Unpredictable, High Risk, High Cost: Planning for the worst is the worst

So here we go again.

Flood waters rise in southern Louisiana, displacing tens of thousands — some temporarily,  others permanently — and potentially costing billions.

The familiar narrative cycle has cranked up. Right now we’re emerging from the stage where we celebrate the heroism of citizens, volunteers and emergency responders and question the competency of the feds. Next comes the rough accounting of damages and the fights over  funding, then the agonizing slog towards a recovery unlikely to ever be complete. Finally will come a lessons-learned wrap-up that could be copied and pasted from reports post-Camille, post-Andrew, post-Katrina, post-Sandy and post a bunch of other recent calamities without a name.

How to be ready for the next Big One? Better communication at all levels of emergency response. Better advance warning systems. Better ways to prevent folks from living in harm’s way. Same old.

If there’s something different this time, it may be this: An increasing uneasiness that we have spent down our capacities for denial, along with the resources required to cope with repetitive disaster. And there’s no turning back.

The Next ‘Normal’

As the reality of more frequent and radical weather events lines up with climate scientists’ predictions of more frequent and radical weather events, it’s getting harder to avoid the possibility the researchers are onto something. More importantly, these depressingly regular “500-year” droughts and floods are seriously undermining strategies that are all about getting “back to normal.” What if there’s a new normal? And what if adaptation and mitigation require hard choices and big investments we’ve been avoiding for decades?

Same old

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the Gulf Coast states — mostly Louisiana and Mississippi — received more than $120 billion in federal aid to repair infrastructure, replace housing, restore much of what was destroyed by wind and water and better prepare communities for future storms. To put that in perspective: That amount exceeds, in current dollars, America’s investment in the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after World War II. Which is a lot of money, and which is why an official of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP) probably felt okay this time last year offering a prideful quote for a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) press release on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina:

“Louisiana is more prepared today than ever before. That’s a tribute to the local, state and federal partnership we have created in Louisiana, focused on preparedness and resiliency.”

Then, a year later, the rains. And Louisiana is back to fighting for huge sums to address what they weren’t prepared for. And in case the rest of us are tempted to feel superior, realize the evidence suggests no one is really prepared for what may be coming next.

What gave that Louisiana official the confidence in 2015 to assert disaster readiness refuted in 2016 is wishful thinking a lot of us share about our capacities and limitations in a world more complex than we’d prefer. We can fault city, county and state officials for not preparing us for the worst and for not getting us the bucks to fix everything when the worst happens. We can shake our fists at FEMA and ridicule the president for playing golf on Martha’s Vineyard while the waters rose. But all of that’s a distraction. There’s hard work ahead. And almost none of that work is about coming up with another to-do list of technical solutions and planning strategies. It’s mostly about getting the politics right.

The annoying persistence of statistical likelihood

Politics have been in the way of the science all along. Climate scientists don’t speak the language of everyday decision-making. They have struggled to make points framed in statistical probability playing out within mega-systems unbounded by time or geography or absolute certainty. Their models can’t reliably predict specific times and places where life-altering disaster will occur, only that probabilities are high — and getting higher — that they’re likely to come more frequently and with more intensity than in the past. For any one spot on earth at any one moment in the future, the probability of devastating weather events might be low; but the risk and potential losses in life and property are off-the-charts.

So what we have here is what we’re least equipped to plan and pay for: Threats we can’t predict with confidence but that might exhaust our capacities for coping with them.

We build our lives, our economies, our communities on faith that events likely to impact our futures will come at us in predictable ways, or at least within a range of manageability. We prefer planning for tomorrows that look pretty much like yesterday and today. We need to know the rules and have the confidence that when we play by them, we’re rewarded. Which is why we punish the people we elect to office when they try to change the rules, unless changes are framed as getting back on track. Back to normal.

What forces us to deal with what scientists have been urging is the experience of living through events we didn’t expect, yet were anticipated by their models. When the floods come, then come again, they overwhelm not only our systems for dealing with them, but also the assumptions on which the systems are based. Past is no longer prologue.

The escalation of impacts of “abnormal” weather events, from fires in the West to drought in the middle of the country to storms on the coasts, threatens lives and property like never before. And if climate scientists’ models are anywhere near accurate, we can expect more disruption, including the prospect of “climate refugees.”

