These 5 Communities’ Resilience Helped Them Withstand Danger Season 2022

November 3, 2022 | 11:58 am
Black Rock Solar/Flickr CC by 2.0
Kristy Dahl
Principal Climate Scientist

At the start of May of this year, in anticipation of summer’s heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and deepening droughts, my colleagues and I started characterizing summer in the United States as “Danger Season.” Climate change unquestionably delivered on its Danger Season promises this year, pushing the planet’s usual summer heat waves, hurricanes, and other climate hazards into new and dangerous territory.

While millions of people across the US and throughout the world were affected by climate extremes this year, Danger Season also highlighted powerful examples of climate resilience. The five examples I share here show a few of the many ways that forethought, smart planning, and adequate investment can help protect communities and decrease Danger Seasons’ risks to people and places we care about. Here’s how.

#1 Strong building codes

When Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida’s Gulf Coast in late September of this year as a Category 4 hurricane, it destroyed thousands of homes, cut residents of the region’s barrier islands off from the mainland, and left hundreds of thousands of people without water or power for an extended period of time. The storm battered the town of Punta Gorda, Florida, with high winds and heavy rain for hours. Punta Gorda experienced widespread damage to homes, particularly mobile homes that are often the only affordable living option in an increasingly popular region.

But a subset of Punta Gorda’s housing stock fared much better: homes that had been rebuilt after Hurricane Charley in 2004. That’s because Florida enacted some of the nation’s strictest, most protective building codes after sustaining widespread damage from Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and has been updating those codes periodically since.

That meant that after Charley, homes being rebuilt in Punta Gorda had to adhere to building codes that were designed with hurricanes in mind. Those codes include requirements such as building structures to withstand hurricane-force wind speeds and ensuring that windows are protected by shutters or impact-resistant glass. The relatively minor damage sustained by newer homes in Punta Gorda echoes a similar pattern along the Florida Panhandle in the wake of Hurricane Michael in 2018 and shows the power of building (or rebuilding) with the climate in mind.

As we are increasingly forced to pick up the pieces after hurricanes or other extreme events, things like strong building codes are important, but we’ll also need to revamp assistance programs so that renters, people with low incomes, and people of color—who have often been discriminated against when it comes to the distribution disaster recovery resources—are able to stay safe and better weather future storms. With current policies and programs, financial assistance from FEMA for rebuilding after a disaster has been shown to worsen wealth inequities. A bit of good news here is that the White House is pushing for agencies to assist communities with the modernization of building codes.

#2 Planning for extremes

Strong building codes like the ones that protected many homes in Punta Gorda are one piece of designing and building infrastructure with extreme events in mind. But building climate resilience will require bringing that kind of attention to many other aspects of infrastructure planning, from the design of our roads and bridges to the materials we use in construction. The community of Babcock Ranch, Florida, located just north of Fort Myers, reaped the benefits of such planning during Hurricane Ian this August.

In Ian’s wake, much was made of the fact that Babcock Ranch was able to maintain power from the solar array that powers the entire community of about 5,000 people while hundreds of thousands of homes in surrounding communities lost power. But that’s not the only thing that kept folks in the community up and running during and after the storm. Babcock Ranch, which opened to residents in 2018, was sited 30 miles inland of the Florida coast, which puts it outside the reach of storm surge from hurricanes. Retaining ponds around the community were designed to provide flood protection while preserved open space, parks, and even the streets also serve as landscapes that can absorb flood waters. Power lines are all underground, which means that electricity to the community isn’t as easily affected by strong hurricane winds.

It’s important to note that Babcock Ranch is a planned community. It’s relatively wealthy—70 percent of residents report annual household incomes above $100K—it has a high proportion of people with college degrees, and, judging by the demographics of its local primary school, it’s largely white. Those characteristics, and the fact that this is a community that was planned from the ground up in just the last 15 years or so, confer privilege that helps grease the wheels when trying to build climate resilience. Nonetheless, the fact that Babcock Ranch weathered Ian largely unscathed tells us that it is possible to design hurricane-resilient communities.

#3 Community centers as resilience hubs

When it’s dangerously hot outside and you don’t have air conditioning or can’t afford to pay for it, where do you go to cool off? Or when the air outside is smoky and you aren’t able to effectively filter your indoor air, where do you go where you can breathe more safely?

Often, when we see pictures of a cooling center or an emergency shelter, we see people gathering in spaces they usually don’t gather and in spaces where there is little to occupy them. In other words, they are safe places, but they’re not necessarily trusted, inviting places. That’s why the story of Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory in east Los Angeles caught my eye.

Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory (BHAC) is a nonprofit organization that provides training for young people interested in media arts careers. It operates year round in a part of Los Angeles that is about 96 percent Hispanic and where many people can’t afford air conditioning.

The conservatory hosts quilting clubs and family cartoon and cereal Saturdays—it’s a place people know and trust. But they’ve also recently upgraded their HVAC system and installed air quality monitors, and they’re working on adding solar panels and a 500-gallon cistern. Now, in addition to being a community hub, BHAC serves as a cooling center.

During an early September heatwave in California, as the temperature pushed 105°F, BHAC opened its doors to the community. Because it’s already part of the community and already set up to serve it, people knew they could go there with their families to be safe and occupied. Rather than sweating it out at home or languishing in a high school gymnasium, kids had pizza and played games like Dungeons & Dragons.

As climate extremes worsen, this model of community centers as resilience hubs is increasingly catching on.

#4 Effective communications that prompt action

California endured one of its longest, most severe heatwaves on record in early September of this year. For days, Californians like myself received “Flex Alerts” that encouraged us to minimize electricity use from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. each day because that’s when electricity demand is highest and the electric grid most strained. With people across the state running air conditioners or fans, we ran the risk of not being able to deliver enough power and experiencing blackouts.

During the heat wave, California energy demand hit an all-time high and the grid manager, California Independent System Operator (CAISO), warned of rotating power outages. The Governor’s office then intervened. At about 5:45 PM, a cell phone alert went out asking residents to turn off or reduce nonessential power use until 9pm. Demand had already been starting to decline, but electricity demand dropped steeply and quickly within just 10 minutes of the alert being sent out, and blackouts were averted.

Ideally, we’d have a grid that would not need to rely on emergency alerts to reduce demand down to suppliable levels. And were these alerts to become a regular feature of life, we would risk people increasingly ignoring them. Nonetheless, this example demonstrates just how much people can and will respond when the grid is strained.

In California, we saw this September just how much potential demand response holds for reducing electricity use. As my colleague, Mark Specht, noted when I mentioned this example to him, “It’d be fantastic to harness that kind of response in more formal programs that pay people and ideally reduce demand in an automated way without people needing to do anything.”

#5 Looking out for each other

When Hurricane Fiona arrived in Puerto Rico in August, almost exactly five years after Hurricane Maria’s landfall there, many of the island’s systems were still in a state of recovery. Residents have particularly suffered through the electric grid’s many woes, including numerous issues with LUMA Energy, the private company contracted to control energy transmission and distribution after Maria. With an unreliable grid even before Fiona made landfall, it was perhaps unsurprising that the Category 1 storm brought the island’s entire electric grid down once again.

But while Puerto Rico’s grid has faltered over the last five years, its community-based organizations have been strengthening, and that strength was evident in the wake of Fiona. By building trusted relationships with community members over the years, community-based organizations or collectives like Taller Salud and Colectiva Feminista helped countless people by offering food, power, medicine, entertainment, and other necessities to people affected by the hurricane. Many of these grassroots organizations have developed their own solidarity mutual-aid networks to support and elevate each other to offer aid to one another.

I want to be clear here that this is not a reflection of a resilience inherent to Puerto Ricans. It is also not a resilience that has been built and supported by the United States, as the US has historically underinvested in Puerto Rico and its people. Indeed, the island will need sustained attention and resources to build resilience to increasingly severe hurricanes. However, research indicates that the social connectedness these community-based organizations have fostered is key to community-level climate resilience.

Moving forward

We can’t get from here to climate resilience with adaptations and efforts like these alone. We’ll need a National Climate Resilience Strategy accompanied by robust federal funding for climate resilience for all communities. We’ll also need swift, deep cuts in emissions to limit the magnitude of the change we have to adapt to as well. And in that sense, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), passed by Congress in August, provides a big boost: It’s estimated that the implementation of the Act will help reduce US carbon emissions by about 40% below 2005 levels by 2030, which is a big chunk of the way toward the Biden administration’s stated goal of reducing emissions by 50 to 52% by that year.

Danger Season took a toll on people throughout the US and its territories this year, and continued climate change will not make future Danger Seasons any easier. But the examples I’ve highlighted here and the passage of the IRA provide some rays of hope that we will find ways to close the resilience gap so that people can not just survive, but thrive.