Co-Authored by Henry Ruehl, NRDC Energy Fellow
Cities across the globe from Houston to Mumbai have been ravaged by catastrophic floods. In the United States and South Asia, this summer has combined record-breaking temperatures and heatwaves with unprecedented rainfall levels, and the human and economic toll has been severe. More worrisome still, climate change is increasing both the frequency and severity of extreme weather events like extreme rains, which can result in flooding, and heatwaves. It’s likely that terrifying rains, flooding, and coastal storm damage like that seen in Hurricane Harvey and this year’s monsoon are set to become more common in the future. This summer, heatwaves and floods are a wake-up call for immediate action on climate and disaster preparedness to protect our communities and public health.
With dozens of lives lost, chemical and pathogen-laden floodwaters swamping much of the Houston area, and vast areas still likely to be uninhabitable for weeks or months, Harvey is estimated to be the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history. AccuWeather estimates the full economic cost of the hurricane to be $190 billion – as much as the cost of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined. The United States has lost 1% of its GDP, and its fourth-largest city has been devastated.
The damage and death tolls in South Asia have been even more staggering. Communities in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh are suffering from the worst monsoon in decades. Over 1,200 people have died with numbers rising, and the economic damage is commensurately severe. Mumbai’s largest hospital was knee-deep in water. One third of Bangladesh is underwater, for example, and nearly 1.5 million acres of farmland in the country have been damaged or washed away outright. All told, over 41 million people have been affected by the flooding. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged $78 million in relief for victims, but the cost for replacing millions of homes, businesses, and other buildings will likely be many times greater.
These calamities demonstrate that cities worldwide are desperately in need of stronger disaster preparedness and climate resilience strategies. Hurricane Harvey has been estimated to be a 1,000-year- storm – in other words, a storm of Harvey’s magnitude could hit the western Gulf only once, on average, every thousand years. Yet it follows just twelve years after Hurricane Katrina, which itself was a 400 to 500-year storm. Rising global temperatures are increasing the amount of rain that drenches us in the heaviest storms, and making heat waves more frequent and intense.
As climate change continues to fuel these types of extreme weather, it is critical that communities take steps to strengthen climate resilience and disaster preparedness. Heatwaves and floods call for programs like early warning systems, improved infrastructure, inter-agency coordination, more funding for emergency personnel and supplies, and raising public awareness, which are all crucial to increasing resilience to extreme weather events. Unregulated urban growth that paves over and develops flood-prone areas can compound flooding when deluges strike. Zoning codes and urban planning can make the most of natural flood protections and avoid developing flood-prone areas. This is especially critical for coastal cities, because rising sea levels can heighten storm surge and flood larger inland areas.
For heatwaves, simple, cost effective measures, such as providing more shade, drinking water, and cooling centers, are proven solutions to limit the impact of extreme heat on communities. Thankfully, many communities have already been working to improve climate resilience and disaster preparedness programs. For example, over 30 cities and 11 states in India are working on early warning systems for extreme heat, Heat Action Plans, developed in partnership with NRDC.
As storms, heatwaves, and other extreme weather events become more frequent, communities must adapt and plan for them. This year’s monsoon will not be the last, nor will Harvey be the last hurricane. Climate resilience strategies and disaster preparedness mechanisms can help us to limit the damage that extreme storms wreak, and are essential to saving lives.