Sense of place in a changing environment

One of the most dependable recommendations of post-disaster analyses is advice to get out of the way. Move away from high risk, and adopt policies that condition public funding on avoiding development in vulnerable areas. Rational in the abstract, it’s a strategy that inspires opposition from constituencies few politicians are willing to confront.

Coastal developers, chambers of commerce and everybody who owns property close to beaches or earns a buck from those who visit fight efforts to restrict development. The same goes for communities that depend on development close to fire-vulnerable national forests or alongside rivers suddenly prone to new flood levels in an age of climate change. Hardest of all to advocate is the displacement of those who’ve already suffered the most over generations of exploitation — Native American populations, African-American communities and ethnic enclaves with centuries-old ties to the land. But desperation inspires choices that are harder to make when options seem broader and delay seems possible.

In the last couple weeks, residents of Shishmaref, a small Alaskan island 126 miles north of Nome, confronted the inevitability of inundation from rising sea levels by voting to relocate their entire village to the mainland. It was a close vote, with many native islanders reluctant to leave a place where their families and neighbors had fished and hunted for generations.

Earlier this year, another island community, Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, populated by members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, decided on a similar kind of relocation. Here from a New York Times story:

In January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced grants totaling $1 billion in 13 states to help communities adapt to climate change, by building stronger levees, dams and drainage systems.

One of those grants, $48 million for Isle de Jean Charles, is something new: the first allocation of federal tax dollars to move an entire community struggling with the impacts of climate change. The divisions the effort has exposed and the logistical and moral dilemmas it has presented point up in microcosm the massive problems the world could face in the coming decades as it confronts a new category of displaced people who have become known as climate refugees.

“Refugee” is a term displaced victims of past storms and floods have angrily resisted. To many, it implied a forced relocation likely to be permanent. A new, unwelcome normal. So a “right of return” to beloved places was a demand acknowledged and accepted in Hurricane Katrina recovery. Yet with perhaps 200 million people worldwide now considered vulnerable to climate change displacement, “climate refugee” is likely to become part of the vocabulary, forcing us, as the Times suggests, to confront “logistic and moral dilemmas” we’ve ducked up until now.

New politics for a new normal

As was the case with the Alaska and Louisiana islanders, the sense of urgency climate change imposes will drive discussions that will be more reality-based than the ones we’ve been having up until this point. There will never be enough money and people to deal with larger and more frequent disasters in the same ways we parcel out diminishing resources nowadays. And there will be no avoiding an uncomfortable debate about our rights to public subsidies for infrastructure, insurance, emergency services, etc. when we populate high risk places.

So who will mediate those tough discussions and build enough consensus to get things done?

Here are the criteria I’d argue for: An informed regional perspective, because that’s the level at which disaster preparedness must take place. Long-standing relationships with major players in government, business and non-profits at the local, state and national levels. And most of all: A track record of inspiring and rewarding trust from locals — enough trust to facilitate the expensive, hard choice decisions sufficient to address the challenges.

I believe that calls for an organization with a full-time, cross-disciplinary staff networked into the regional power structure. Better to be non-governmental to inhibit power play dramas among local elected officials. And while it will need the support of business people, such an organization should avoid being confused with a chamber of commerce.

Want an example? I have tremendous respect for the Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX) in Louisiana, which just happens to be located in the Baton Rouge region challenged by the recent floods.

I saw this group navigate the messy political terrain in Southeastern Louisiana’s post-Katrina ordeal with precisely the right mixture of planning and design professionalism and local leader hand-holding. Of all the agencies and organizations wandering on and off the overcrowded post-Katrina stage, CPEX is one of the few to emerge stronger and more respected in the aftermath.

So despite all the challenges to meaningful planning outlined above, I’m anxious to see how this group choreographs the dance that’s required to attract the resources recovery requires and, more importantly, deploys them in ways that not only serves folks in need in the here and now, but also prepares the region for what is likely to come next.

Ben Brown

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  1. Hi Ben, great article! It seems you’re right that this is the new normal with floods as cyclical events that happen in approximate times of the year. The best thing to do avoid this is to stay away from high-risk places.

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