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Extreme Weather Events Push Emergency Managers to the Limit

Natural disasters such as fires, floods and storms are more intense and are developing more rapidly. The “new normal” that climate change has brought to emergency managers is unpredictability.

Hurricane Ida as seen from the International Space Station.
Hurricane Ida approaching the southeast coast of Louisiana, as seen from the International Space Station. (NASA)
Hurricane Ida’s transition from tropical depression to Category 4 hurricane took just 74 hours. That wasn’t nearly as fast as 2020’s Hurricane Delta, which intensified from tropical depression to a Category 4 hurricane in just over 36 hours, the fastest such leap in Atlantic Basin records.

Between the morning and the evening of Aug. 17, the Caldor Fire in California grew from about 6,500 acres to more than 30,000, outpacing the ability of fire officials to map it. By Aug. 18, it had consumed nearly 63,000 acres; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) described its growth as “explosive.”

As the remnants of Hurricane Ida approached southern New England, overnight rain forecasts for the region ranged from 2.5 to 5 inches, with a worst-case scenario of 6-7 inches in some areas. A flash flood emergency was declared for New York City, as new records for hourly rainfall were set. By Thursday, New York’s entire transit system was barely moving due to massive flooding, which swamped roads and highways, and more than 40 people died as water rose in basements. (In July, more than 25 inches fell overnight in Zhengzhou, China, just a week after devastating rains in Germany.)

The common denominator of these events is climate change, which is forcing emergency managers into unknown territory. Planning for response to natural disasters has long revolved around a concept of “stationarity,” the idea that natural systems fluctuate within a fairly constant range.

It’s becoming apparent that this can no longer be taken for granted, says Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at University of California, Los Angeles; the Nature Conservancy; and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Environmental conditions today are sufficiently outside historical experience and natural disaster response strategies developed in the past may not apply.

“They still work most of the time, but in extreme situations when it’s most important that they work very efficiently, they’re starting to fall apart,” he says. “We’re seeing this for different kinds of disasters — rapidly intensifying hurricanes, rapidly spreading wildfires.”

All Hands on Deck

“We’re lucky when we have the luxury of warning, the luxury of time to plan and prepare for an event such as a hurricane or severe weather that’s forecasted,” says Erica Bornemann, director of Vermont Emergency Management and vice president of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA). “When natural hazards are more frequent, more severe and more variable, it’s very challenging for emergency managers to respond as quickly as we would like.”

COVID-19 has increased the complexity of this work, with rescue and recovery efforts intermingled with surges in infections, hospitalization and vaccination efforts. “We’re asked to do more and more, and what that means is that we are in need of resources to be able to provide the services our communities expect,” says Bornemann.

The most important resource is people, she says, but not just additional staff for emergency management departments. In a world where disaster preparedness involves events of increasing complexity and severity, what’s needed is an “all hands on deck” approach, including state and local officials who may not be emergency managers but have roles to play in an emergency operations plan.

Emergency managers are a central hub for a coordinated disaster response. “We can’t do the job that we need to do without partnerships and engagement from folks across the government enterprise,” says Bornemann. “Continued engagement is continued training, continued exercise — the relationships that you are going to be able to leverage during a disaster are forged before a disaster.”

Federal relief funds have created a “fantastic opportunity” to invest in hazard mitigation, she says, and to improve infrastructure that can help break the cycle of disaster.

Increasingly, the notion of adaptation is integral to conversations about the kind of infrastructure that can protect communities from the worst consequences of disasters.
Evacuees from Oregon's Holiday Fire take shelter at a high school.
(Dana Sparks/The Register-Guard/TNS)

Expanding the Bullseye

Last year, the U.S. suffered a record 22 billion-dollar disasters, says A.R. Siders, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware Disaster Research Center who studies climate change adaptation policy. “Those disasters are becoming more common, both because we’re seeing the effects of climate change, but also because we’re developing more and more expensive property in areas that are exposed to those hazards.”

Practices such as building homes inside floodplains and cutting down trees to build homes in areas prone to wildfires can create an “expanded bullseye.” One way disaster mitigation can adjust to new climate realities is to take a good look at what “build back better” might mean, she says.

“Maybe that means that in some places we don’t build back, or we build back to new standards, or a whole different way of life. There’s a recognition that putting things back the way they were before the disaster can just set up the next disaster — you have to do something differently if you want different results.”

Policies regarding land use and zoning, building codes that provide a blueprint for structures better able to withstand high winds or fire could drive such shifts.

“At some point, some of these coastal areas are no longer going to be coastal areas — they’re going to be part of the ocean,” says Daniel Swain. “That’s just the reality of sea level rise, and even without hurricanes, at some point there’s going to have to be a serious conversation about that.”

Fire ecologist Chad Hanson, co-founder of the John Muir Project, believes a new focus is also needed for wildfire response, with more attention on making communities fire-safe, more patrols to prevent human ignitions that cause the vast majority of wildfires and less attention on attempting to stop the spread of fires in the wild.

“We need to recognize that fire suppression is not stopping wind-driven and climate-driven wildfires,” he says. “We’re going to have to focus on making sure that communities can’t burn when fires get there, that people are safe, and that we have fire-safe shelters that can’t burn and have air filters, so people have a place to shelter if they can’t evacuate quickly enough.”
 Firefighters battling the Caldor Fire as it creeps closer to South Lake Tahoe.
Some recent wildfires gained ground faster than officials could deliver evacuation warnings.
(Jason Armond/TNS)

Decoupling Hazard and Disaster

Deeper integration of late-breaking science within state and local government is necessary if we hope to stay on top of both disaster response and mitigation, says Swain. “Not the science of 10 or 15 years ago; at this point things are moving so fast that the science of 15 years ago is ancient history in the climate science and meteorology world.”

He’s currently studying the prospects for a mega flood in California. Warming is expected to increase the intensity and duration of “atmospheric river” storms in the state, bands of moisture that have been compared to rivers in the sky. “Almost everybody I talk to about this is very surprised to hear this in a place that has experienced so much drought and water scarcity lately, yet it is one of the big hazards.”

Climate events that many assumed would come in the future are happening now, he says. “They will continue to get worse, so the question is do we let the worsening physical hazards lead to worsening human disasters?”

“It’s not inevitable that that’s the case, but recently that seems to be where we’re headed,” says Swain. “Decoupling those two things — the natural hazard from the human disaster — is going to be the key in the years to come.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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