The New ‘Normal’ of Extreme Weather-Based Disasters

Jasmine Huggins | September 1, 2016

In what is being labeled an almost “biblical” flood, 13 people were killed and 30,000 were rescued from rooftops, homes or cars after 39 hours of steady rainfall in Louisiana last month.

Staggering losses resulted. More than 11,000 persons are in now shelters and 600,000 houses were damaged. Perhaps fewer than 40 percent of homeowners have resources to fully repair or buy anew. Seven thousand small businesses were affected; the State of Louisiana has now extended office hours from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. to receive disaster unemployment claims. Federal authorities have approved $120,000 million in emergency aid to provide temporary rent, housing and flooding insurance. Payouts from insurance companies are unlikely to exceed $30,000; it is unclear how many were insured. Neither financial aid nor insurance coverage will be sufficient for those who must now rebuild homes, or businesses, or both. The total cost of damage will exceed $1.5 billion.

Tempting though it may be to call this scale of disaster unprecedented, in truth, it no longer is. Last October, South Carolina broke its 107 year record for rainfall as more than two feet of rain fell over 5 days, killing 19. Floods damaged 106,000 homes, broke dams, damaged bridges and roads, costing the state at least 12 billion dollars. 50 thousand persons applied for disaster relief. Since 2015, 18 major flood events have occurred in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Between January 2015 and June 2016, 234 flood related deaths occurred in the United States, well above the previous ten year average. And of course, the 2016 Louisiana flood occurred just over a decade after Hurricane Katrina, in which 1,836 people perished. Far from exceptional, extreme weather events are the new normal.

Flooding recently caused major damage in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Britain and France. 150,000 persons were evacuated in December 2015 in Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. This July, 114 were killed in China when floods destroyed 53,000 homes, forced hundreds of thousands to be evacuated and damaged 1.5 million ha of crops. August monsoon flooding in India killed 300, affected 6 million more and destroyed millions of dollars worth of crops and infrastructure. Globally, the UN estimates that between 1995 and 2015, floods affected 2.3 billion persons, killed 157,000 and accounted for 56 percent of all weather related disasters.

That their cost is disproportionately high for the world’s poorest, most vulnerable and least prepared people is a sobering reality to be conscientiously absorbed. Poor communities now experience multiple, successive disasters. Often they barely recover from one before another sets in. Addressing this is demonstrably harder for women, children, farmers and migrants in poorer developing countries, but is rapidly becoming a challenge for at-risk communities in wealthy and poor nations alike. Floods destroy livelihoods, erode assets, increase indebtedness, stretch coping mechanisms, worsen unequal power relations and separate families.

Floods also harm national economies. Supplies of food, water and nutrition can be disrupted for years. Malawi – which in 2015 experienced its worst floods in living memory – today faces its worst food shortage in years. Developing country governments which must invest in forward looking strategies to implement the recently agreed Sustainable Development Goals, now divert resources into fighting fires instead. And increasingly, U.S. legislators now face these questions: How to balance the socioeconomic cost of simultaneously responding to and preparing for increased disasters, while advancing towards sustainable development for all?

How far political leaders and affected communities will go to face this challenge is one of the most polemical discussions of our generation. For some in this debate, evidence of the link between global warming and catastrophic weather events is already incontrovertible. For others, development based on extractives remains an economic priority that cannot be sacrificed.

Unconditional support by some members of Congress, fossil fuel companies and segments of the public for fossil fuel extraction – and their opposition to any form of federally-based environmental regulations – is as short sighted as it is perilously impervious to science. Global temperatures are increasing every year, as is the probability of ever more intense weather-based disasters. It won’t be long before the cost to communities and governments of perpetually mopping up and rebuilding could soon outstrip the economic benefits from oil, coal and gas, whose market price is going down. Switching to renewable energy may be cumbersome in the short run, but what is done now will last generations.

In the long term, investments in renewable energy alternatives are good for families, communities and state economies. And good for the planet.