Deadly extreme weather is the new normal

August 8, 2019

This piece was originally published on May 23, 2019 in The Hill. 

The extreme weather events this week in the Midwest are both alarming and tragic. It is estimated that at least 30 tornados touched down in Kansas, Missouri and elsewhere on Tuesday alone. Unfortunately, there have also been at least four fatalities with more injuries reported.

Flooding has also been an outsized consequence of these storms. With the ground already saturated and rivers at high levels, the rain simply has no place to go. Tornados are common in the spring, and the country normally sees an average of 268 in the month of May alone, so this outbreak of extreme weather is not totally out of place, but the strength and severity over such a short period of time is notable. This is also another, in what seems to be an unending series of outbreaks of extreme weather events.

These kinds of weather events are also expected to be exacerbated due to global warming. The kinds of effects of climate change on extreme weather include increasing rainfall in some areas, prolonged droughts in others, as well as providing extra heat to tornadoes as they are forming. Whether or not climate change will lead to more storms (not just more intense storms), is a question in need of additional evidence to say with certainty. But a recent study finds some evidence that global warming will indeed lead to an increase in severe thunderstorms that include tornados.

In a recent op-ed, my colleague Dr. Irwin Redlener points out that that terms like “tornado alley” may lead people in other areas to think that they are outside of the danger zone, creating a false sense of security for communities not accustomed to seeing these intense storms. The use of terms like “100-year floods” are also being avoided as they are not effective ways of communicating risk.

But with all of the uncertainty that comes with extreme events, there is some order we can impose on the chaos by strengthening our infrastructure and our disaster financing to prevent damage and more rapidly meet the needs of survivors. But to do so will require a political will that is increasingly elusive.

Although it appears, at least initially, that infrastructure such as levees and other flood control systems functioned as designed in the storms over the past few days, infrastructure continues to be a key player in the disasters we face. Failures of levees in the historic flooding from the recent “Bomb Cyclone” that affected some of the same areas as this recent outbreak of extreme weather is just one example of disasters amplified by the lack of investments in infrastructure. Ensuring schools and other facilities that house children and other vulnerable populations have safe rooms, or otherwise have areas that can be used as shelters should be required of new construction as well.

But in the shadow of these disasters, what little bipartisan progress has been made to advance an infrastructure bill in Congress, was de-railed abruptly by the administration over political maneuvering for a new trade deal to replace NAFTA, and increasing pressure from Democrat ledinvestigations of the president.

Even disaster aid does not seem to be immune to partisan politics. While there will likely need to be some supplemental disaster aid beyond the normal assistance programs for the areas affected by this week’s extreme weather, they may have to wait a while. Disaster aid for the survivors of the earlier flooding events, as well as other storm-ravaged parts of the south and mid-west and the areas affected by the wildfires in California are all being still being kicked around Capitol Hill amidst partisan bickering in Congress and with the administration.

FEMA continues to work to build a more comprehensive culture of preparedness. They are working to integrate preparedness into the whole community through increased preparedness, insurance coverage and other steps to help people prepare to enhance their resilience before a disaster strikes. Perhaps creating a culture of preparedness should also extend to our national politics as well, where electoral strategy is suspended when our citizens need their government the most, and where voters hold elected officials accountable for undermining preparedness efforts. But studies of the politics of disasters finds that voters only hold elected officials accountable for their support after a disaster strikes, and are ambivalent to preparedness investments that save money and lives before they occur.

The survivors of these disasters, and emergency management and responders responding to these and other disasters require the best thinking and immediate action that we can muster as a nation. This includes direct support to the relief efforts as well as investments to reduce the infrastructure vulnerabilities that interact with nature to amplify, or even cause, our disasters. We know what needs to be done. We just need to do it.