakeholders is being affected by a changing climate.

Preparing for the impacts of extreme weather is one of the most important challenges for government to tackle. It is no longer a distant problem for future generations; it affects communities today, tomorrow and for decades to come. While there are no quick solutions, integrating climate change into hazard mitigation plans is an important first step on the road toward a climate-safe future.

Thomas Hughes is the Pennsylvania state hazard mitigation officer and director of the Emergency Management Mitigation, Insurance and Resilient Communities Office at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. Thomas Wall is the climate resilience program lead for the Center for Climate Resilience and Decision Science at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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