Local governments can better prepare for disasters by investing in resilience programs and tending to societal problems that are often made worse during and after catastrophes, a new scientific analysis has found.

“The frequency and severity of disasters due to hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes in the first decades of the 21st century have resulted in unprecedented challenges for communities in the United States,” the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine wrote in a 117-page report released yesterday.

As such, cities and counties should step up disaster preparation and resilience through comprehensive, data-based planning and policy initiatives. That includes new methods for measuring resilience against unique risks, such as droughts in the Midwest or hurricanes on the coasts.

The report is based on evaluations of 13 U.S. cities that experienced disasters over the last two decades.

They include New Orleans (Hurricane Katrina in 2005); Gulfport and Waveland, Miss. (Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010); New York City (Superstorm Sandy in 2012); Baton Rouge, La. (pluvial flooding in 2016); Minot, N.D. (riverine flooding in 2011); Rapid City, S.D. (severe winter storms in both 2013 and 2014); and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota (windstorm, tornadoes and winter storms in 2015-2017).

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the NAS committee’s co-chairman who is widely known for leading the federal response to Katrina and the BP PLC Deepwater Horizon oil spill, said resilience is key to mitigating some of the long-term damage caused by what he terms “shock events.”

“I consider resilience to be the societal equivalent of the human immune system,” Allen said. “When something happens and there’s shock to the system, the community is better prepared to respond and can usually recover much faster.”

The panel’s recommendations could get their first test along the Gulf Coast, where extreme weather and man-made disasters have left lasting scars on communities from Florida to Texas.

The region, which has suffered multiple megadisasters since 2005, is well-positioned to undertake a coordinated, multistate resilience effort, the panel said. It could be overseen by the NAS’s Gulf Research Program, which operates on an independent 25-year, $500 million endowment.

Storms like Katrina and 2017’s trio of devastating U.S. hurricanes—Harvey, Irma and Maria—caused billions of dollars in damage throughout the region. They displaced hundreds of thousands of people and exacerbated what Allen called “chronic community stressors,” such as poverty, education and health disparities, and even climate change.

“Measuring resilience can help community efforts in a range of ways,” the NAS panel found, including by prioritizing needs, better allocating resources among resilience efforts and helping determine whether communities are making progress toward resilience goals.

The panel made four broad recommendations to improve resilience nationally:

  • Communities should bring in diverse interests at the outset of resilience planning. This helps generate buy-in for the programs and identify community members who can lead, put in place or train others on resilience strategies.
  • Communities should design goals and measure resilience across multiple dimensions of community life, including natural, economic, physical, social, human and political factors.
  • Communities should make sure that data on resilience against hazards are reliable and can support policy and budgetary decisions.
  • Communities should use valuation models and other financial tools like resilience and catastrophe bonds to encourage the measurement of resilience activities and goals. Such measurements can help build support for resilience efforts among financial and insurance markets, the report says.

Regarding the Gulf region, the panel said it is “a landscape ripe for advancing community resilience.”

“Its mix of issues related to economy, ecology and a diverse and vibrant culture combined with its exposure to the effects of social inequality and vulnerability, low health outcomes of its residents, an extractive economy, and natural hazards underscores the urgency of action.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.