The United States has received significant attention for its extreme weather events in 2014, with the worst drought in recorded history in California and significant moist snow, sleet, and ice in the eastern and southern states. The year 2013 had its share of extreme weather, as well, including:
- Winter Storm Nemo’s multiple feet of snow and extensive coastal flooding in New England (February);
- A strange May snow in Arkansas;
- An awful May double-punch of tornadoes in central Oklahoma – Moore and El Reno; and
- One of California’s largest wildfires on record in Yosemite National Park (beginning in August).
The Cost of Extreme Weather
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center, there have been 151 weather and climate disasters in the United States since 1980 that met or exceeded $1 billion in overall damages (consumer price index adjusted to 2013). Each disaster illustrates the scope, vulnerabilities, trends, and challenges the nation faces in emergency management.
Traditionally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – as well as state, tribal, and local emergency managers and other emergency service providers – has prepared for the most frequent disasters in specific locations. Over the past few years, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has called on emergency professionals to prepare for large catastrophic events. The strategy behind such a challenge is that it is much easier to scale down than scale up a response to a disaster.
If a disaster expands beyond the scope of the response, it can be nearly impossible to catch up – as graphically was the case in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina (more than $200 billion in losses), and even Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Thus, FEMA adheres to the whole community organizing principle for preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery. “Whole community,” in this case, specifically means every person is a key component of the entire process. Everyone – individuals, families, businesses, academic institutions, private and nonprofit organizations, and government agencies – shares the responsibility for mitigation and preparedness, as well as for building resilience.
Congressional Testimony & Necessary Actions
Meanwhile, unusual disasters continue to occur in unusual places. They also occur in high frequency and intensity, so much so that Congress held hearings on that subject on 12 February 2014 – the day after an estimated $80 million to $3 billion dollars had been lost on canceled flights and other economic fallouts due to snow, ice, and sleet from Houston, Texas, to Boston, Mass., and beyond.
In the February hearing on “Extreme Weather Events: The Costs of Not Being Prepared,” as the nation’s capital prepared for another snowstorm that would accumulate to more than eight inches, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs was on point. In the years following hurricanes such as Katrina, Irene, and Sandy, the nation has made efforts to better prepare for extreme weather events. However, there is significant room for improvement – for example, more than 2,000 students had to spend the night at their schools in Georgia when a January 2014 snowstorm caught the city off guard. Such challenging events are no longer rare and they seem to be increasing in severity.
Delaware’s Senator Thomas R. Carper, a former governor who is familiar with disasters, chaired the February hearing and noted, “And even today, the East Coast is preparing for yet another snowstorm while the West Coast is experiencing a historic drought and increased fire danger with no end in sight.” He further testified that each event grows more expensive and dangerous – for example, the estimated cost of Superstorm Sandy is $75 billion in financial damages.
One of those who testified at this hearing was Collin P. O’Mara, Delaware’s secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, known for the best practices pushed in that state. O’Mara was blunt, “We need to stop rewarding communities that fail to prepare…. When a disaster hits, the communities that have used their own resources (and as a result suffer less damage) are effectively penalized through the nearly full reimbursement of damages for the unprepared communities, which is effectively a large subsidy for less responsible communities.”
Delaware is building modernized stormwater, floodplain, and drainage regulations and standards, recognizing the threat of sea-level rise and the effect it could have on the state’s economy and public safety. The secretary pushed the committee to build standards for resilience in all federal investments. He said this does not require a new bureaucracy, but rather should be built into every activity.
Mark E. Gaffigan, managing director of natural resources and environment issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, told the committee that previously “rare” events are not only more intense but also more common. These extreme events are occurring around the globe. In February, people from around the world watched the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, which is located on the coast of the Black Sea. Around the same time in 2013, EMERCOM of Russia (The Ministry of the Russian Federation for Civil Defense, Emergencies, and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters) responded when Russia had the highest level of snowfall in 100 years. Moscow traffic is always a challenge, but that extreme snowfall caused traffic queues of 12.5 miles, from bad visibility and icy roads alone. The airport services were impacted so much so that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s plane, departing Sochi for Moscow, had to be diverted to St. Petersburg to wait for better conditions. This record amount of snow measured more than 80 inches in a short period.
Online Preparedness Resources
There are many resources available to the public and to emergency personnel through the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website, Ready.gov, and FEMA’s website. Individuals also can sign up for Prepare-A-Thon – “Be Smart. Take Part. Prepare.”
Another best practice is Chapter 3 of FEMA’s “Disciplines, Disasters, and Emergency Management Textbook.” In that chapter, Associate Professor Kent M. McGregor, Department of Geography at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas, addresses weather and emergency management. He tied the science of meteorology to the process of emergency management and described how weather causes disasters and affects the way in which agencies provide assistance. He divides his coverage into five distinct areas:
1. A survey of disasters caused by meteorological events, including durations of events, consequences, and scale.
2. The process of developing a weather forecast and disseminating the conclusions, including deciding who needs the information and in which format.
3. Basic meteorology, the atmospheric processes, high and low pressure, winds, air masses, and storms, as well as reading a weather map.
4. The major types of weather events, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and blizzards.
5. Current trends in atmospheric science. This section includes models and observation networks, covering global warming, regional climate cycles, and oscillations, such as the El Niño phenomena, affecting the tropical Pacific and places far away, through “teleconnections.”
There are more than 275 emergency management higher education degree and certificate programs now available throughout the United States, and they comprise a very strong infrastructure for higher education on extreme weather and catastrophic events. FEMA Emergency Management Institute’s (EMI) higher education webpage lists all of these by state, degree, and program.
In addition, each state and many tribes and localities have their own training programs, supplementing and supporting FEMA EMI’s offerings. Also, there is a rich array of Independent Study Courses on all phases, all hazards, all agencies, all disciplines, and all stakeholders on the EMI website.
The challenges of extreme weather are increasing and should be viewed as continuing and constant, rather than episodic and occasional. There are many resources available to the professionals and the whole community for building resilience to these extreme weather events through vigilant preparedness and mitigation, as well as the strongest possible response and recovery.
Kay C. Goss
Kay Goss is the President of World Disaster Management, LLC. Her emergency management work began 40 years ago, as senior assistant to two state governors coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years, at the Texas firm, Electronic Data Systems (EDS) as senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She currently serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management, and as graduate professor of Emergency Management at University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured IAEM CEM Mentor for five years, and Chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010. She is also on the Advisory Board for Domestic Preparedness.