Simultaneous Fires And Floods Are A Taste Of The Future Simultaneous disasters, like the wildfires in California and Hurricane Ida this week, are happening more often as the planet heats up. Emergency managers are preparing for that future.

Our Future On A Hotter Planet Means More Climate Disasters Happening Simultaneously

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1033054816/1033955321" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Wildfires are still burning up much of the western U.S. while the Gulf Coast and the Northeast are struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. These simultaneous disasters have a common thread. They are driven in part by heat. Emergency managers are preparing now for a future where such cascades of destruction are more common in a hotter planet. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: If it seems like natural disasters are happening more often, well, Craig Fugate, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says, you're right.

CRAIG FUGATE: I've been doing this for over 30 years. I can remember when FEMA had really big disasters, like, maybe every four or five years, not every year - and certainly not multiple in one year.

CHARLES: Government statistics show that in the 1980s, there were fewer than four billion-dollar disasters from weather or climate each year on average. The past five years have seen more than three times that many. And that's with the planet just heating up about two degrees Fahrenheit compared to a century ago. More warming is on the way, which scientists say means even more frequent storms, heat waves and wildfires. Erin Coughlan de Perez, a researcher at Tufts University who also works with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, says emergency managers around the world are focused on that future.

ERIN COUGHLAN DE PEREZ: It's a big deal, right? If your job is disasters and disasters are becoming more frequent, you've got a problem.

CHARLES: The first problem is simply running short of people and money. She saw this a few years ago when a big flood was predicted for Bangladesh at a time when international aid agencies were focused on the war in Syria.

DE PEREZ: And people were saying, well, look; you know, you might have a forecast for flooding in Bangladesh. But we can't divert our attention right now, which was really, really kind of scary (laughter). And I think we're going to - we see this all the time.

CHARLES: Also, one disaster quickly disappears from the headlines when the next one hits. And people who still need a lot of help getting back on their feet can feel abandoned. Craig Fugate, the former FEMA administrator, says that's a danger right now for communities in Louisiana who were hit by hurricanes just last year.

FUGATE: I was getting messages from people saying, I hope they don't forget about us. We have not rebuilt. And we still have places that haven't been repaired.

CHARLES: Fugate and others say the quickening pace of natural disasters demands changes in emergency response. They say recovery efforts have to move faster to keep up. Samantha Montano, who teaches emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, says some aid currently gets slowed to a crawl by complicated paperwork that's supposed to prevent waste and fraud.

SAMANTHA MONTANO: Obviously, that's important. But when those measures prevent people from getting the help that they need, then something is wrong and something needs to change.

CHARLES: Even more important, they say, is taking steps ahead of time to get people and critical infrastructure out of harm's way. That can mean requiring sturdier buildings, in some places, burying power lines. Those things can be expensive - or persuading people to move out of flood zones, which is painful. Erin Coughlan de Perez says communities all over the world are trying to do this. But it is really hard to get ready for the dangers of a warming world.

DE PEREZ: Because we haven't yet seen it, right? So our past understanding of the world based on our lived experience is no longer a good predictor of our current risk and our future risk.

CHARLES: But with sea levels rising, hot summers turning forests into kindling, people are starting to realize that places they always thought were safe now may not be.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIIV'S "BENT (ROI'S SONG)")

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.