As Hurricane Ian looms, driving evacuation orders targeting 2.5 million in Florida, huge questions about climate change readiness unite the US with crisis zones like Pakistan.
Close on the heels of Hurricane Fiona, which struck Canada’s east coast this past weekend after tearing through Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, Hurricane Ian is slated to make landfall in Florida on Wednesday. As of today, the major Category 3 hurricane has touched down in Cuba, where it sustained top winds of 125 mph and knocked out power in the western provinces of Pinar del Rio and Artemisa. Meanwhile, Florida’s west coast is awash in evacuation orders, targeting an estimated 2.5 million people, amid storm surge and tropical storm alerts, which are expected to start bearing out in local property damage as early as this evening.
Storm surges are a life-threatening situation, according to the National Hurricane Center, which identifies the region from Fort Myers to Tampa Bay as at highest risk of unusually severe flooding. Florida’s state government reports anticipated surge levels of 5-10 feet around Tampa Bay, and anywhere from 1 to 8 feet in nearby coastal regions. Total rainfall estimates lie between 16 and 24 inches, although everything is in flux as forecasters weigh the possibility of Ian hitting Category 4 status.
While there is plenty to be done on the ground—with US President Joe Biden declaring a state of emergency and authorizing Homeland Security and FEMA to coordinate assistance and relief—those at a remove can also start thinking about the shape of long term recovery. How can we prevent future damage in vulnerable coastal regions? In the short term, it’s necessary to evacuate people in low-lying areas to schools and other temporary shelters, and distribute water, food, and sand bags. But as extreme weather events rise in the wake of climate change, we also need to ask what we’re doing to prevent precarious settlement in the first place.
This long term conversation already coexists with short term aid for other global regions. Even late Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced an increase from $56 to 66 million in emergency aid for another region gripped by storm damage—Pakistan. In recent months, the country has been hit by flooding that did $30 billion in damages to national infrastructure, destroyed over 1.4 million hectares of arable land, wiped out over 800,000 houses, and killed more than 1,600 people among the 33 million citizens directly affected overall.
But are the lessons of global disasters being effectively applied at home?
On January 27, 2021, the White House issued an “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad”, which explored the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, transforming US energy policy, and seeing the US take a stronger role in global governance on related issues. Missing in this document, though, is a significant focus on housing, despite the immediate impact of poor urban development on disaster outcomes like those now facing Florida residents.
The US and Pakistan share a history of failing to address the role of housing crises in the human cost of extreme weather events. From 2005 on, hurricane and related storm events in the US have been blowing through the annual budget for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), a product of the 1960s first developed to fill an insurance gap left by private industry unwilling to take on the risk.
In 2012, the Biggert-Waters Reform Act was passed to make insurance policies reflect the risk of owning property in high-risk zones. This backfired, though, because another key component of the original NFIP had been to use floodplain data to set better developmental policy—away from human habitation in high-risk areas in the first place. Decades on, the US still hasn’t achieved a housing policy that will alleviate the number of people living in high-risk areas, and the NFIP remains inadequate as a means of shifting human behavior.
But at least it’s not alone. Pakistan endured devastating floods in 2010, after which international groups called for long term changes to make the country more prepared for future extreme climate events. Those changes did not materialize, even for the following year, leaving many frustrated by the unnecessary extent of damage in 2022. Extreme climate events may well be the new status quo, but we are by no means without options to reduce their human impact.