Hurricane Matthew carved a path of devastation through Haiti, the Bahamas, and large swaths of the Southeastern US, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The loss of life and destruction of property is tragic. Slowly, unevenly, places that were hard-hit will be turning to recovery and rebuilding efforts. What can we do to better prepare and protect people and make our rebuilding efforts more resilient going forward?
- Advance preparation is critical. In many cases state, local and national authorities have been preparing for years for events like Hurricane Matthew—by developing hazard mitigation and emergency response plans—and that significantly helped limit harm. The National Hurricane Center’s forecasts provided the information officials needed to order evacuations, issue public advisories, and ensure that emergency responders, equipment and plans were in place. The benefit of investing in the science, technology and personnel it takes to deliver this type of timely and life-saving effort is clear. Of course, communities and first responders also have to act with an abundance of caution with the best available information at any given time because it isn’t possible to predict precise location-specific impacts.
- Preparedness requires resources. The tragedy for Haiti is that, even with advance warning, many people simply lacked the resources to get out of harm’s way. Even in the US, the news coming out of North Carolina, the Gullah Geechee Nation, and other places shows that low-income communities and communities of color are experiencing significant, potentially disproportionate, impacts from this storm. We’ve got to do a better job at targeting resources to communities that need them the most, both before and after disasters, as well investing in efforts to eliminate poverty.
- Climate change is contributing to worsening risks from storms. Research shows that hurricanes in the North Atlantic have been intensifying over the past 40 years. With sea level rise, storm surges are riding on higher water and can reach further inland extending the range of their destruction. Warmer oceans and warmer air also increase the potential rainfall from storms when they occur. Our investments in preparedness must be guided by science.
- Development in high-risk areas is exposing more people and property to risks. Across the country and specifically in places like the Southeast coast of Florida, rapid development continues in areas at high risk of flooding from storm surge and sea level rise. Inland floodplains are also at risk, especially when there is intense rainfall as we saw with Hurricane Matthew. In some cases, we see the same places being hit repeatedly by these types of events. Rather than creating incentives to make people safer, we are digging ourselves into a deeper hole. We’ve got to make people more aware of the risks they face, help communities take steps to protect themselves, and align our development policies with what the science clearly shows is necessary.
- The impacts of a storm linger long after the storm has passed. Hurricane Matthew will soon drop out of the news headlines but in places that were hard-hit the impacts may linger for a long time. This includes public health impacts from contaminated water or mold in homes, disruptions to local economies and livelihoods, and damage to critical infrastructure. As a nation, we can’t forget the people and the places that will need help rebuilding in the months and years to come.
- We can’t simply rebuild; we have to rebuild better. The human instinct to build back exactly as things were will not serve us well in the long term (and even in the short term when we see some places being hit again and again). Regrettably, this instinct is still baked into much of our rebuilding policy, although there are some changes underway—for example, a long-overdue update to the federal flood risk management standard. We have to do more to take into account projections of growing risks, including risks from storm surge, sea level rise and extreme precipitation. Investing in more resilient infrastructure and other measures will require policies and resources; policymakers must step up and meet that challenge. There are hard choices we face, especially in places most at risk in the next few decades, but sticking our heads in the sand won’t help. The sooner we get started planning for a more resilient future, the better our chances of successfully implementing the solutions that communities want and need.
The impacts of Hurricane Matthew have been terrible and costly for many communities. If you are able, please consider contributing to the aid efforts in Haiti, the US and elsewhere. Please also urge your local, state and national policymakers to do more to increase our nation’s resilience to future disasters, guided by science and equity considerations.