In the nearly three decades that Juan Ortiz has worked in emergency management, he’s seen it all: Floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms, even chemical disasters.
But lately, they’ve been more frequent and severe. “We went from a period where, in 10 years, you had maybe one or two disasters,” said Ortiz, now the City of Austin’s director of emergency management. “The last eight years, we’ve had seven. And some years, we’ve had two or three disasters occurring at the same time.”
Emergency managers are local and state officials who oversee disaster contingency planning, public education, and recovery. Ortiz’s office has identified flooding as one of the biggest challenges Austin will face. But climate change is also presenting new ones. Last year’s winter storm, for example, overwhelmed the state’s emergency management resources. When that happened, there was almost nowhere else to turn to for vital supplies or help. Other counties and even neighboring states couldn’t lend a hand because they were facing their own crises.
What the city is experiencing tracks with broader trends that almost every community, rural and urban, is facing. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report points to disaster management policy and practice as a crucial tool in coping with these changes. However, researchers tell Southerly that it’s important they are implemented in a way that doesn’t worsen economic and racial disparities.
But the work of responding to disasters and adapting to these changes often falls to emergency managers like Oritz, whose offices are often underfunded and overworked.
Why the IPCC report matters
The U.S. South is seeing a wide range of climate effects. In the coming decades some areas of the Gulf Coast may become inundated with water, requiring communities to retreat. Wetlands near Grand Isle are already washing away into the Gulf. Tornadoes are more common than they were in previous decades. Stronger hurricanes are pushing flood waters further inland, and more rainy spring seasons can cause more frequent creek and river flooding in areas where that was once a rarity. Other places may experience heat waves and droughts that require new infrastructure and public health protocols to keep workers who labor outdoors safe. The 2021 winter storm that plunged Texas and Louisiana into record cold temperatures was potentially caused by a weakening warm and cold air barrier in the Arctic was it warms up.
There are two main ways to address these risks: Adaptation, which means changing how we operate and design our cities and systems; Mitigation means reducing the chance of change, like slowing the flow of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. The IPCC report emphasizes that planning adaptation or mitigation projects without consulting “marginalized and vulnerable groups,” such as those from ethnic minorities, low-income households, and Indigenous people in settler-colonial states, can lead to deeper inequalities.
“I was really struck by the extent that this report acknowledged that a disaster is the convergence of socio-political, economic and human systems—with the hazardous event,” said Alessandra Jerolleman, a professor of emergency management at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. “As opposed to doom and gloom and all the terrible things that are happening, this report points to the fact that just as human social systems mediate what happens in the climate, [they] can also serve towards promoting adaptation.”
Jerolleman added that better building codes and urban land use planning in communities near flood zones can help residents weather storms or reduce their energy consumption. But local governments need to accompany those policies with measures that prevent those areas from becoming unaffordable for low-income families.
Persistent flooding around Onion Creek in Austin in 2013 and 2015 prompted the city to pursue a voluntary buyout program. “We have reduced the amount of impact to residents who are no longer in harm’s way,” Ortiz said.
The ongoing buyout program was carefully planned so communities unable to afford homes elsewhere in Austin weren’t displaced, or were offered fair compensation, Ortiz said.
At the individual level, educational initiatives will be crucial towards making sure that residents know how to prepare for new types of hazards. Elyse Zavar, a professor of emergency management and disaster science at the University of North Texas, said that as disasters leave their mark on communities unaccustomed to the risk, the lack of historical knowledge can leave people unprepared. For example, many Texans are used to tornadoes; Mississippi residents may not know what to do in advance of a severe storm.
“In some places, the climate is going to change and we need to adjust how we live in those places,” she said.
Making disaster management more proactive
Disaster response and climate adaptation is often reactive. Disaster mitigation grants are typically awarded to state, local, or tribal governments after a disaster hits.
“In the United States, we’ve historically had this kind of post-event mindset,” Zavar said. For example, money for flood infrastructure, including levies and wetland restoration programs, is typically tied to past flooding occurrences. Crucial resources like the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood plain maps are notoriously out of date.
Emergency managers are often dealing with existing crises when trying to shepherd disaster recovery projects, as well. When back to back hurricanes hit Southwest Louisiana in 2020 and 2021, they worsened an affordable housing shortage. Some renters were unhoused for over six months, as Southerly reported in February 2021.
But FEMA and aid organizations are limited in their ability to build new housing stock. The goal, Jerolleman said, is “based on the idea, by and large, of returning people to pre-disaster conditions.”
Research shows disaster recovery programs also increase the racial wealth gap, since it’s tied to restoring private property loss; white residents are more likely to be homeowners than Black or Hispanic residents. Homeowners with insurance policies and wealthier residents recover faster than tenants relying on landlords or low-income residents lacking paperwork for aid applications.
While there’s an urgent need for better policies and processes that can protect people’s lives and homes, there should be even more urgency around making sure that those policies don’t deepen existing inequalities, Jerolleman said. “There’s a real danger in… ignoring the justice implications and disparate impacts.”
Amal Ahmed is an environment and climate reporter based in Dallas.