Breaking the Disaster Cycle

By Dakota Fisher and Beth Gibbons

  • Dakota Fisher is a Community Planner working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The views presented in this newsletter are his opinion and may not reflect the opinions of FEMA.
  • Beth Gibbons is the Executive Director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals. 

Adaptation is, and must continue to be, more than disaster response.

This month’s IPCC report is a reminder that climate impacts are here to stay for the long haul. It also provided an authoritative statement on the role climate change plays fueling bigger, more frequent, and more destructive extreme events. But, climate adaptation is more than disaster response. It begins long before a disaster happens and the benefits extend before, during, and after an event occurs. Adaptation, done well, builds the resilience of people, places, and communities with or without a single acute event occurring. In response to IPCC Report and the upcoming (we’re hopeful here) passage of the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act here are five ways to use adaptation to break the disaster cycle and build more resilient places, no crisis required:

  1. Invest in the strategies outlined in adaptation plans that are in place today.
  2. Draw from local knowledge and technical resources to continue bringing best available information to all planning decisions.
  3. Improve the quality of hazard mitigation plans and provide technical support for every community to develop a HMP.
  4. Stop building in disaster prone zones – immediately.
  5. Give direct cash to communities and individuals with priority on frontline communities. 
  1. Invest in strategies outlined in adaptation plans that are in place today.

Through state and local planning efforts cities across North America already have adaptation plans, just waiting for implementation. According to CDP’s Cities on the Route to 2030 Report, over 150 US cities have adaptation plans waiting for funding. Georgetown Climate Center’s State Adaptation Tracker shows 22 states with adaptation plans. All of these offer ready-to-go strategies that we could resource today to avoid and mitigate climate impacts. 

  1. Continue bringing best available information to conversations.

Data, most notably climate change data, is essential if we want to break the disaster cycle. In order to properly plan for the negative impacts of climate change, planners and other practitioners must come equipped with good information that will enable well-informed decision making. Happily, we have high quality data and information at our fingertips today. A few recommended resources include NOAA’s Digital Coast, a user-friendly interface offering sound data and an engaging visual platform; the U.S. Climate Explorer offers county-based climate data with historic and future climate conditions displayed by heat or precipitation with seasonal toggles; and for those who like to get their hands dirty, the World Meteorological Organization offers an alternative Climate Explorer. This tool is more technical and allows users to inspect a variety of different climate variables across different time series. While the formerly mentioned Climate Explorer tool can aggregate data down to the county level the latter views climate data at a macro level.

  1. Improve the quality of hazard mitigation plans and provide technical support for every community to develop a HMP.

Hazard Mitigation Plans (HMPs) get a bad name when it comes to disaster response. Every place needs one, but too few places have them and even fewer places are proud of what is written. In ASAP’s response to FEMA’s Request for Information, members took on the challenge of critiquing and offering recommendations for how HMPs could become a useful adaptation tool. First, HMPs need to integrate quality climate information and risk assessments from local or regional climate adaptation and climate resilience plans. Next, every community needs to have access to engage in an excellent HMP development process so that the plan and the process to create are enhancing the adaptive capacity of the community. Thankfully, we have excellent examples of what this integration and HMP excellence can look like in practice:

  • In 2018 the State of Massachusetts developed the first hazard mitigation plan that considered the impacts of climate change and developed adaptation strategies to address those impacts within one plan. The report says “It accounts for projected changes in precipitation, temperature, sea level rise, and extreme weather events to position the Commonwealth to effectively reduce the risks associated with natural hazards and the effects of climate change.” (Massachusetts State Hazard Mitigation and Climate Adaptation Plan September 2018)
  • King County Washington updated their hazard mitigation plan in 2020. The plan is a model for how we center equity in our planning processes. Early on in the plan the county notes the desire for more equitable outcomes when establishing their mitigation plan outcomes of which “Integrate equity and social justice into our understanding of risk and vulnerability” is one.
  1. Stop building in disaster prone zones – immediately.

More than 30,000 homes in America have flooded multiple times; more than 2,000 homes have received National Flood Insurance Program dollars more than than 20 times. One way to end the disaster cycle is to stop it before it begins. We can do this by banning any new construction in flood-prone areas. This approach, coupled with the critically important step of updating NFIPs floodplain maps across the United States, has been a talking point of NRDC’s Rob Moore since for most of a decade. In 2019 he joined Doug Parsons on America Adapts to talk about our “Flood, Rebuild, Repeat” cycle and how we can and must break it. 

5. Give direct cash to communities and individuals with priority to those who have been under-resourced and placed in positions of risk. (aka frontline/forefront/fenceline communities).

The resource many communities and individuals need most is direct cash. By reducing resource scarcity individuals and communities are able to develop creative and place-based solutions to address their challenges. In ASAP Members’ response to FEMA, we recommended increasing the grant mechanisms that include 100% federal cost share for low-income communities. This is just one functional example of how we can transfer funds equitably to places where needs are high and people are ready to deploy adaptation strategies to build more resilience communities.

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash