When Disasters Overlap
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If you’re looking for something to read during this summer of coronavirus and you tend toward the macabre, here’s a suggestion: Sign up for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s daily operations briefing, released via email around 9:30 Eastern time most mornings, and count the number of ongoing disasters.
Wednesday morning’s edition included Hurricane Isaias, which had just plowed up the East Coast, knocking out power for millions of households across a dozen states; wildfires in California and Nevada; the risk of “severe thunderstorms” in the Central Plains; parts of Texas still waiting for damage assessments from Hurricane Hanna last weekend; and, of course, Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which has killed 155,204 Americans, according to the agency’s latest count.
As Henry Fountain and I wrote this week, this is what living with climate change will look like: Not just an epic, Katrina- or Sandy-scale catastrophe every few years (though probably that, too), but a relentless grind of overlapping disasters, major and minor. The number of disasters that FEMA is handling is about twice what it was three years ago, before Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, and that doesn’t include its pandemic response. Disaster preparation and recovery have blurred into a single frenzied motion, never ending but also never quite succeeding.
The consequences of that shift are only starting to become apparent. Homeowners begin rebuilding after a flood, only to flood again; cities watch their tax rolls shrink as property values fall; emergency managers at every level of government are exhausted. And then, there’s the money: Federal watchdogs have begun warning, with increasing urgency, that the nation’s disaster spending is not sustainable.
The additional pressure of the pandemic has focused new attention on why disasters are so damaging in the United States: Underfunded emergency and public health agencies, weak home construction standards that make evacuation so frequently necessary, and racial and income disparities that put some communities at greater risk. But the growing toll of disasters might also generate the pressure required to address those problems, experts say.
“We have got to use this as a politically neutral, unifying effort to instill resilience,” said Brock Long, who ran FEMA until last year. “If we don’t make holistic changes in the emergency management and public health industries, as a result of going through ’17, ’18 and now Covid-19, then we are learning nothing.”
Officials should still have plenty of opportunities this year to work on their disaster strategies. There are four months left in hurricane season, and the worst storms usually don’t hit until the fall.
One thing you can do: Help a neighbor beat the heat
Cities around the world are facing more frequent and more deadly heat waves, and New York is no exception. Officials took note this year, delivering thousands of air-conditioners to low-income seniors, providing millions in aid for summer utility bills, and modifying the city’s cooling center program to account for risks from the coronavirus.
But community organizers say the city’s response could use some help in one key area: communication. The most heat-vulnerable New Yorkers — seniors, people of color and people with chronic illnesses — sometimes don’t know about the programs available, according to activists.
“I know a lot of people who don’t realize they are there or have trouble accessing them,” Sonal Jessel, a policy and advocacy coordinator at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, said of the various New York City resources.
Getting the word out doesn’t just depend on the city. Community groups and individuals can play an important role, too.
Ms. Jessel noted, for example, that the locations of cooling centers in New York City can be found on an online map or by calling 311. The cooling centers change location, though, and you can’t check the map if you you’re not online. The phone line is more accessible, but can be hard to navigate.
Ms. Jessel had suggested the city do more targeted outreach, like taking advantage of communications tools that are already widely used within target groups. “We have a lot of immigrant populations that use WhatsApp as a primary mode of communication,” she said. “How can we find a way to get that information to them in the spaces that they are already using?”
Mike Harrington, an assistant director at The New School’s Tishman Environment and Design Center, also said community outreach was crucial. “People tend to trust community groups and people that they see almost every day more than the city, or other political bodies,” he said.
Mr. Harrington said groups distributing food aid in cities, which are currently very active because of the coronavirus, could easily provide information on extreme heat. This conversation could be as straightforward as: “Hey, here’s your food. Also, next week there’s going to be a heat wave event. So, make sure if you don’t have an AC that you have somewhere you can go, or you have people you can reach out to.”
New York City officials noted that the GetCool Air Conditioner Program had installed more than 48,000 AC units for low-income seniors, and that the city does support direct outreach programs.
The city’s Be a Buddy program, for instance, started in 2017, works with community organizations to pair volunteers with residents in heat-vulnerable neighborhoods and check in on them during heat waves.
“The buddy program is one of the core pieces of our Cool Neighborhood Strategy, which is our overall heat-resiliency strategy for the city,” said Jainey Bavishi, director of the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency. “Heat is often known as a silent killer because most people who die from extreme heat actually die in their homes, so we want to make sure we are checking in on those residents on hot days.”
However, the program is still in the pilot phase, yet to secure a permanent spot in New York City’s hotter future.
The good news is that you don’t need to be in a formal program to be a buddy. And you don’t need to be in New York. As Mr. Harrington said, it doesn’t take long to check on a neighbor. Making sure they know where to go to cool off and hydrate could make a big difference in the next heat wave. You could even help them get a free air-conditioner.
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